The first meeting of the University Women’s Club of Nanaimo was held on April 17, 1945. Thirteen women were asked to attend – 12 university graduates and one associate. A note in their first minutes said that there was “an absolute necessity of a wide awake, enthusiastic program committee”.
Shortly after this meeting, a constitution was adopted, Marjorie Neave was elected the first President, and membership dues were set at $4. The group met in members’ homes and held a public meeting in April. The Club struggled to achieve a sense of direction, but by 1951, there were 26 members, including one biologist, one city councillor, four teachers, one public health nurse, one dietitian, and one lawyer.
Post-war years were concerned with the condition of displaced university women, support for emigrating war brides and for the Unitarian Service Committee for Refugees. Members actively supported a new library building, provision of an adult education program, extension service of public speakers from UBC, study of recreation centre needs, establishment of a Victorian Order of Nurses station and founding of the Homemaker Service. The Club was represented on the local Council of Women, the Arts Council and the Nanaimo and District Education Council.
In the early 60’s, the Club worked for the institution of kindergartens, the establishment of licensed day care centres and establishment of a community college. Several regional conferences were held. The first was hosted in 1961 at the Malaspina Hotel, and “in the tradition of the Nanaimo Club, concluded the afternoon’s proceedings with a little music”. In 1960, the minute book also notes “that the request for nominations to CFUW National was graciously declined since we are so far west in Canada.”
By the late 60’s and early 70’s, a period of very active community development began. Women were concerned with their legal rights, their position in the economy, sex role stereotyping and bias in employment. Club directories began to show members’ first names and surnames rather than “Mrs.”, a topic of mixed views at the time.
Beginning in 1969, out of concern for sustaining the seashore environment, members developed the Seashore Program, a live-animal educational science program, which they presented to elementary students in School District 68 until 2017, a remarkable 48 year legacy.
During the United Nations International Women’s Year 1975, the Club’s Status of Women Study Group project examined the physical education programs girls were experiencing in Nanaimo schools. The group met with representatives of the Council of Women and the Education Forum to discuss this issue, to survey present conditions and to investigate alternative programs. Through this collaboration, Club members provided the vision, wisdom and energy to create the Action Nanaimo lifestyle program. Over the 6 years from 1975 to 1981, this community development work, in conjunction with Action BC, evolved a model of daily physical education and healthy eating that was a blueprint for the prevention of obesity.
The Club’s Nutrition Study Group met regularly in the 70’s. They presented programs for Club meetings, presented workshops to community groups and undertook nutrition mall displays. Briefs were presented in 1976 to the Union Board of Health on the need to hire a Public Health Nutritionist and in 1977 to the Nanaimo School Board on the need for a District Nutrition Consultant. Also in 1977 the Study Group led the formation of the Nutrition Committee to Action Nanaimo, which encouraged school parent representatives to develop school food activities which modeled healthy eating. Members volunteered at school track meets to create food concessions for fitness, as well as supporting teachers during other school food events.
In 1980, for the Club’s 35th Anniversary, Lynn Wilby, a Past President, wrote a short history, from which some of this vignette is taken. She said, “the fellowship of women has always been a major reward for participating in club projects and activities. Members work with enthusiasm and energy and socialize with enjoyment linked with purpose.”
In 1982 the BC Ministry of Education released its report “Gender and Math/Science in Elementary and Secondary Schools.” In response, Club members worked with the School District, Malaspina College and other community groups to form an Advisory Committee. The Committee’s focus was to investigate and develop programs to encourage and interest female students to keep their career options open by continuing with math and science courses. The Committee sponsored a conference in 1982 at Malaspina College. In May 1983, 25 local female students attended the first National Conference for Women in Science & Technology in Vancouver.
An audio-visual (slides and cassette tape!) presentation was prepared under the direction of Club members. Local women in non-traditional roles were interviewed and photographed. Club volunteers provided the presentation in grade 6 and 7 classes in Nanaimo schools during the spring of 1985.
In 1989, CFUW BC Council was established with involvement and support from the Nanaimo Club. Its creation gave a focus to provincial issues and an opportunity for “policy by resolution at the provincial level”, stated Club President Marjorie Stewart, a founding member of the Council and the Status of Women representative for several years.
By the late 80’s, the Club had grown to 110 members, and its newsletter budget alone topped $1,000 a year. In the 90’s and early 2000’s, the Club focused on raising funds for scholarships, formed a number of new interest groups, shifted its primary communication to email at great savings, and developed a website to establish a consistent public profile. In the early 2000’s the club began using the name CFUW Nanaimo, more accurately reflecting its affiliation with CFUW nationally and provincially.
The Club discontinued its regular public fundraising activities of rummage and bake sales as members shifted their focus and energies. Support for scholarships continues, with other forms of fundraising including historical fashion shows, hosting public speakers, teas, personal donations and bequests, and a very successful annual silent auction.
As Club membership increased, the very popular interest group system was devised. Members have been involved in literature, plays, choral groups, nutrition, bridge, swimming, status of women, yoga, gourmet cooking, crafts, travel, coffee discussion groups, conversational French, cycling, walking, and attending movies. Members have also gone on a variety of jaunts for educational and cultural enrichment.
Two CFUW Nanaimo members became CFUW national President – Margaret Strongitharm (1982-1985) and Susan Murphy (2012-2014). Jo Lane was national Treasurer and Finance Chair (1988-1990). When Margaret was President, the national office was located with the President in Nanaimo, and Jo was Executive Secretary. Margaret and Jo were instrumental in finding a permanent Ottawa home for CFUW in 1985.
The Club has advocated on many issues with local government, MLAs and MPs, and has successfully sponsored a BC Council and national resolution. The Club hosted three BC Council AGMs, most recently in 2007. The Club also had a very active Status of Women and Human Rights committee for several years, which co-sponsored election debates for school trustees and for city councillors.
In the early 2000’s, CFUW Nanaimo began the practice of budgeting funds for a club delegate to attend both BC Council and CFUW national Annual meetings. Funding this delegate ensures the Club can be more active at those levels and offers an opportunity to share with Club members a greater understanding of CFUW. A direct result has been several members serving in executive positions on both BC Council and national boards. In 2019, the 100th Anniversary of CFUW, the club nominated Kathy Torhjelm and Jennifer Davidson as “Notable Women” based on their contributions to the club and to the Nanaimo community. That year, six club members attended the National AGM in Winnipeg.
By the mid-2000’s, the Club adopted a set of priorities to guide its operations, adopted the national theme of Action, Advocacy and Education, and began to open many programs to the community. The Club again began outreach into the community, co-sponsoring an International Women’s Day event at Vancouver Island University and a Public Information Forum on Sexual Exploitation of Youth at John Barsby Secondary School.
Club members have participated in City of Nanaimo Strategic Planning sessions, advocated in support of affordable housing, actively participated in the local Women’s Action Committee and invited women candidates for City Council to speak to members. The Club made a major donation to assist Nanaimo Community Kitchens. Members have supported the Women’s Resources Centre, the Haven Society, Samaritan House, and donated clothing and toiletries to those in need throughout the year.
Several commemorative events occurred in 2015 for the 70th Anniversary. In 2016, the Club held a successful Person’s Day event, which continues today as the Celebration of Women’s History Month. An annual President’s Picnic for Scholarships is held each summer. In 2017, the Club began to support the students of the Tuition Waiver Program at VIU by providing a Thanksgiving dinner and care packages for the Christmas season.
Club membership has continued to grow and is now over 130 members. Programs are now called “Speaker Series” to attract a wider public audience. Challenges remain in filling leadership positions and staying relevant to members where demands on women’s time are heavy and their interests varied. The club shares these challenges with other advocacy and volunteer organizations in this era. We continue to be active in the community on issues important to members such as homelessness, child poverty and education for women.
In 2020 the club planned to celebrate 75 years of local work. The club has been challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic. The club responded well by maintaining its strong membership numbers, and even gaining new members. Extra summer newsletters kept members feeling connected in a meaningful way. Interest groups found ways to meet, either virtually, or in back yards and parks. As winter approached, hardy members planned to meet in garages and carports, until PHO restrictions ended that practice.
The club successfully hosted a physically distanced outdoor President’s Picnic, in honour of Past President Susan Murphy, and explored hybrid meeting options, a combination of attendees by virtual platform Zoom with limited in person attendees.
In October 2020, the 75th Anniversary was celebrated on Zoom, with storyteller Margaret Murphy providing highlights of the history of the club. See us in the news that month. Our history shows members are ever flexible and inventive, and we look forward to resiliently meeting the challenges of the next 75 years!
Written by: Susan Murphy, July 2018; excerpts from the History written by Lynn Wilby 1980.
Updated by Jeri Manley, Wendy Smiley and Kathy Torhjelm, September 2020