Women’s Institutes turn 100

Change is in the wind as the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada turns a century old.

“Feb. 19, 100 years ago in Winnipeg, all the provinces got together and elected a board and decided on a mandate to carry on even though the provincial WI groups had been organized before us,” said Joan Holthe, president of the national organization.

As an umbrella organization for Women’s Institutes in Canada, she said the FWIC was formed in 1919 to help empower rural women to make a difference for their families and communities, by speaking as one voice at the national level.

It’s original motto was, “proud of our past, prepared for our future; women inspired to make change count.”

Canada’s first woman magistrate, Judge Emily Murphy of Edmonton, was FWIC’s first president and was known for her abilities and energy.

In an effort to revitalize its diminishing membership while honouring its vibrant past, the institute plans a series of events and growth strategies this year.

“Any organization reaching this milestone should do something to commemorate the occasion,” said Holthe.

FWIC recently completed a national rebranding by replacing it’s original century-old logo of “The Federated Women’s Institute of Canada” with a modern one, “WI Canada,” as well as a new motto: “Women inspired to make change count.”

Holthe said the new logo is simpler, brighter and more recognizable, all part of an effort to remain a purposeful entity that inspires current members and attracts new ones.

“It seems like we’ve been in flux for a while, so we’re taking that word out to our membership, hopefully to inspire them to keep up their good work and find new work,” she said.

A yellow rose called the FWIC Centennial Rose, developed at a nursery in Ontario, will be unveiled at a kick-off event in Manitoba in May or June.

Plans are also underway to have rose-planting celebrations throughout the country.

In 1897, Adelaide Hunter Hoodless helped pioneer the Women’s Institutes in Stoney Creek, Ont., when she challenged women to form their own group so they could learn and empower each other to improve their communities.

The hardy Adelaide Hoodless red rose has been growing in gardens and parks throughout Canada for the past century.

“We thought it was appropriate to have another rose and it was time to have a different colour and inspire a new bunch of girls,” she said.

Staying relevant and attracting younger membership is top of mind for the board, said Holthe, who recently took over as president.

There are 660 branches in 10 provinces, with about half of the 7,000 members in Ontario.

However, membership continues to decline.

As with other organizations, it is difficult to attract younger members, she said.

“Every group has the same issue. It’s not that people don’t want to help you, but they just can’t. They don’t have time to join anymore. That’s what they say,” she said.

Women are not as isolated as they were a century ago, but Holthe said the Women’s Institute continues to address societal problems with a hands-on approach, which she credits for helping many women including herself.

“One hundred years later, we still have the same issues of food safety, improving our schools and communities. Loneliness is a big part too. People got together for meetings and helped one another. So that was part of society. Things haven’t changed really and that’s why we got started with food safety and here we’ve come full circle with the trend towards organic and GMOs,” she said.

“We have been right on the dot with those issues.”

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