The Federated Women's Institutes of Canada (WI Canada), is the national organization that provides a united voice for all Women's Institutes across Canada while advocating for national directives in health, poverty, food safety, environmental preservation and community support.
The Women’s Institute movement and organization grew from humble rural origins into one of the leading advocacy networks in the world.
The first Women’s Institute was founded in 1897 in Saltfleet (now Stoney Creek), Ontario, where Erland and Janet Lee invited a group of women to hear Adelaide Hoodless speak on the importance of women engaging in formal domestic education and organizing a unified voice to advocate in the areas of education, family health and community service to improve the lives of their families, the families in their communities, and families across Canada.
Adelaide's loss of her own young son, John Harold at just 14 months old, gave rise to her mission to organize and educate women and mothers around the world about food safety ensure every woman was trained in homecare and domestic science.
She routinely travelled across North America to deliver her message of the importance of domestic education to the success of a family, and the nation. Eventually, she became an internationally recognized speaker and advocate for family education.
Her story continues to inspire Women’s Institutes across the globe to focus their work on healthy family and community initiatives. Today, visitors learn about Adelaide Hoodless, her family, and her mission which inspired the Women’s Institute Movement at the Adelaide Hunter Hoodless Homestead National Historic Site in St. George, Ontario.
As Adelaide and her Women’s Institute colleagues continued to spread their word, more branches were organized. Women across the country started to advocate for more than domestic education.
WI's started to work towards agricultural improvement, expanding basic education curricula, and lobbying for women and children’s rights. Many women were inspired to start, or join, their local Women’s Institutes to improve their lives and the lives of their friends and neighbours.
Throughout World War I, Women’s Institutes served
as diligent subjects of the British Empire and provided the much-needed support for soldiers at home and abroad.
In addition to providing clothing, linens, and other textiles to the soldiers of the regiments of the British Empire and other allied forces, the Women’s Institutes sent much needed clothing and food to families in Britain to support them through the war years. These partnerships have grown over the last century and continue to strengthen relationships between Women’s Institutes across the world.
Towards the end of 1918, with the war over and peace settling in across Europe, the idea of a Federation of Women’s Institutes came back into conversation.
Miss Mary MacIsaac, the Superintendent of the Alberta Women’s Institutes, recognized the potential in organizing rural Canadian women into one organization so that they might have a united voice on important issues at a national level.
In February 1919, representatives from the provincial Institutes met in Winnipeg, Manitoba to form the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada. Our first President was Judge Emily Murphy of Edmonton, Alberta, a woman of remarkable ability and energy.
WI Canada, as it would quickly become known, set to work to be a unified voice for Women's Institutes across the country.
The Federated Women’s Institutes flourished alongside the growing economy and industrialization during the 1920s and 1930s. With more women entering colleges, taking up long term positions as secretaries, teachers and in shops.
Many women started to move from the rural towns of their childhood to booming cities across Canada to raise their families. WI Canada started to focus on a more diverse range of issues affecting women of the early twentieth century.
Early resolutions, such as an increase to the age of female consent, parental control and divorce and abandonment legislation, demonstrate the passion of WI Canada for securing women’s rights in the changing social climate. Other early resolutions speak to the patriotic undertones of the WI Canada's founders and the concern members had for the improvement and marketability of agricultural activities in rural Canada.
By the end of the 1920s, WI Canada had advocated for women’s employment rights, rights to education and health care for all Canadians, and resolutions around immigration and community development. The 1930s brought much of the same until Germany declared war on Britain and its allies in 1939. Just like the Great War, all Women’s Institutes, including those in Canada, focused their efforts on supporting troops, fellow Commonwealth communities and the Allied Forces in Europe. WI Canada and provincial branches organized Jam for Britain drives, sent knitwear and clothing to Europe, and raised crucial funding for the Red Cross, among other projects.
In 1941, WI Canada picked up its national advocacy role once again, working to secure transparency in government affairs and improved access to health care.
Resolutions of the era reflect the political turmoil of mid-war Canadians and the hope that through government regulations the same mess plaguing Europe could be avoided on this side of the Atlantic.
When the War finally ended in 1945, Canadians at home and abroad rejoiced. This war had been more devastating than the first World War and the hope of restored peace fueled patriotism and the Canadian economy once again.
Interestingly, in 1947, three resolutions were brought forth by the WI Canada to ensure more defined acts of patriotism and ensure ‘true’ Canadian spirit lived among everyone in Canada, these resolutions included designs of the Canadian Flag, the retention of Dominion Day (which for a short time was celebrated as Canada Day – ironic now that the holiday celebrated July first every year is in fact known as Canada Day), and the establishment of a National Memorial Day.
Other resolutions put forth by members during the late 1940s and 1950s focused on consumer safety and ageing communities. With the commodification of goods now mainstream throughout North America, WI Canada worked to ensure a standard for safety and consumer protection was up to par. Resolutions included uniform bottle caps, bread labelling, and standards to textile and clothing labels. Resolutions for old-age pensions, access to health care and accessibility started to make an appearance as well (these are ongoing advocacy issues for Women's Institutes across Canada).
While working tirelessly on behalf of Canadian families, WI Canada established a national office in Ottawa in 1958 and in 1959 acquired the childhood home of Adelaide Hoodless, the women behind the WI Movement.
The Hunter Family homestead was opened in1960 as a museum dedicated to Adelaide and her life’s story. In 1995, it was designated a National Historic Site and is still operated as a museum today.
In 1964, the first environmental protection resolution was presented by members. The Water Pollution Resolution formally requested the Government of Canada to enact protective measures for the water supply in Canada, preventing further pollution to fresh water across the country.
By the 1970s, WI Canada and its provincial branches had a full slate of goals, objectives, and advocacy targets. Many resolutions of the next couple of decades would bring major change to industry and rural life in Canada that ushered in a fundamental change for all Women’s Institutes.
Today, Women’s Institutes continue to advocate for domestic education, but they have also expanded their activities to include support for community improvement projects, environmental conservation, equality across genders and advocating for families of all kinds while partnering with sister organizations across the world.