The first St. Leonard’s halfway house opened its doors in 1962 in Windsor, Ontario. It welcomed men who had spent time in prison and who needed a safe and supportive place to make a clean start. The home took its name from Leonard, a French monk who later became the patron saint of prisoners because of the monastery he transformed into a halfway house for prisoners in the sixth century.
SLSC’s founder, Neil Libby, and supportive colleagues and community members developed their vision of helping people to rehabilitate in a social climate where formerly incarcerated people were regarded as unfit and undeserving of any support. Libby believed that there was a great need to reform the Canadian criminal justice system, beginning with the recognition of the infinite worth of every human being. He acknowledged that communities would not achieve the desired public safety results if they continued to diminish the value of people who had been in conflict with the law and further exclude them from society. Working with people of different faiths, he and the other St. Leonard’s organizers worked beyond religious ideologies and public opinion to provide leadership in the halfway house movement in Canada.
After a few years of successful residential service operation in Windsor, it was clear that the work that had begun there was meeting a need that existed throughout the country. The founders were then faced with the issue of expansion, and it was determined that a national group was needed.
So, in 1967, St. Leonard’s Society of Canada (SLSC) was founded with the original mission of:
- assisting in the development of Community Residential Centres (halfway houses);
- studying legislation and engaging in penal/correctional reform;
- liaising with government bodies and legal authorities;
- establishing minimum standards for Member Community Residential Centres;
- conducting public education and fundraising on a national basis, including government funding of Member Community Residences;
- incorporating evaluation and research in all of these programs; and,
- operating the National Corporation.
One of the main drivers of founding SLSC was to establish it as a separate physical and financial entity from member agencies. In the following years, SLSC became increasingly active at the national level in association with other community-based organizations, as well as with both provincial and federal governments. By 1971, 10 homes were affiliated with SLSC, and in 1976, SLSC received its first sustaining grant from the Department of the Solicitor General of Canada (now called Public Safety Canada). This led to SLSC increasing its involvement and engagement in conferences related to criminal justice system practices and policies.
Over the years, St. Leonard’s Society of Canada gained an affiliation of halfway homes and a degree of public and governmental support in its efforts to advocate for social and criminal justice issues. In the Society’s archives are letters of support from prominent Canadians such as Lester B. Pearson, Eugene Whelan, John P. Robarts, and Herb Gray.
Today, SLSC has 10 affiliate members that operate a total of 16 Community-based Residential Facilities across 4 different provinces. The strength and heart of SLSC’s work are grounded in the original vision and values of its founders. Since its foundation, SLSC has continued to evolve to respond to local and national realities, including the changing needs of people in conflict with the law, as well as the people who support them.