Practicing Her Activism


Every year, WI convention delegates meet to consider resolutions originating with local branches. These are based on the concerns of members and often relate to current issues in the public media. For example, at a recent provincial convention, Betty observed the voting on a wide range of resolutions running the gamut from introduction of a compulsory high school course in Canadian history, to development of a national water policy that would ban water exports and protect Canada's fresh water supplies, to elimination of fine-print clauses in lifetime warranties, and installation of clearer directional signage on secondary roads. Successful resolutions are sent to the relevant government department and the WI executive expects a response, regardless of the decision made by government officials:

I'm told the government pays attention. Sometimes they work on it, sometimes they don't. One thing they haven't been able to do is get the Lord's Prayer back into the schools. We've tried, but we don't always get what we want.

Betty learned early that she and other WI senior officers must pay close attention to government thinking to ensure that their arguments were relevant and to put forward persuasive resolutions for change: "You had to keep up with government business."

At smaller scale conventions, the four WI area directors were responsible for attending to their own districts' matters of concern. It was crucial for Betty and her peers to bring the very best ideas for education projects and issues to these conventions, and try to get the delegates interested enough to vote for them:

Those district conventions to me were the most interesting. You were expected to go once in your three-year term, and I went to them all because that brought information and encouragement to all the members. They looked for the area director and the president to be there to give them direction, tell them what was going on, and keep the interest up.

Despite getting lost sometimes on backcountry roads, Betty considered her travels a great boon:

You meet so many people, it's so interesting to meet everybody. I don't care where you go in the province, women's problems are all the same. Raising their children, educating their children, food problems—it's the same all over the world.

Environmental issues

When her local MLA, Vaughan Blaney, was named Minister of Environment in the 1990s, Betty worked extensively on environment-related issues. As with other government ministers of that era, Blaney listened to WI members because he had grown up in an era when his mother was a WI member who advised governments on community and social development projects. For decades, the provincial government maintained committee structures that enabled WI members to speak their minds about any matter affecting rural women. The government still supports the WI via the Department of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries' annual grant of $7 per WI member, meant to provide incentive to keep membership figures robust and to support operations.

Educational activity

Is it that men are not educated enough?

Education has always been a priority for the WI; some of the related projects and policies that Betty has been involved in include food preparation standards and methods, home economics and home-making, nutrition, community leadership, judging rural competitions, health promotion, and gaining scholarships for young people's further education.

Under Betty's leadership, a series of workshops on legal education were co-partnered and delivered by Deborah Doherty of Public Legal Education and Information Service of NB (PLEIS-NB) to address women's legal rights around personal safety, freedom from partner abuse, matrimonial rights and property ownership, and inheritance rights. Expressing her amazement that abuse of rural women continues to be an issue, Betty pointed out that a key supporter for community-based educational initiatives on domestic violence had been Senator Muriel McQueen Fergusson of Fredericton. An inspiration for Betty personally, and a distinguished feminist trailblazer in Canadian public life, Senator Fergusson always made time to attend annual WI conventions while serving as their patroness.

WI education and community development were held in the years before Rotary, Lions, and other service clubs, as well as seniors' organizations and Chambers of Commerce, initiated such activities. Today, Betty feels that women could be contributing their time and talents to those organizations rather than to the WI. She laments declining membership, along with the loss of government experts who were once dispatched to run the workshops requested by WI leaders:

They did away with home economists! But we miss those home economists who were knowledgeable in some particular area — we really do.

Looking ahead

It's hard to get leaders. Women's Institute members could help out in that respect. There is always work we can do to better the community.

An overriding concern for Betty about the future is how to enlist younger women to the WI who could approach issues with strategies for sustained action. Numbers in New Brunswick have dropped from approximately 1900 in 1914 to only 920 members today. The needs of rural women have changed, and in each of the items Betty identified below, she could see educational opportunities for a re-invigorated membership.

There is a great need to keep rural women up to date on research and best practices on farming and rural pursuits—just as great as 70 years ago, let alone more recently. For instance, keeping up with promising trends such as "buy local" and "grow local" (a movement that Betty had pushed for over a decade), or the development of heritage crafts, requires leadership and organizational skill that are available within the WI.

Environment issues are a compelling priority. Not only does Betty see garbage disposal as becoming more costly, but the need to teach people to be stewards of a clean environment remains urgent: "If you can just get the message across to the children, it will often go home."

Social problems that concern Betty these days cover a characteristically broad range, from phone call fraud to the rights of women in common law relationships; control of natural gas exploration to the issue of teen pregnancies and young mothers who do not see other options for assuming responsible adult roles in their communities; and economical ways of providing quality nutrition for rural families.

Reflecting that government was once much more supportive of the considerable value and effort contributed by the Women's Institutes and 4-H organizations to their local communities, Betty would like to see even small contributions like providing safety supervision for children swimming in local waterways better supported by government so that the gifts of effort given by members could be effectively leveraged.

"100 Years Proud": Celebrating the centenary of WI in NB

Because 2011 marks the 100th Anniversary of the founding of the New Brunswick Women's Institute, Betty is concerned with consolidating a strong public profile for the WI and its achievements. A celebration is warranted to recognize ten decades of reliable, skilled volunteer support for local communities offered by an effective multi-layered organization with executive officers who learned their jobs quickly.

Internally there is a persisting issue of lack of leaders willing to step forward. A related concern is the directions ahead for the WI in NB, given the current competition for club membership and a scarcity of community volunteers.

We as members have to work harder to show how useful we are for the community. I've heard it said more than once that the Women's Institute doesn't blow its own horn enough. We work away quietly; we don't advertise ourselves that much. We have to show that what we do is worthwhile.

A 1990 Act regulates the operations of the WI and its francophone counterpart. Just before Betty became president, there was a separation of francophones to establish Institut féminin francophone du Nouveau-Brunswick. It is a split that she regrets, considering the need for a strong group of rural women who span the entire province.

As the NB anniversary approaches, Betty is thinking about archives:

I've had thoughts about a WI museum. It might take three or four years, or longer, same as the WI Home in Woodstock, New Brunswick – it has no provincial help but was fully sponsored by the Women's Institute and of course rent from the people who live there.
I’m not easily discouraged, I’m not a person who gets depressed – I see the brighter side. You don’t always get what you want and you have to have setbacks sometimes to make you stop and think more about it.