Creating an Alternative to the Bar or the Poolroom

by George Siamandas


As a pioneering society Winnipeg's citizens were quick to establish organizations to improve community for those in need. Chief amongst these was the YMCA whose origins began on Nov 9 1878 with the first meeting to organize the YMCA. The YMCA had been organized in England in 1844 as a way of helping young men from the hardships of life during the industrial revolution. Founder was Sir George Williams. The movement had strong religious foundations and tried to give young people some support. In Winnipeg's frontier society many young men away from family influences were exposed to vices like drinking and gambling. On May 16 1879 two young Winnipeggers, JAM Aikins and RD Richardson opened a YMCA reading room and meeting room over a Main St store.


Aikins and Richardson had been college chums at upper Canada College and came to Fort Garry in 1878. Aikins practised law, became Lieut Gov and was founder of the firm Aikins MacAulay, still one of Winnipeg's most prestigious law firms. Richardson opened a book and stationary store on Main St at McDermot Ave and Aikins took an office above. It was here the first YMCA met. Here members could read papers donated by the Manitoba Free Press and in 1880 23,500 visited the reading room some coming from all over the world. There were committees that made hospital visits. Bible classes were prominent and Sunday night Songs were held for men that had been wandering aimlessly down Main ST.


In 1900, a new building was constructed at the south-east corner of Smith and Portage Ave. The new philosophy was to turn out a well rounded individual manifesting a union of spirit, mind and body. Hence an emphasis on sports with a new pool and gymnasium that were considered the best in the country. The new building also added dormitories. But within a decade it was already too small and the Portage Ave location resulted in higher property taxes than the Y wanted to pay. Plans were under way for yet another building.


In a capital campaign led by James Ashdown that took only seven days during 1909 250 canvassers raised $354,000. Architects Jackson and Rosencrans who had built many Y's in Canada and US designed the new structure on Vaughan St. When the new Y opened in 1913 membership was 1,200. It had a residence, gym, bowling alleys, barber shop, kitchen and dining rooms, club rooms and even a billiard parlour. During WW1 the YMCA was the unofficial headquarters for army men.

There was enough money to open up a Y on Selkirk Ave. But WW1 and the 1920s saw the Y fall on hard times. In the 1930s it proved to be popular because of all the unemployed men. In the 1950s the Y expanded into the suburbs: St James, St Vital McGregor St Mountain Ave and in Elmwood.

The building's exterior was totally changed to become the Birks building. For a few years it housed a music store. It is now being further redeveloped as office space.


In the 1950s women started to be involved and were part of it by the 1970s. The facilities and services became more family oriented. By 1987 the YMCA and the YWCA amalgamated and rehabbed their building making it a state of the art facility. In its centennial in 1979 the Y had over 12,000 members. First Canadian YWCA was started by Agnes Blizzard in St John New Brunswick. It offered Canada's first lending libraries in 1874 in Montreal and Quebec City. At the forefront of education for women, it offered the first nursing classes in 1875 in Montreal, followed by business skills in stenography, typing etc. The first Winnipeg YWCA was established in 1897. It offered boarding rooms, educational programs and bible study.


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