The YMCA story began in London, England over 170 years ago with one man who had an idea about how to make his community stronger. From that idea sprang a movement that would spread across the globe, inspiring millions to grow in spirit, mind and body. Throughout the years, we’ve evolved with the times, from the Industrial Revolution to the Digital Revolution…and made many important contributions to society along the way.

 

Here’s a look at the significant milestones in the YMCA movement, both in Canada and internationally.

1844 – The YMCA is founded in London, England

George Williams

A 22-year-old draper, named George Williams, got the idea to start the Young Men's Christian Association, or YMCA, in 1844 in London, England in response to unhealthy social conditions brought on by the Industrial Revolution. At the time, it was revolutionary to discuss religious practices outside of the church.

1851 – The first YMCA in North America opens in Montreal

The building in Montreal that housed the first YMCA in Canada

The idea of the YMCA quickly caught on, and soon Associations were springing up in cities throughout England and Europe. By 1851, that same idea traveled across the seas. When the first YMCA in North America opened in Montreal on November 25, 1851, a grassroots effort to help people and communities to grow and thrive was set in motion. At first YMCAs had strong links to the Protestant churches but this quickly changed as people from all churches were welcomed.

1866 – Canadian YMCA War Services are established

Soldiers line up outside a YMCA canteen during the war

From 1866 - 1946, YMCA War Services provided support in the form of recreation, religious, educational, and entertainment services to troops serving abroad. YMCA staff were a welcome sight and became known for offering moral support and comfort by delivering hot tea, equipment, biscuits and more to Canadian soldiers.

1880s – Railway YMCAs help grow the Canadian Pacific Railway

A group of men outside a railroad YMCA building in the 1880s

The YMCA helped grow the Canadian Pacific Railway by supporting railway workers in the late 1800s. Railway YMCAs were built along developing railway lines, providing recreation, literacy programs, reading rooms and accommodation to railway workers who were otherwise limited to visiting saloons during their leisure hours. Several Ys today can trace their roots back to a railway YMCA.

1891 – The Invention of Basketball

James Naismith shows his wife the ball and peach basket used in his newly invented game of basketball

Basketball was invented in 1891 at the YMCA International Training School in Massachusetts, USA, which later became Springfield College. The director of the Physical Education Department of the YMCA Training School, Dr. Luther Gulick, assigned Canadian YMCA physical director James Naismith to a class of boys who were completely disinterested in the usual exercises and sports. Naismith became determined to invent a game for his “class of incorrigibles”.

By hanging two peach baskets from the railing of the gymnasium's second level running track, a new sport was born that would eventually spread across the globe. While basketball has evolved over the years, 12 of Naismith's original 13 rules have remained intact to some degree.

1892 – First YMCA Leader Corps begins in Montreal

Young boys sit on a bunk bed reading a leadership manual

The First Leaders Corps began in Montreal to train Physical Directors to become leaders in physical education and leaders in the community, with classes ranging from anatomy, physiology and first aid, to prayer meetings for spiritual growth and community service. Recognizing that young people could benefit from leadership development as well, the YMCA Junior Leader Program was established in 1906, with a program for girls debuting in 1948. 

1895 – The Invention of Volleyball

A group of young men play volleyball in a gym in the early 1900s

William G. Morgan, an instructor at the YMCA in Holyoke, Massachusetts, sought to invent a game for his classes that would involve less physical contact than basketball. Based on a variation of the game badminton, also referred to as "minton", he called the new game "mintonette." The first game was played on December 2, 1885 by a gym class of businessmen. The name was changed to volleyball in 1896, to reflect the action taking place. 

1906 – Group swimming lessons debut at the YMCA

A group of girls stand on a dock behind other girls who are in the lake, ready to swim

In 1906, Toronto YMCA staff member George Corsan introduced a radically different kind of swimming instruction. It was unique for two reasons: it was taught to groups of people rather than individuals; and before even going into the water, students went through a series of land drills that covered the basic movements.   These new swimming classes quickly became highly popular. In 1910, Canadian William Ball launched a national YMCA swimming instruction program. 

1910 – Father’s Day established at the YMCA

A son climbs on his father's back while both pose for the camera

Father’s Day in its present form was dreamed up by Sonora Louise Smart Dodd in Spokane, Washingston. She wanted to honor her father, a Civil War veteran who had raised her and her five siblings alone. Presenting her idea at a meeting in June 1910, Sonora petitioned the Spokane Ministerial Alliance and the Spokane YMCA to recognize and celebrate Father’s Day. They enthusiastically endorsed the idea, hosting the first Father’s Day celebration on June 19, 1910.

1918 – A YMCA teacher is the first to wear a poppy for Remembrance Day

A group of soldiers purchases coffee from a YMCA canteen truck

Moina Michael, an American teacher working for the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries organization in New York City, is recognized as the first person to wear a poppy to commerate Remembrance Day. After reading John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields”, she immediately “pledged to keep the faith and always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance and the emblem of 'keeping the faith with all who died.'" It remains a lasting symbol of remembrance in Canada.

1926 - 1959 – The YMCA plays a role in the founding of 3 Canadian universities

A group of young men studying their books in a classroom

The YMCA of Montreal was very active in promoting education. By 1926, its education program became Sir George Williams College, which eventually became Concordia University in 1974. In 1938, the Ottawa YMCA saw a need for higher education in its own city and by 1942 helped open Carleton College, known today as Carleton University. In 1959, the North Toronto YMCA helped to initiate the development of York University.

1967 – Canadian YMCAs sponsor overseas projects for the first time

A group of women at a YMCA overseas focus intently on their reading

Right from the beginning, Canadian YMCAs were a part of the International YMCA movement and attended the founding of the World Alliance of YMCAs. In 1889, 41 Canadians welcomed the launch of the World Service program for YMCAs in Canada and the United States. Canadian YMCA Secretaries helped set up programs and YMCAs overseas, which were then run locally. 1967 marked the first time individual associations in Canada sponsored specific overseas projects as part of their "World Service" activities followed by partnerships with individual overseas YMCAs.

1968 – YMCAs establish daycare programs for working parents

Three children hold toys and sit on a rocking chair, posing for the camera

For the first half of the 1900s, many YMCAs and YWCAs operated Day Nurseries to serve working families, although no licensing agencies existed at that time. As more women began to work in the 1960s, many YMCAs began offering licensed child care programs. In 1967, the Ottawa YMCA-YWCA opened its first licensed Head Start Nursery School Program. By 1972, it was running a licensed child care centre and a year later, Winnipeg had five licensed nursery school programs in branches around the city.

1981 – The YMCA Fellowship of Honour is established

The most recent group of inductees to the YMCA Fellowship of Honour pose for a picture

The YMCA Fellowship of Honour is the highest honour and most valued award in the YMCA in Canada. It recognizes outstanding YMCA volunteers and staff who give tremendous leadership towards our mission and expanding the capacity of the YMCA in Canada. Over 120 individuals have been recognized with investiture into the YMCA Fellowship of Honour since it began.

1984 – YMCA Canada begins to commemorate YMCA Peace Week

YMCA Peace Week logo

YMCA Peace Week is celebrated by YMCA movements around the world every November. In 1984, YMCA Canada first initiated a national program to commerate YMCA Peace Week in Canada. The YMCA Peace Medallion was introduced in 1987, which recognizes the efforts of individuals and organizing in building peace in their communities and has since been awarded to over 1,100 individuals and groups.

2006 – YMCA Playing to Learn™ curriculum introduced to YMCA child care centres

A YMCA educator shows a group of young children a place on a globe

The YMCA Playing to Learn™ curriculum helps children up to age 6 discover learning through creative play and works with a child’s natural curiosity and development. In 2006, the curriculum was first rolled out to licensed YMCA Child Care Centres across Canada. 

2016 – New before and after school program curriculum introduced

A girl poses with a basketball on a bench with two friends in a gymnasium

The YMCA of Greater Toronto leads the rollout of their curriculum for before and after school programs, YMCA A Place to Connect™. This will make the YMCA the first organization in Canada to have a curriculum for school age programs.