President, The Coloured Women’s Club of Montreal, Montreal, QC. Born: Montreal, QC.
Shirley Gyles is President of The Coloured Women’s Club (CWC) of Montreal, the first and oldest Black women’s organization in Canada. The group was founded in 1902 by seven American women whose husbands worked for the railway. Ostracized from other groups, the women originally came together socially to counter the loneliness they experienced when their husbands were away.
At that time, there were few social agencies to alleviate hardship or to aid the poor and less fortunate. What began as a social club grew to become an organization aimed at assisting Blacks in Montreal in any way possible. One of the Club’s activities was to provide newly arrived students from the Caribbean with warm clothing and assistance in settling into the community. The students, who were attending McGill University, were often unprepared for Canadian winters and discrimination.
Over the years, The Coloured Women’s Club has played a key role in the community, providing support where needed and bursaries to students. In 1907, the Club’s members helped with the creation of the Union United Church, the oldest Black congregation in Montreal; members have also been involved in the operations of the Negro Community Centre (NCC). And, in the interest of uniting Black women across Canada, the CWC co-founded the Congress of Black Women and hosted two of their meetings, in 1973 and 1974.
In 1999, the members published a cookbook, edited by Shirley; proceeds of its sale enabled the Club to establish a permanent scholarship fund to help Black students. And, in order to inform the public about the Black experience in Canada, for the past 10 years, Shirley has organized and conducted Black Heritage tours along the passage of the Underground Railroad.
Her travels with the CWC have taken her as far as the continent of Africa where, with a group of 63 others, she visited and brought school and general supplies, along with money, to South Africa and Zimbawe in 2007. In 2009, the group did the same in Senegal and Gambia.
In a carryover from her leadership capacity as President of the Coloured Women’s Club, she has also, for the past six years, taken on the demanding role as President of the Negro Community Centre/Charles H. Este Culture Centre. The organization’s original building in Little Burgundy has been closed for 20 years; she has been spearheading a campaign to have the much needed centre re-opened. Founded in 1927 by Rev. Charles H. Este and 11 members of Union United Church the NCC’s initial purpose was to alleviate social and economic conditions amongst Blacks in Montreal in an era where there was a need to bridge the gap of understanding between Blacks and Whites. In 2007, the organization was granted $2.5 million from the City of Montreal for the re-development and renovation of the building on Coursol Street in Little Burgundy. Shirley has been lobbying the two levels of government for the monies to complete the project. Once completed, the centre will not only be a meeting place for both young and old and from all communities, but a place to learn.
Other: Shirley worked for 36 years as a Traffic Controller for AT&T Canada, before retiring; has been President of the CWC since 1997; elected President of the Negro Community Centre/Charles H. Este Cultural Centre (2004); Board, South Shore Black Community Association.
Honours: Inclusion in Who’s Who in Black Canada (1st & 2nd editions; 2002 & 2006); Woman of the Year, Montreal Council of Women (2002); Coloured Women’s Club’s benevolent work recognized by the Min. des Relations avec les Citoyens et de l’Immigration du Québec (1997); Anne Greenup Solidarity Prize, named in honour of the Club’s first President, created by the Quebec Government and awarded annually.
Works: The Coloured Women’s Club Millennium Cookbook (1999).
Reviewed in: Local & community papers; Montreal Gazette (2000); featured on CBC TV (2005) and Global TV (2002).
Favourite book? I have many favourites, but my all-time favourite is Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington. The book taught me that by uplifting oneself you can help to uplift others. I believe this to be a very important trait within a person.
Favourite quote? “Do good and good will attend you.” – My dear mother who passed away in October 2007.
Given the chance, what would you love to do that you haven’t done yet? Take graphic arts and journalism courses.
Who or what inspires you? Injustice, the downtrodden, and challenge inspires me.
Why do you do what you do? It is important to help, and to help others to make the world a better place.