The Early History of the Teachers’ Association

Reprinted from the ATA’s Members’ Handbook

The Alberta Teachers’ Alliance was established during World War I and the first annual meeting was held in the First Presbyterian Church in Edmonton during Easter week of 1918.

The Alliance was an offshoot of the Alberta Education Association. Although this association was an excellent inspirational convention, it was not set up for functioning

throughout the year and taking care of such matters as salaries, tenure, adequate crystallization of teacher opinion and effective vocalization of the teacher’s point of view.

The teaching profession was at low ebb. Teachers were leaving the profession by the hundreds; many of them had enlisted and others had gone to positions where salary and living conditions were more attractive. Thousands of unqualified persons were given authority to teach. Minister of Education, Honourable J. R. Boyle, made heroic efforts to make up for the deficiencies in the system and persuaded the legislature to enact a statutory minimum teacher salary of $840 per annum. Tenure did not exist; term contracts were the order of the day; there was no appeal against dismissal; and, generally speaking, teachers were in a most undignified position, both socially and economically.

At the first annual meeting in 1918, resolutions were passed relating to a provincial salary schedule, a better form of teaching contract, full citizenship rights for teachers, drafting of a code of ethics, a pension scheme, publication of the ATA Magazine and the inauguration of a federation of all teachers’ organizations in Canada.

The policy of the first annual meeting created considerable alarm in official quarters, but the Alliance forged ahead. It advocated, among other things, a minimum salary of $1,200 per annum, a model form of contract and the right of a teacher to a hearing before dismissal.

As might be expected, these aggressive and progressive activities were disturbing to officials and a vitriolic campaign developed to smash, once and for all, the pert infant known as the Alberta Teachers’ Alliance. The minister entered into bitter controversy with the executive and an uproarious convention of school trustees was organized at Calgary in 1919. The teachers’ response was to take steps to engage a paid organizer and 113 members signed notes of $50 each to secure credit at the bank for his salary of $500 a month.

The Easter convention at Calgary in 1920 approved the appointment of a full-time general secretary-treasurer. John Walker Barnett was appointed to this position and retained it until his retirement in September 1946. Largely through Barnett’s tireless efforts and his fighting determination to raise the status of the teaching profession, the Association grew from an Alliance with a membership of 700 in 1918 to an Association legally constituted under the Teaching Profession Act in 1935.

First president of the Alberta Teachers’ Alliance was G. D. Misener. He was followed by T. E. A. Stanley in 1919 and by H. C. Newland in 1920. The reply of the teachers to personal and other attacks upon the provincial executive was the re-election in 1921 of every member of the executive who opted to run. It was considered by many informed persons that the defeat of the government in 1921 was in a considerable measure due to the bitter opposition and influence of the teachers of Alberta, led by the four officers, T. E. A. Stanley from Calgary, H. C. Newland from Edmonton, C. E. Peasley from Medicine Hat, and the general secretary. Dubbed the Big Four, these officers were assisted by R. J. Coutts of Calgary.

In the meantime, teachers in other provinces were coming together. The inaugural convention of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, with representatives from British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, met in Calgary in midsummer of 1919. In 1927, at the convention held in Charlottetown, each provincial organization was formally represented.

In 1934, a plebiscite of qualified teachers was taken on the matter of the Teaching Profession Bill. The vote was overwhelming (over 98 per cent) in support of the bill which changed the name of the Alliance to The Alberta Teachers’ Association. The significant clause of the bill, which provided that every qualified teacher serving in the public schools of the province should, as a condition of engagement with the school board, be a member of the Association, was defeated and the bill thereby emasculated. The cabinet split on the vote. The matter of the Teaching Profession Act and the elimination of a Board of Reference were evidently pre-election tactics.

Things swung in favour of The Alberta Teachers’ Association with the advent of the new government in 1935 under the leadership of Premier William Aberhart. In 1936, the Teaching Profession Act was vitally amended by means of a private bill piloted by Solon Low, who afterwards became provincial treasurer and, on Premier Aberhart’s death, minister of education. In 1936, the present Board of Reference was established in the School Act. In 1939, the Teachers’ Superannuation Act was approved. This was the first step towards a satisfactory pension scheme for teachers. In 1944, a long-standing goal of the Association was achieved when all teacher education was assigned to the university, thus ending the normal schools and laying the stage for eventual requirement of a degree as a minimum qualification.

As one examines the record of the Association it seems evident that its foundations were strongly and firmly established. The first platform of the Association was comprehensive and has stood the test of time. It provided a basis for the profession’s becoming more than an organization—it established an institution in which every step relating to teachers’ interests and welfare, professional and economic, is not only a matter of dignity of the teaching profession per se but also a matter of import and significance to the educational structure of the Province of Alberta.

In 1947, as a tribute to his contribution to the teaching profession in Alberta, J. W. Barnett was awarded, posthumously, the honorary degree of LLD by the University of Alberta. The teachers of the province built a more lasting monument to his memory when they named their building, Barnett House.