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The Founding of Alberta

The terms of Confederation established education as a matter of provincial jurisdiction

Jerome Ell

The following is from A Brief History of Public Education in Alberta , published by the Alberta Teachers’ Association, 2002.

Alberta formally came into being on September 1, 1905, at the same time as Saskatchewan. The Autonomy Acts , which gave the two provinces their places in Confederation, were matters of considerable controversy in Ottawa in the months preceding their passage. Haultain, premier of the Territories, had proposed the establishment of one large province, but Ottawa rejected this plan.

Alberta was named after the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Alberta Louise, who was married to the governor general of Canada, the Marquis of Lorne. Sir Wilfred Laurier, the prime minister of Canada, journeyed west on the Canadian Pacific Railway to visit the new provincial capitals in September 1905.

The terms of Confederation established education as a matter of provincial jurisdiction. Section 93 of the British North America Act , along with the 1901 ordinances of the North-West Territories, established the legal basis for public schooling in Alberta. These laws established a system of public and separate schools, similar to the arrangement in Ontario. English was the official language of instruction.

Alexander Rutherford was the first premier of Alberta. A lawyer who represented Strathcona in the territorial legislature, Rutherford was also the minister of education and the provincial treasurer. At its founding, the province inherited more than 500 school districts from the North-West Territories (Chalmers 1967). Hundreds more school districts were rapidly added in the years before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.

Premier Rutherford worked vigorously to build up the economy of the new province. In 1906, he created Alberta Government Telephones (AGT). Rutherford also spent considerable energy to build railways within the province (Klassen 1999).

The first sittings of Alberta's legislative assembly took place at McKay School in Edmonton in May 1906. Alberta's Legislative Building, located on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, was officially opened in September 1912. Rutherford resigned as premier in 1910 and was succeeded by Arthur Sifton, brother of Clifford, a former minister of the interior in the Laurier cabinet who guided an aggressive immigration policy in western Canada.

Public schooling in this era was shaped by the nature of Alberta society. In 1905, the province had a predominantly rural population, and its economy was largely agricultural. In response to efforts by Sir Clifford Sifton to populate the Canadian west with settlers loyal to the Crown, immigrants were arriving in great numbers. Settlers from eastern Canada, the British Isles, the United States and Europe—especially eastern and central Europe—were drawn by the possibilities of homesteading, raising wheat and ranching.

Because the typical rural districts measured four miles by four miles, they came to be known as four-by-fours. These districts are the sites of the famed one-room prairie schoolhouses, fondly described by writers such as Charyk (1968).

In the first decades after Alberta entered Confederation, a recognized purpose of schooling was to teach immigrants English and to socialize them into the predominantly Anglo-Saxon culture. Many teachers were ill prepared to deal with the school-aged children of immigrants who spoke no English. School attendance was itself often a matter of concern because school-aged children were a ready source of labour on farms, so many parents were inclined to send their children to work in their fields as soon as they were physically able. Gradually, however, school attendance became more regular.

LaZerte (1955) notes that, in the first decades of the province, few students progressed to secondary school. A student's education was considered adequate if he or she mastered the "3 Rs"—reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic, the equivalent of Grade 6–8. Attending high school was still a rarity.

The number of students in Alberta increased rapidly during the first decade of the province's history. In 1906, there were 14,576 rural and 14,208 town and village pupils; by 1913, there were 39,287 children in ungraded and 40,622 in graded schools (Chalmers 1967, 30). Between 1910 and 1914, the province's total enrolment rose from 55,307 to 89,910 (Chalmers 1967, 48).

For the community served by the school, the cultural high point of the year was the Christmas concert, which the community also used to gauge the teacher's success. Chalmers (1968, 34) notes that the average annual salary for teachers across the province in 1905 was close to $600.

School trustees, the embodiment of local influence over education, were present from the start of the province. The Alberta School Trustees' Association (ASTA) was founded in 1907 and held its first convention in Edmonton. J. H. Fleetwood of Lethbridge was the acting president. ASTA passed resolutions on many matters such as "teachers' salaries, collection of taxes, school grants, debentures, powers of expropriation, pupil conveyance, school building plans, school sites, and better and cheaper textbooks" (Chalmers 1968, 378). In the early years, school trustees guarded their authority jealously.

School trustees were chiefly concerned with the erection and maintenance of the schoolhouse and related buildings and with the hiring and dismissing of teachers. One of their important duties was to set rates for school taxes to supplement the funds received from the province. Much of the funding for school expenses came from taxes imposed on property owners in a given school district. "By the end of 1911, 1,765 public (and a handful of separate) school districts had been erected in the province, and another 245 were created in 1912" (Chalmers 1967, 379).

Chalmers (1967) reports on the role of the travelling school inspectors, who personified the province's role in education in the early years. At the beginning of the century, the biggest task of school inspectors was establishing school districts. They assumed an itinerant role, visiting rural schoolhouses annually. Ill-prepared teachers awaited their arrival with great concern. Some school inspectors, however, also played a more enlightening role. Fast (1989, 58–59) cites a lengthy description of inspectors' duties from the early years of the century, a description indicating that school inspectors played a positive role in encouraging teachers and fostering the overall success of schools.

At the same time, the government turned its attention to teacher preparation. The province established its first normal school in 1906 in Calgary, just months after Alberta's entry into Confederation. A second normal school was established in 1912 in Camrose. A third normal school was eventually established in Edmonton in 1920 (Aalborg 1963). The first normal-school programs in Calgary were four months long. The normal-school program was gradually lengthened, a process that was not without reversals, particularly during periods when teachers were in short supply.

Alberta's program of studies underwent reform even in the first decade of the province's history. The original curriculum, set out by Goggin, was an adaptation, to meet Territorial circumstances, of the Ontario curriculum (Coutts and Walker 1964). According to Patterson (1970), standards gave way to grades in Alberta in 1912. Standards 1 to 5 constituted the elementary program of studies, while standards 6 to 10 formed the secondary course of studies. In this period, secondary schooling opportunities were reserved for students going on to normal school or aspiring to a profession.

Some school inspectors supported efforts to reform school organization. Amendments to the School Act in 1912 prefigured attempts in the 1930s and 1940s to consolidate school districts. A few small school districts voluntarily consolidated in the years immediately following 1912.

By 1914, three agricultural schools were organized and placed under the authority of the Department of Agriculture in three towns: Olds, Claresholm and Vermilion. Although such schools were expensive to establish, they were considered necessary to promote knowledge of sound farming methods.

The creation of the University of Alberta in 1906 prompted rivalry between the province's two major cities. Although Calgary had vied for the provincial university after Edmonton became the provincial capital, Rutherford managed to have the University of Alberta built in Strathcona, the constituency that he represented in the legislative assembly. Located across the North Saskatchewan River, Strathcona did not become part of Edmonton until 1912.

With Henry Marshall Tory as its first president, the University of Alberta began operating in 1908. The first classes were held in the Duggan Street School. At this point, the university did not yet include a faculty of education. Even in the early years, however, summer school was associated with the needs of teachers. By 1913, the Department of Education was conducting summer school as part of inservice preparation for teachers and, by 1919, the university was cooperating by providing summer-session courses (Chalmers 1967, 428).

Stamp (1979, 109) provides some revealing insights into the early activities of the Calgary public school system between 1884 and 1914. The Canadian Pacific Railway reached Calgary in 1883. With the railway came settlers and the promise of civilization. Even in those early days, there was a great deal of civic pride, and citizens of Calgary wanted the best schooling without sending their children to the east. From 1884 to 1914, the provisions for schooling in the frontier setting of Calgary rapidly came to resemble the sophisticated bureaucracy of larger Ontario cities. In the course of three decades, what started largely as a private school supported by local publicly minded benefactors grew to become a large educational organization, similar to those found in cities such as Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa.


When Alberta joined Confederation in 1905, some recognizable key features of public education were already present. The pattern for public education in the pioneer era was recognizable as North American, a model of public schooling that greatly resembled that of Ontario and Saskatchewan.

In Canada, education was legally established under the jurisdiction of the provincial governments rather than the federal government. Accordingly, public schools in Alberta became provincial institutions. The arrangements also respected the importance of local involvement in education. Local school trustees hired teachers, constructed and maintained school buildings, and taxed ratepayers within the school district to pay for educational expenses.

The provincial legislature was legally responsible for education and assigned the many related responsibilities to the minister of education. On behalf of the province, the minister and the Department of Education oversaw the implementation of the government's policies for public schooling. School inspectors served as the department's eyes and hands across the province. Provisions existed for both public and separate school districts. In the earliest years, Alberta school districts were predominantly rural.

The provincial legislature provided annual funding—a regimen of grants—for school districts throughout the province. This financial support was an essential feature of Alberta's public schools. The minister and the department oversaw the provision of teacher preparation (which then took place in normal schools) and handled teacher certification.

Moreover, the province developed a prescribed course of studies for its young pupils. To accommodate local needs, the prescribed curriculum typically contained options from which local school trustees could choose. School inspectors, itinerant in the early years, represented the Department of Education in the field and submitted reports to the trustees and the department.

This pioneer period marked a successful beginning for the province and for public schooling. In retrospect, one cannot help but marvel at the early accomplishments in a frontier society. That Rutherford, Alberta's first premier, also served as minister of education indicates the importance accorded to educational matters in the first years of the province. Within months of Alberta's entry into Confederation, the province had a normal school operating in Calgary. The University of Alberta, established in 1906, was functioning in Strathcona by 1908.

Some educational issues that emerged later had their origins in this period. According to the Indian treaties, the federal government remained responsible for educating Aboriginal students, a circumstance that resulted in the creation of Indian residential schools, which were to prove so problematic in later decades. Rather than being a concern of public schooling, the education of exceptional children was considered a responsibility of the affected family. Moreover, in the earliest days of the province, no professional organization existed to address the concerns and interests of teachers as a profession or to ensure the minimum standards of professional practice.

Jerome Ell is a member of ATA Government staff.


Aalborg, A. O. 1963. "The History of Teacher Education in Alberta." The ATA Magazine 44, no. 3: 26–27, 29–30.

Chalmers, J. W. 1967. Schools of the Foothills Province: The Story of Public Education in Alberta . Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

———. 1968. Teachers of the Foothills Province: The Story of the Alberta Teachers' Association. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Charyk, J. C. 1968. The Little White School House . Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books.

Coutts, H. T., and B. E. Walker. 1964. G. Fred: The Story of G. Fred McNally . Don Mills, Ont.: Dent and Sons.

Fast, R. 1989. "The Senior Officer of Education in the Prairie Provinces of Canada." In The Canadian School Superintendent , edited by W. Boich, R. H. Farquhar and K. A. Leithwood. Toronto: OISE Press.

Klassen, H. C. 1999. A Business History of Alberta . Calgary: University of Calgary Press.

LaZerte, M. E. 1955. "Fifty Years of Education in Alberta." The ATA Magazine 35 (10): 6–11, 46–50.

Stamp, R. M. 1978. "The Way We Were." The ATA Magazine 58, no. 3: 13–15.

———. 1979. "The Response to Urban Growth: The Bureaucratization of Public Education in Calgary, 1884–1914." In Shaping the Schools of the Canadian West , edited by D. C. Jones, N. M. Sheehan and R. M. Stamp. Calgary: Detselig.