A history of the Alberta Teachers Association

Conditions for teachers in the early days often left much to be desired

This year marks an important milestone in our province’s history. It was 100 years ago, in 1918, that the Alberta Teachers Association (originally known as the Alberta Teachers Alliance) was incorporated.

Conditions for teachers in the early days often left much to be desired.

One of the first teachers in Red Deer was Mrs. Esther Sutherland. She was paid only $45 per month, not enough for this single mother to support her four small children.

Every morning the poor woman used to fall to her knees at the front of the classroom and pray for divine assistance to make it through yet another day.

Teachers’ employment was at the whim of the board of trustees.

Teachers were often fired with virtually no notice and for flimsy reasons. On one occasion in Red Deer, a popular teacher was fired because she had disciplined the board chairman’s children at school.

The community reacted angrily to the firing and burned the board chair in effigy. The board’s secretary treasurer became nearly hysterical over this public reaction and told the police that if they did not intervene quickly, “Surely blood would be split on the streets.”

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.

Salaries were an ongoing issue. One teacher was paid only $480 for the year, $120 less than her colleague, even though she had almost 50 students in her class.

One male teacher was told he could only keep working if he took a big cut in salary. He refused the offer and quit.

On Oct. 15th, 1897, the very first teachers’ institute was held in Red Deer.

A Red Deer Teachers’ Association was formed. Teachers’ institutes were held in Red Deer in subsequent years and were usually organized by the Territorial Department of Education (there not being a Province of Alberta yet).

The Red Deer Teachers’ Association sometimes found itself in the situation of only having a secretary-treasurer, when no one was willing to step forward and become president.

On Oct. 22nd, 1908, the Red Deer District Teachers’ Association was formed at the first regional teachers’ conference.

The gathering was held at the new Red Deer Public School, affectionately known as The Castle. W.J. MacLean, the local school inspector, was elected president. Mrs. Wanless, a local teacher, became the Association’s secretary-treasurer.

The conference voted to support the creation of the Alberta Education Association with each teacher present paying a fee of 50¢ each.

Another issue was a debt of $11.20 which was the district’s share of the costs of the annual province-wide examinations. While many felt that this should be covered by either the Provincial Government or by the school boards, it was eventually held that each teacher should pay 35¢ to eliminate the debt.

The harsh years of the First World War helped create a strong push to create a new provincial organization.

With many young men going off to serve overseas, there was a frequent shortage of teachers. However, despite this shortage, and rising inflation due to massive spending for the war effort, generally salaries did not increase.

Hence, resolutions were passed at the 1917 convention of the Alberta Education Association to form a new provincial Teachers Alliance.

A founding meeting was held at the First Presbyterian Church in Edmonton on April 2nd, 1918.

Five teachers from Red Deer were in attendance at this historic gathering. A constitution was adopted and an executive was elected. A charter of incorporation was secured from the Provincial Government on June 24th, 1918.

Shortly thereafter, new locals of the A.T.A. were organized in Red Deer and other Central Alberta communities. In 1919, seven regional districts were created including one for Red Deer and area.

The new provincial organization faced many challenges over the succeeding years.

However, major improvements followed the election of William Aberhart and a Social Credit government in 1935. Premier Aberhart and many of his new MLAs were teachers and therefore very sympathetic to the issues and challenges facing teachers.

A Teaching Profession Act was passed.

The Alberta Teachers Alliance was recognized as the official professional organization for all teachers in the province. The name of the organization was consequently changed to the Alberta Teachers Association.

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