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From the Archives: Membership cards a symbol of perseverance

April 10, 2018 Maggie Shane, ATA Archivist
This antique credenza, now housed in the ATA archives, is the original storage unit for thousands of membership cards dating back to the very beginning of the Alberta Teachers’ Alliance. (FILE)

Leading up to its official 100th anniversary in June 2018, the Alberta Teachers’ Association is celebrating its history through a number of initiatives, one of which is this column, entitled From the Archives. Curated by archivist Maggie Shane and appearing in each issue of the ATA News this year, this column will feature significant moments and individuals in the Association’s history as well as interesting artifacts or documents from the Association’s archives.

The ATA archives is replete with treasures. Among the most precious are those that come to us directly from the organization’s first general secretary-treasurer, John Walker Barnett and his family.

In 1914, Barnett built the family home on a corner lot in Edmonton’s Queen Alexandra neighbourhood immediately across from the local school. The craftsman-style bungalow boasted a very modern (for the time) floor plan, wood-strip flooring, carved wood fireplace mantles, built-in seating and cabinetry. It was a comfortable, gracious home to the Barnett family for the next 32 years and it was at the family dining room table (today on display at the provincial ATA headquarters) that the plans for the nascent Alberta Teachers’ Alliance were drawn up, refined and implemented.

In the house was a den, and in that den was an unassuming walnut index file case. And in that case were housed the thousands of membership cards belonging to the very first teachers to see the need for, and the value in, joining together in collective action to advocate for public education and for better salaries and working conditions. They were willing to set aside $5 a year, a significant amount during the Great Depression, to maintain a membership in the Alberta Teachers’ Alliance.

Membership in the ATA was voluntary between its founding in 1918 and the passing of an amendment to the Teaching Profession Act by Premier William Aberhart’s Social Credit government in April of 1936. With that amendment, membership in the newly-minted and renamed Alberta Teachers’ Association became mandatory for all teachers paid by the public purse. These cards preserve the maiden and married names of teachers, their schools and sometimes the home addresses of the pioneers of the teaching profession in Alberta. They are a treasure trove of information, a set of cherished artifacts and a cache of rich historical value.

Through a series of conscientious decisions and a great deal of luck, the case has been preserved with the membership cards intact. The cards are, in effect, the ATA’s first membership database. And it is still in use today.

The archives routinely receives requests from genealogists and family historians seeking information on a relative who taught in that era. And the archives is, more often than not, able to provide information on long-lost ancestors. Regardless of their contemporary utility, however, these cards are a testament to the perseverance and commitment of forward-thinking teachers. ❚

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