The Alberta Teachers’ Alliance was created in 1917, at a meeting of the Alberta Educational Association. The Alliance’s inaugural annual meeting was held in First Presbyterian Church in Edmonton during Easter week of 1918. Among the members of the Alberta Educational Association were those of many walks of life interested in advancing education in the new province of Alberta, but it was not a professional organization equipped or mandated to address teachers’ salaries, classroom and working conditions, or the professional views of teachers. At the time, teachers were leaving the profession by the hundreds, either through enlistment in the armed forces or to other professions offering better salary and living conditions. As a result, thousands of unqualified persons were granted the authority to teach. Teachers were disadvantaged socially and economically. Tenure did not exist; short-term contracts were the order of the day; and teachers had no appeal against dismissal. The Liberal government of Premier Charles Stewart (1917–1921) and the Honourable J R Boyle (1912–1918), minister of education, attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to remedy the situation. Their plan was to enact a statutory minimum teacher salary. That plan failed and it was with the establishment of the Alberta Teachers’ Alliance that teachers began to organize professionally and advocate for the improvement of the profession.
At the first Alberta Teachers’ Alliance annual meeting in 1918, resolutions were passed relating to a provincial salary schedule, a better form of teaching contract, full citizenship rights for teachers, drafting of a code of ethics, a pension scheme, publication of the ATA Magazine, and the inauguration of a federation of all teachers’ organizations in Canada (today’s Canadian Teachers’ Federation). The Alliance advocated, among other things, a minimum salary of $1,200 per year, a model form of contract and the right of a teacher to a hearing before dismissal. As might be expected, these aggressive and progressive activities challenged established views related to teaching and drew strong opposition from the Stewart government. The Alliance persisted and thrived. At the Easter convention in 1920 in Calgary, Alliance members approved funding for the appointment of a full-time general secretary-treasurer. The Alliance executive persuaded John Walker Barnett to accept their offer and become the first general secretary-treasurer. Barnett retained this position until his retirement in September of 1946. Largely through Barnett’s tireless efforts and his determination to raise the status of the teaching profession, the teachers’ organization progressed from an "Alliance’’ in 1918 to an "Association,’’ legally constituted under the Teaching Profession Act, in 1935.
The first president of the Alberta Teachers’ Alliance was
G D Misener. Misener had brought forward the resolutions that first formed the Alberta Teachers’ Alliance at the 1917 Alberta Educational Association meeting. Misener was followed by presidents T E A Stanley in 1919 and H C Newland in 1920. Early executive officers of the Alliance were politically active and strong advocates for public education, including T E A Stanley of Calgary, H C Newland of Edmonton, C E Peasley of Medicine Hat and General Secretary John Walker Barnett, assisted by R J Coutts of Calgary.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Alliance continued to press both an agenda for economic welfare and professional advancement of teachers. In 1921, the Liberal government of Premier Stewart was defeated by the United Farmers of Alberta, led by Herbert Greenfield (1921–1925). In 1934, a plebiscite of qualified teachers on the matter of the Teaching Profession Bill returned a result of over 98 per cent in support of a form of the proposed bill that included mandatory membership in the new professional body. The Teaching Profession Act was passed by the Alberta legislature under the United Farmers of Alberta government of Premier Richard Gavin Reid (1934–1935). The Teaching Profession Act received royal assent on April 23, 1935, and represented the achievement of the Alliance’s most important goal, the establishment of a teaching profession in Alberta. The Teaching Profession Act retired the name "Alliance," and the Alberta Teachers’ Association came into being as a body formed under statute and having legal responsibilities under the law. One important clause was omitted from the act, however. The Reid government had refused to require mandatory Association membership for teachers employed by public and separate school boards, so membership in the Association remained voluntary. Teachers were not to wait long, however, for the full realization of mandatory membership.
The United Farmers of Alberta government was defeated in 1935 by the Social Credit Party of William Aberhart (1935–1943). Among the new premier’s earliest legislative priorities was to pass an amendment to the Teaching Profession Act requiring all teachers employed by public and separate school boards to be members of the Association as a condition of employment. No longer was Association membership voluntary; it was a condition of professional practice. Teachers were a recognized and organized profession with all the attendant responsibilities and statutory obligations. Over the ensuing decade, the Alberta Teachers’ Association successfully advocated for legislation that strengthened the teaching profession. In 1936, the School Act established the long-sought hearing for teachers facing termination (the modern Board of Reference). In 1939, the Teachers’ Superannuation Act passed and was the first step towards a teachers’ pension plan. In 1944, a long-standing goal of the Association was achieved when all teacher education was assigned to a university, (the University of Alberta’s first faculty of education having been founded in 1942), thus ending the normal schools and laying the stage for the eventual requirement of a bachelor’s degree as a minimum teaching qualification.
By 1942 the Association had achieved collective bargaining rights for all its members and the Association’s foundations were strong and firmly established. The Alberta Teachers’ Association was dedicated to teachers’ interests and welfare, professional and economic, and advancing the teaching profession as an important contributor to the building of the province of Alberta.
John Walker Barnett had successfully undertaken much of that foundation work. In February 1947, the University of Alberta Senate voted to grant John Barnett an honorary Doctor of Laws in recognition of his achievements. No one suspected then that he had a mere four months to live. Barnett passed away suddenly at age 66 on June 29, 1947, after a brief illness only nine months following his retirement from the Association that he had helped to found and worked so tirelessly to advance.
At the fall convocation on October 18, 1947, the University of Alberta awarded John Barnett a posthumous Doctor of Laws degree. On that day, Chancellor Dr Fred G McNally stepped to the lectern in the old Convocation Hall and delivered a heartfelt address, remembering his friend and colleague 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 defenseless, as a matchless leader and as a gallant and upright gentleman."
For their part, the teachers of Alberta honoured Barnett in perpetuity by naming their headquarters Barnett House.
The decade following John Barnett’s death witnessed unprecedented growth in public education as baby boomers started school in record numbers. School construction could barely keep up with the demand, and more teachers were required to staff the new classrooms. A teaching shortage had characterized the early post-war years, which had given rise to a system of education by correspondence that at first had been a necessity. As the 1940s progressed, the expanding number of correspondence centres rather than schools being established raised concerns among Association members that were addressed at an emergent representative assembly in February 1947. As Alberta’s public education system stabilized after World War II, one-room schoolhouses and correspondence centres began to close, and more teachers undertook professional practice in modern classrooms. Beginning in the late 1940s and continuing into the 1950s, the Association undertook to improve salaries and retirement benefits, sometimes resulting in labour disputes and legal disputes. The Association established a professional library and pursued influential research projects on behalf of the profession. Association representatives collaborated with other teacher associations in Canada and worldwide through the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.
As the Alberta Teachers’ Association moved towards the celebration of its first 50 years in 1968, evidence of growth and strength within the organization mirrored that of the teaching profession. In 1962, having outgrown its first permanent home on Edmonton’s 103 street, the Association opened the second Barnett House on the edge of the city’s west end. Here, representatives elected by teachers, along with staff working in robust program areas, fulfilled the Association’s statutory obligations under the Teaching Profession Act and served members by promoting the cause of public education in Alberta.
ATA Executive Secretaries
|John W Barnett
Eric C Ansley
Stanley C T Clarke
Bernie T Keeler
Julius S Buski
Gordon R Thomas
L D Hyndman, Sr, the Association’s solicitor, was acting general secretary during the last few months of 1958.
Nykolay P Hrynyk was acting executive secretary in 1974-75 while B T Keeler was on sabbatical leave.