Women’s Institute upholding family values and activism

The Good Old Days column by Jennifer Houghton.

Sunshine Valley Women's Institute

Women’s Institute (WI) has been quietly changing the lives of Canadian families and children for almost 120 years.

The organization came to B.C. in 1909 to help rural women who pioneered under harsh conditions in isolation. It gave them a chance to come together and learn from each other.

In the days when a woman could lose a child simply because she had never been educated on how to store milk safely, as had happened to WI founder Adelaide Hoodless, homemaking skills were also lifesaving skills.

Local chapters focused on topics important to members while working on “raising our homes to their highest possible level.” Education in homemaking skills and hygiene was at the core of their activities.

Over the years, WI began to organize fundraising events, lobby governments, donate to local causes, and improve children’s health care.

In the 1920s, members organized dental exams for kids, maternity packages for pre-and post-natal care for rural women, and financial support for families in need of medical care.

Over the years, the WI established groups in Rock Creek, Westbridge, Bridesville, Midway, and Greenwood. The WI came to Grand Forks in the 1930s, faded out, then started again in 1953 with 11 ladies.

The Grand Forks branch, which calls itself Sunshine Valley Women’s Institute (SVWI), formed ‘”to provide a common ground for the women of many nationalities in the area, which included Russian Doukhobors and Japanese.”

WI activities evolved to include women’s rights.  In 1947 the BCWI sent a resolution to the provincial government asking them to change the Dower Act.

Their proposal was enacted requiring that a married man must now have written consent from his wife to dispose of home property.

In the 1960s the BCWI persuaded the B.C. government to paint the yellow lines on the sides of the province’s highways. In those days, local member, Molly Plant, knew the highways well as she was travelling the province to connect with other WI branches.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, SVWI did a local radio segment where current member Jean Johnson talked about local events and projects.

In the ‘80s, SVWI projects included giving $250 to a local family to help with travel costs when their child was ill. They “adopted” a resident of Queen Alexandra Hospital in Victoria—a 13-year-old boy with disabilities—and sent him Christmas gifts.

They sent a donation to Pemberton WI to help families that had suffered from a flood there. In 1985 they selected ‘Youth of the Year’, Camille Baker, who was awarded $100 for her involvement in 4-H and the Peace Committee.

In 1981, the BCWI raised $22,000 for the Children’s Hospital in Vancouver—no small feat for ladies conducting bake sales, flower shows, selling craftwork, and collecting pennies.

SVWI meetings are filled with laughter, caring, and respect (plus snacks). They still recite a poem at the beginning of every meeting that goes, “may we strive to touch and know the great human heart common to us all.”

Current members continue to promote old-fashioned virtues:  never needing to be asked to perform an act of charity, honesty, respecting elders, exemplifying good manners, and performing hard work while never blowing one’s own horn.

And while motherly love is at the centre of what they do, mayors and town councillors know that the WI continues to be a force to be reckoned with.

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