History

AN ENDURING MISSION

In its 150 years, the YMCA has left an indelible mark on the spirits, minds and bodies of countless Canadians who have passed through its doors

SUE FERGUSON November 26 2001
History

AN ENDURING MISSION

In its 150 years, the YMCA has left an indelible mark on the spirits, minds and bodies of countless Canadians who have passed through its doors

SUE FERGUSON November 26 2001

AN ENDURING MISSION

History

In its 150 years, the YMCA has left an indelible mark on the spirits, minds and bodies of countless Canadians who have passed through its doors

SUE FERGUSON

A morgue. That’s the image Les Chater associates with his harrowing journey out of Singapore in the spring of 1942. The Japanese had just captured the island city and were hastily sending their foreign captives to prisoner-of-war camps in Japan. “We were battened down in the holds of the ship, laid out on two layers, just like a morgue—except we were still a bit alive,” recalls the retired engineer. Fed only rice and watery soup during the sixweek voyage, the 1,200 prisoners suffered everything from lice to dysentery. Twentyseven men died. But Chater, who had spent the previous three years based in Singapore overseeing the construction of British airfields, did not succumb. The 32year-old Saskatoon native forced himself to perform a daily ritual of calisthenics, the benefits of which he learned from his longtime membership in the YMCA. “I was the only one doing exercises,” he says. Now 91 and living in Hamilton, Chater says he owes his survival to the Y.

Chater, who first encountered the YMCA as an eight-year-old summer camper, is just one of hundreds of thousands of Canadians to pass through the doors of this venerable organization which, this month, celebrates its 150th anniversary in Canada. The founding meeting, on Nov. 25, 1851, at St. Helen’s Street Baptist Church in Montreal, drew a sizable interdenominational crowd, most under the age of 25. The mandate—“the religious and mental improvement of its members... [who provide] the means by which young men, coming as strangers into the city, may be brought under religious influences among their own class”—mirrored that of the British Y, established seven years earlier. And, as with the London organization, the Canadian Y was to be something more

than a talking club. Delivering the inaugural address to a capacity crowd three weeks later, Donald Fraser, a Presbyterian minister, set the socially activist tone:

“Without some benevolent exertion a soul cannot thrive. I pray you, do not merely think and write and talk, but do something.”

Within two years, a YMCA opened in Toronto and, by the turn of the cen« tury, more than 10,000 | people were members of3

50 Ys in cities from Char? lottetown to Vancouver. Beyond organizing missionary work and public lectures, early Ys operated libraries, classes in such subjects as shorthand, French and chemistry, hospices for the poor and—beginning in 1866—delivered equipment, Bible classes and other services to soldiers.

An emphasis on physical fitness emerged in the mid-1860s and, in time, summer camps, volleyball, basketball and indoor swimming pools became Y staples. By 1913, the Galt YMCA (now the Cambridge Y) in southern Ontario offered a typical assortment of facilities: an indoor pool, gym and running track, showers, bowling alley, darkroom, meeting rooms and 30 furnished guest rooms. Syl Eccles, a member there for 80 of his 87 years, remembers a boyhood of eating beans and toast at the Y every Friday evening and diving into its 2.7-m-deep pool on Saturday mornings. Boys swam in the buff—a practice he says continued until the early 1940s. Until that time, although girls had begun sharing the facilities, pool times at the Galt Y were strictly segregated.

Eccles, a retired high-school math teacher, attributes the Ys longevity to its

ability to “move with the times.” From opening its doors to women and girls in the 1920s, to setting up day cares in the 1960s to providing tae kwon do classes and school nutrition programs in more recent years, the Y has shown remarkable flexibility for an institution that predates Confederation. Today, 1.5 million people in 250 Canadian towns and cities use its facilities and services. Of those, 400,000 are members. Vancouver’s Susie Hutchison joined the Y’s youth leadership program at 12. At weekly meetings, she not only developed the skills to work with and motivate others, but most importantly, she says, “I learned how to trust myself.” Clearly, the Y trusted her, too. This past summer, it hired the University of British Columbia psychology major as its summer camp coordinator. Says Hutchison: “I don’t know too many 20-year-olds who can lead a staff of peers and oversee their own budget.” Throughout the Y’s evolution, it has never lost sight of its commitment to assisting newcomers. Having fled communist Poland as a stowaway, Walter Krepski arrived in Canada in 1949 at the age of 19. After working that fall on a dairy farm near Ottawa, he moved into the city, landing on the Y’s doorstep. There, he met other immigrants while staying, free of charge, in what he describes as a “quite simple but adequate” room until finding work a few weeks later. Says Krepski, who is now a partner in a firm that owns 10 Ottawa-area restaurants: “The Y has been a big part of getting me started in Canada.”

It also provided a formative experience

for 80-year-old Reuben Cohen. The child of Russian immigrants who arrived in Moncton, N.B., in 1920, Cohen exhausted the childrens holdings of the public library by age 10. Barred from its adult section, he began snooping about the Y’s bookshelves. It was there, he says, that he came across the series Famous Trials of History, which initiated him into the legal world. Cohen went on to run a successful law practice in Moncton for 52 years. Never holding an actual membership (the Y library, he points out, was open to everybody), he had an opportunity to repay his debt to the Moncton organization in 1970 when he agreed to preside over its board of directors and helped save it from near financial ruin. Cohen’s other mission: to make the Y more inclusive. As a Jew at the helm of a Christian organization, he made the Y founders, he says, “turn over in their graves.” But Cohen adds: “I really made them spin” when, thanks to his efforts, the regions first female and first Acadian presidents took over a few years later.

The issue of religious inclusion has historically been a matter of tension within the YMCA. Many clerics—including Pope Benedict XV, who delivered a 1920 edict warning Roman Catholics of the Y’s corrupting theological influence—distrusted the association’s motives. And while clearly promoting interdenominational co-operation, the Y has periodically experienced sharp internal debates over whether membership should be open to all, regardless of beliefs. In 1936, a liberal leadership dropped the religious affiliation criteria.

As for Hamilton’s Chater, he was in his mid-20s before he even encountered the association’s affiliation with Christianity.

After leaving Saskatoon in 1935 in search of a job, Chater worked his way over to England as fourth cook on a freighter. Landing in Newcasde, he made tracks for the local YMCA. The clerk greeted Chater’s first question—“Which way to the pool?”—with a shake of his head. There was no pool, but would Mr. Chater be interested in twice-a-week Bible classes? And that, he says, is “where I learned what the C in YMCA meant.”

Uninspired by its religious offerings, Chater nonetheless took other Y teachings to heart. It was not simply his attention to fitness, he says, that helped him survive 3V2 years of prison camp separated from his new wife and only son. The Y also instilled in him leadership skills and a respect for his fellow man—lessons that were to pay off many times. His refusal to hate the Japanese guards, no matter how harshly they treated him, he feels, saved him from the most brutal attacks. “I got beaten up and kicked,” he says, “but not nearly as badly as some of the people who showed contempt for the Japanese.” Chater, who went on to become Stelco Inc.’s chief engineer in 1958, also took the lead in gaining better living conditions for his fellow prisoners, including medicine for the ill and more substantial rations.

For those back home, Y membership afforded simple pleasures. Eccles conjures up the Saturday in June, 1943, when he married his wife, Dorothy, in Hamilton. The thermometer registered a sweltering 38°C. Before donning their suits for the 5 p.m. wedding, he and his best man slipped out in search of the local Y. “We spent my last hour of freedom in the pool,” Eccles recalls. Free indeed: the two young men were still swimming without any trunks. EH!