In 1923 a group of concerned gentlemen felt the need for a guidance agency to serve the youth of the Ottawa area. The rapidly growing local population was proving to be a strain on the existing youth agencies and many young people were turning to the street, which lead to more crime and violence. It was decided the best way to solve the problem was to establish a club for young boys.
The gentlemen were inexperienced in the ramifications of operating such a club and asked a Brother Barnabas, a Boy’s Club worker in New York, to come to Ottawa to help get the club established. St. Patrick’s Hall on Laurier Avenue was acquired as a suitable location.
Brother Barnabas outlined the requirement for a full-time professional boy’s worker and recommended Fred C. McCann, an experienced professional with the Griffintown Boy’s Club, located in Griffintown, Montreal.
McCann readily learned that the Ottawa area was not too receptive to the idea of a boy’s club and his usual methods of canvassing and advertising for members failed. He, therefore, was forced to personally search out young members and found the first two, Kincaid O’Connor and Gordon Henderson, (who later was to become President) playing in Cartier Square Park.
The Club was established mainly to counsel “problem” youth, and it very quickly became common knowledge that, if you were in trouble, Fred McCann and the Club would take you in. Membership grew and so did public support as the local community recognized the value of the Club’s guidance programs.
In the summer of 1924, McCann acquired land on Mink Lake. He and 66 Ottawa boys lived under canvas canopies and “Camp Minwassin” was born. By 1932, 160 boys would be given the opportunity to spend at least two weeks at camp with the average weekly fee being $2.25
By 1925 the Club’s membership had grown to 1000 and it was obvious new facilities were required. The local newspapers undertook a citizen's campaign for funds and stressed the importance of the Ottawa Boy’s Club achieving their goal “so that the children could be saved”.
In 1926, under the direction of James Kennedy Cassels, the old Fire Station #2 was converted into the Kiwanis Boy’s Club and offered guidance to the youth of Ottawa West. This Club’s programs were similar to those of the Ottawa Boy’s Club. Financing this operation proved to be a heavy burden on the Kiwanis Club and ten years after it began the Kiwanis Club approached the Ottawa Boy’s Club to determine if a merger could be embraced. McCann and
the Board of Directors welcomed the challenge and on March 9, 1936, the Ottawa Boy’s Club expanded into the west end.
Sports proved to be the major tool of the Club and also a source of revenue. The public paid a fee to enjoy watching the Club’s boxing matches and hockey games. As the sports program grew, the Club extended itself and established tournaments with rival clubs such as the YMCA. The local newspapers played an active role in ensuring the Club’s success and ran a weekly exclusive “Boy’s Club News” column.
A 1932 survey revealed that 40,000 boys had attended the Club during an eight-month period. At that time there were 60 Board members, 20 of whom formed an Executive Committee, and all volunteered their time and talents towards enriching the programs and finances of the Club. The Kiwanis Clubs, the Kinsmen Clubs and many other service clubs of Ottawa were most generous in their monetary contributions towards the financial success of the Club.
Since its inception, the Boy’s Club had strong ties to the Roman Catholic church. In 1936 the Club took a big step towards lessening their dependence. The Club By-laws stipulating that “the Catholic complexion of the directions and providing that the pastors of the City’s five English-speaking Roman Catholic parishes to be ex-officio Directors” would be dropped. The strong ties with the Catholic church were thus broken and a Board, without religious affiliation, was elected. This same year the Club was accepted as a Red Feather (later to become the United Way) agency. The Red Feather was to become the strongest financial supporter of the Club and by the seventies were financing almost ninety-five percent of the operation. Governor General Lord Tweedsmuir visited the Club on April 23, 1936, and addressed the boys.
By 1937 the summer camp had evolved from canvas to cabins with oil burners and then to a “modern” electrical facility. Besides sports activities, campers were instructed in first-aid. Winter brought new activities as an Ottawa Boy’s Club powerful hockey team, “the Shamrocks” emerged.
On November 24, 1937, the boys were invited to bring their little sisters to the Club for the first time. Following this, girls were sometimes invited to join the activities and, on occasion, the Club would hold a “Little Sister Contest” where girls could be judged as “the youngest”, “the most curls”, “the most freckles” etc. Times were slowly changing!!
With World War II, the forties saw the Club’s emphasis shift from sports to military training. It was a sad time as some members went to war, never to return. The Department of National Defence for Naval Affairs ultimately acquired St. Patrick’s Hall and the Club was forced to relocate. At this same time, the City of Ottawa suggested that the Club assume responsibility for its two swimming pools, the Plant Bath and the Champagne Bath.
In keeping with the times, the Club decided it would be appropriate to start an Air Cadet Program and in November 1941 the 86th Squadron Air Cadets were formed with 18 members of 3 the Club enlisting to serve in the ranks of the RCAF. The Club decided to drop this program in 1945 as it was felt the space could be more appropriately used.
By 1948, with the assistance of the City, the Club acquired a new gymnasium. Many prominent figures and sports heroes visited the Club and Governor General Viscount Alexander participated in the Club’s 25th-anniversary celebrations on January 31, 1949.
The fifties brought prosperity and good news. Sponsorships from the Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions Clubs permitted the building of cabins at Camp Minwassin as well as the construction of a fully-equipped medical lodge under the patronage of the Associated Canadian Travellers. A financial campaign was undertaken to cover the erection of a new main clubhouse. The area around Bronson and Queen Streets was designated for urban renewal and the present site on the corner of Nepean and Percy Streets was purchased.
On January 25, 1956, the “dream building” was opened by Governor General Vincent Massey who was also the Honourary Patron of the Club. The new Centertown Club facility officially began operation on March 7. The need for trained supervisors proved paramount and volunteers and part-time staff were required.
In 1957 Fred McCann, the backbone of the Club, was named “Citizen of the Year” by the Ottawa Press Club. Numerous other accolades from the Police, Municipal authorities and Service Clubs came his way. Local groups recognized that his greatest achievement was with the boys themselves and the service he was able to offer them. His vision became a functioning part of the community.
The late fifties brought change. Prior to the Christmas holiday, Governor General Massey invited the Ottawa Boy’s Club members to dinner at Rideau Hall, beginning a tradition that continues to the present day. Expansion to the west end was discussed. The Boys’ Clubs across Canada recognized that girls were also in need of guidance and thought was given by the Ottawa Club to the idea that girls should be given more access to the facilities.
Access for girls came about in the early sixties when “arts and crafts for girls” was offered two nights a week. Girls were later permitted access to the gymnasium and three hours each Saturday morning were set aside for girls’ activities. The Centretown Club remained open year-round in 1966. By 1968 the Club felt it should run a two-week summer camp for girls, but this proposal was shelved because the cost was too high.
Thoughts turned to acquiring an east end facility. Many public organizations began to attack the Club’s policy towards girls. In 1969 the National Charter was re-written to include girls and the Ottawa Club was, therefore, able to effectively increase the girls’ work program.
The Club embarked upon the establishment of the Britannia Extension Project in early 1970 and in 1972 permission was received to use an old church building on Pinecrest Road when the City of Ottawa recognized the value of the project and assisted in paying the rent.
The Club also expanded to the east end, and a site on McArthur Road was chosen. The land was obtained from the Separate School Board through a 99 year lease at an annual cost of $1.00 and construction began on the “Fred C. McCann Unit” on September 25, 1970. The Unit was officially opened on January 13, 1971, by Governor General Rolland Mitchener. This building was designed to ensure equal access for both boys and girls. Many of the programs offered were co-ed and the Unit endeavoured to establish itself as a Boys and Girls Club.
The emphasis of boxing and hockey changed as the young people became more involved in recreational activities.
By 1973 the Centertown Club recognized the need for change, broke tradition, and allowed girls equal access to all their facilities.
In 1974, through a Federal Government grant, the Club was able to invite many ethnic groups to their facility and each month held a festival of cultural awareness. Members learned of cultural differences through study, sport, song, dance, costume and food. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was the Guest of Honour at Camp Minwassin where a Native Canadian Festival highlighted by native dance and song performed by the Native Canadian Dance Troup
The United Way introduced a priority system for allocating monies in 1976 and as the Club did not meet their requirements all financial contributions to the Club were frozen. The Club was forced to focus its attention on social development and new fundraising initiatives.
In 1977 the Club officially changed its name to “The Ottawa Boys and Girls Club” and in 1981 it again changed to the “Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa-Carleton” as members joined from surrounding municipalities.
After years of planning and hard work, construction began on the Britannia Unit on December 14, 1979. The building was officially opened by Governor General Edward Schreyer on January 6, 1981.
During the next few years, society placed greater demands and expectations on young people and there was growing disparity between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. The Club continued to provide the help and guidance necessary to help prepare members for their role as good citizens. These years proved to be a time of stabilization with the focus on strengthening the three existing Clubs. Improvements were made to the facilities and new programs were introduced to help address the community’s growing drug problem.
The Special Needs Program was established when children were referred to the Club from the Ministry of Community and Social Services At Home Program, from the Children’s Aid, from various special education programs, from the Children at Risk Program and from many others. In 1989 the Club was honoured by a visit from Their Royal Highnesses, the Duke and Duchess of York who were visiting Canada.
The nineties proved to be a period of major expansion for the Club with the help and assistance of a number of cooperative community partnerships. The Orleans Youth Drop In Centre opened in June 1992 and provides services to young people between the ages of 12 - 18. In September 1995, with the support of Minto Developments, Basement Drop In Centres were opened in Heron Gate, Bayshore and Parkwood Hills. The following year, 1996, the Club collaborated with the YMCA/YWCA to open the Cumberland Youth Drop In Centre
which is located in the Y’s Recreation Complex.
New initiatives and programs such as the Preventive Intervention Program at the Pre-Court Level were undertaken. Camp Minwassin broadened its appeal by planning more programs around the education of our young people and changed its name to “The Minwassin Outdoor Education Centre”. A number of cabins were winterized and the Project Adventure Ropes Course was introduced. On a larger scale, the Ottawa Club acted as “Lead Club” for the research phase of Active Living initiates being developed across Canada.
In 1994 the Board of Directors appointed a Strategic Planning Committee to re-define the purpose and mission of the Club with respect to the changing environments and opportunities.
The highlight of 1996 was the hosting of the 5th National Youth Conference at the Club’s Minwassin Outdoor Education Centre for one hundred and fifty youth from across Canada. This provided the youth the opportunity to enhance their leadership qualities through effective communications, team building and problem-solving and to exchange ideas in an environment that encouraged sensitivity and understanding of cultural differences.
This same year the “Brian Smith Foundation” was launched to honour the memory of Brian, a former club member, dedicated volunteer and much loved and admired sports telecaster who was tragically shot the previous year. Office space was provided at the Centretown Club and a leadership development scholarship was established to give members, ages 13-16 years, the opportunity to learn practical skills as well as theoretical knowledge through experimental education in an outdoor and recreation setting at Camp Minwassin.
Although the Club has grown and progressed and changed over the years, objectives established early on have never changed. The Club is still providing guidance and counselling to the boys and girls who are members. It is impossible, in this short historical update, to cover all the exciting and innovative events, projects, programs and services that are happening daily in the various locations of the organization. The Club continues to receive the full support of the United Way and of the community through the many dedicated and committed volunteers.
The spirit and drive instilled by Fred C. McCann is evident as the Club progresses towards the future. The Club’s struggle to remain fully operative to meet the needs of the community continues to this day. Funding is essential to the Club if it is to meet its mandate of providing recreation and social services to children and youth. As long as there is a need, there will be a BGC Ottawa.