Red Feather

Organizations / Red Feather

History of Montreal's Red Feather

"Red Feather was located at 1040 Atwater Avenue in Westmount, Quebec, just below Dorchester Boulevard. The building is now known as “Pavilion Gilman”, an annex for the Montreal Children’s Hospital."

Protestant Foster Home Centre - Montreal.

The history of Red Feather is the story of generations of Montrealers who have dedicated their time, their resources and their imagination to helping the less fortunate in their community. The charitable institutions they established and served for over seventy years have made – and continue to make – a major contribution to the well-being of the city. The federation of social agencies that was to become Red Feather was established in 1922, but commitment to charitable practices had always been a respected tradition among the city’s English-speaking Protestant families. While the Roman Catholic Church maintained a broad program of social services for its French and English parishioners, early charitable work in the Protestant community was handled on a personal basis. As Montreal rapidly grew and became more industrialized, however, surging social problems soon outpaced the resources of individual charity. This situation led to the founding, and funding, of privately sponsored charitable organizations. The English Protestant agencies, which would later carry the Red Feather banner, helped lay the groundwork for the health and social services network we know today.

It all began in 1815 with the formation of the Female Benevolent Society, which led to the creation of the Montreal General Hospital in 1822. Many other institutions followed, including the Montreal Protestant Orphan Asylum in 1822, the Montreal Lying-in Hospital in 1843, the University Settlement in 1893, and the Victorian Order of Nurses (V.O.N.) of Montreal in 1897.

Many initiatives of the Red Feather family were very avant-garde. In 1888, at a time when societal values were family-oriented and male dominated, the Montreal Day Nursery – one of the first day care centres in Canada – was founded. The Montreal Diet Dispensary, established in 1879 as a soup kitchen, later won world renown for its pioneering nutrition programs for poor pregnant women. Health clinics were begun as demonstration projects in the 1920s. In the 1950s the Mental Hygiene Institute began the first marriage counselling service in Canada.

When the Montreal Council of Social Agencies and its Financial Federation were set up in 1922 as an umbrella for English Protestant charities, they then numbered thirty-two. Over the years, the Federation which eventually became known as United Red Feather Services – became one of the most successful fund-raising enterprises in North America. At its peak in the mid-1960s, Red Feather was supporting over a hundred health and social service agencies in Montreal.

Perhaps one of the most significant legacies of Red Feather was its organizational and operational efficiency. The network was highly flexible, continuously adapting to the changing needs of the community. The sound management and financial accountability of its agencies set the standards for the future.

Red feather logo on the Red Feather building in Westmount, Quebec.

Broad Range of Services

Although family welfare and child care were at the core of its operations, there was no area of social need that was not addressed by the Red Feather network. It supported the city’s largest non-sectarian guidance and recreation program for boys and girls in low-income areas: the Montreal Boys’ and Girls’ Associations, the Boy Scouts, the Parks and Playgrounds Association, the Griffintown Boys’ Club, the Y.W.C.A., Unity Boys’ Club and St. Columba House.

The health agencies of Red Feather provided the most extensive nonhospital services in Montreal. They included the V.O.N., the (Constance Lethbridge) Occupational Therapy Centre, the Mental Hygiene Institute and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. Red Feather agencies ran major programs for the aged and the intellectually handicapped. They provided facilities for orphans, delinquent children, unwed mothers, and the homeless at such institutions as the Protestant Orphan Asylum, the Old Brewery Mission, Weredale House and the Sheltering Home.

Many Red Feather agencies operated on an “open door” basis, providing services for all groups in the community regardless of creed or language. As well, they encouraged and aided the establishment of neighborhood community centres involving people at the local level such as the Negro Community Centre and the University Settlement. Red Feather also supported the Greater Montreal Anti-Poverty Coordinating Committee which, in the early 1970s, undertook the first major attempt at promoting consumer involvement in social service issues.

Generous and Influential Leadership

None of these good works would have been possible without the philanthropic Montrealers who provided property and funding for buildings to house the Red Feather agencies. ]. W. McConnell was particularly generous in this regard. As well as the many projects with which he was publicly associated, he is frequently credited with being the “unknown benefactor” for many more.

The leaders of Red Feather provided a devoted and intelligent leadership that was recognized not just in Montreal but across Canada. They participated in social welfare on a national level and actively influenced federal and provincial governments for change in health and social welfare policies. For example, Philip Sydney Fisher, a philanthropist who pioneered health and welfare programs in Montreal, co-founded and served on the Canadian Welfare Council for thirty years.

From the beginning, Red Feather was very much involved with the evolution of social work teaching in the city. In 1931, its parent Federation spearheaded the establishment of the Montreal School for Social Workers (which later became a faculty of McGill University). Red Feather agencies served as the training ground for new social workers for over fifty years. Volunteerism has always been the heart of the Red Feather concept. In the early days, it was promoted chiefly by members of Montreal’s affluent families. Their more fortunate economic position provided them with the means to found and finance charitable institutions. But they also served on administrative boards, and provided direct services to the needy. Among many prominent names we find Beatty, Bovey, Currie, Dawes, Drummond, Fisher, Fleming, Graham, Hanson, Hugessen, McConnell, MacDougall, Molson and Reford.

The tradition of giving established by those early benefactors lives on among their descendants who can still be found in the forefront of community service in Montreal. They have been joined over the years by an army of volunteers who continue to sustain the institutions of the English speaking community. The Central Volunteer Bureau established in 1937, and which still coordinates volunteer activities in Montreal, served as a model for other volunteer bureaus now operating in the Greater Montreal area.

Along with funds raised through annual campaigns, Red Feather was supported through many large legacies and endowments. The investment income from these bequests was used as a permanent source of funds to enable its work to continue and expand. Lady Julia Drummond, Sir Edward Beatty, Duggan Dallis and Sir Charles W. Lindsay were among the major benefactors of the Red Feather network.

The End of an Era

Until the provincial government took on the dominant role in administering social welfare in the early 1960s, Red Feather agencies provided the major support of welfare and social services for the Protestant and nonsectarian communities in Montreal. The introduction of universal health care and increased impact of unemployment insurance altered their role dramatically.

By the end of 1966, after the Quebec government reorganized health and social services, many Red Feather agencies had become para-public establishments. When Centraide was formed in 1974 to take on fund raising and planning for the voluntary sector in the Greater Montreal area, the remaining Red Feather agencies became part of the Centraide family. This was an eloquent gesture of trust and openness on the part of Red Feather. In spite of its minority position, the English-speaking Protestant community willingly gave up all the services and structures it had built over so many years as a commitment to the good of the larger Montreal community.

In fact Red Feather was one of the principal founding members of Centraide of Greater Montreal. Its staff and volunteers played a pivotal role in setting up, and serving in, the new organization. Pam Daglish, John Hallward, Derek Hanson, Jack Keith, Claire Kerrigan, Kenneth Place and Jack Shirley represented Red Feather in drawing up the Centraide agreement. Harold Thuringer, former Red Feather Executive Director, became Centraide’s first Director of Administration; and John Hallward served as Chairman of the Centraide Board. John Gallop currently sits on both the Red Feather and Centraide Foundation boards; and Ricardo Gill, formerly Red Feather’s Administrative Coordinator, has been with Centraide’s allocations and agency relations department since the merger. At the time Centraide was formed, a foundation was set up to manage Red Feather’s endowment funds and investment portfolio. The major portion of the annual income from these investments is donated to Centraide each year. During its first twenty years of operation, Centraide has received close to $2 million from the Red Feather Foundation. In 1986 the Foundation began publishing a quarterly newsletter on health and social services, the Red Feather Forum. The Forum maintains links among the old Red Feather agencies and with the English-speaking community and its institutions. It reports on what is happening throughout the social service system and on the people who are continuing the work of those early pioneers.

The Red Feather family has symbolized caring and dedication for over seventy years. The agencies and institutions developed under Red Feather auspices have been the mainstay of social services in Montreal. It is fitting that those responsible for such lasting good work be remembered. This history is a tribute to them and their accomplishments.

Gloria Menard
Editor, Red Feather Forum