Being an advocate for women has been at the forefront of Irene Willsie’s work for almost three decades.
“I had always been aware of women’s rights and women’s equality since I was a teenager,” said Willsie, executive director of the Women’s Contact Society (WCS).
“Going to school in the 60s lots of things about women’s rights were being discussed and sparked my interest. It didn’t always make me popular.”
Willsie was born in Olds, Alta. and grew up northwest of Olds on a farm surrounded by strong women who worked just as hard as the men, she said.
“Women were quite invisible publicly, but when it came to work they were more than equal partners. A lot of times the wives of farmers did not have their names on the ownership of the property. That always felt really wrong to me.”
Her extended family is involved in rodeo and through that connection she met her former husband and moved to Williams Lake, where he grew up, in 1978.
She had various jobs, but when she had the opportunity to work in an administrative position for the Legal Services Society of B.C. in 1992 she found her niche,
“I started really becoming aware of domestic violence in our community and the very high level of violence in Williams Lake,” she said, noting she met women living in unstable situations financially and emotionally and began to understand poverty in the community and its impacts.
“Women were overrepresented in the group of people that were living under the poverty line. As an adult it gave me a focus that really rang true to my heart.”
At legal services she moved into a poverty law paralegal position and learned advocacy skills and started helping clients with issues such as residential-tenancy disputes, disability applications and appeals and income assistance disputes.
“It was an extremely fulfilling career,” she said.
In 2002, due to public service cuts, she lost her job when the Legal Services Society was downsized.
“It was a real crossroads for me as a single parent with a young child to find myself unemployed,” she said, adding she ended up doing a variety of small contracts, including one for the WCS as a legal advocate.
Eventually she became the executive director of WCS in 2005.
Incorporated in 1982 by a group of local women that wanted to address women’s equality and give them a voice in Williams Lake, one of the first things WCS did was established Kidcare Daycare for young parents.
“The board and staff of the society determined that one of the most important things for women to succeed was that they needed to have a high school education,” Willsie said.
Child care is still the number one barrier for women advancing their careers and education, Willsie added, but noted the good news is child care is now considered as a major economic driver and people choosing a career in the child care sector are gaining more respect.
“With COVID it was recognized at the beginning of the pandemic that child care was an essential service. We had never seen that before.”
Staffing at the WCS has doubled since she became the executive director and the society operates three times as many child care spaces.
Additionally, WCS offers women’s counselling, legal advocacy, poverty reduction services through its free food shelf, good food boxes and a free clothing store for women and children on site at 51 Fourth Ave. South.
Willsie no longer does frontline work, but as the executive director she helps fulfill the society’s mandate, which is to support women of all backgrounds and circumstances in whatever way they need support.
The society’s job is to advocate for a safer community, child care and gender analysis in any type of community service or action, she said.
Williams Lake has lots going for it and has made a lot of progress in its programs to support women and children, said Willsie, noting the community has worked collaboratively on many fronts and she is very proud.
“We still have more work to do as individuals, as organizations and as a community, but it has been gratifying to be part of that change”
When she’s not working, Willsie enjoys reading, staying connected with her large family and travelling to Mexico.
Watching documentaries and listening to podcasts is also a favourite pastime.
“I find it very inspiring to explore different perspectives on any issue from the environment to politics to social issues.”