John W. Barnett

September 29, 2017 Gordon Thomas
It took an afternoon of convincing to get John Barnett to take on the role of general secretarytreasurer of the Alberta Teachers’ Alliance.
Photo: ATA archives

The right person for the job

I sometimes wonder what the Alberta Teachers’ Association would have become without John W. Barnett. As the organization’s general secretary-treasurer during its first 28 years, he was instrumental in establishing so many of its basic structures.

Before coming to Canada, Barnett served as a local president of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in the United Kingdom, developing first-hand knowledge of how a teachers’ organization operates. He used that experience to design the ATA as a strong centralized organization. The entire executive (excepting the executive secretary) would be elected by the members and would report to the members. The annual general meeting (today called the Annual Representative Assembly) would establish bylaws and policy, approve the budget and set the fee and the Provincial Executive Council would provide political direction in between annual meetings.

The structure that Barnett instituted established a strong, democratic and responsive organization, accountable to the members, and it continues to this day. Most teachers’ organizations elect their executive at their annual meeting — this means that the leadership is chosen by delegates chosen to represent the members. Not so in Alberta. All members decide who will serve as a table officer, and members in each district choose their representatives. This gives additional weight to elected officials when they represent the profession — they have been elected by the profession.

I never met John Barnett; in fact, he died well before I was born. But if the Science Council could ever complete its time machine to allow us to go back to another age, I’d love to meet him. I’d love to travel with him across Alberta as he meets with teachers, sells memberships, defends members and builds relationships.

When it came to recruiting teachers to join the ATA, Barnett did not do it alone, but he did a great deal. For almost 20 years he had to rebuild the organization every fall by travelling the province to sign up members. In each part of Alberta there were key “salt of the earth” members he could rely on—founding members, current and previous executive members and veteran teachers who understood the importance of a vibrant organization. Barnett called these individuals “good boys” and he often called upon them when he was in a jam. For example, if he had more than one meeting scheduled at the same time, he would attend the more difficult meeting and send one of the “good boys” to the other.

Our archives include several reminiscences from colleagues who travelled Alberta with Barnett. And travel, in the ATA’s formative years, was not on a four-lane divided highway — gravel roads, at best. And in rain. You needed chains and you’d press on, hoping for the best, or a farmer’s team of horses.

Former president A.J.H. Powell wrote about the realities of travel across Alberta, which was never easy. Barnett, along with a carload of executive members, travelled to Calgary for the 1928 annual meeting, leaving at 8 a.m., enjoying lunch in Red Deer and finally pulling into the York Hotel in Calgary at 7:30 p.m.

Another reported trip to Camrose would be typical of a day on the road. In his Gray-Dort auto, Barnett would visit schools along the way to sell the solidarity represented by ATA membership. He travelled to the Camrose Normal School and was introduced to the entire student body, making a pitch for the benefits of student membership ($1 a student). He would expound on the ATA’s key policies — a legislated minimum salary, security of tenure, professional recognition. Don’t take a job with a blacklisted school board, he would advise. He would recruit students for the Camrose Normal School student local executive, and meet with them to further push the values and directions of the ATA.

After dinner, he’d make his rounds with the principals of normal school student teachers and the area high school principals, pressing the importance of solidarity and developing cordial relations. He’d also get the names of outlying schools and key teachers with whom he could make contact. Arriving back in Edmonton at 11:30 at night didn’t mean the end of the work day — time enough to make contact with a member of the legislative assembly to seek support for the board of reference.

Former ATA president Harry Ainlay wrote in his memoir of a time when he and Barnett responded to a member in Slave Lake — she had been given notice because she had resisted the amorous advances of an influential rural storekeeper. The two ATA reps travelled up to Slave Lake and found that the road leading to their rural destination hadn’t been travelled on for months due to its poor condition. Barnett wired a request that the board secretary send a team and wagon the next day, then took Ainlay to the lake, where they tented and fished.


Harry Ainlay.
Photo: ATA archives

The next day, when no team and wagon materialized, Barnett borrowed an axe and shovel and started toward their destination despite the road conditions.

“It was on a part of the old Yukon trail and the ruts were worn down so deep that the rear housing of John’s car would ride on the middle. Then we would round up some small logs or brush to put under the wheels,” Ainlay wrote.1[1]

Upon reaching the home of the board secretary, the travelling party soon discovered they were on hostile grounds. They met with the board of trustees for most of the afternoon with little apparent success. However, upon their return to Edmonton they learned that the teacher was offered a better position and a few months later the board secretary was fired for stealing from school board funds.

In another unpublished memoir, Milton E. LaZerte, a former ATA president and first dean of the University of Alberta faculty of education, recounted some of his travels with Barnett, noting that many of them were memorable. For example, LaZerte remembered a tour of northern locals through Grande Prairie and Peace River. He and Barnett would travel during the day, take “gun practice” (ie. duck hunting) in the afternoon and meet with teachers in the evenings. (LaZerte noted that on this particular trip, the ducks had appeared to engage in a sit-down strike followed by an early morning migration—the hunting wasn’t successful.)

M.E. LaZerte. Photo: ATA archives

LaZerte also reported an occasion when Barnett’s car developed engine trouble just as it approached the garage in Spirit River. The mechanic observed that Barnett’s car would function much better with a gas tank. LaZerte and Barnett retraced their steps and found the gas tank just down the street (the reserve gas in the carburetor had carried them into town). The tank was reattached and they were in business once again. LaZerte also reported that every time the story was retold, the gas tank had dropped off further back in their journey, but with Barnett at the wheel, the car’s speed was still sufficient to carry them to Spirit River.

On another occasion when he set off to represent a teacher who was being mistreated by a school board, Barnett discovered upon arrival that the board chair was on his death bed and needed a blood transfusion to survive. It turned out that Barnett’s blood was compatible so he volunteered for the transfusion, which saved the trustee’s life.

“Commended on contributing his heart’s blood to an avowed enemy of the profession, Barnett growled that he had done so only to prevent the chairman, whom he intimated had been born on the wrong side of the blanket, from so easily escaping the Barnett wrath,” LaZerte wrote.2[2]

Relentless fighter

For some years, the ATA’s office was Barnett’s dining room. His daughters, Ethel Cuts and Irene Gaunce, spoke of their father’s ability to utterly shut out the world when focusing on ATA business. They recalled that they had great fun asking their father questions when he was buried in ATA work at the dining room table, questions that always produced a one-word answer. If you asked if Barnett was listening, the answer was yes, if you could have a cookie, if the world was flat or if Barnett was a donkey—the answer was always yes.

Barnett worked tirelessly, day and night, for Alberta’s teachers for almost three decades. He was relentless in his lobbying and representation efforts. He improved the economic security of Alberta’s teachers, ensuring a minimum salary (starting in 1921) and ultimately achieving the ability for teachers to bargain collectively in the 1940s, including the right to strike.

He demanded that school boards offer proper contracts of employment. He sought security of tenure for teachers and a fair process to deal with teachers whose continued employment was called into question. Political events meant that, over time, progress was made and rolled back.

While the board of reference was first established in 1926, it was not given the power to enforce its decisions. Teachers could be recommended for reinstatement, but school boards did not have to follow the recommendation and did not. In 1934, the government finally relented, requiring school boards to follow decisions of the board of reference, but school boards did not like this and the previous rules were reinstated. Barnett kept lobbying, and by 1937 security of tenure had been achieved and decisions of the board of reference could be enforced.

Normal schools were folded into the University of Alberta faculty of education, transferring teacher preparation programs to the university setting. School boards were consolidated from small rural jurisdictions into larger units, establishing more opportunities for teachers and ensuring greater stability. Responsibility for teachers’ conventions was transferred from government to the ATA, clear demonstration of the government’s increasing view that the teaching profession was coming of age.

One of the very first goals established by the ATA at its founding meeting was to obtain a pension scheme for teachers, and this task took decades. Alberta was among the last jurisdictions in the Commonwealth to establish a pension plan for teachers, and that was the product of endless lobbying by Barnett, with many fits and starts, until the establishment of the Teachers’ Retirement Fund in 1939.

Barnett was also a founding member of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, helping to create a national organization of teachers at the inaugural meeting at the Calgary Public Library in July 1920. And of course, the Teaching Profession Act formally recognized the ATA as the professional organization representing the teaching profession in 1935, with amendments that established automatic membership in 1936, along with the responsibility to set and police the professional conduct of members.

Barnett was reported to be a great companion, a grand gentleman, a man of great vision. He was always able to make a very strong argument for his position and generally seen as less able to see things from another perspective. He enjoyed a good argument (that also helped to pass the time in travel). And he worked constantly to advance the interests of teachers. He truly built our organization from the ground up (and in some respects had to rebuild it each year until the establishment of automatic membership). Key aspects of the economic security and professional recognition we enjoy today were achieved through his efforts. His courage, his vision, his commitment, his leadership and his ability to fight relentlessly created the profession and the organization we know today and improved the quality of education for all of Alberta’s citizens.


Dr. Gordon Thomas is the executive secretary of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.



[1] Chalmers, J.W. 1968. Teachers of the Foothills Province. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. 118.

[2] Chalmers, p. 122.

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