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Manitoba Women’s Institute Making A Difference

“You brought

forward issues that helped shape the world. You were the kind of organization that governments listened to.”

– MINISTER OF FINANCE ROSANN WOWCHUK

The tiny white spruce trees handed out at the Manitoba Women’s Institute convention last week are a fitting reminder of MWI’s contributions “for home and country” over the past century.

The plucky little trees will one day provide shelter and beauty, they will clean and enhance the environment and they will benefit people and wildlife – not unlike the MWI’s rich history in this province.

“Everything has to start with one small step,” said MWI president Enid Clark speaking last fall about the MWI’s plans to hand out hundreds of trees at their 100th birthday party this spring.

“Start small and see what comes of it” was likely what women in Morris were saying in 1910. Morris is the birthplace of the Manitoba Women’s Institute, where a group of rural women gathered that year to talk about an exciting new organization expanding in Ontario.

The Women’s Institute’s origins date back to 1897 in Stoney Creek, Ontario where Adelaide Hunter Hoodless, after losing her 18-month-old son to food poisoning after he drank unpasteurized milk, vowed to create an educational and household skill-building organization for rural women.

The first Household Science Association was founded in Manitoba in August of 1910 with close ties to the school of agriculture and present-day faculty of human ecology. The organization’s name was switched to Home Economics Societies, then in 1918 to the present-day Manitoba Women’s Institute.

Its kitchen-table founders in Morris – then not even possessing the right to vote – couldn’t have imagined a female provincial minister of finance would speak to their organization a century later, praising their accomplishments.

“You brought forward issues that helped shape the world,” said the former minister of agriculture Rosann Wowchuk, who addressed last week’s convention and spoke of her abiding respect for WI. “And you were the kind of organization that governments listened to.”

Women’s Institutes have made a difference in so many ways, Wowchuk said, from advocating for improved public health in rural areas, to sustaining the International Peace Gardens and seeing that public libraries were established, she said. “Be proud of the difference you made in our culture.”

But she also challenged the group to look ahead. “You have done much good work but there is so much more to do,” she said.

MENTORING ROLE

The Federated Women’s Institute of Canada president agrees. Women’s Institutes must look ahead and find new issues to address, said Ruth Blenkhorn in an interview from Nova Scotia earlier this month.

“We’ve accomplished so much but we can’t just rest on our accomplishments.”

Blenkhorn said she sees a new role for WI emerging both in advocacy for issues facing seniors – a burgeoning demographic in Canadian society today – and in helping to mentor a generation that doesn’t possess critical traditional skills like cooking skills.

“We need to learn from the younger generation and what they see as issues and where they want to go but they also have a lot to learn from us,” she said.

“And a lot of younger people are wanting to learn basics.”

A cooking and food preservation workshop held

recently by a Nova Scotia WI attracted well over 50 people, she added.

Most provincial WIs have or will soon reach their 100th anniversary. WI membership across the country is presently around 12,000, with the strongest membership bases found in Ontario and the Maritimes. The strength of the eastern WIs is often attributed to shorter travelling distances between rural communities.

Manitoba’s provincial group currently maintains about 500 members.

CELEBRATE AND REFLECT

Last weekend about 200 were at the 2010 convention where resolutions passed supporting the establishment of a school of medicine to train rural doctors in Brandon and for a statue of Nellie McClung at the Manitoba legislature.

The convention was also a time to celebrate and reflect on the past. A women’s clothing review, courtesy of the Costume Museum of Canada, included extensive commentary on the pressing political and social matters dealt with by WIs during the decades hemlines were rising and falling.

Past presidents, donning the dresses or pantsuits worn during their tenures in the ’60s to ’90s drew laughter with remarks about thrift and girth. MWI president from 1976 to 1978, Eileen Brake of Boissevain, confessed she wasn’t wear ing the actual dress. “The one I usually wore I cut into quilt blocks.”

“A BIT SCARY”

Incoming MWI president Justina Hop, a Tolstoi-area dairy farmer admits it is “a bit scary” to be taking the helm at this juncture in the organization’s history.

“The Manitoba Women’s Institute has a strong background but now how do we progress forward and build on what we’ve accomplished?” she said in an interview.

She echoes a sentiment long held by incoming presidents – concern for declining rural populations and the corresponding decline of participation in volunteer organizations like theirs. “We are losing rural women, so our voices are getting weaker and weaker,” she said. “We either have to increase our membership or get louder,” she said.

Still, Hop suspects that need that prompted rural women over the decades to seek out the organization is still there. As a young mother isolated on the farm, Hop says she joined the WI for the connection with other women.

“The Women Institute is the organization I joined for me. It was not tied to the farm per se, or the children or the school,” she said. “And I grew with the organization.”

And so, no doubt, will those tiny white spruce trees, to be planted in locations of choice by WI members this spring.

Said Manitoba Forestry Association executive director Pat Pohrebniuk handing out the “Trees for Tomorrow”, these trees do fine in a wide range of soil types, and thrive in both sun and shade. They’re not the fastest-growing tree, but they live well over 100 years, she said.

“They will be here for a long, long time.”

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About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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