Bill Waiser

Saskatchewan turned to Great Britain to fill teacher vacancies after Second World War

In August 1954, the Young family moved into their temporary new home, a three-bedroom apartment atop Albert School in Saskatoon. Across the city, another family, the Goddards, were settling into a small suite in the King Edward School tower.

Young and Goddard were among the first 138 teachers Saskatchewan recruited in Great Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. By the time the program ended in 1973, as many as 1,500 teachers had been lured to the province by the promise of a better career — and better pay.

After the Second World War, Saskatchewan faced a serious teacher shortage, especially in rural schools that offered high school credits.

Teachers from other parts of Canada weren’t interested in the positions, and the province consequently had to make do with “study supervisors” in many schools.

In January 1954, the Saskatchewan School Trustees’ Association, in co-operation with the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation, placed a recruitment ad, “Teachers Wanted for Western Canada,” in the London-based Times Educational Supplement.

Applicants were screened by Saskatchewan recruiters about their qualifications and experience before being offered a placement, starting in September 1954. As a further inducement, the province provided a loan to cover the cost of the trip to Canada. This travel assistance was available only to the teacher, so those who had a partner and/or family usually sold most of their belongings to raise the money to get here.

Those who headed to Saskatchewan, especially single women, did so out of a sense of adventure. Joan Williams from Pontypridd, South Wales, wanted to see another part of the world and started packing for Saskatchewan an hour after she signed her contract.

There were also push factors at play, in particular rationing in post-war Britain.

Few, though, knew about the Saskatchewan winter weather and the isolation of some districts. Perhaps that’s why the British recruits were met when they arrived in the province; local officials were probably worried they might change their minds.

All of the new teachers and their families received a warm welcome. Dr. Fred Gathercole, Saskatoon’s public school superintendent, and his wife Dorothy, for example, went out of their way to make the Youngs comfortable at Albert School, supplying bedding and scrounging furniture.

Teachers assigned to village or rural schools had a more difficult adjustment.

Thelma Carnegie from Glasgow, Scotland, suffered “culture shock” for the first few months. Nothing in her Scottish background or education prepared her for life in small-town Saskatchewan.

She also had to get used to being a “curiosity” living in a “fish bowl.” She created quite a stir, especially among “aghast” school administrators, when she visited the local pub. She also jokingly complained there were no “eligible men — only farmers.” Ironically, she married a farmer who promised to resume his teaching career.

Dennis and Terry Harley, now living in Saskatoon, were among 125 teachers recruited for the 1957-58 school year. Dennis, a graduate of Shoreditch College, was hired to teach Manual Training (now called Industrial Arts). Twenty-two-year-old Terry had secretarial skills.

When the young couple stepped off the train in Regina, they had “more or less nothing but a bit of savings.” Within a year, though, they had bought their first house — something that would have been impossible in England — and paid off the travel loan. They later relocated to Saskatoon when Fred Gathercole hired Dennis on the recommendation of fellow Shoreditch graduates.

John and Carol Mills, both teachers from Nottingham, came almost a decade later to Preeceville.  Their arrival in Canada was a little rocky. There was a train strike at the time and they had to travel from Quebec City to Yorkton by bus. For John, a geographer, it was a good introduction to the country. He later became a principal and was able to further his education at the University of Regina.

Only about 10 percent of the teacher recruits stayed in Saskatchewan. Dennis and Terry Harley and John and Carol Mills count themselves among them.

They stayed, in part, because they did not see a future in England. They also had children here.

What also mattered was the network of teacher recruits. Many became lifelong friends on the boat trip to Canada, friends that were like family. As Carol Mills fondly remembers, “we felt close to each other” because of their shared experience — and the decision to make Canada home.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: Dennis & Terry Harley 
Credit: The Harley Family.

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers