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YOUR HISTORY: Coquitlam quilts symbols of women's unsung work

W hen asked recently to suggest Maillardville pioneers for potential recognition through the naming of streets in a new development area, the Coquitlam Heritage Society brought together a small group of knowledgeable volunteers and historians.

When asked recently to suggest Maillardville pioneers for potential recognition through the naming of streets in a new development area, the Coquitlam Heritage Society brought together a small group of knowledgeable volunteers and historians. The criteria were simple: not already in use, historic significance and a reach-back of at least 60 years.

The group's brainstorming session in the Mackin House parlour produced a list of some 30 prominent individuals from Maillardville's early days. It was striking that among all the candidate names only one was a woman. Could it really be that there was only one woman of historical significance in the city's development?

Obviously not. What it reflected was the unsung role of women in those days.

The role of women was mostly within their homes and focused on the family - and families were typically large.

As well, in those days, it was generally men from these families who aspired to and assumed roles with community profiles and public recognition by running businesses or through civic leadership, or by serving the community as police chief, fire chief or reeve.

Our group's experience with the collection of potential street names focuses on a reality: Pioneering women's contributions and accomplishments have largely been overlooked - and consequently omitted - from our history.

It is interesting to note that as visitors to Mackin House look about at the artifacts, what is often recognized and talked about are the tools used by the women and the outcomes of their work and craft in the home. The significance of the family and the women's contribution to the quality of life in the home is evident, even if unsung.

Recognizing women's contributions to history and culture has come a long way. Now there are women's studies programs and museums dedicated to examining and celebrating the role of women in history. Our world includes a large and growing number of women in prominent public roles.

These thoughts were on my mind as we discovered the significant contributions of a local women's collective working in our community today.

Coquitlam Heritage Society was the lucky recipient of a community quilt, handmade for us, by the Blue Mountain Quilters Guild. The Guild had requested attendance at one of its monthly meetings to accept this beautiful gift. So, there we were with a dozen chocolates and a small bouquet of flowers expecting a group of about 20.

We were wrong. At least 100 women attended (the guild has 127 members, all women, although men are welcome) and it was a privilege to hear about their latest activities. Collectively, they create art. And they donate much of their work to non-profits to auction or raffle.

Their We Care program donates toques (tiny reminders of the fragility of early birth babies), preemie quilts and incubator covers to the neonatal intensive care unit at Royal Columbian Hospital. Quilts are also donated to Tri-City Transitions in Port Coquitlam, services for children in crisis, local schools for sick rooms and to the Crossroads Hospice in Port Moody.

The Community Quilt (created collectively and gifted once a year) has gone to the Firefighters' Burn Unit, the Port Moody Station Museum and the breast cancer campaign. Many quilts were made this year for Honour House and quilts were sent to Japan and Slave Lake. The Guild also participates in the Canadian Comfort and Remembrance Project for the Canadian Armed Forces.

The list continues. Money is being donated to provide two treadle sewing machines to the Kitambaa Sewing Project in Mbarara, Uganda, aimed at enabling women to earn money for their families.

Empowerment and self-sufficiency are not new notions to this group.

Quilters join the group for fellowship and fun, and, through their love of the craft and camaraderie, they are making a difference while supporting people both at home and abroad.

The question is, are there efforts recorded? Do we all know about the work they are doing. Have they been nominated for a non-profit-of-the-year award?

Blue Mountain Quilters do their beautiful, intricate work for many reasons but recognition is not one of them.

We have some wonderful examples of hand-crafted quilts on our beds at Mackin House Museum. The quilt in the grandmother's room has the family names of all the women who worked on the quilt embroidered on the pattern. The quilt in another bedroom is from the 1920s and is completely hand-made.

And, of course, our brand new addition in the master bedroom reflects a heritage pattern and sits comfortably on our vintage bed.

The work tells the story; the women are often silent.

Your History is a column in which, once a month, representatives of the Tri-Cities' three heritage groups writes about local history. Jill Cook is executive director of the Coquitlam Heritage Society.