The outbreak of World War I brought many changes to Alberta, not the least of which was a drastic reduction in the number of immigrants arriving in the province.
Patriotism, understood chiefly as loyalty to the British Empire, remained an important social value. The best of an entire generation lost their lives in the Great War, known at the time as the "war to end all wars."
World War I began in 1914 and lasted until 1918. In that period, the Alberta economy prospered because grain and other agricultural products were in demand. By 1914, oil and gas had been discovered in the Turner Valley, south of Calgary, a discovery that would have profound implications for the province's future.
Social reform was in the air, although the war tended to stifle such activities. Through the efforts of Nellie McClung, Alberta women gained suffrage in 1916. Alberta women received the vote, two women were made magistrates and McClung campaigned actively for prohibition.
In late 1918, several months before the war ended, the Spanish influenza struck. Along with much of Europe and North America, Alberta was greatly affected by the epidemic, brought home by returning troops. Nationwide, some 50,000 Canadians died.
The Great War also affected schooling in Alberta. When the war started, many male teachers left to fight in Europe. At the end of the war, teachers were among those who cared for the sick. Many teachers also died from the Spanish influenza.
In 1916, half of Alberta's students were educated in one-room schoolhouses. There was a constant turnover of teaching personnel. Many young women entered teaching for a year or two before leaving to marry. Many young men treated teaching as a stepping stone to other careers or business endeavors. A significant proportion of the province's teachers had minimal or no preparation. Because of the large numbers of immigrants from northern, central and eastern Europe, teachers often had to deal with pupils whose first language was not English. By 1918, total school enrolment in the province reached 111,109 (Chalmers 1967, 48).
With the departure of men for military service, a teacher shortage emerged, especially in rural areas, and Alberta normal schools were unable to overcome the scarcity of adequately prepared personnel. Many people in charge of schoolhouses taught under the authority of a permit. This forerunner of the letter of authority stated that the teacher had no professional preparation whatsoever. One expedient to cope with the teacher shortage was to shorten the course requirements for teacher certification, a tactic that had the merit of keeping some rural schools open and in operation.
Chalmers (1968) describes some variations in teacher certification that were in force during this period. There were three levels of certification. The first level was reserved for those who had completed at least grade 12 and who had taken a normal course (that is, a four-month program in one of the province's normal schools). The second-level certificate was for those who had completed grade 11 and a normal course. The third-level certificate was for those who had completed grade 10 and a normal course. Those who had no professional preparation but who wanted to teach and could find a position could receive a temporary permit from the minister of education. All of these credentials provided legal authority to teach.
Teaching was not a high-status profession in the early decades of the century. Working conditions for teachers were often challenging and, at times, distressing. School trustees were sometimes high-handed in their dealings with teachers. When circumstances were at their worst, trustees sometimes treated teachers like hired hands. In a show of patriotism, for example, trustees were known to reduce teachers' wages without their consent in order to contribute to the war effort (Chalmers 1968). It was during this time and under such circumstances that the Alberta Teachers' Alliance, the forerunner of the Alberta Teachers' Association, came into being as a vehicle for addressing the need for reform.
John Barnett, a high school teacher from Strathcona, was chosen as the secretary-treasurer of the Alberta Teachers' Alliance in 1918. He headed the organization until 1946. Barnett was born in England and had been a teacher and a member of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) before immigrating to Edmonton with his family in the early 1900s (Chalmers 1968). He acquired the reputation of being a fighter for Alberta teachers and their professional association.
The Alberta Teachers' Alliance was the result of efforts by teachers in 1917 to form a body apart from the Education Association of Alberta, a group in which the interests of university professors, senior Protestant clergymen and officials of the Department of Education tended to take priority over the professional aspirations and welfare concerns of classroom teachers (Chalmers 1968, 3). Although rural teachers labored under more severe working conditions than teachers and administrators from the cities, it was the latter who took the initiative in creating the Alberta Teachers' Alliance.
The formation of the Alliance in Alberta was not without parallel in other provinces. In the late 1800s, similar movements to form teachers into professional groups were evident in other parts of Canada. Various teachers' associations had already grown up in Ontario and Quebec. In the early 1900s, comparable developments were occurring in the Canadian west. The British Columbia Teachers' Federation, for example, was founded in 1917. (See Chafe  for a description of the early days of the Manitoba Teachers' Society and the history of the teaching profession in Manitoba.)
Established under the Societies Act, the Alberta Teachers' Alliance set out a number of professional objectives. According to Chalmers (1968), these objectives were numerous and complex. Major objectives centred on furthering the cause of education and gaining recognition for the teaching profession. The Alliance's immediate objective was to improve teachers' working conditions and salaries. For many teachers, the Alliance's attraction was its dedication to improving teachers' well-being and promoting the value of education.
From the start, the Alliance also espoused the belief that teachers should receive their preparation in a university setting. The normal-school preparation that teachers received, although above average for educational attainment in those early years, lacked the status that a university program would bring. The preparation of teachers in normal schools suggested that teaching was a trade rather than a profession.
Undoubtedly, a driving force in the creation of the Alliance was the desire of teachers to be treated with respect and dignity. The Alliance's motto, magistri neque servi (a Latin expression meaning "masters not slaves"), captured the ambition of teachers to be recognized as professionals and to have a voice in determining the goals and methods of schooling. Crawford (1955) attributes this motto to H C Newland, one of the founding executive members of the Alliance. Newland, who worked closely with Barnett in the early years of the Alliance and launched The ATA Magazine in 1920, was also the province's supervisor of schools for many years, a position just below that of deputy minister.
The Alliance labored under one burden for nearly two decades: the voluntary nature of membership in the Alliance. For roughly two decades, Barnett spent much time and effort driving around the province over rough roads in an open Ford visiting schools and signing up teachers as members of the Alliance, earning him the esteem and admiration of his colleagues. The social conditions were such that many teachers were happy to join the fledgling Alliance. Chalmers (1976, 1) notes that, by 1921, two-thirds of the province's teachers had joined the Alliance.
In 1918, in the face of a teacher shortage, the minister of education set minimum annual wages for teachers at $840, a salary that remained in force until 1943 (Chalmers 1968, 141). In practice, boards sometimes circumvented this guideline and paid teachers even less.
The formation of the Alberta Teachers' Alliance constituted a revolt against the educational establishment of the day. Some school inspectors were suspicious of the upstart organization, while some school trustees feared that the Alliance would bring about an increase in teachers' salaries and a concomitant increase in the rates of school taxation. Minister of Education George P Smith expressed strong disapproval of the Alliance when he addressed the convention of the ASTA in 1919 (Chalmers 1967). Nevertheless, the founding of the Alliance was to have significant consequences for public schooling in Alberta in subsequent decades.
What distinguished the period of the Great War was its expression of loyalty to the Empire and its embodiment of a sense of patriotism. Alberta's economy and population were predominantly rural. During the war, Alberta's agricultural economy prospered. World War I, though fought in faraway Europe, brought social upheaval to Alberta. This upheaval was embodied perhaps most clearly in the women's suffrage movement. World War I also revealed some shortcomings in Alberta's approach to teacher preparation. Teacher shortages would become an intermittent feature of public schooling in Alberta. Many Alberta teachers were treated as little better than hired hands. Amid the ferment of changing social sentiments, teachers' aspirations took a clear direction. Despite the hardships of wartime—and perhaps because of them—teachers during this period founded the Alberta Teachers' Alliance, a voluntary organization concerned with the welfare and professional ambitions of teachers.
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