When Ottawa offices close, 17,000 civil servants share sports, hobbies, drama dancing, music—for 25 cents a month

Katharine Kent June 1 1946


When Ottawa offices close, 17,000 civil servants share sports, hobbies, drama dancing, music—for 25 cents a month

Katharine Kent June 1 1946



Katharine Kent

IT IS Monday night in Ottawa. A warm spring rain is falling lightly. The restaurants are spewing customers; the streets, glistening under the lamplight, are as crowded as they are at noon, for Ottawa is a rooming-house city and many of its citizens must have their meals downtown.

Thirty-seven thousand civil servants have been at work all day in 150 different buildings scattered all over the capital city. They have been punching key machines, batting typewriters, running elevators, testing newly minted coins, printing, mimeographing, running messages, making laboratory tests, attending meetings and one way and another—carrying on the nation’s business.

About 50 civil servants are bopping the Bronson streetcar to take them to the rifle range at Glebe Collegiate, where they will practice target shooting from 7 to 10. Another 50 are on the way to the High School of Commerce for three hours of badminton. About 40 are wending their way down Rideau Street for a meeting of the Camera Club. Thirty-five others are going to the same building to learn ballroom dancing and ballet. At the National Research Council, on Sussex Street, 25 civil servants are filing through the door, each carrying a musical instrument. They will spend the evening working together as an amateur orchestra.

A score of men are on their way to St. Patrick’s College Gymnasium in Ottawa East for boxing tryouts. Nearly 100 men are getting set for the basketball meet. On the program are teams from the Wartime Prices and Trade Board and the National Research Council; the Departments of Reconstruction and National Revenue; the Dependents’ Allowance Board vs. the RCMP.

On Rideau Street, in an upstairs room over a restaurant, 25 budding actors are going through their paces, and just down the street another 25 civil servants are working out assignments for a monthly newspaper. In the dance hall at 54 Rideau Street more than 250 people are fishing for their quarters to get in to the nightly dance. Hundreds, in their homes, are dialling to the local radio station to pick up the thrice-weekly program telling them of these and dozens of other activities.

This is just Monday night. This sort of thing goes on every night of the week and all day Sunday.

Twelve Thousand Members

IT’S all the doing of RA—the Ottawa Civil Service Recreational Association — a movement that has mushroomed during the last two years into one of the largest, if not the largest, employee group of its kind in the world. RA has 12,000 members, of whom it is estimated over 5,000 take part in group recreation every week.

The members range from messenger girls to deputy ministers, from scientists to elevator men. More than 2,000 of them are ardent bowlers, who have formed themselves into 51 teams in two leagues: men’s and women’s. And there’s a story there too. RA rents one of the biggest bowling alleys for the whole of Sunday for its membershires its own pin hoys and everything. Last winter the Lord’s Day Alliance hauled the Bolodrome into court, seeking an injunction to restrain it from operating on the Sabbath. But they lost, because the space was rented and operated as a club on Sunday by RA. So 2,000 Ottawa bowlers still have something to do on Sunday.

The Ottawa Civil Service Recreational Association came into existence early in the 30’s for a few sports groups. It jogged along for a decade, and in January, 1941, it was incorporated

When Ottawa offices close, 17,000 civil servants share sports, hobbies, drama dancing, music—for 25 cents a month

under the Companies Act of Ontario to encourage and promote lawful amateur games and social activities of all kinds and rent or buy buildings for these purposes.

The constitution provided for the election of 24 directors from all ranks of the civil service. In addition, for financial protection, a five - member Board of Trustees was appointed—two members by the Department of Finance, one by the Comptroller of the Treasury, and two by the RA Board of Directors.

But the fees remained at 50 cents a year, collectible by the Association. Hampered by its limited budget and plagued by the increasing need for recreational facilities of the wartime hordes of new arrivals into the civil service, the directors finally hit on the checkoff system as a remedy.

It was proposed to raise the fees from 50 cents a year to 25 cents a month— and to deduct them from salary cheques of members. Treasury, which sits on the nation’s piggy bank, raised its collective eyebrows at such a revolutionary proposition, but said okay, provided the Association could raise 5,000 members. This was in July, 1943. By the end of a week RA had its 5,000 members. But their streamlined campaign for members—which began with changing the name to “RA”—overshot the mark. By the end of the second week there were 7,000 members, and six weeks later the roster stood at 11,000—-all clamoring for different things to do.

“For a while,”says a member of the original ginger group, “we had a wildcat by the tail!”

The objective is to provide the maximum recreation for the largest number at the lowest cost. Say RA directors: “Our basic rule is that if 20 people are interested in something—anything at all and the facilities are obtainable at a reasonable cost, then we make it possible for that group to do whatever it wants to do.”

Leisure for Citizenship

Recreation for the masses, not mass recreation, is the RA byword, and officers point out that it is in leisure time that personalities are molded and citizenship developed. RA seeks to offer physical fitness, mental stimulation and human companionship to low-salaried people who are often tired and lonely.

During the war servicemen and women were allowed to join. One of

them was a naval rating who had returned from a tour of sea duty with memories that only beer seemed to dissolve. But he had brought something else back too — a camera which he didn’t know how to use. To find out, he drifted into the RA camera club one night, .saw what other people were doing and started talking the jargon of shutters and lenses and screens. Today he is a candid camera fan with some beautiful work to his credit; but, more than that, he admits freely that his hobby did more to set him back on an even keel than all the doctoring in the world.

Repats think a lot of RA. One fellow came back with a dragging foot and an inferiority complex cast in concrete. He got into the RA nightly dance one evening by mistake—he thought the stairs led to a poolroom. But the civil service gals—always in a majority— know their stuff and finally one of them got him out on the floor. It was a bit awkward at first, but that was a long time ago. He became a good dancer, then tried bowling, and has just put up his skis for the summer after a busy season at Fairy Lake Lodge. The inferiority complex got mislaid somewhere along the trail.

At present RA is carrying on about 60 activities at 18 different -points in and around Ottawa. The list of activities is lengthy, but falls roughly into seven main groups. There are the sports, which takes in almost everything from fencing to softball, with emphasis on what they claim to be the largest skiing class in the world. There are the arts, including drawing, photography, clay modelling, dancing and music. There are the crafts, which take in dressmaking, public speaking and amateur theatre. There are hobbies, like bridge, chess and stamp collecting. There are the social functions, like the nightly dances and the annual mammoth rallies in the auditorium. There are the services, two of which are rather unexpected—a baby-minding service and a telephone wake-up service. These two got so far beyond RA’s capacity to keep up with the demand that they were passed on to other groups to run. RA also runs two cafeterias, one of them the largest in Canada, and plans to put cafeterias in every suitable government building in Ottawa some fine day.

Finally, there are the publicity activities. One of these is the press club, which puts out a lively 12 - page monthly, RA News. Then there is the group responsible for getting out

a weekly RA bulletin, listing the week’s activities and events, which is distributed to every government office. Lastly there is the radio section, which helps out on the thrice-weekly local RA radio programs.

The groups work together. For instance, members of the Camera Club have provided most of the publicity pictures for RA activities. Drawing students make “RAricatures” of RA personalities, which are printed in the RA News.

One night a press club reporter (female) was sent to the public speaking group to cover the proceedings. Taking part was an embryo public speaker (male), and—yep, within a couple of months the wedding bells rang out. As a matter of fact Cupid has horned in on quite a number of RA activities.

Group leaders have been drawn from all sorts of quarters. During the war a great many talented professionals found themselves in Ottawa for the duration or longer. The first ski instructor, Kurt Haas, a Czech refugee, was also an Olympic ski champion. The drawing instructress, Elizabeth Harrison, is a well-known professional artist. Helen Priest, who leads the dance groups, is also a professional. In almost every case the instructors are not merely good, they are exceptional.

Million-dollar Centre

One of RA’s biggest headaches is space. In an Ottawa so overcrowded that 13 huge temporary office buildings have had to be erected, space for scores of activities is still a major problem. But there are plans afoot for the erection of a million-dollar recreational and cultural centre at which pedestrian imaginations gag. This centre of the future is to have a large gymnasium, a gallery running track, a swimming pool, a solarium, squash and handball courts, shooting ranges, a children’s playroom, a lounge, a cafeteria, bowling alleys, billiard rooms, and changing rooms and showers.

That’s for sports. But it must also have space for cultural activities. So there’s to be a theatre, a great many rooms of various sizes for drama, radio, stage acting, debating and study groups, rooms for chess, stamp collectors, bridge and ping-pong, a library, handicraft rooms for sketching, clay modelling, carving, pottery, weaving, needlecraft, puppets, woodwork and a machine shop, music rooms and a record library, a ballroom, a lounge and smoker, a restaurant, a canteen and a snack bar, sun decks, camera rooms (including darkrooms), parking space for cars and a nursery to park babies, an exhibition room and administrative offices.

In addition RA plans to own some day an outdoor sport centre, an outdoor swimming pool centre with wading pools for children and a boat and canoe house, a golf club, and a summer resort for family holidays at low cost. It bought, this year, a ski lodge and rents another.

The million-dollar centre is no pipe dream: the plans have already been

started. And, furthermore, a fund has been launched to finance this amazing project, and in two years has swung its way up to a $30,000 total. RA hopes its employer, the Federal Government, will chip in to help.

The building fund comes from fees. Civil servants are of two categories: permanent and temporary. The permanent employees are normally paid on the 15th of the month; the temporaries get their cheques at the end of the month. So, of the fees collected for RA, 75 cents of the temporary’s dollar goes to recreation and the remaining

quarter goes to the building fund. The permanent employee’s dollar is divided just the other way: 25 cents goes into recreation and 75 cents into the building fund.

Last fiscal year RA took in $70,000, not all from fees. For members pay for their activities, but they pay less than they would have to pay anywhere else, provided facilities were available elsewhere. For instance, an aspiring artist pays 10 cents toward the cost of the class he attends—and nothing when he doesn’t attend. Boys and girls of the civil service get an evening’s dancing for 25 cents, and nobody appreciates that more than poppa. Says John Kidd, RA’s manager, “I’ve had men come in here and want to make cash donations to RA as a gesture of thanks for providing a place for their bobby-soxers to go dancing. RA dances are not merely inexpensive; they’re good wholesome places for young girls to go.”

Kidd is one of six paid employees. He came back last fall from a threeyear tour in England and Italy with the YMCA war services, after nine i years in Y work in Canada. He is the ] administrator and promoter of activij ties. The field secretary is Lin Jamie! son, who served five years overseas as I a sergeant-major in the RCOC, and ! before that was active in community j work in Montreal and Ottawa. His job is to act as liaison man with all the govJ ernment departments, boards and commissions. Then there is a publicity man, an accountant, a membership clerk and a stenographer.

This staff is responsible to the 24man Board of Directors, who appoint ¡ their own officers. President this year is J. Roy Baxter, long-time enthusiast j for planned recreation for office workj ers, who is assistant chief of personnel ; in the Department of Transport.

Brings Entertainers

Emphasis is placed on participation rather than spectatorship. But Ottawa is a great town for buying admissions to things, so RA helps it along. One method is to buy huge blocks of tickets at a reduced price and pass the reduc¡ tion along. Sometimes RA brings outj standing entertainers to Ottawa, and sells tickets cheaper to members than to nonmembers. Last year it arranged its first Canadian Celebrity Series, bringing to Ottawa the Parlow String Quartet, the Winnipeg Ballet, Portia White and the Montreal Little Symphony. This year the Montreal Little Symphony and Portia White were on \ the series again, along with Reginald Godden, the Volkoff Ballet and Zara Nelsova. For many Ottawans RA provided their first chance to hear these outstanding Canadian artists. Last winter RA’s own Opera Club put on its third annual performance, no less than the “Pirates of Penzance.”

Nearest objective is the establishment of a summer centre in the Gatineau Hills and lake district with good hostel accommodation and facilities for j all sorts of summer sports. The idea is to keep the cost so low that civil ser¡ vants can take their families right out I in the country for their holidays—and j come home with something more left than a bent nickel.

Practically no members resign except ! when they move away from the city, j The Civil Service Commission appreciates the value of RA to low-paid newcomers to town. It actually uses the existence of RA as a recruiting me; dium to get staff from other parts of Canada. For example there’s the experience of Eleanor McAusland, who came to Ottawa from Melville, Sask., to do a war job. She was so lonely and unhappy there that she was on the

point of going home, and this at a time when the civil service was frantic for stenographic help. Somebody took her along to the softball group. She got interested, joined, and became a firstclass player—and she’s still in Ottawa.

Recreation—a Need

The philosophy behind RA has developed piecemeal on a foundation of plain horse sense. But experience has begun to make it jell. RA directors are not exactly dazzled by their own success, but it has surprised them a little and they have tried to figure out the reason for it. They have found that people who have been exposed to RA begin to find that recreation—just as much as work—is a necessity in their lives. Then they have gone to great pains to ensure democratic control of RA, to make sure there, is no tinge of paternalism in it, no politics, no infliction of regimentation. They know what recreation means, and they never laugh when one of the Government office cleaners comes in and rather sheepishly admits to a desire to speak on the radio, or when a salty ex-captain in the merchant Navy asks to register in the spinning and weaving class so he can make his wife a shopping bag. They know there’s nothing ludicrous about people wanting to do something creative in their leisure time.

Finally, they point to their method of collecting fees as a positive asset. By the checkoff system a member simply authorizes Treasury to deduct 25 cents a month from his cheque and then forgets about it. If he attends the Celebrity Series he can get six months’ fees back in discounts on his ticket right there.

The RA feels that the Government benefits so greatly from improved morale and health on the part of its employees that it should take some responsibility. In a brief submitted to the Cabinet some months ago RA puts it squarely. Says the brief:

“It is considered that the responsibility of the Government, as employers, toward its employees, should not differ from the responsibility of industrial management toward its workers and, in fact, it is considered the Federal Government should be a leader in this field . . . The Association is of the opinion that assistance should be made available immediately, and a dollar for dollar contribution by the Government as employer, based on fees paid by the members as employees, is considered a reasonable and equitable request.”

Unless it gets some help from the Government of Canada, it will be a very long time before RA can begin to build its ambitious recreation centre. Meanwhile it is keeping its collective fingers crossed and trying to keep up with the current demand for facilities.

Others Interested

Needless to say, this scheme has aroused interest in other parts of Canada. In Saskatchewan the Provincial Government has set up the Saskatchewan Recreational Movement— a group recreational movement organized by communities. RA officers are watching to see what comes of it; a movement organized like that, they say, is in danger of becoming either paternalistic or political.

Several Canadian cities, including Winnipeg, Kingston, Cornwall and even little Almonte, 40 miles from Ottawa, have made the suggestion that the establishment of recreational activities on a municipal scale would be a fitting war memorial, and have suggested that their communities be taxed to provide a municipal service in the

form of recreation. But RA officers disapprove of that principle. Only those should pay who benefit, they argue, and the city should contribute only in proportion to the willingness to pay of those who expect to participate.

Admittedly a city, half of whose workers work for the same employer, is easier to organize. But only civil servants may become members of RA, and nearly as many Ottawa workers are employed outside the service as within it. After all there are dozens of different government departments, boards and commissions, and they operate in 150 different buildings. It would be a little harder, say RA enthusiasts, for the merchants of Ottawa to get together to set up their own recreational scheme—but not much. Employers are accustomed to take money off cheques for income taxes, unemployment insurance and one thing and another, and it would be a simple mat-

ter to nick another quarter off for recreation, and add a quarter of his own. Private industries have gone to some trouble and expense to provide recreational programs for their employees, and they did it because they had proven to themselves that it resulted in better labor - management relations, better work and better morale.

There is no doubt that RA has hit on one of the most rewarding ventures Canada has seen in the line of community effort. Since it pulled up its socks less than three years ago, streamlined its name, and let fly all the boldness and resourcefulness at its command, it has had the untiring support of very many civil servants. For a long time these have known the problem of people on low salaries who could not afford much recreation. RA has made an elegant start in solving this dilemma —but acknowledges freely that the saturation point is nowhere yet in sight.