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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 1, September 2005

Election tool kit and beyond:
A foray into the history of public education and John Jessop

by Paula Naylor

It’s funny how one internet journey can launch a whole other research adventure. It all started with my decision to order Election BC’s Grade Five Election Tool Kit. I planned to adapt it for inclusion in the social studies unit I was creating for my Grade 4s. While parts of the kit have been useful, I was quite disappointed by the sections dealing with the rights of Canadian citizens and B.C. election history.

The section that delineates our rights as provided through the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Canada’s Human Rights Code is prefaced with: "all Canadians are protected by certain rights based on Canada’s tradition of democracy and respect for human dignity and freedom" (p. 24). This statement is misleading when we consider just how many of us have been excluded from voting in B.C. at different times. A comprehensive list is available on the Elections BC web site. Given that women, Aboriginals, Asians, South Asians, Mennonites, teachers (yes, teachers!), and civil servants (yes, them too!) among others have been prohibited from participating in elections in the past, it seems more appropriate that the preface recognize our efforts to create a democracy that truly respects human dignity and freedom by making us all equal partners in the selection of our governing bodies.

While the tool kit features a section entitled "Important Dates in BC Election History" (p. 28), sadly, this abbreviated version of the list available on the Elections BC web site fails to mention our embarrassing history of exclusion, making reference only to when women achieved the right to vote. This is indeed unfortunate as it intimates that we should hide (or ignore) the fact that respect and tolerance were hard fought for, not inalienable rights. Our students benefit when we use history to inform the present. It enables them to better prepare for the future. Perhaps more young people would exercise the right to vote if they were aware of its fragile history. It’s too bad the creators of the tool kit didn’t take this into consideration. Luckily, we can access more complete information on their web site, which is where I learned that teachers in B.C. were prohibited from voting or campaigning from 1878 to 1883. That certainly piqued my curiosity.

During our class discussion of B.C. election history, my students provided the following theories: (1) teachers already had the privilege of teaching, (2) teachers have a job that’s fun, (3) the government thought teachers weren’t important, (4) the government wasn’t sure teachers had enough experience to vote, (5) the government thought teachers had enough work to do already, and (6) the government thought they’d vote for the things that were best for teachers.

Nonplussed, I decided that it warranted further investigation. While intense Googling on my part failed to find any direct reference to what led to the exclusion, my guess is that it has to do with the fact that John Jessop (a teacher who became B.C.’s first provincial superintendent of education) supported the political faction that brought down Premier George Anthony Walkem’s government in a non-confidence motion in 1876.

Walkem (whose government had previously passed a statute that denied the vote to Chinese and Aboriginal people in 1874) forced Jessop and the entire Board of Education to resign when he got back in power in 1878 (having regained popular support after defending the arrest of striking Nanaimo miners in 1877!). It appears that Jessop had further incurred Walkem’s ire by forwarding a resolution from the provincial teachers’ convention criticizing proposed changes to the School Act of 1872, which Jessop had helped draft. The government then proceeded not only to amend The School Act, but to abolish the Board of Education as well.

Jessop, a proponent for free, non-sectarian education, was earlier involved in what is considered to be Canada’s first teachers’ strike. He and his Victoria teaching colleagues withdrew their services in 1870, after having worked both without pay as well as on reduced pay for previous years due to unremedied education funding shortfalls. Their intent was to press for local school tax bylaws. The tactic failed and Victoria District and Central Schools remained closed for the next two years.

In 1872, after numerous unsuccessful bids for the post, Jessop became superintendent of education. During his six-year tenure the public school system experienced expansion and improvements. More schools were built. More teachers were hired. Professional development initiatives were introduced. Structures were put in place to support rural schools. According to Jessop, children "will be just what education or the want of it may make them. With it a majority may grow up respectable members of society, without it many will become inmates of our jails and penitentiaries." That’s certainly food for thought in light of the political climes in which public education has found itself over the past four years.

If anyone out there knows anything more about why teachers weren’t allowed to vote, please let me know.

Paula Naylor teaches at Queen Victoria Elementary School Annex, Vancouver.

Elections BC, www.elections.bc.ca, Dictionary of Canadian Biographies Online, www.biographi.ca, The Homeroom: British Columbia’s history of education web site, www.mala.bc.ca/homeroom.

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