Rural community of Bearspaw finds difficulty in community ‘togetherness’

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In today’s fast-paced world, volunteering is an alien concept to some of us.

Some of our busy schedules — full of work, tasks, school, kids and more work — may leave no time to join a club or organization that actually requires our over-worked physical bodies to be present.

Organizations like the Glendale Women’s Institute (GWI) in Bearspaw, a rural community just outside the northwest of Calgary, are finding it difficult to recruit volunteers and encourage community participation.

Gertie Hawkwood is a Bearspaw resident and member of the GWI. Adorned in a light floral top, her good friend, Shirley Thomas, sits across from her. Both of them are smiling. Their faces show many years of life experience. Binders and books about the GWI are stacked neatly next to both women.


Hawkwood, who has been a receptionist for 60 years with the GWI, knows a lot about the lack of volunteerism and membership participation. She says that societal changes may be to blame for the lack of participation within the GWI.

“It’s really a ‘me’ society nowadays,” Hawkwood says.

The GWI was established in 1925, when Hawkwood’s mother became a board member. Its goal was to offer integration of rural women in the area who were often isolated from one another on their farms.

During those early days, the Institute would bring speakers in to teach these women about home economics like sewing children’s clothing, cooking, and keeping the house comfortable and clean.

More recently, things have slowed down and much has changed. However, the GWI focuses on fundraising events and continues to have speakers discussing issues like health and nutrition, self-defense, and being environmentally friendly.


Gertie Hawkwood (left) and Shirley Thomas showcase their Glendale Women’s Institute albums and books.
Photo by: Dara Defreitas
Only losing about two members over the last few decades, the group currently has 28 participants. However, not a single member is under the age of 60, and 12 are over the age of 80, including Hawkwood, who is 88.

“The majority of us are elderly, and many have already lost their licenses, so it’s hard for us to get together on a regular basis,” Hawkwood says.

Due to their elderly members, a major challenge and concern for the GWI is appealing to younger generations.

“Younger women are too busy running around with their children, taking them here and there. They are so busy they cannot make time for us,”

Shirley Thomas, a former president of GWI, says.

Hawkwood’s only hope was that her two daughters would take interest in the organization, and join like she did when her mother was a board member long ago. However, like many young people, Hawkwood’s daughters have both flown far from the nest.

“One lives in Calgary and she’s very busy working, and one lives in Strathmore. They just have their own lives to deal with, and they don’t live here,” she says.

The GWI spreads across Canada

The first Women’s Institute was founded in 1897 in Ontario. The organization stretched to the Maritime provinces, and then spread west across the country.

The GWI is a branch of the Alberta Women’s Institute, which was established in 1909 by Martha Graham. These branches all fall under the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada. At one point there were roughly 10,000 members in the Alberta Women’s Institute. Now there are no more than 500.

Taming the Prairie Wool, a book printed in 1956 by the GWI that includes contributions from Hawkwood and Thomas, can be found here. The book depicts the rich history of the districts of Glendale, West Minister, and Bearspaw through writing and photography.

Thomas also does not have much hope for the GWI: “We are not very optimistic about it lasting, and it will eventually fade. It’s very sad.”

Natasha Richardson, communications chair for the Bearspaw-Glendale Community Association and co-editor of The Bearspaw Beat community newsletter, has three years of experience working with volunteers on a number of community projects.

“People move here for privacy, and in many cases by the time they move here, they’re already very involved in organizations and clubs in the city.”

Like Thomas and Hawkwood, Richardson thinks that today’s increasing independence is another problem for organizations.

“Back in the day we relied on our neighbours to survive in lots of incidences, and now we can live in our houses and not go outside and be perfectly self-sufficient. We just don’t need each other as much as we used to,” Richardson says.

Though the GWI may have seen more active days, Hawkwood and Thomas, along with the other 26 members, continue to make the most of it.

“Even if it dies, it has done a great thing for women in Canada, and it has left a legacy,” Thomas says.

“It serves a purpose for us,” says Hawkwood. “The ladies love an afternoon out…. We make a nice lunch and everybody visits and chats… If for no other purpose than that, it made an afternoon out for lonely people.”

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