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WI empowering women to make a difference for more than 100 years

By Sharon Harrison
When it comes to everyday things such as the mandatory stopping for school buses with flashing lights, the painting of white lines on roads, and signage at railway crossings, many people may not be aware that credit must go to the Women’s Institute.

Changes and improvements to make a better and safer everyday world were highlighted in a recent presentation by Prince Edward District Women’s Institute (PEDWI) member Evelyn Peck.

It was the Women’s Institute (WI) who got the pasteurization of milk legislated, the clear marking on poison containers too, along with the use of easily understood labels on food products, and staples removed from food packages, as well as the use of fire retardant materials for children’s clothing. The Women’s Institute also successfully lobbied for roll bars on tractors.

The virtual presentation also spoke to what the Women’s Institute is; what members do, the WI’s role in the County, and the countless projects and donations made to local causes over many years.

For Peck, it is one of her passions.

“Most people don’t know what the WI is, but it is a local, provincial, national and international organization that promotes women, families and communities. Our goal is to empower women to make a difference.”

The event, hosted by the Prince Edward County Community Care for Seniors Association, was the first of the not-for-profit organization’s seniors active living programs for March.

Locally, the WI branches and its members have fundraised for County projects, such as the hospital, and for accessible transportation; they donate to library and the foodbanks, provide an annual scholarship, support Glenwood Cemetery, and more, such as contributing repairs to the Crystal Palace.

Prince Edward District Women’s Institute members, federal, provincial and municipal dignitaries applaud donations totalling $16,500 to representatives of eight organizations posing with a likeness of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. – Sue Capon photo

“WI members are community-minded,” says Peck. “From the earliest times, the WI started with travelling libraries and they established libraries in their communities; I think Bloomfield first rented a house for their first library.”

Most of their fundraising comes from a giant Women’s Institute hosted art and craft show held every year at the Picton Fairgrounds.

“In 1989, the WI members in Prince Edward began to study the lack of accessible transportation in Prince Edward County,” says Peck. “Monies from successful art and craft shows were set aside, and after a lot of planning and meetings, and a lot of lobbying, a new bus was unveiled on June 1, 2007.”

She says, the accessible transportation grew, the ridership grew, new routes were added, and accessible transportation made a positive difference for many.

With $100,000 donated in the first five years toward accessible transportation in the County, the Prince Edward District WI (PEDWI) continues to support accessible transportation, donating $5,000 annually.

Whether it was schools, museums or hospitals, they are all important causes to the WI, as members volunteer time, make items to donate, donate prize money, sponsor fairs and so much more.

Debbie Ruston, Dixie Motley and Marg Bourgoin, with the Albury Rednersville Women’s Institute, served up homemade pies.

They don’t just serve tea and cookies, although they do that well, as well. Local 4-H homemaking clubs have long been supported by the WI.

“Since 1920, WIs provided leaders and funding for homemaking clubs and they developed the PEDWI scholarship for 4-H members.”

Members also fill bags with stuffed animals, blankets and books to give to traumatized children at the hospital in Picton, and this past Christmas also donated bags to the Storehouse Foodbank.

WI member Nancy Wood with PECMH’s Lisa Mowbray and Cheryl Minaker, and WI members Sue Donly, Wilma de Wolde and Kim de Bruin presenting bags of goodies for children in Picton’s hospital.

They also show global support such as with Canada Comforts where they knit and sew articles that are sent to disaster areas and refugee camps around the world.

“Last Friday, we had a sewing bee to make bags to hold the knitted teddies that people make and they are hoping to send them to the Ukraine for the children there, and also Turkey and Syria following the earthquakes will probably be the recipients of a lot of items.”

“Schools were also important to the WIs which have they donated funds for safety signs, flags, first aid kits, and insisted on nurse visits, hot lunches, musical instruments, school fairs, and they supported educational trips, and they advocated for music in the schools.”

Pecks said the WI branches have furnished hospital rooms, and held fundraisers for specialized equipment.

“Rallies were held to help save the hospital in Picton,” she adds.

The Hillier Women’s Institute’s famous apple dumplings which always sell out quickly. You can enquire about the recipe, but it’s top secret.

Members volunteer at baby clinics, and workshops and information sessions have been held on many topics, such as breast screening, cancer, food allergies, clean water, healthy eating and Lyme disease.

In her research, Peck came across something from 1950 where County council recommended the Prince Edward Health Unit be eliminated.

“Cherry Valley WI found out about that decision and they requested the Toronto Star send one of their reporters down to Prince Edward County to follow the health unit and travel with the doctor and nurses of the clinics that were being held in the County,” shared Peck.

“With that information, and all the good the health unit was doing, a large delegation from WIs and others all went to the next County council meeting and told them about their findings.”

County council reversed their decision about keeping the health unit, said Peck.

She outlines how the growth of the WI in its early days was phenomenal.

“25,000 members had joined by May 1914, and the WI movement had also spread across Canada because women from Ontario had moved to different provinces or they had visited and been told about the success of WI.”

To co-ordinate the branches, a provincial organization was set up in 1919 called the Federated Women’s Institutes of Ontario (or FWIO). They expanded to coordinate the work of the provincial groups, where a national body was formed in 1919, known as the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada (or FWIC).

With a vision to take the organization worldwide, the world organization, Associated Country Women of the World (or ACWW) was formed in 1933. It is the largest international organization for rural women with nine million members in 82 countries.

Prince Edward County has six WI branches, where total membership is lower than it used to be at 60-70 members, so around 10 per branch. Peck says it used to be around 20-25 per branch.

She explains how each branch is autonomous, choosing its own meeting date, place, and agenda, as well as the projects they take and the fundraising they do.

“Branches are grouped together to form districts, and all of the Prince Edward County is the Prince Edward District Women’s Institute and the branches cooperate for district events and projects.”

Districts are grouped together into areas, and Prince Edward is part of the Trent Valley area, along with Hastings, Northumberland, and Peterborough counties.

The first Prince Edward District Women’s Institute picnic in Wellington, 1908

Historically, the first branch in the County was formed in Wellington in January 1908.

It was followed in February 1908 by branches in Cherry Valley, Milford, West Lake, Bloomfield and Picton. Branches formed in Gilberts Mills and Mountain View in June 1908, and in 1909, the Rednersville branch came along. By April 1913, Consecon had its own branch, and by June 1914 Hillier came on board in June 1914, then 1916 branches organized in Big Island and Waupoos.

Demorestville, Glenora and Greenbush formed branches in 1919.

The Federation of Women’s Institutes started in Canada, where the inspiration came when tragedy struck in 1889 in the death of an infant from drinking contaminated milk.

“The boy’s mother, Adelaide Hoodless, devoted herself to improving home life for women, and began a campaign urging better education for girls and women,” explains Peck.

She notes how Adelaide was brought up on a farm, so she knew about things farmers did.

“The farmers had an organization called the Farmer’s Institute which was sponsored by the provincial government’s department of agriculture and Erland Lee was a progressive farmer and he heard one of Adelaides speeches and invited her to speak at the Farmer’s Institute on Ladies Night.”

Peck explains how Lee received some opposition to the idea, but he was able to get her as a speaker.

“On that occasion, Adelaide suggested that women would benefit from a similar organization to the Farmer’s Institute where they would meet to hear expert speakers, as well as share ideas and concerns.”

Erland Lee and his wife Janet were at that Farmer’s Ladies Night and they were so inspired by Adelaide’s speech that night, they worked hard to invite neighbouring young women to a meeting to hear Adelaide speak.

“101 women met on February 19, 1897 at Squires Hall in Stoney Creek, Ontario and were to form a group to be known as the Women’s Institute to help women learn about nutrition, hygiene and homemaking skills.”

Red Cross work took over during the world wars, explains Peck.

“During the Second World War, many quilting and sewing bees were held, creating 224 quilts, 2,000 sewn articles, and the members kept busy knitting 700 knitted articles,” she says.

Since the 1940s, the branches have been preserving local community histories in books called Tweedsmuir History books, named after a former Governor General of Canada.

“His wife was a WI member and suggested that WIs keep local history,” explained Peck.

“These books are a valuable source of information for histories of farms, families and schools, churches, industries and organizations, and the WIs and the significance of the Tweedsmuir books have won many accolades over the years.”

Demorestville WI tagging for the hospital in 1920. -From the digital files at the Federation Womens Institutes of Ontario website

Many of the books have been digitized where the searchable collection can viewed virtually at fwio.on.ca/tweedsmuir-history-books.

Friendship, socialization and fun can be gained from becoming a WI member, said Peck.

“As well, educational knowledge, awareness and personal growth, feelings of value, personal satisfaction and purpose, community involvement, recording local history, identifying and acting on local, national and global issues, and developing and honing leadership skills.

Peck talks about members from the different County branches often work together.

“The art and craft show wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t all work together and everyone does,” she says. “And it’s because of the art and craft show, and the profits that we’ve made that we’ve been able to do a lot of things.”

The Prince Edward District Women’s Institute’s annual art and craft sale will celebrate its 40th year this year. The major fundraiser is set for Aug. 3, 2023 at the Picton Fairgrounds.

The Prince Edward Women’s Institute can be found at thecountywomensinstitute.ca.

Click here to see some of the many activities of the WI in PEC.

Community Care for Seniors, a not-for-profit organization, has been helping older adults (aged 60-plus) live independently in Prince Edward County since 1977 offering an extensive range of services from hot meals, escorted transportation, recreation and social activities, among them.

Monthly active living programs change every month and include a range of programming, such as interesting talks, exercise programs, musical and arts activities and more.

March virtual programming includes a gardening talk, a fitness series, a phone social, a police update, and recipes too. Their free income tax program for eligible seniors is now in effect too. Visit communitycareforseniors.org, or call 613-476-7493.

 

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