In 1897 the first Women’s Institute was formed in Ontario and by 1914 there was either a Provincial Women’s Institute entity in each of Canada’s nine provinces, or a parallel organization of rural women. Saskatchewan’s rural women were known, until 1972, as the Saskatchewan Homemakers Clubs. After Newfoundland and Labrador joined the Canadian family in 1949, in 1968 their Jubilee Guilds adopted the Women’s Institute name.
So how did busy women make the connections needed to establish a national entity in the days before air travel and telephones? The idea of a National Federation to tie the Provincial Women’s Institutes together was discussed as early as 1914, but with the outbreak of World War I it had to be delayed. The pressing work of the war, and aiding Europeans who were suffering and lacking sufficient food, clothing and other necessities was answered from coast to coast. There was not time for developing the Federation, so the idea was temporarily set aside – but definitely not forgotten.
Behind the scenes, promoters of the idea such as Mary McIssacs from Alberta and George Putnam, Superintendent of Women’s Institutes in Ontario from 1904 to 1934, along with Mrs. Alfred Watt of British Columbia were in contact with each other, and continued to plan for the future.
In February of 1919, a group of fourteen people (thirteen women and one man) met at the Royal Alexandra Hotel in Winnipeg. Mr. Putnam was in attendance to assist in any way possible. Daytime meetings set out the scope of the planning, and details were worked out by Committee meetings held in the evenings and often lasting far into the night. Over a period of 4 days they drafted the constitution, elected the first slate of officers and made decisions on representation of the various member groups, as well as on the several Standing committees that had been agreed upon.
The first President was Judge Emily Murphy of Edmonton, well known for her writings under the pen name of “Janey Canuck” and also included Mrs. Todd of Ontario, and one to be chosen from Quebec to represent the Cercles de Fermieres; Miss Eliza Campbell of New Brunswick, Treasurer; and three Directors – Mrs. Dayton, Manitoba, Mrs. Cameron, Saskatchewan and Mrs. A. Blackwood – Wileman from Duncan, British Columbia.
Now Canada’s Women’s Institutes were linked form coast to coast. The work continued over the summer as each one worked on her area of concern. The executive met again in November of 1919, this time in Toronto, and this time Mrs. Alfred Watt was in attendance “as a representative of the British Women’s Institutes”. Much of the meeting time was devoted to the financing of the new Federation and Mrs. Murphy made plans to travel to Ottawa for a meeting with Federal Minister of Agriculture Dr. Tolmie, to discuss the matter of an annual grant for Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada. Interestingly, it was at this meeting that Mrs. Watt floated her idea of an international body for the Women’s Institutes and other rural women’s organizations, but it was to be another fourteen years before the birth of the Associated Country Women of the World in Stockholm, Sweden.
Sadly, Mrs. Blackwood-Wileman, British Columbia Women’s Institutes voting Director on the National executive, contracted pneumonia on the train travelling home. She collapsed and died in Calgary, November 24, 1919.
In February 2016, the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada market its 97th Anniversary. In that span of years, three women from BCWI have served as National Presidents: Mrs. H. McGregor of Penticton; Mrs. Mildred Roylance of Greenwood, and Jacquelyn Linde, then of Williams Lake. Currently we have Joan Holthe of Dawson Creek as President Elect, who will assume the Presidency in 2018.
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