Investing in education

Teaching unions have a long history of pressing for change

By Ian McKechnie

Lindsay Model Class, 1908. Model Schools furnished Ontario's elementary school teachers with practical experience in the classroom. Courtesy McKechnie family collection.

Students leaving Leslie Frost Pubic School for their summer holidays 60 years ago were probably blissfully unaware of a simmering conflict between the public school board and the Lindsay Council over additions to their school.

It was June of 1964, and council had recently – and seemingly grudgingly – passed a bylaw allowing for the issuance of debentures to cover the cost of an addition to the nine-year-old elementary school in suburban Lindsay. The cost? $83,000. That figure didn’t sit well with one councillor, who complained about cost increases and suggested that “these democratically-elected school board members might raise their own money.”

This spectacle was playing out against a provincial proposal that municipal councils be given the authority to make amendments to budgets recommended by local school boards. Not surprisingly, concerns were raised by the province’s principal teaching union about how this would ultimately affect the work of teachers and thus the student learning experience. “The Ontario Teachers’ Federation,” reported an editorial in the Jun. 29, 1964 edition of the Lindsay Daily Post, “say they feel if councils were given authority to veto school board requests, it would result in unnecessary and harmful delays in the implementation of the boards’ business.”

In response, the OTF was resolute in insisting that education be treated as an investment, rather than an expense.

For more than a century, teachers’ unions and associations have been advocating for the value of public education by asking questions of problematic proposals, holding governments to account, and supporting both teachers and those in their care. And over the years, teachers and pupils in what is now Kawartha Lakes alike have benefited from the existence of such entities as the Victoria County Teachers’ Association, the Ontario Federation of Teachers, and more recently the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF).

A New Educational Association

Marion Henderson’s class at Fenelon Falls Public School, ca. 1907. Local teachers found support in the recently-formed Victoria County Educational Association. Courtesy Maryboro Lodge: The Fenelon Museum.

Turn the clock back to Jan. 14, 1905. Delegates of the West Victoria Teachers’ Association have gathered at the Lindsay Public Library to discuss the feasibility of collaborating with their counterparts in the East Victoria Teachers’ Association in planning a two-day education convention. Out of this event, it was hoped, a new county-wide association would be formed in the interests of supporting educators. “It is proposed to have at this convention, in addition to the teachers of the county, the trustees and others interested in the cause of education,” reported the Lindsay Weekly Post on Jan. 20. “No doubt there is much good work which such a body can accomplish.”

The convention transpired over the space of two days, May 22-23, 1905, and a constitution for a teachers’ association was drawn up. Known originally as the “Victoria County Educational Association,” the organization was said to be the first of its kind in the province. Almost 120 teachers were in attendance at this convention, representing schools from all over the county.

A year later, the VCEA’s annual convention was dealing with topics that would become perennial questions for successive generations of educators – how to effectively press for change through organized labour, and whether salaries were too low. “I recognize the opportunities of this organization and am heartily glad that we have joined forces in this county,” Newton Smale, president of the VCEA told the teachers and trustees assembled at Lindsay Collegiate Institute on May 31, 1906. “Our influence with the government should be more when our requests are endorsed by trustees, teachers, and inspectors in common.” Smale also lamented the low salaries being paid to teachers, remarking that “it is to be regretted that the wage of a moulder in the Lindsay shops is more than the salary of the moulders of thought and character of the future rulers of society.”

The VCEA was also concerned about advocating for its members in the face of indifference from trustees – apparently a major concern among local teachers 118 years ago. “We sometimes forget that the trustee has a two-fold duty, that is, a duty to the taxpayer and a duty to the child,” noted Mr. Smale. It seems that several VCEA members had spoken out about how “there is nothing that the teachers suffer more from than the lack of sympathy from parents and trustees.”

Two years later, members of the VCEA, now rechristened as the Victoria County Teachers’ Association, gathered at L.C.I. and listened to a stirring lecture given by Mr. J. Tilley, the inspector of model schools for Ontario (Model Schools furnished elementary school teachers with practical experience). In a paper titled ‘Some Changes in Our School System,’ Tilley echoed Newton Smale’s comments from 1906 about wages. If aspiring teachers were expected to undertake increasingly rigourous training, he asked, was it not unreasonable that their remuneration also be increased? “The better teachers are trained and paid the more likely they are to make teaching their life’s work,” Tilley asserted.

It seems like an obvious statement, but it was something that was not always appreciated.

Advocating for Equitable Wages

Fast forward another four decades, to the spring of 1947. J.A. McGibbon, a Lindsay judge, wrote a letter to council in which he strenuously objected to a decision of the Board of Education to grant a blanket raise to local teachers. McGibbon felt that local teachers were already well-paid, and ought to be paid on the basis of merit alone – not through an equitable payment plan.

McGibbon also took issue with teachers’ requests for a cumulative sick leave plan. “I am opposed to granting any further increases than that provided by the Statutes,” he stated. “A person that is blessed with good health should be very thankful indeed, rather than trying to make a monetary question out of the whole situation,” McGibbon sneered.

For Judge McGibbon, education was clearly an expense – not an investment.

It was with this attitude in mind that S.G.B. Robinson, general secretary of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation wrote a detailed letter to council, in response to a request by teaching staff from Lindsay Collegiate Institute.

Hazel Graham’s Grade 1 class, Fenelon Falls Public School, 1962. A few years before, FFPS teachers went to the Ontario Teachers’ Federation in search of a more equitable salary schedule. Courtesy Maryboro Lodge: The Fenelon Museum.

“The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation strongly resents such misleading and ill-considered statements, particularly when coming from one who no doubt commands the highest respect in the community,” Robinson began. He then proceeded to enumerate the rationale for the raise: teachers’ salaries had lagged behind the rising cost of living; they were lower than other professions requiring the same time spent in training; and the services provided by teachers to community and nation alike were as valuable as those rendered by any other professional group – and were therefore deserving of comparable salaries.

Echoing Mr. Tilley’s address to the VCEA decades before, Robinson concluded that “to retain your best teachers and to attract the best young people into the profession, it is imperative that fair salaries be paid to those now in the profession.” He then took McGibbon himself to task by asking how “a judge who recently accepted a blanket increase, which is said to be close to $1500, begrudge a modest increase to members of a profession rendering invaluable services to the town of Lindsay?”

Unfortunately for local teachers, the Victoria County Council endorsed McGibbon’s arguments against the “blanket raise” – yet as Robinson’s firmly-worded letter made clear, the OSSTF and other education unions would not sit on the sidelines and let their members be undermined by shortsighted leadership at any level of government.

The salary question came up again in 1955, when teachers at the Fenelon Falls Public School asked for an increase in salary. A year later, though, Fenelon teachers declined to simply accept a $300 salary increase regardless of teaching experience and instead asked the school coard to establish a salary schedule based on recommendations from the Ontario Teachers’ Federation. This, it was pointed out, would set forth maximum and minimum wages and place teachers at FFPS on the same level as other schools across the province. Once more, the union advocated for its members in ensuring that the finer points of a brewing salary dispute were clarified and equity achieved.

Verulam-area teachers gather at the end of the 1951-1952 school year. From left to right: Jean Rutherford, Irene McIlwayne, Hazel Dyke, Alice Graham, Hazel Hill, Betty Umphrey, Roberta Wright, and Minie Gray. Courtesy Maryboro Lodge: The Fenelon Museum.

Looking Ahead

Teaching unions remain active in negotiating for salaries, benefits, prep time, and more funding for programming and student supports – but they do much more.

“Public education is the great leveller,” says Kellie Kirkpatrick, president of the Trillium Lakelands Elementary Teacher Local. “We do a lot of social justice and equity work; our mandate is to support our members, our members come from a broad cross-section of society, and in advocating for them, we are advocating for our students, but also our community.”

Looking back into history, Kirkpatrick agrees that despite the good work being done by teachers’ unions over the years and the advancements made, some things haven’t changed and for too many “education is considered to be an expense, not an investment.”

Like Newton Smale, members of the VCEA, S.G.B. Robinson, and the OTF before them, today’s advocates for education will continue to press for changes in mind, heart, and policy as they prepare today’s students to be the citizens of tomorrow.




  1. Wallace says:

    “McGibbon felt that local teachers were already well-paid, and ought to be paid on the basis of merit alone” —- what a crazy notion huh ?

  2. Joan Abernethy says:

    Teachers should be paid a fair salary to teach but not to level society based on group identity. Children need to learn the skills they require to navigate a rapidly changing world not that they are entitled, disenfranchised, or stuck in the past.

    Life is unpredictable and by the time today’s elementary school students graduate from high school, what they are learning now will be obsolete. Investing in education that will be obsolete in a few years and in harmful social engineering that will hobble students in the global market will yield a poor return. That isn’t to say our law makers should not invest tax dollars in curricula that teach values but that they should create lessons that teach students to value freedom, human rights, democracy and the rule of law while understanding that what those values mean can vary widely from culture to culture.

    In addition to STEM skills and an appreciation of arts, culture, history and heritage, a good education will teach students to respect others and the law and to fight for what is right. It will give them the tools they need to be life long learners, to survive the teachers and the lessons past law makers invested in, and to chart their own path. It will give them the gift of purpose and it will set them free.

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