Ruth Smith, longest serving Rockton member and Tweedsmuir history curator sits by her carefully crafted book display during the Rockton WI Open House and celebration of Canada 150th, WI 120th and Rockton WI 115th on Sat., Sept. 23. – Julia Lovett/Metroland
Inside the Beverly Township Hall, women gathered Saturday afternoon to celebrate the history of the Rockton chapter of the Federated Women’s Institutes of Ontario. The Sept. 23 open house not only marked the 120th year of the FWIO and Canada’s 150th, but it is also the Rockton WI’s 115th.
“Canada, our picturesque country from the west coast to the east coast, and north to the territories, I’m sure everyone here has travelled this vast country of ours at some point over the years,” said Donna Miedema, Rockton branch president.
During the event, which brought out local dignitaries and WI member families, she spoke about the history behind the institute and why it was important to continue to gather.
“The Federated Women’s Institution of Ontario was signed in 1897 and I’m sure Erland and Janet Lee and Adelaide Hunter Hoodless would be proud of what has been accomplished in our communities,” she added.
The open house was organized as a way to encourage residents to learn a little about the local branch and meet their friends and neighbours. Inside the hall, tables were set up with up with books and photo albums curated by the oldest member of the chapter. Ruth Smith, a member for over 70 years, gathered together the Tweedsmuir community history books and had compiled a wealth of information between their pages.
“I collect information to put in the books,” she said of the tomes that are filled with pictures, newspaper clippings and other bits of information about the community and the WI.
WI member Mary Weaver explained that the core of the organization hasn’t changed but it needs to find a way to stay relevant in today’s society.
“Years ago, it started because women at home were not getting out so they started this organization so women would have somewhere to get out … now, it’s hard to get people out because they all have jobs,” she said, noting that membership has dropped.
In the last two years, she estimates that perhaps two new members have joined and she and Smith are both concerned about sustaining the chapter and by extension, the WI.
“It’s making a big difference,” said Smith.
During the open house, Flamborough-Glanbrook MP David Sweet recounted some history about Hoodless and what the men in Stoney Creek, where the institute was founded, really thought at the time.
“Her ideas were said to be wild. ‘Why doesn’t she stay at home and look after her kids?’ was the question often asked about her,” he said, noting the women had been pushing for girls’ rights to a domestic science education in public schools.
“Those types of things were said and I want to tell you that that was not always the case, there were champions in the women’s movement who were actually men in the early days,” he said, tying the connection to Canada’s first prime minister.
“I didn’t find out until I did some research because we had this whole hoopla about Sir John A. Macdonald most recently (there is a growing movement to strip his name of schools because of his historic treatment of Indigenous peoples) and you know, Sir John A. was the one who actually passed a bill to give our Indigenous people the right to vote. It was later repealed by the next government,” Sweet continued.
“But he also moved a bill in the House of Commons to give women the right to vote and he was disparaged for that.”
Ward 15 Councillor Judi Partridge congratulated the group for their 115 years in the community.
“The rural community and the values that we have out here are so essential, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart, woman to woman because it is because of you folks and because of all the work you’ve done over the years and the foundation that you have established in our communities that I’m partly able to stand here as city councillor.”
Miedema explained that the chapter has been an important mainstay of the community and also to the members.
“Our members are getting older, we have lost some members and we felt we wanted to celebrate before we lose anymore,” she said.