School teachers in British Columbia lost the right to vote in provincial elections or even participate in election campaigning in 1878, just seven years after BC elected its first provincial government in 1871. They joined native-born first citizens and Chinese immigrants on the list of residents disenfranchised, banned from the ballot.
The latter half of the 1800s was an unsettled time for a brand-new provincial government, not quite sure of its responsibilities and nervous about possible challenges to its authority.
A historical timeline published by today’s BC Teachers’ Federation is designed to guide its members and the general public through the steps leading to today’s full collective agreement bargaining rights. It starts: “In 1872, the initial Public Schools Act for BC contained few rights for teachers (who) were organized into a Teacher Institute dominated by government officials.”
Item two in the timeline jumps to 1917 when the BCTF was officially formed to deal “with economic, professional and social concerns …”
There is no mention in the timeline of the earlier draconian suspension of the right of teachers to vote or participate in an election campaign and I could not find a written record as I combed through hard-to-read ancient Daily Colonists and volumes of major and minor Statutes of BC. I found a statute number announcing the prohibition – SBC 1878 c.22 – but with no meat on the bone. (A data contribution from any amateur or professional historian with better eyes and/or a quicker mind would be gratefully appreciated.)
For now, let me just say that as the new provincial government began to flex its muscles in the 1800s, banning people from voting became a favourite form of discipline. The prohibition against teachers voting was withdrawn in 1883 which indicates teachers were banned from participating in two general elections – the year of the ban, May 1878 and the vote in July 1882.
Teachers were not the only target group to be denied the vote by a nervous government trying to curb costs by holding down wages and refusing to even consider social benefits for their workers. Obviously, come election time, the government of the day couldn’t be punished by those denied the vote. Other groups excluded over the years included civil servants, judges, police officers, political agents, the military and “the inmates of insane asylums.”
Among the last to be removed from the list of the disenfranchised were “the clergy.” Why they were ever on the list is a mystery, but men of God (no women in the pulpit at the time) were not allowed to vote until 1916 – one year before women finally got the franchise in 1917.
A year later on January 12, 1918, Mary Ellen Smith won a byelection in Vancouver. And, two years after that, two clergymen transferred from the pulpit to political soap-box and the legislative debating chamber. Reverend Thomas Menzies was elected in Comox and Canon Joshua Hinchcliffe in Victoria as they made the jump from preaching to politics in 1920.
We have come a long way from those bad old days when the government thought its power unchallengeable and the populace accepted ridiculous decisions without question. Governments did become wiser with the passing of the years but only because their people made them.
A hundred and forty years ago, in 1878, a total of 6,377 voters elected 25 members to a new legislative assembly with government playing tough guy with a handful of poorly organized school teachers. In 1916, some 179,774 voters elected 47 MLAs and a year later in 1917 the fledgling BC Teachers’ Federation was born.
Today, the BCTF is a formidable organization ready enough, rich enough, strong enough, smart enough to fight and protect its members. Sometimes it gets too smart for its own good, forgets its role in the grand scheme of things and the fact that the many benefits of the teaching profession are paid for by people who can only dream of such good fortune.
Over the next few months – maybe for as long as a year (the current agreement expires June 30,2019) – the BCTF will be engaged in debate with the government to hammer out a new collective agreement. On October 26 and 27, the BCTF will be holding a members bargaining conference to discuss its “vital” objectives when formal negotiations begin late this year or early next.
We, who will pick up the tab for whatever the teachers win at the table, can only wait and watch and hope that BCTF demands are reasonable and that the government’s response is justifiable and affordable, and that the outcomes are the product of honest explanations of costs for the benefit of those of us who pay the bill.
Our representative at the table is the government – and we of voting age have full rights to run, vote and/ or campaign in the general election scheduled a blink in time after the new BCTF collective agreement is signed.
20/20 could be an interesting time with clear sight on political issues more important than ever before.