From the Archives: U of A honours ATA’s John W. Barnett

June 13, 2017 Maggie Shane, ATA Archivist
In Memory of John Walker Barnett is a collection of tributes that was published sometime after Barnett’s funeral on July 2, 1947.

June 29, 2017, will mark the 70th anniversary of John Walker Barnett’s death.

At age 66, Barnett died suddenly on June 29, 1947, after a brief illness less than a year after his retirement from the association he helped to found and worked so tirelessly to advance. In February 1947 the University of Alberta senate voted to grant John Barnett an honorary doctor of laws. No one suspected then that Barnett had a mere four months to live.

At the fall convocation on Oct. 18, 1947, the university posthumously conferred the honorary degree on John Barnett. As documented in the booklet In Memory of John Walker Barnett, a collection of Barnett memorial tributes that is housed in the Association’s archives, University of Alberta chancellor Dr. Fred G. McNally stepped to the lectern in the old Convocation Hall and delivered this address in memory of his friend and colleague:

“The Senate of this University, at its February meeting, granted the Degree of Laws, honoris causa, to John Walker Barnett, for many years General Secretary of The Alberta Teachers’ Association. I had the privilege and honor of informing Mr. Barnett of the Senate’s action and of formally inviting him to accept the degree. On two other occasions only did I see him so deeply moved. In a voice filled with emotion, he said he would be happy to accept the honor, realizing that in honoring him the University wished to pay a tribute to the great profession to which he had given his life.

In the meantime, his work has been completed and he has gone from us.

John Walker Barnett was born in Grantham, Lincolnshire, sixty-seven years ago. He came of vigorous north country stock and of a family of teachers. Not so long ago his oldest brother retired after a distinguished career as a headmaster. After training at Westminster College, he was certificated and entered upon his teaching career. He taught for some time in the Army College at Aldershot and at Surbiton before coming to Canada.

In 1911 he came to Alberta and at once began work as a teacher. He brought with him firsthand knowledge of the work of the National Union of Teachers and soon reached the conclusion that teachers in this country were handicapped by the lack of a similar organization. When the Alberta Teachers’ Alliance came into being, it was natural that Mr. Barnett’s knowledge, experience, enthusiasm and faith should be enlisted in the direction of the infant organization. From that time, the history of the Association was largely a history of the activities of John W. Barnett. In journeyings, often in perils of floods, in perils of the wilderness, in perils of dirt roads or no roads, he carried on. Though progress was slow, indifference great, and opposition powerful, no one ever heard John Barnett complain or say a disloyal word of those he had set out to serve.

He was largely instrumental in the formation of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, the national organization. He persuaded legislatures to make important changes in the School Act, and played an important part in drafting such legislation as the Teachers’ Retirement Fund Act and the Teaching Profession Act. He served on the department’s Liaison Committee on Teacher Training, which later evolved the plan of teacher education now in effect in this province. As a member of the Survey Committee which was responsible for our present University Act, and later as a member of the Senate of this university, he played his full part.

So then, as an able teacher, as a man of great courage and singleness of purpose, as a fearless fighter, as a champion of the weak and defenceless, as a matchless leader and as a gallant and upright gentleman, we honor his memory and confer on him posthumously the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.” ❚


Robe on display
The academic robe ordered for John ­Barnett to wear while receiving his honorary degree from the University of Alberta is now on display in the cafeteria at Barnett House. Barnett died before he was able to wear the robe.


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