Rally vaults public education and Alberta teachers into the national spotlight
Teachers had had enough and it was time for dramatic action.
The year was 1997 and Alberta teachers were feeling the effects of significant funding reductions and restructuring within the education system, led by Premier Ralph Klein. For the previous four years, teachers had experienced a decline in their numbers, deteriorating classroom conditions and fewer supports in the form of consultants, school counsellors and school psychologists. In an effort to save jobs, teachers had taken a five per cent salary rollback in 1993, and four years later they were still feeling the sting. Morale was low.
“The bottom line of all of that period was democracy was being threatened by the cuts to public services in general, with very little justification if any, and people had to mobilize to save it,” recalls Bauni Mackay, who was the president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association during that period.
During these challenging years, the Association had taken many steps to counteract the government’s measures, such as establishing the Public Education Action Centre to raise awareness of the value of public education and the important work of teachers, and forming the Task Force on Recouping Salary. However, during the Annual Representative Assembly (ARA) on the May long weekend of 1997, delegates were clearly in the mood for more dramatic action. After a spirited and sometimes heated debate about a variety of possible actions, representatives from Calgary Public Local No. 38 moved that members of the assembly march on the legislature that very weekend from their location at the Westin Hotel in downtown Edmonton.
“It was one of those emotional motions that was made at ARA and those of us sitting at the head table said, ‘hmm, now what do we do,’ because it just wasn’t feasible,” said Julius Buski, then the Association’s executive secretary.
Association staff did some checking and learned that such a march would require a parade permit (lest members run the risk of being arrested) and that such a permit would be impossible to obtain in such short order. So, the next day, after its members had refined their idea, Calgary Public put forward a motion calling on the Association to organize a rally for all teachers and concerned residents at the Alberta legislature on Saturday, Oct. 4, the eve of World Teachers’ Day. That motion passed and Barnett House officials suddenly had a major addition to their to-do lists.
“The first reaction of all of us in Barnett House, executive and staff, was that this is an impossible thing,” Mackay said. “We can say we’re going to do it, but will teachers come?”
Mackay said she had to use her leadership skills to convince everyone that, since the idea passed at ARA, staff and PEC members had no choice but to carry it through and figure out how to do it in a way that would motivate teachers to attend.
“It was almost dragging people kicking and screaming, at the top, to actually make it happen,” she said.
Making It Happen
With a committee in place to oversee the program, Buski tapped executive staff officer Tim Johnston to organize the logistics. Johnston had previously shown an aptitude for organizing events, but the rally was of a magnitude that was beyond anything the Association had ever done.
“We were really kind of flying blind,” Johnston said.
Nevertheless, Johnston attacked his assignment with gusto, making a list of all the people and services that would have to be involved and setting up meetings. What followed were innumerable discussions with legislature staff and officials with Edmonton Transit, transportation and the police.
Transportation would be one of the most significant challenges, as thousands of teachers from all over the province would be travelling to Edmonton in private vehicles or on buses chartered by their locals, and parking at the legislature is limited. Johnston arranged to have legislature area streets blocked off to provide parking for buses and also set up four park-and-ride locations throughout the city where teachers could park their private vehicles and catch a bus bound for the rally. Overall, the Association chartered 125 buses.
Johnston also arranged for the construction of a large stage and outdoor video screen, first aid services, police security, radio communications linking the park-and-ride locations to personnel at the legislature and a helicopter with a photographer aboard to capture the event from above. When arranging for a sound system, he informed the audio-visual company that there were to be no dead microphones or other technical glitches.
In order to mount the event, Barnett House staff from all levels and teachers from both Edmonton locals were recruited as volunteers.
The Association ordered more than 32,000 buttons commemorating World Teachers’ Day and 1,050 placards bearing various messages. And with Get the Message identified as the event slogan, the Association ordered 32,000 fleece scarves bearing the words.
“We actually cornered the market on arctic fleece,” Johnston said.
In the days leading up to the rally, he could be found in his office pouring over maps of the city and the legislature grounds. His office began filling with vests, scarves, signs and boxes of colour-coded hard hats for staff and volunteers. He even got an orange light to put on the roof of his car so he could be easily found on the day of the event.
“I think I worked on it non-stop for about four or five weeks until the event actually took place,” Johnston said.
As the event approached, the Association pressed its locals to mobilize their members and produced a special issue of the ATA News and a video of Mackay speaking in front of the legislature, both stressing the magnitude of the event and the importance of attending.
“I am asking that for this one day you set aside family commitments, that you pre-empt community obligations and put aside your schoolwork,” Mackay urged.
To organizers, it was critically important that the rally strike the proper tone. Rather than an angry protest against funding cuts, it was to be a celebration of public education. The aim was to make Albertans realize that the education system was precious and under threat. The hope was to motivate citizens themselves to pressure their elected representatives for positive changes. And the tone was to be professional.
“We could have had teachers come in, being rowdy and swearing at the premier ... I said, ‘that ain’t going to happen,’” Johnston recalled.
“It was a reflection on teachers. I wanted teachers to look like professional, first-class people, that our concerns are first-class professional concerns. We’re not a bunch of rabble-rousers; we’re professionals.”
According To Plan
Johnston’s meticulousness paid off. When the day arrived, he showed up at the legislature around 7 a.m. and watched it unfold just as he’d planned.
“I cruised around and watched everyone do what they were supposed to do. It just took place,” he later told the ATA News.
Not everyone had “gotten the memo” regarding the desired tone, however. For example, one teacher emerged from a bus bearing accessories that organizers viewed as less than professional.
“He got off with a toilet seat over his head and a big sign saying Klein is putting education in the toilet,” Johnston recalled. “I said, ‘get a marshall over there and get that guy straightened out.’ Which they did.” (They convinced the teacher to leave the sign and the toilet seat in the bus).
There were a few such instances, but by and large, rally goers were well behaved and the police had nothing to do, Mackay said.
The day started off crisp and cool but ended up being warm and sunny. In the lead-up to the 1 p.m. start time, as the crowd thickened in the field in front of the bandshell, jazz saxophonist P.J. Perry and his band occupied the stage and played some upbeat selections that gave the event a Mardi Gras vibe. There were plenty of smiles among the throngs of teachers but also many signs conveying serious messages: “No child should be short-changed,” “Kids are worth it. Re-invest in education.”
After a group rendition of O Canada, Mackay took to the stage to address the crowd of roughly 15,000.
“I remember getting up to the mike and looking out at this sea of teachers and, oh my, I had a hard time holding it together,” Mackay said in a recent interview. “My first reaction was relief and my second reaction was absolute awe.”
Mackay delivered a rousing speech that drew enthusiastic applause throughout.
“You have come from every corner of the province and I am so proud to see all of you,” she declared.
“We want Albertans to get the message that teachers can no longer hold together an excellent public education system under increasingly deteriorating conditions. We can no longer pay the price with our health, with our personal lives and our salaries.”
Over the next two hours, several leaders of other teacher organizations from across the country, as well as a few individual teachers, delivered similar messages, to equally enthusiastic applause and cheers. When the speeches had ended, the band started up again and an energetic Mackay led the throng on a march around the legislature building.
By that time the crowd had grown to nearly 20,000, Association officials estimated, but one person was noticeably absent: Education Minister Gary Mar.
“It’s not something I’m interested in doing on a Saturday,” he said in an interview to CBC, adding, “It’s not helpful to be alarmist about the situation.”
The television news story aired that evening on CBC’s national broadcast. In the days that followed, Association officials learned that Mar’s explanation hadn’t impressed his boss.
“We know that Klein got on his case about that,” Mackay said. “He thought that Gary should have been there.”
Feedback from the government suggested the rally made an impression.
“Through unofficial channels we received messages that certainly they were impressed by what had happened,” Buski said. “They had never seen a rally of that scale during their time in office.”
The rally was described in the Edmonton Journal as one of the largest in Alberta history. Johnston said it’s still the largest rally ever held on Alberta’s legislature grounds and it remains the largest event the ATA has ever organized.
However, the impact of the rally is harder to define. Mackay believes it did cause people to wake up to the threats faced by the education system, which prompted them to pressure the government for improvements.
“After that I think there were some very positive things that actually worked to improve classroom conditions,” she said. “I know that my last two years of presidency were a heck of a lot easier than the first four.”
The rally also showed teachers what they could do when they spoke with one voice, and it instilled a great deal of pride within the profession, Mackay said. In fact, even 20 years later, she still hears about the rally when she runs into teachers.
“They got to see that they were part of something so much bigger than their classroom or their school or even their district,” she said.
Johnston agreed that restoring teacher pride was a huge by-product of the rally.
“So many teachers came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Tim, you know, I’ve never been prouder,” he said. “This is our finest moment ever as teachers.”
Cory Hare is the ATA Magazine’s associate editor.