In 1983, the Abiwin Co-operative was founded as a safe, welcoming and open place for people in the Ottawa community — including queers. It was envisioned as a community space that would be free of the kind of daily harassment and discrimination many marginalized people faced, based on who they were. Almost three decades later, how has this dream manifested in the day-to-day reality of community living?
Lawrence Finnie, the president of the board of Abiwin Co-op, sat down with Xtra to talk about the roots of the organization, what it was like to be gay in Ottawa when Abiwin was founded, and how the co-op looks as a community these days.
XTRA: Tell me about how Abiwin was founded.
LAWRENCE FINNIE: Abiwin Co-op was started by Gays of Ottawa and PFLAG. They were looking at, not an exclusive community of any kind, but a community where everybody can live together in cooperation.
XTRA: So it was more the idea of being open and gay-friendly than exclusively a gay residence?
LF: Yes, and this may just be the left-leaning social worker guy in me, but I don’t look at it as being gay-friendly — just generally friendly. Though when Abiwin was founded, being gay in Ottawa was not a terribly safe thing to be.
XTRA: You lived in Ottawa at the time?
XTRA: Were you aware of the Abiwin Co-op when it was founded?
LF: Maybe not as early as when it was founded. The co-op started with just the heritage homes, and when the tower was completed in 1987, I was certainly aware of it at that point. I would have been 19 or 20.
XTRA: What were your impressions of Abiwin back then?
LF: That it was like this mystic haven. A gay building — it was kind of unheard of. At the time, I didn’t know anybody who lived here, and I didn’t really know anything about it except that it was a gay building, and it was kind of cool because of that. I remember it being kind of iconic. These are the impressions of a 20-year-old [laughing].
XTRA: Why was it important back then for this co-op to be established in Ottawa?
LF: If we were to put things in context historically, being gay in 1985 was very different from what it is now — as far as acceptance is concerned and as far as the law is concerned. There have been a lot of reforms socially and politically. At the time, I believe it was absolutely necessary. [As a city], Ottawa has been markedly more conservative over the years than its larger counterparts. For anybody who lived through the ’80s [in Ottawa], it’s not surprising that [the co-op] came about as necessary.
XTRA: Would you say that this was a bold move — to have been so visible as a community at that point in Ottawa’s history?
LF: At the time, it was a very bold move to be that visible. But slowly, the level of acceptance from the majority has begun to happen. I don’t think of any equal rights battles as having been completed, but it’s certainly different than it was in the ’80s. That’s the result of my generation and the generation before mine — the fights and the battles and the struggles and the protests and the political activity. As human rights battles go, I think ours has progressed quickly.
XTRA: What’s it like to live in the co-op now? Has the dream of it being welcoming and diverse, of going beyond tolerance, become real?
LF: Absolutely. In fact, one of the things that I’ve been working on is changing some of the language in some of our anti-discrimination policies. I’m removing the word “tolerant” because I don’t think it’s part of what we believe in. Just saying “tolerant” implies that there’s something that has to be put up with. That’s not how it feels here at all.
XTRA: How does it feel?
LF: It’s probably the truest sense of community I’ve ever existed in. We all know each other, or at least know of each other. Being seen and recognized by your neighbours and the people who live close by is one of the greatest benefits socially, and every member of the co-op is at par with every other member. A person who’s lived here longer probably knows more people and is probably able to take greater advantage of the sense of community that exists here, but some of the most active people in the community are folks that haven’t lived here a long time. We have an amazing level of volunteering happening in the co-op right now. There’s a much greater sense of maintaining our home than is seen in a lot of Centretown [co-op] buildings. Any, really.
XTRA: A big part of the initial dream was to build a haven where you could live your life as a gay person, without stigma, and be welcomed by your neighbours. How many gay members would you say there are these days?
LF: I honestly don’t know. Even if two people of the same sex are living together, I never make that assumption. I know we have lesbian women who live here. I know that we have gay men who live here — there are single men and men with partners. I know that we have transgendered folks who live here. But as far as saying what the ratio would be, I really don’t know. I know that it’s way higher than in most buildings [laughing].
Find Abiwin online at abiwin.ca.