Exploring Black History at Ontario Women’s Institutes

Feb 18, 2022

In recognition of Black History Month, we are taking another deep dive into our Tweedsmuir Histories to see what we can learn about how our members recorded Black history in Canada.   WI Branches have been recording local history for many years into what are called Tweedsmuirs.  As our previous blog post about Indigenous history mentioned, we tend to write in ways that reflect our own culture, and frame stories in ways that make sense to us at the time. Today, we are able to look back with greater wisdom and understand our privileges and responsibility more acutely. With this wisdom and understanding, we have a responsibility to do better.

So, what did we find?  Looking into our virtual archives, there are very few references to Black communities in Canada, especially in the earlier Tweedsmuirs, such as those from the 1940s and 1950s. When Black communities are mentioned, the focus tends to be on women and children in African nations. Records from the 1960s and 1970s mention support of African women through ACWW efforts, as well as direct support from FWIO’s International Scholarship Fund. For example, the Spring 1976 issue of Home and Country discusses WI’s support of the South African Union of Homemakers Clubs, which they describe as a “society of Coloured women” that “aims at inspiring and helping its members toward higher standards of home life by providing programmes in home economics, nutrition, health, planned parenthood, home industries, hobbies, floral art, horticulture and agriculture, etc.” Although intended as a society for African women, it appears that the courses were not instructed by African women themselves, but were led by women of other backgrounds. Much of the focus during this time seemed to be on South Africa in particular, with other Home and Country issues mentioning donations of books and supplies to South African children. It is discouraging how little attention was paid to Black Canadians, especially since Black people have been living in Canada for almost as long as Europeans (Mathieu da Costa was the first recorded person of African descent in Canada in 1608).

In the 1980s and early 1990s, we see several mentions of one Black Canadian, The Honourable Lincoln Alexander. Lincoln Alexander was the first Black Member of Parliament in Canada, and he also served as the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario from 1985 to 1991. Following his years in politics, he served as the Chancellor of the University of Guelph for many years. Lincoln Alexander was a supporter of both the Women’s Institute and the Erland Lee Museum. Some Tweedsmuirs mention him becoming the first Black Member of Parliament in Canada, as well as attending Christmas celebrations and other events at the Museum. One article in the Winter 1986 issue of Home and Country describes a wall hanging made by FWIO that he requested to have placed in his office in the Ontario Legislative buildings.

It is not until 1995, when the House of Commons recognized Black History Month in Canada, that we begin to see a few more materials in Tweedsmuirs relating to Black communities and their history in Canada. Some of these materials include newspaper clippings regarding Black history in Ontario communities, as well as some clippings about events hosted by WI Branches. Overall, most offer only a brief mention of Black History Month, without in-depth coverage of Black history or communities in that area.

Education is at the core of FWIO’s mandate.  We believe it is important to keep learning, growing, and understanding new ways to frame stories and perspectives. We must also listen to and amplify the voices of those whose history we are discussing, and understand that there is never only one side to history. FWIO is on a journey to broaden our reach and to reflect in our membership the amazing diversity of Canadian women more than we have done in the past.  We are not there yet, and the work continues.  We hope you will check out some of the resources we are sharing on our Facebook page for Black History Month. It is also so important for each of us as individuals to do our own research, and to find and listen to Black authors, artists, historians, and activists. We encourage you to join us on our journey of improvement, education, and increased diversity.