FROM THE ARCHIVES: Teachers’ pension plan the result of decades of struggle

March 27, 2018 Maggie Shane, ATA Archivist

Leading up to its official 100th anniversary in June 2018, the Alberta Teachers’ Association is celebrating its history through a number of initiatives, one of which is this column, entitled From the Archives. Curated by archivist Maggie Shane and appearing in each issue of the ATA News this year, this column will feature significant moments and individuals in the Association’s history as well as interesting artifacts or documents from the Association’s archives.

On April 1, 1930, Alberta joined jurisdictions all over the world in providing a pension plan for its teachers. It was the culmination of decades of work that predated the establishment of the Alberta Teachers’ Alliance in 1918.

In 1915, Alberta Education had struck a committee to review pensions. It issued a report in 1917, and in 1918 Education Minister John Robert Boyle announced a policy in favour of a teachers’ pension. Such a declaration was easily made; however, Boyle refused to support the prevailing pension structure advanced by the Alberta Education Association on the belief that it was a “combined insurance and annuity scheme.”

The matter was referred to the newly formed Alberta Teachers’ Alliance, which Boyle believed was better able to go about “collecting data and crystallizing the opinion of the whole provincial body of teachers.” The Pension Committee of the ATA got to work and in 1919 proposed a straightforward pension plan to Boyle’s successor, George Peter Smith, who was, reportedly, too preoccupied by the demands of his new position to give the matter serious attention.

The Alliance revived the matter in 1922 when the United Farmers of Alberta government put a civil service pension plan in place. Alliance general secretary-treasurer John Barnett and his colleagues proposed that teachers simply be included in the civil service plan. This suggestion, unfortunately, languished on the vine. Three years later, the Pension Committee made another attempt and engaged Premier Herbert Greenfield’s Cabinet Committee in work towards creating a plan without delay. This work also fell by the wayside over funding.

From 1925 to 1928 the Alliance conducted member surveys, conducted pension research, evaluated funding models and updated members at each annual general meeting (the precursor to the modern Annual Representative Assembly). Much pressure was brought to bear, with titanic struggles erupting between Barnett and Minister Perren Baker. School boards and teachers alike supported pensions for teachers and regularly dispatched lobbying delegations to the seat of government.

In arguing for pensions, the ATA had relied upon interesting data drawn from the Department of Education’s annual reports from 1917 to 1926. Teachers, they argued, were a transient work force, moving from town to town. In fact, many teachers moved through the profession on their way to other careers. A robust pension plan would stabilize the new profession and allow teachers to plan for the future. The Alberta Teachers’ Retirement Act landed in the legislature in January 1928 and in many respects presaged the provisions of today’s Alberta Teachers’ Retirement Plan, including equal contributions by teachers and employing boards. Once again, however, the Alliance was disappointed and the bill of 1928 died on the order paper.

Nothing more on teachers’ pensions appears in the legislative record between 1928 and 1939, through the Great Depression. As stated in a 1980 internal ATA report entitled A Brief History of Teachers’ Pension, “it is difficult to lobby for a pension plan when the first priority is to get a job.”

The drive towards the ultimate goal of a teachers’ pension plan was revived in 1935 when high school principal and radio evangelist William Aberhart took office as the province’s first Social Credit premier. His efforts and those of the Alberta Teachers’ Association (the Alliance having been renamed with the passing of the Teaching Profession Act in 1935), resulted in successful legislation coming into force on April 1, 1939.

For all the hard work and heavy lifting that had preceded the Teachers’ Retirement Fund, there was almost as much to be done following this legislative success. Throughout the following months, the Association was a hive of activity related to the establishment of the fund, securing a $5,000 loan from the provincial treasury, hiring a long-term staffer and operating out of the Association’s offices on the third floor of the old Imperial Bank Building in Edmonton (at a rent of $10 per month).

Contributions began as of Sept. 1, 1939. Refinements and updates to the plan continued well into 1944 (interprovincial transfers of pensions, provisions for married women returning to the profession) as the original legislation had been seen to be a temporary provision and a first step.

In June 1944, the government struck a committee to revisit the Teachers Retirement Fund Act of 1939, to which the ATA recommended securing the services of actuaries and financial professionals. However, between 1944 and 1946, the government’s position went sideways as the cabinet once again considered civil servants’ pensions and shelved improvements to the teachers’ pension plan. Emergency annual general meetings ensued and a flurry of activity took place between 1946 and 1948. The Association’s Pension Committee continued to press relentlessly for secure teachers’ pensions and improvements to the plans well into 1955 and beyond.

In 1964, the Government of Canada enacted the Canada Pension Plan and the modern pension era began. Nevertheless, the plan continues to evolve to meet the needs of a longer lived, more diverse and active community of retirees. ❚

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