Catherine Boucher’s list of accomplishments is about as long as her tenure with the Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation (CCOC). When she joined the non-profit social housing organization as the Rental Coordinator in 1978, they had just 130 units in two buildings. And when she retired last month, after 31 years with the group, they owned more than 1300 units in 48 buildings. That is a dramatic increase in affordable housing in the gaybourhood — mostly thanks to Boucher’s vision and leadership.
However, providing inexpensive housing for people is not the be all and end all of the CCOC. Their mission is threefold: providing, maintaining and promoting affordable housing. Boucher took these goals to heart when she became the executive coordinator of the CCOC in 1988 — after ten years as the group’s rental coordinator — helping to found two other housing-related organizations during her time there: the national charity, Raising the Roof, which aims to find long-term solutions for homelessness; and the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association (ONPHA), which supports hundreds of non-profit housing organizations across the province.
Her dedication to housing issues has not gone unnoticed. In 1999, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Housing Renewal Association; in 2004, she received the Sybil Frenette Outstanding Leadership Award from ONPHA; and, in 2006, another Lifetime Achievement Award from Capital Xtra. The list goes on.
It says something about her sense of humour that all her plaques and awards are hung on the bathroom wall.
Though her entire life seems to have revolved around providing affordable housing to those who need it, she laughs when asked if social housing felt like a calling. “I started out wanting to be an actor. The kinds of things I was veering towards had nothing to do with spreadsheets!”
She may not have been called to her job, but she was certainly well-suited to it. Kerry Beckett, a long-time CCOC board member, was effusive about Boucher.
“[Catherine] is probably one of the most brilliant people that I know. I’ve never met anyone who can keep so much information in her head and process it and have it at her beck and call.” But her skills don’t end with facts and figures. Beckett continues: “The people in CCOC will definitely miss her. She’s a character.”
That she would be missed was obvious at her retirement party. The room upstairs at the Montgomery Legion was crowded with people from all over the province — including politicians, co-workers and tenants — all laughing and lining up to give her a hug or thank her or share a teasing barb. Boucher was in her element, joking back and speaking eloquently off-the-cuff about the great people she’d had the chance to meet while with the CCOC.
During the speeches, two words came up again and again: innovative and unorthodox. Not content to follow rules that don’t make sense, Boucher took calculated risks with funders more than once. For example, she says, “We started charging higher rents than a program envisaged to those tenants who could afford to pay it. We instituted this concept of market rent a long time ago… And the government said, ‘Oh, you can’t do that!’ and we said, ‘Well, we’re doing it.’”
Boucher’s spirit of determination has deep roots, including a strong feminist mother and growing up queer in the ’50s.
“I went to the library and had to ask for a book about being homosexual… it told me that being a homosexual wasn’t a crime, it was just an illness. And that made me feel better.”
By her mid-20s she’d gotten over that guilt, using it instead to become stronger.
“Being a woman, being French-Canadian, being gay were all things that could have made me meek and mild, but somehow I took the other route.”
While all her visible accomplishments are impressive, the most inspiring thing about Boucher is her nuanced understanding of the importance of people and community.
To her, it’s not just about having a roof over your head and walls around you. “[H]aving this commodity allows you to then expand… people can really flourish and really be part of their community if they have… affordable housing.”
Her long-time friend, Paul Rainville, summed it up best during his speech at her retirement party. “That’s what Catherine does,” he said. “She builds rooms for people so they can fill those rooms with love.”
Boucher is confident that her successor will carry the torch with the same fierce spirit. In fact, she beams when she speaks about leaving her “30-year-old baby” in his hands.
When she intially announced her retirement, she told the board she’d give them two years.
“Ray [Sullivan] started in March,” Boucher recounts. “And he’s so good and he’s so the right guy, that by the end of the summer it was obvious that I should get the heck out of there.”
As for the future, Boucher is looking forward to having more time but avoids making any pronouncements. She plans on staying in Ottawa and staying involved with housing — word has it she’ll do some consulting in the field. She’d also like to explore the more creative part of her brain, the part she left behind in the ’60s.
“I want to leave it open so that I can be completely like, ‘Oh, you know, I think I’m going to do macramed sand-cast candles,’” she says with a sly smile on her face.