Remember the Weston Girls
Weston Girls Estelle Sures, 17, centre, with Yvonne Harris, left, and Toni MacDonell before they set sail in 1953. (Photo from Estelle Sures)
The Weston Girls were named after the man who sent them from Canada to Great Britain – W. Garfield Weston, a Toronto businessman and philanthropist who came from Britain to Canada to open up a biscuit factory.
The young women who comprised the Weston Girls were sent from Canada to attend the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 and to get a greater view of the British Empire.
A total of 50 17-year-olds from across Canada were chosen to make the six-week trip that included the coronation and a few historic and cultural sites in Britain, France and the rest of the British Isles – all paid for by Weston.
Estelle Sures (née Flesher) was the only Jewish member chosen. At that time, she was living in Ottawa. Now retired, following a successful career in public relations, Sures lives in Winnipeg. While she spent most of her career and life in Winnipeg, Sures did have a five-year stint in Vancouver, where she was director of public relations at St Paul’s Hospital from 1980 to 1985.
“Prior to our tour, he [Weston] had had a couple of boys tours to the British Isles, but, in the coronation year, he decided to send a group of 50 young women to foster a better understanding of Great Britain and foster closer ties. At the same time, he also sent 50 young women from Great Britain to tour Canada,” Sures told the Independent.
“The young women who were selected for the tour [to England] were from all across Canada, from the Yukon to Newfoundland, and there were four young women from B.C. One came from Prince George, one from 150 Mile House (a First Nations young woman), one from Dawson Creek, and one from Kimberley. One of the things he [Weston] was trying to do was choose young women, not just from cities, but who could represent all parts of the country.”
The selection was based on principals’ nominations of students from their schools and then, in conjunction with departments of education across the country, they made a selection of 50 young women to go on the trip.
“Those were the days when ocean liners were the way to travel,” said Sures. “It was also a way for the young women to bond. None of us knew each other before the trip. We took an ocean liner together there and back.”
The trip was well organized, said Sures, with two of Weston’s daughters, who were only a few years older than the other participants, leading the way.
As was the case with the other participants, Sures was selected during her high school graduating year.
“The trip had a big impact on all of us,” said Sures. “It was life-changing. It gave me a greater worldview and certainly inspired me to go on to higher education. After that, I received a scholarship from the National Council of Jewish Women to attend the University of Toronto.
“I think we all … wanted to give back afterwards and try to accomplish something, give back to the community and in terms of our careers.”
Sures was married in 1957. She and her husband Richard spent a year traveling overseas, later returning to Winnipeg (where he is from).
While the Weston Girls have kept in contact to a certain extent over the years, it was not until 2003 that they decided to hold their first reunion. “The first reunion was quite significant, because it was 50 years after the Queen’s coronation,” said Sures. “As you can appreciate, we had all moved on, changed cities, most of us had gotten married.
“When a few of the women, including myself, decided we wanted to have a reunion, there was a lot of detective work involved trying to find where people were. At the first reunion in Ottawa, we succeeded in having 38 of the original group attend.
“That first reunion sort of cemented our friendship and our desire to meet again. We had subsequent reunions in St. John’s, Nfld.; Victoria, B.C.; Burlington, Ont.; and St. Andrews by-the-Sea,” which is in New Brunswick.
Sures felt that this year, 2015, was time for another reunion, particularly with the establishment of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg. She saw it as an opportune moment in history.
“I was quite thrilled, on a personal level, that 19 of the original group were able to come to Winnipeg,” said Sures.
The reunion lasted for four days, beginning with Sures hosting the women to a luncheon at her home, followed by a tour of the legislative buildings, and capped off by a dinner reception hosted by the lieutenant governor of Manitoba, Janice Filmon. The dinner reception, said Sures, “was very elegant and we all enjoyed it.”
On the Saturday of the reunion, participants visited CMHR and toured the Forks area, a popular local meeting place with historical significance. On Sunday, they spent the day at Assiniboine Park, touring the English Garden and Leo Mol Sculpture Garden.
“We also had a picnic in the park that day,” said Sures. “So, it was a lovely weekend, where we spent a lot of time together, but also had the chance to see the best of Winnipeg.”
Given that all of the participants are now about 80 years old, it is getting more challenging for many of them to travel. While Sures will continue to get together with some of the women in smaller groups, the next large reunion is not yet planned.
“When I go to Vancouver, which I do once a year or so, because I have children and grandchildren living there, I usually meet the women who now live on the West Coast and a couple of the women in Calgary usually fly in to get together,” said Sures. “Similarly, with people in the east – there is a group that meets in Montreal.”
Of the original group trip, Sures reflected, “I think it was just coincidental, but I was the only Jewish girl in the entire group. There were a lot of Francophone women, because of the large representation from Quebec. It gave me an opportunity to meet women from across the country, which ended up being lasting friendships.
“A lot of these friendships, as we got older, we saw each other in a different context, and some of us who maybe didn’t know each other that well on the trip became even closer friends later on.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.