Women’s institutes play prominent role in Saanich’s history

Women of Gordon Head established B.C.'s first women's institute in 1909

This photo shows a picnic held by the Lake Hill Women’s Institute during the 1930s.

This photo shows a picnic held by the Lake Hill Women’s Institute during the 1930s.

On Sept. 28, 1909, the first women’s institute in British Columbia was established by the women of Gordon Head. The same day, the Lake Hill Women’s Institute was formed and held its first meeting in a fruit packing shed on Quadra Street.

Women from other Saanich neighbourhoods joined together, establishing women’s institutes in Royal Oak, Garden City, and Craigflower in the years before and after the First World War.  They were part of a larger movement that had started in Ontario in 1897 to promote education and health among rural women.

Meetings of the Lake Hill Women’s Institute were held in members’ homes and later in a room at North Dairy School.  In 1922, the group moved into a newly built community hall at Quadra Street and Lodge Avenue, eventually taking ownership of the building in 1949.

The Lake Hill Women’s Institute held educational classes in nutrition, cooking, millinery and weaving. They hosted social events and raised money to support hospitals, women and children’s health, and assistance to families.

During the war years, women’s institutes in Saanich provided clothing, supplies and funds for the Red Cross and prepared parcels of clothing and food for men at the Front. The Saanich War Memorial Health Centre, built in 1920 and still standing at 4353 West Saanich Rd., was supported through the initiative and vision of local women.  In March 1915, the Daily Colonist reported that the group had formed a special committee to help those in need.

Over the decades, women’s institutes in Saanich have promoted skills in food production and conservation, advocated for the provision of public services and facilities, and worked to preserve the community’s heritage structures and landscapes. In 1950, the Lake Hill Women’s Institute wrote to Saanich council to protest the indiscriminate felling of trees in the municipality, arguing that careful pruning was all that was needed.

The women’s institute provided important leadership opportunities for women, promoting greater involvement in civic affairs. In 1924, Lake Hill Women’s Institute held a course of 10 lessons for women on parliamentary procedure and committee work.  Saanich resident Nellie McClung recognized the role of Canada’s Women’s Institute in inspiring her later achievements.

Saanich Archives holds a significant collection of local women’s institute records dating from 1909 to the 1990s, including minutes, correspondence, financial records, membership lists, photographs, scrapbooks and artifacts.

Saanich Archives is located in the Saanich Centennial Library next to Pearkes Recreation Centre and welcomes visitors Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Caroline Duncan is the archivist at Saanich Archives.  You can explore Saanich history online at saanicharchives.ca.