1921 New Westminster teacher strike

by Janet Nicol

Teachers in New Westminster delivered a special valentine to their school board when they announced an “illegal” strike February 14, 1921. Since the founding of the BC Teachers’ Federation in 1917, only one other local, Victoria, had defied their employer. The New Westminster walk out almost a century ago marked an important step toward full bargaining rights for BC teachers.

The full story of this lively and important part of teacher history is available at –
http://www.labourheritagecentre.ca/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/BookletNewWestminster_web.pdf

The plaque remembering this strike was unveiled today (October 30, 2017) at New Westminster Secondary School and will be permanently installed at another location soon.

***

I have written this additional story–not published elsewhere–based on researching the New Westminster strike of 1921: 

Between the lines – glimpsing school days long ago

by Janet Nicol

If any teacher needs a reminder of how far we have come as empowered educators with hard-won professional autonomy, consider reading the school board minutes in decades past. A glimpse of the meticulously typed New Westminster records of the early 1920s reveal glaring prejudices in an era when elected school board trustees held power over individual teachers.

The case of Miss Whelan provides such an illustration. A special meeting was called by the elected seven-member board October 15, 1920 to discuss her dismissal from the position of assistant teacher at T.J. Trapp Technical school. The principal, Mr. Lambert, charged her with “insubordination” and the “failure to work harmoniously with the principal and other members of the staff.”

Miss Whelan protested and a petition requesting the board re-consider the decision was initiated by a teacher colleague, Mrs. Fulbrook. Miss Whelan sent a letter to the board defending herself as well, stating she had a doctor’s note explaining her work absences.

“After considering the letter of protest from Miss A. Whelan,” the board minutes of January 10 read, “the secretary was instructed to courteously inform her that the board considered the matter closed.”

Miss Whelan’s plea to unsympathetic male trustees did not go unnoticed by teachers in the district. Only trustee Sam Bowell would oppose the heavy-handed direction of the board weeks later, during the Feburary 1921 teacher dispute. Miss Whelan’s dismissal undoubtedly explains the association’s insistence during strike negotiations that the board agree to a “fair hearing” if a teacher is dismissed. The Daily Columbian was critical of the board too during the dispute, characterizing the “closed door” meetings as “Star Chamber sessions.”

Several of the trustees in this period had prominent positions in the community—and two (Trapp and Howay) had local schools named after them. Board chair Thomas Trapp owned a hardware store and had served on the board for 30 years. Robert Gray, board secretary, was a former mayor and Frederic Howay was a judge well-known throughout the province. Howay was biased against trade unions, having meted out stiff prison terms to several striking coal miners during the 1912-14 Vancouver Island dispute. It is instructive to note Howay resigned as trustee on February 19, 1921 following a contract agreement favouring the striking teachers.

While female teachers represented most of the elementary school teachers in the district, they were underrepresented in the crucial strike negotiations of 1921. However a “Miss (Edna) Knight” does appear in the board minutes of December 21, 1920 as one of four teachers presenting the association’s demands in the lead up to the strike.

References to Chinese-Canadian students in the minutes indicate they are segregated in to separate classes and in one instance the December 8 1920 minutes notes that trustees met such a class with a “gift of books on British history and naval matters for use among the oriental pupils to stimulate them.”

Also segregated are special needs students, referred to in the minutes as “backward pupils” and of “low mentality.”

We can be grateful for progressive change. Then again, there are some things that never change. Minutes of the board taken February 2nd 1922 indicate an engineer reported an “…uncalled for ringing of the fire alarm in the High School on the night of the 27th of January.” The trustees decided it would be prudent to change the “alarm boxes.”

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