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Part II of It's Elementary: A Brief History of Ontario's Public Elementary Teachers and Their Federations

Barbara Richter


Part 2: Early 1800′s to 1944

The beginnings of public education Throughout the early 1800s  the government  attempted  to establish publicly  funded education in Upper Canada but made only marginal inroads. Early teaching positions were filled by the clergy or by individuals  with few or no qualifications  to teach.  Local trustees competed with  each other not for the best teachers but for the cheapest ones. One education historian said of the period “…a teaching post was commonly regarded as the last refuge of the incompetent,  the inept, the unreliable.”1   This early perception of teachers would remain difficult to overcome and the struggle  for recognition as a profession continued into the next century.

Egerton Ryerson, appointed Superintendent of Education for Upper Canada in 1844, is generally credited as the father of public education in Ontario as he was a committed advocate of publicly funded mass education. He once wrote, “On  the importance of education generally we may remark, it is as necessary as the light; it should be as common as water, and as free as air.” He was also aware that Ontario needed a disciplined workforce to support the industrial revolution.

While Ryerson was the driving force behind public education, the Common School Acof 1846 gave it life. Building on the previous laws, it established a series of local school districts. Each district had three trustees who were responsible for hiring, paying, and firing teachers and administering funds collected through local taxes and provincial grants. In order to provide some measure of uniformity and raise the standards of education, the Act also created a system of provincially appointed inspectors as well as normal schools, the province’s first teacher training institutions.

The  Toronto  Normal  School,  the  first  in  Ontario,  opened  in  1847. Women were allowed to attend but in 1853 school authorities established a rule that there could be no communication between male and female stu- dents. Entrance requirements were minimal. Those applying had to be over 16, be able to read and write, do simple arithmetic, and have a clergyman’s letter in hand attesting to their sound moral character. Lectures ran from 9 in the morning to 8 in the evening with a curfew set at 9:30. All students had to attend church on Sunday. 2

Conditions for teachers were appalling, particularly in rural Ontario where most of the school boards consisted of a single one-room school, some with over 100 pupils. In return for poverty-level salaries, teachers prepared for and taught all grades and  maintained discipline through measures considered criminal by today’s standards. They kept the schools clean, hauled wood for the stove, brought water from the well, and started a pot to boil in the morning so students, bringing whatever meager offerings they could from their homes, would have a hot lunch at noon. Some teachers tended gardens on the school site to provide additional food for themselves or their students.

Teachers had no job security, no sick leave, no pensions, no health insurance, no rights. Some lived under the harsh scrutiny of communities eager to judge their every action and worked for parsimonious trustees who could neither read nor write but who had ultimate control over their livelihoods.

In 1847, the first year government records listed teachers by gender, only one in five public school teachers was a woman. In 1860 they were one in four, almost equal in 1870, and in the majority by 1880.3  Although women were well educated, made excellent teachers, and were able to maintain discipline, the driving force behind their increased numbers in education was economic. The great irony of public education in Ontario is that it was built on high principles but  implemented with tight purse strings. Simply put, a school board could hire two women for the price of one man – even though his salary was already low.


Why did women work for less?

  • Women had few opportunities to work outside the home. They could become seamstresses, domestics, factory workers, nurses, or teachers.
  • Once married, women were not allowed to remain in teaching. They were not considered true professionals and were sometimes called “trousseau teachers” because the few short years between school and marriage gave them limited experience.
  • Requirements for women teachers were lower than men’s, reinforcing the notion of lower pay.
  • Women were hired for the younger grades because it was thought they lacked the ability to discipline older children. Teaching young children was thought to be a motherly role not a scholarly one. It was undervalued and salaries were lower.

A  hierarchy  developed  and   even  though women made up the majority of teachers, they were isolated from positions of power and decision  making.  Men  earned  more  and  became principals, headmasters, and inspectors.


Early teacher organizations

In the following decades a variety of organizations for teachers sprang up around the province. Many were government sponsored and most focused on some form of  professional development. Many included ratepayers, trustees, inspectors, and other interested members of the public.

CommoRules For Teachers 1872

  1. Teachers each day will fill lamps, clean chimneys and trim wicks.
  2. Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day’s session.
  3. Make your pens carefully. You may whittle nibs to the individual tastes of the pupils.
  4. Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they go to Church regularly.
  5. After ten hours in school the teachers should spend their remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.
  6. Women teachers who marry or engage in uncomely conduct will be dismissed.
  7. Every teacher should lay aside from each pay a goodly sum of his earnings for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.
  8. Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barbershop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intentions, integrity and honesty.

The teacher who performs his labours faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of 25 cents per week in his pay providing the Board of Education approves. (Staton, Pat, and Beth Light. Speak With Their Own VoicesToronto: Federation of Women Teachers’ Associations of Ontario, 1987, p. 23.)

The first recorded teacher association organized specifically for the protection of teachers was the Teachers’ Protective Association/Organization established in 1886 in Perth County. School officials were highly suspicious, considering it too radical. They feared that once organized, teachers would support strikes and boycotts for better wages – a radical idea at the time. Some organizations, like the Ontario Teachers’ Alliance, were active only in urban areas.4


The birth of teacher federations

The Federation of Women Teachers’ Associations of Ontario (FWTAO) and the Ontario Public School Men Teachers’ Federation  (OPSMTF) – ETFO’s predecessor organizations – and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) were the first Ontario organizations formed to advance both the interests of the their members and the status of the teaching profession. In 1888 a group of eight women formed the Lady Teachers’ Association of Toronto. Soon after, women teachers in London, Galt, and Ottawa formed similar associations. These early associations of elementary women teachers banded together in 1918 to form FWTAO.

It is not unusual that women would have been the first to organize into a federation to advance their interests and those of the profession – and not just because their pay was poorer. Women were already organizing. Excluded from many professional associations they began to form groups for their own advancement and for social change. Riding on what history now terms the first wave of feminism many of these early women teachers were involved in the women’s suffrage movement, joined local chapters of the National Council of Women, Women’s Institutes, and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. About the only group they didn’t join were the local labour councils.

Although talk about creating a federation for male elementary teachers began in 1918 in Peterborough, OPSMTF was not officially formed until 1920. The original founders lobbied to have one federation for all teachers but when their efforts were unsuccessful, they formed their own organization.5 The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation was formed in 1919. L’association des enseignants francontariens (AEFO) was formed in 1939 and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) in 1944. In 1935 FWTAO, OPSMTF, and OSSTF formed the Ontario Teachers’ Council (OTC) to help them pool their resources to pay fees to the Cana- dian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) formed in 1920. In 1944 the OTC became the Ontario Teachers’ Federation.


Building the new federations

Today, when teachers hold federation meetings in their staff rooms and busloads of teachers can be seen arriving at demonstrations or strike votes, it is hard to imagine the difficulties faced by federation pioneers. Because membership in FWTAO and OPSMTF was voluntary, much of their resources and energy were devoted to signing up new members and renewing existing memberships.

In  rural  areas this  was very difficult. Teachers worked in  one-room schools scattered throughout the province hard even to find because of distance and poor travel conditions. A rural teacher boarding with a trustee, with no job security, aware that younger, cheaper, eager teachers were waiting in the wings, had to be brave to join the emerging federations. School officials and many others were suspicious of the new federations reflecting the anti-union atmosphere of the times. One newspaper called on an FWTAO organizer “to pack her kit and head for Russia.” 6

One early OPSMTF organizer remembers, “The greatest objection to joining was plain fear of the trustees and of the inspector. Early members preaching the federation gospel were very susceptible to the occupational hazard of dismissal. The monikers ‘rebel’, ‘troublemaker’, ‘trade-unionist’, and ‘rabble rouser’ were frequently attached to those making successful additions to the recruiting program. … Some board members bluntly stated that the teacher could be fired. If that proved too difficult, the teacher could be punished by no raise in salary and, in some cases, reduced salary.” 7 In spite of these drawbacks the hardy volunteers continued to give their time and energy to successfully build membership in both federations.


Working to protect members – 1918-1939

Even in hard times, higher salaries and job security were priority issues for both federations as they worked to improve the working lives of teachers. Without the benefit of collective bargaining, teachers, particularly those in  rural  areas,  negotiated  their  salaries  individually.  Both  federations worked to help teachers get higher pay and to dissuade others from undercutting incumbents by  working for less. They made gains in these early years, sometimes with the threat of strike,8 but the 1920s and 1930s proved to be difficult years. A serious recession, coupled with a teacher surplus in the mid 1920s stalled further improvements. Just as  conditions began to improve at the end of the decade, what had been built up came tumbling down, and fell even further with the stock market crash of 1929.

All teachers, regardless of when they taught, know only too well that the response of government and school boards to any economic downturn is to cut costs, slash salaries, close schools, and fire teachers. To cut costs, between 1920 and 1927,9  the Toronto Board denied women teachers their $100 annual increments while  continuing to give them to men. During the Depression of the 1930s the Hamilton Board threatened to close kindergartens, putting 33 teachers out of work and leaving many students without schooling.10  Other boards also threatened terminations unless teachers accepted pay cuts. In rural areas teachers fared even worse, with those out of work undercutting each other for the chance of a job.

The provincial government response was to slash grants to education and cut salaries down to the statutory minimum of $500. In 1928 the average salaries for men and women teachers were $1,703 and $1,155 respec- tively. Between 1930 and 1936 male teachers lost about 38 per cent of their salaries and women 55 per cent. 11

To keep the teacher surplus from lowering salaries and fuelling underbidding, the federations recommended adding an  additional year to the Normal School program. This would control the number of new teachers and would vastly improve teacher training. That, in turn, would improve student learning and raise the status of the profession. The government eventually agreed.

The federations made significant gains in protecting  teachers  as  employees  and  improving their  job  security during  these difficult  years. In 1928 federations began lobbying for a model individual  contract.  It  would  make  the  terms of  employment consistent across the province, outline each party’s rights and obligations, and protect individual teachers from  the impulsive or vengeful acts of trustees. By 1931 the provincial  government  had  adopted  the  federations’ model contract and encouraged boards to use it. It became law two decades later. The federations also successfully lobbied the government to pass An Act Respecting Disputes Between Teachers and Boards/ TheBoards of Reference Act protecting teachers by giving them  the right to challenge dismissal in  court. By  1943, boards  were also required to give reasons for dismissal in writing. The  federations also established programs to help individual teachers. FWTAO offered counseling services and hired a lawyer to assist members in their disputes with boards. This was a first and proved so popular in attracting new members that the federation limited access to legal counsel to new teachers and those who had been members for six months. An Employment Exchange Service helped women find jobs and a sick benefit fund provided some income security. OPSMTF offered a range of services, including insurance plans, and developed a counseling and relations committee to help teachers in difficulty.


Teachers reach out to those in need

Despite  earning  little  themselves,  elementary teachers were always ready  to  help  others  in need.  The  Depression  hit  Canada’s  western provinces first and Ontario teachers sent money, food,  and  clothing to  colleagues working for reduced pay, if they were paid at all. Many local teacher groups adopted western schools. When their own salaries plummeted,  Ontario  teachers still collected children’s clothes and shoes, fed their students hot meals in class, and sent fire wood home to parents. Since unemployed single women didn’t qualify for relief programs, Toronto women teachers gave  one per cent of their meager pay to support them.

When the Depression ended teachers moved directly into war work. Some spent their summers working on farms or  in  war industries. Others  worked  with  refugee  children,  raised money, did administrative work, collected used materials  like paper and rubber that factories needed, and volunteered for a variety of government  committees  formed  to  advance  the war effort.

More  than  200  women  teachers  spent  the summer  of  1943  filling  fuses  at  the  General Engineering Company  in  Scarborough.  Their pay and working conditions were far superior to anything they knew in the schools, and the company magazine ran a story about them that read, in part, “Teachers expressed amazement at facilities provided for employees in a  modern war plant. Free bus service! Low cost sickness insurance  and  hospitalization!  Free  medical care … Two recesses a day with no children to look after. …These we must assume from their surprise  are  not  things  usually  provided  for school teachers.” 12


The war years and mandatory membership

September 10, 1939. Canada was officially at war. Most teacher salaries had not recovered from Depression-era cuts and were well under $2000 per year,13 and teachers left the classroom for the more lucrative work in war industries. Men – and some women – enlisted in the armed forces. Although married women and retirees were welcomed back, the exodus created a severe teacher shortage. The federal government responded by declaring teaching an essential service and forcing teachers to remain in the positions they held in 1942-43. 14  This made bargaining wage increases extremely difficult.

For many years the federations had lobbied the government to make federation membership mandatory. Teacher federations in Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba, and New Brunswick already had mandatory membership. The Ontario federations finally found an ally in George Drew, elected Premier in 1943. Education issues were an important part of his election platform and he assumed the education portfolio when he became premier.

It also helped that Drew had a minority government with the relatively new Canadian Commonwealth Federation (CCF) as the official opposition and some speculate that Drew also wanted to appease teachers to prevent them from turning too far “left” for an ally.

A 1943 poll showed 93 per cent of teachers favoured mandatory membership.15  With this strong mandate the federations renewed their efforts and in April 1944 the Teaching Profession Act was passed. It created the Ontario Teachers’ Federation as the umbrella group with five teacher federations (FWTAO, OPSMTF, OSSTF, AEFO, OECTA) as affiliates.

The Teaching Profession Act gave statutory recognition to the federations as professional organizations eliminating any question about their right to represent their members. Federations would raise standards, enforce a code of ethics, and establish their right to bargain with school boards. They would put resources into member programs and member protection. With mandatory membership in place, the federations were ready to make history.


1  Althouse, J. G. The Ontario Teacher: 1800-1910. Toronto: W.J. Gage Ltd., 1967, p. 5.

2  French, Doris. High Button Bootstraps. Toronto : Ryerson Press, 1968, p. 17

3  Althouse, p. 46.

4  Hopkins, R.A. The Long March. Toronto: Baxter Publishing, 1969, p. 35.

5  Morgan, Charlotte. “Happy 75th Anniversary, OPSTF” in OPSTF News, February 1996, pp. 6-7.

6  Labatt, Mary. Always a Journey. Toronto: FWTAO, 1993, p. 22.

7  Hopkins, p. 56.

8  French, p. 43

9  Labatt, p. 18.

10 French, p. 77.

11 Staton Pat, and Beth Light. Speak with Their Own Voice: A Documentary History of the Federation of Women TeachersAssociations of Ontario. Toronto: Federation of Women Teachers’ Associations of Ontario, 1987, p.100.

12 French, op.cit., p.97.

13 Hopkins, op.cit., p. 391.

14 Federal Order in Council P.C.