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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 1, September 2004

In memoriam
Charles D. Ovans

by Bob Buzza

It’s a long journey from teaching in an isolated rural school in B.C. in 1933 to working in Geneva in 1965 helping prepare a teachers’ status manifesto for ILO and UNESCO. Charlie Ovans took that journey, and teachers everywhere continue to benefit from it. Charlie died July 5, 2004, at 91.

Ovans was appointed BCTF general secretary, on the death of Harry Charlesworth, in 1944, serving in that capacity until his retirement in 1973. He had started teaching when every school was its own school district, when arbitrary hiring and firing of teachers were common, and when bargaining rights were non-existent.

Charlie Ovans and BCTF staffers Stan Evans and Alan Spragge deserve the credit for organizing the teachers of B.C., for improving their economic status, and for setting the stage for their many professional development activities.

Retired staffers say that collegiality was the most precious feature of their first few years with the BCTF. In accordance with Ovans’s definition of collegiality as "mutual coercion, mutually applied," peer review reports and proposals were the norm. The results were awesome.

Ovans was an idea-stimulator par excellence. He revelled in exchanges free of ideology, dogma, or convention, and he grew with every exchange—as did those who interacted with him.

In 1966, he received the BCTF’s prestigious G.A. Fergusson Award. The citation reads, in part: He is held in high regard by other prominent educators, not because of his position, but because of his stature as a philosopher and an original thinker.

Other awards and recognition abound: member of the Order of Canada, Quance lecturer, honorary life member of the B.C. Parent–Teachers’ Federation and the Canadian Education Association, advisor on the future of education in Alberta, Canadian representative to the International Management of Training for Educational Change in Norway. The list is long.

Shortly after Ovans’s retirement, the UBC Alumni Chronicle featured him in an article by Clive Cocking entitled "The loneliness of the long-distance radical." The thrust of the article is that Charlie left the Federation early out of frustration that the school structures of the day were simply not educational structures, and that his pleas for radical, fundamental restructuring to reflect dramatic changes in society were not being heeded. It would be a fitting tribute to Charlie if readers were to consider his challenge to educators then, and its relevance now:

"There is no over-riding purpose to which everybody involved in the educational system is committed. There is no agreement among all the people engaged in so-called ‘educational’ tasks as to the nature of the educational process.

"A new education system can be developed if educators go back and redefine, in clear terms, the basic purpose of schools today and then go on to methodically employ the increasing new knowledge in the life sciences toward achieving this purpose."

In July 2004, BCTF Executive Director Ken Novakowski attended the 4th World Congress of Education International in Porto Allegre, Brazil. While there, he obtained a copy of the "1966 ILO/UNESCO Recommendation Concerning the Status of Teachers." It’s primary author? Charles D. Ovans. It’s surely rare to have one’s seminal piece influence education internationally for almost four decades!

Charlie’s official obit was brief and fitting: "He was loved by his family and respected by all who knew him."

Bob Buzza is a retired executive director of the BCTF.

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