Calling 411

First founded in 1972 as a small seniors drop-in, the 411 Seniors Centre downtown has become Vancouver’s largest seniors centre and a hotbed of activity and activism.

Vancouver Courier, April 18, 2008  Cover story

by Janet Nicol

On a recent cold morning, two elderly women dash into the lobby of the 411 Seniors Centre. In an alcove by the entrance of the four-storey heritage building at Dunsmuir and Homer, an elderly man sorts through racks of clothing. Sitting by the cash register in the adjacent gift shop, a white-haired woman sings along to a Scottish tune on the radio. Three lone men sit at separate tables in the spacious cafeteria by the lobby elevators sipping on cups of coffee.

The two women hurry by the desk man.

“We are the Raging Grannies,” one says. He nods as they head for the elevator to the third-floor sewing room.

The Grannies, whose local numbers fluctuate, meet at 411 Seniors regularly to rehearse protest songs to perform at political rallies. They pay $200 a year to rent the room and consider the money well spent, according to their leader Pat Grinsteed.

Once the home of Vancouver’s earliest trade union activity, the old “labour temple” at 411 Dunsmuir is the largest seniors centre in Vancouver. Award-winning and influential, it’s become the city’s hotbed of seniors’ activity and activism since it was founded as a small gathering place in 1972. Many seniors come for the cheap lunches and breakfasts, while others depend on its services, such as free medical help, while others participate in choirs, exercise courses, language lessons and other activities. And some, like the Grannies, use the centre to help to stir things up.

On the third floor, a group of women in a partitioned room slowly stretch on a linoleum floor to the commands of an aerobics instructor. Two pairs of elderly Chinese-Canadian women play ping pong and have a lively talk in Mandarin at tables in an open area. An older gentleman surfs the Internet for free at one of several computers in the hallway.

In the sewing room, the Raging Grannies welcome a visitor. “This is Robyn, Lesia, Darlene, and Barb,” says Grinsteed.

Elegantly dressed and dignified in manner, these older women are legendary for camping it up at protest rallies dressed in shawls and flower-strewn floppy hats. The first chapter of Raging Grannies was formed in Victoria in 1986, and similar groups soon sprung up across Canada and around the world.

As the Grannies prepare for rehearsal, they are asked about urgent issues for seniors. Grinsteed suggests a song instead of a speech. The group selects “Homeless in Winter,” which is sung to the tune of the old holiday standard, “Let It Snow.”

“It is scary and very humbling

To beg when your stomach’s rumbling

And the stores in the Food Bank are low

Where to go? Where to go?

Where to go?”

After the performance, the Grannies discuss protesting at the gates of a Richmond firm, which before the federal government stepped in to kill the deal, was selling its space division to an American corporation manufacturing land mines and cluster bombs.

Such planning is not unusual for the centre. The union builders of 411 Dunsmuir would be pleased that social activism continues almost a century later within these walls.

It takes a small army of volunteers to make 411 Seniors work. They teach classes, run programs, lead projects, work in the centre’s shop and cafeteria and provide help to fellow seniors. Last year more than 2,000 people came to the centre to have their income tax completed for free by volunteers.

The 411 Seniors and centres like it have a large constituency to cater to. More than 70,000 residents in Vancouver are 65 years old and over, comprising 13 per cent of the city’s population. A growing number are 85 years of age and older. Of the 20,000 seniors who live alone, more than half are female. Many speak a first language other than English.

And living as a senior in Vancouver can be tough. Joyce Jones, president of the 411 Seniors volunteer board, notes the small size of the federal pension cheque for seniors is a top concern.

“It is not keeping up with the cost of living–right across Canada,” she says. “Some seniors are living pension cheque to pension cheque… Those hurting the most have no private pension, and most are women.”

The average income for a senior living in the Lower Mainland is only $16,000.

These stark facts explain why so many seniors come to 411 Seniors to take advantage of the free dental screening clinic and have their blood pressure checked and foot problems examined by medical professionals. Others enjoy the hot breakfasts and lunches served for $3 every day except Sunday in the main floor cafeteria.

To join the 411 Seniors Centre, members must be 55 years old and over and pay a yearly $10 fee. The centre has 1,400 members.

John Collins is one of those volunteers, and he loves it.

“I teach seniors English every Tuesday and Thursday,” Collins says, plunking himself down in a couch as volunteers busily prepare for a multicultural celebration involving 200 members that day.

Trays of samosas are already on tables, with more food on the way.

Volunteers set up information displays by the elevators, and in a large partitioned room where the performances will occur, the centre’s 48-member multicultural choir rehearses.

A West End resident, Collins has taught at 411 Seniors as a volunteer for seven years and also volunteers at Barclay Manor. He says many immigrants who come to Canada and raise families eventually bring their aging parents over. Once here, these seniors manage daily life in Vancouver without speaking English, but as time goes by they want to learn the language of their new country. Their motivation is simple. “Their grandchildren don’t want to talk the old people’s language,” Collins says.

Collins came to Canada from England when he was 24, living first in Saskatchewan and then teaching high school in the Lower Mainland.

He now enjoys teaching his peers and admires them for their dedication. Learning a new language for people in their 60s and 70s is not easy. “[They] want to be here. They are very pleasant to teach,” he says. When he isn’t volunteering, Collins enjoys a game of chess, cards or snooker at the centre.

Collins’ 14 ESL students will lead the singing of “O Canada” at the upcoming multicultural function, following an opening prayer by a First Nations representative.

He calls over their piano accompanist, Ester Gumboc, playing hooky from choir rehearsal. The small and wiry Gumboc takes a different class every day of the week, from tai chi to Spanish lessons. She is also a great-grandmother.

She is attracted to 411 Seniors by the central location and affordable programs.

“I love the centre,” Gumboc says. “This is a friendly place.”

Gumboc came to Canada from the Philippines 38 years ago. She isn’t worried about how Vancouver has changed since she first arrived.

“People realized this was a nice city and started coming here after Expo,” she says, before rejoining the choir practice. “We should have another Expo.”

The choir, started by Bob Poutt, is an example of how seniors can bring their experience to the centre to create new opportunities.

Poutt, a retired Vancouver music therapist and UBC professor in his 70s, joined the centre two years ago when his wife, who has Alzheimer’s, was placed in a nursing home. He found the members at 411 Seniors were interested in creating music. Drawing on his background, he offered to volunteer as choir master.

“We started with 10 people,” he remembers.

Today the 411 Multicultural Choir has members with origins from 20 countries. They range in age from 55 to 94. They’ve sung in nursing homes and hospitals and even performed at a memorial for a choir member’s spouse.

Poutt says many friendships are made but members also join because “music is a part of all of us.”

Dressed in a three piece suit and calmly seated on a chair near the elevator, Shams Jilani prepares to speak later that day at the celebration after the opening prayer and national anthem.

The chair of the centre’s multicultural committee and a board member for nine years, he will be joined by visiting dignitaries including Hedy Fry, Liberal MP for Vancouver Centre and Vision Vancouver Coun. George Chow.

Jilani has been a member and volunteer at 411 Seniors for 14 years.

“I was asked to join the centre as a counsellor,” says Jilani, who lives in Richmond and proudly notes he has 12 grandchildren. He’s helped seniors with abuse, family problems and landlords during his time at the centre. He also helps prepare wills and notarizes papers.

Jilani is perfectly suited to be a 411 Seniors volunteer.

He was a social worker in India and speaks seven Indian dialects and Arabic. He says 411’s focus on multiculturalism and multicultural services sets it apart from other senior centres, and he credits its success to its staff and volunteers.

Seniors not only run the solid, old building at 411 Dunsmuir–they own it. And it’s a piece of Vancouver history.

The provincial government gave 411 Dunsmuir to the centre more than two years ago. Renovations are in the works, according to the centre’s board president Joyce Jones. The planning involved has taken up much of the 12-member board’s time and will require a substantial financial commitment. The fourth floor is rented out as a significant source of revenue and plans are to rent out two retail stores on the main floor.

Jones believes in the work of the centre. She has been a strong advocate for seniors for years, helped establish the B.C. Seniors Network and has been honoured with civic awards for her work. Underpinning her work is her message that seniors must not be forgotten in Vancouver’s rapidly changing mosaic. She should know: she’s also a senior.

“Older citizens bring a lot to communities,” she says in a telephone interview. “It’s not just ‘poor me.’ We have a wealth of history and information.”

The history of the 411 Dunsmuir building began when the city’s building trades and labour council erected the square, brown building in 1912. It was known then as the Labour Temple, and its ornamental twin Roman columns at the entrance and finely crafted woodwork above the front doors remain to this day.

Many years later, the building was bought by the provincial government. A group of seniors decided to rent out part of the building for a drop-in centre in 1972.

When it first opened 36 years ago, it was a rest and relaxation spot, according to Carol Lloyd, the centre’s former marketing and administrative co-coordinator who left the centre for a new job shortly before this story went to print. (She calls her time at 411 Seniors a very happy one.) “We just had a room for seniors to drop in and have soup and salad,” she says.

The centre expanded as it received more funding, and today employs 10 staff. It also became the largest seniors centre in Vancouver and offers the broadest range of seniors programs and initiatives in the city. Seniors arrive by bus and HandyDart from across the Lower Mainland to patronize its services. Fifteen per cent of its roughly $700,000 annual budget now comes from government sources. The rest is from foundations, corporations and individual donors.

The centre provides a base for seniors activism, such as the Raging Grannies. It’s also home to a chapter of Women Elders are Active, a group lobbying for an increase in the federal seniors pension. Homelessness, and seniors squeezed out by the rising cost of housing, are key concerns for centre members. “In my own experience, I have seen seniors on the street. There isn’t enough low-cost housing,” says Jones.

She believes the centre may be the first–and only–seniors centre catering to elders who are lesbian, gay, transgendered or bisexual. “We are finding these people isolated and not getting access to services,” she says.

The centre struck a LGTB committee in 2003. The committee sponsors a cinema series and participates in annual gay Pride celebrations.

The centre’s advocacy work is done free. Twenty volunteer counsellors, most of them seniors, work four-hour shifts throughout the week. Prepped by a 12-week training course, they help fellow seniors break through government red tape to access pensions, health care, transit discounts and other services. Their help is offered on week days at no charge. Problems with limited mobility are accommodated–the counsellors will even visit home-bound seniors.

The centre’s work has not gone unnoticed. It won a Cultural Harmony Award from the city in 2003 and a Community Spirit Award from United Way in 2004. The board’s impressive alumni includes Tom Alsbury, former mayor of Vancouver, and former MLAs Fred Sharp and Daisy Webster.

The centre advertises its services through a regular newsletter called News and Views, a website ( and community newspapers. Members also produce a one-hour radio show every Thursday at 2 p.m. on Co-op Radio (102.7 FM).

But word of mouth probably lets most seniors know what’s going on at 411 Seniors–and not just in English.

What makes 411 Seniors effective?

“This is a friendly place,” says Amy Chen after choir practice has ended. Her husband lingers by the door as most of the choir hurries out to enjoy a short break before the multicultural celebrations begin. “In some seniors’ centres, people are in small groups. Here, everyone mixes.”

Chen says the centre made a huge difference in her experience as an immigrant.

“When I came to Canada three years ago I was living in a hotel downtown,” Chen says. “I took a yoga class here and the teacher told us to do laughter yoga.”

Her instructor told students to laugh for three minutes at a time. It was the right medicine for Chen. She left the hotel and lives in Burnaby, commuting from her home there to sing in the centre’s choir and participate in the centre’s walking group. She took English lessons with John Collins.

Perhaps buoyed by the centre, Chen isn’t worried about safety or the changes going on in Vancouver.

“Canadians are easygoing. It’s still a safe city,” she says.

Mary Anderson has also stayed behind after choir to praise the centre’s work. She commutes from New Westminster by SkyTrain because 411 Seniors provides an exceptionally friendly atmosphere. “There’s lots of fun things to do here,” she says. “And the nicest people.”

Anderson takes dance lessons and enjoys the fashion shows. Every Monday a tailor is available on the premises to do alterations at a reasonable price, she says.

Anderson contrasts the help provided by 411 Seniors with provincial government policy toward seniors. She can’t get a yearly seniors bus pass, she says, because she doesn’t qualify according to the government’s means test.

“I’m just on the edge,” she says, adding. “All seniors in Alberta get these passes.”

Back by the elevators, volunteer Betty Porteous wears a name tag to indicate she is helping out with the multicultural celebration. A resident in a False Creek housing co-op, she comes with her neighbours to the centre. It’s become a key component of their lives.

“It’s a great location, a great building. Everyone is very nice,” says Porteous, who’s held a regular shift in the second-hand gift shop for seven years.

Porteous came from Scotland 51 years ago and is philosophical about the city’s growth. She loves Vancouver, but acknowledges that change will occur. And that with change inevitably comes problems. “Most people I know are concerned for the homeless,” she says. “And there’s the working poor who are being overrun in the Downtown Eastside.”

Porteous notes seniors are among the poor, which makes the work of 411 Seniors all the more important to its volunteers and staff.


Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: