Elementary Agricultural Education

Trainee teachers "studying rural science" in Victoria, July 1914
British Columbia Archives D-07298

In 1913, the federal goverment introduced legislation intended to assist the agricultural industry and to foster "rural values" in Canada. The Agricultural Instruction Act [3-4 Geo. V.,c.5], which took effect in March 1914, allocated $10 million dollars to the provinces over a ten year period. British Columbia used its share of the money to establish the Elementary Agricultural Education Branch within the Department of Education.

John Wesley Gibson, who had been involved with rural education and the Macdonald-Robertson progressive movement in Ontario, was appointed director in July 1914.

As well as developing elementary courses in nature study and rural science, Gibson was active in promoting school gardening projects and in encouraging the beautification of school grounds. With a team of District Supervisors of Agricultural Instruction, he helped organize agricultural exhibitions and school fairs.

During the First World War, he served as Provincial Organizer of the Wartime Food Conservation Committee. He also organized a number of projects, including the "Patriotism and Production" schools campaign, a scheme designed to raise funds for the war effort. On top of his many other responsibilities, Gibson was also director of the Summer School for Teachers.

The Elementary Agricultural Education Branch initiated several innovative programmes. However, Gibson encountered scepticism and indifference among parents, teachers, and school trustees, many of whom thought his missionary zeal for "rural values" was at odds with the realities of an increasingly urban industrial society.

His rather rigid and highly structured approach to school gardening -- as evident in the many circulars issued from his office -- may also have been counter-productive. And his assumption that teachers and pupils would actively maintain their school gardens during the summer holidays -- as outlined in his Memoranda to School Boards, 1915 -- was unrealistic, especially in rural districts where there was a high turnover of teachers every summer.

In any case, during the post-war recession, the provincial goverment was unable and unwilling to maintain Gibson's programmes without substantial support from Ottawa. So, when federal funding ended in 1924, the Elementary Agricultural Branch was pruned drastically. District supervisors were dismissed in 1925. Before long, this experiment in progressivism had become little more than a vehicle for landscaping urban and municipal school sites. The Elementary Agricultural Education programme ceased completely in 1929 when Gibson was appointed Director of the High School Correspondence Branch.

Patrick A. Dunae, The School Record (Victoria: British Columbia Archives and Records Service, 1992), p. 73; Belle C. Gibson, Teacher-Builder: The Life and Work of J. W. Gibson (Victoria: privately printed, 1961), pp. 101-109; David C. Jones, "'We Cannot Allow It to be Run by Those Who Do Not Understand Education:' Agricultural Schooling in the Twenties," BC Studies, No. 39 (Autumn 1978), 30-60; and Jones, "Creating Rural Minded Teachers: The British Columbia Experience, 1914-1924," in David C. Jones, Nancy M. Sheehan and Robert M. Stamp (eds.), Shaping the Schools of the Canadian West (Calgary: Detselig Enterprises, 1979), pp. 155-176.