Women’s Institutes Celebrate Canada 150

Back in the day, having children to care for was not an obstacle that kept mothers from attending Women’s Institute meetings. They simply brought their children along. Pictured here is Lorene Smith, six months old, in her mother Evelyn’s arms, at one of her first Women’s Institute meetings. Mabel Wyman, sitting, brought her twins and little boy along.

MANITOULIN—‘Four Generations of WI Participation’ by Lorene Martell was one of just 150 stories chosen for a book published by the Federated Women’s Institutes of Ontario to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary. Ms. Martell, a Little Current resident, submitted a story that began back in 1906, when her great grandmother Agnes helped start up the Big Lake Women’s Institute, the same branch that she also joined 107 years later, in 2013. As author of one of the stories chosen, Ms. Martell and her husband Tom participated in the book launch that was held in Peterborough last June.

The Federated Women’s Institutes of Ontario received 350 submissions from women across the province, of which only 150 made it into the book. The stories had to be real-life experiences, but they could range from a single event to the sweep of a lifetime. The resulting book, entitled ‘Ordinary to Extraordinary: 150 stories as unique as the women who lived them,’ covers life from the tragic to the humorous from a house fire to an endearing goose. There’s a story about a hilarious trickster pet, another about a young girl who adored the famous skater Barbara Ann Scott, another about a teenager in a contest to sell the most war savings stamps and Victory bonds, a first date. Then there are stories about starting life in Canada as a new immigrant, the dangers of winter travel, the comfort offered by neighbours. Many of the stories revolve around rural life, experiences familiar to many Manitoulin Island women. Reading them is like having a conversation with a friend over a hot cup of tea at her kitchen table. Taken together, the stories chronicle life in the 20th century from a woman’s point of view.

Over 3,000 women belong to a Women’s Institute branch in Ontario. The members of each branch get together regularly to exchange ideas and work on projects. Personal growth and education have always been part of the WI, but they are not only social clubs, they are a charity. They are part of the volunteer sector so important to well-being in our communities and their projects even extend to helping others around the world. ‘From Ordinary to Extraordinary’ is the perfect title.

Manitoulin has two WI branches, the Big Lake Women’s Institute and Gordon Women’s Institute. For one recent project, the women in the Gordon WI made up packages for children stressed out with medical issues, packages that included a little bear to cuddle, a book and a quilt. Other projects include educational scholarships and supporting the local library.

Ms. Martell’s story, reprinted here by permission of Burnstown Publishing, tells about some of the Big Lake WI projects.

Four Generations of WI Participation

“I am a member of Big Lake Women’s Institute, joining this organization in April 2013. Although I am the newest member here, I have had a long, indirect association and many memories related to the WI. My paternal great-grandmother, Agnes, and her two sisters, Mary and Janet, were involved in starting this branch in 1906, and it is still functioning. My maternal great-grandmother, Sarah, my paternal grandmother, Ida, and my mother, Evelyn, were all life members of Mindemoya WI, which has disbanded. For many years, the memberships were quite large, as nearly every lady in the community belonged.

“Growing up in the small community, I have many memories from as long as I can remember. Meetings were always held at member’s homes: in the winter, in town, and in the summer, in the country. The hostess would provide a wonderful lunch. Children came along, and either played outside or slept on a spare bed while the meetings were going on.

“During the war years, many of the members knitted sweaters and socks to be sent to the military overseas. My brother and I used to race to our grandma’s house to help her wind up skeins of khaki wool, as she knitted many of those items. With every sweater she would knit a little “soldier boy” to go along with the sweater. I still have one of these little soldiers.

“Some other projects that I helped my mother with were making yearly programs for the meetings and helping to seal envelopes to post for the yearly TB campaign.

“WI branches conducted courses for girls from ages twelve to seventeen. These courses were outlined by the Ontario Department of Agriculture and Home Economics Services. Classes were held on Saturday afternoons in members’ homes during the fall and winter months. Some of the shorter courses were mending, darning, various sewing stitches, the proper way to launder a wool sweater, setting a table, and using proper table manners. One large project, making a cotton dress or a nightgown or pyjamas, was one of the yearly projects. All of these courses were very interesting and have been a valued part of my everyday life. In the spring, at the end of the season, we would meet together at a central location with other branches from our area. There an achievement day was held, where items were displayed and judged. Awards were given out according to varying age groups and abilities. The adjudicator was the home economist.

“WI members often had projects, like making quilts. Members would make individual blocks and then get together to assemble and put in a large frame and complete the quilt. The quilts were either donated or used as fundraisers, for which tickets were sold. This was also a large source of congeniality. There was always a cup of tea and some cookies served. It was a place and an occasion to share stories, discuss and solve many problems, and to catch up on community activities.

“Functions like teas, bazaars, and bake sales were usually held twice a year; at Christmas and in the spring. As well as fundraisers, these events were very social. Most of the ladies from the community would attend, everyone would dress up and their attire always included a hat.

“An ongoing project that Big Lake WI is currently involved with is Canada Comforts. Members work together knitting baby clothes and teddy bears, sewing girls’ dresses and boys’ shorts, and making blankets. These items are sent to Victoria, BC, where they are collected and then shipped to countries where needed. We also continue to donate items of clothing and fill children’s backpacks at Christmastime. These are given to Haven House, a shelter for less fortunate mothers and children. The Food Bank is also another source for our donations. This small branch of the WI has become one of my interests, and I can continue my four generations of “participation.

– Lorene Martell,

Big Lake WI, Manitoulin

Ordinary to Extraordinary is published by Burnstown Publishing House. The price is $25, plus five percent tax and shipping. Copies can be obtained by contacting a local WI member, the office in Stoney Creek at 905-662-2691, or ordering online at fwio.on.ca or burnstownpublishing.com. 

To join a local WI, contact Chris McCartney for the Gordon branch (705-282-8620), or Carrene English for the Big Lake branch (705-377-5959).