The FISA Story: Meeting a Challenge

 The beginnings of the Federation of Independent School Associations lie in the turbulent mid-sixties. It was a time of questioning and social upheaval, and a time in which additional change and innovation clamored for additional funding in operating and capital accounts for schools throughout the nation and abroad. The independent schools in British Columbia were not exempt from the effects of the worldwide shifts in perspective and focus. But over time, they benefited from increased tolerance with respect to the demands of minorities throughout the world. The sixties were the incubation years for the changes to come.

B.C. independent schools had operated without support from the provincial government since the 1870's, but in spite of this had steadily grown in number, especially in the post World War II period. Even official legal recognition was lacking for the education services they performed to the benefit of society.

Thus it was understandable that in the sixties groups of independent schools in British Columbia were casting about to find ways to achieve both legal recognition as well as funding for their financially strained operations. For any one group of independent schools to pursue these goals on its own, however, would have been impossible, as was borne out by the long struggle for recognition and support carried out by the Roman Catholic Schools during the late forties and fifties.

Their determined attempts did score successes. Their efforts gained access to free textbooks, some limited school health services, and school property tax exemption. Helpful as these achievements were, however, they did not bring the kind of relief that was required for long term needs, perhaps even survival.

The First Gathering

The first exploratory meeting of independent schools' representatives of British Columbia took place on October 17, 1964 at the invitation of Mr. E. R. Larsen, headmaster of Shawnigan Lake School, who was also chairman of the Independent Schools Association.

 During that first meeting it became apparent that several other groups of independent schools had also laid plans for consultations with like-minded groups. Hence the assembled representatives soon agreed that joint action was desirable and decided on the appointment of a committee to formulate a constitution for an organization to speak for independent schools. This committee included spokesmen of the four independent school groupings that were to be the backbone of determination in the struggle to come. They were Mr. E. R. Larsen from the Independent Schools Association (ISA), Brother J. B. Clarkson and Mr. John Busch representing the Roman Catholic Independent Schools (CIS) Mr. Gerry Ensing of the Society of Christian Schools in B.C. (SCSBC) (formerly National Union of Christian Schools, District 12), and Mr. D. H. Neumann of the Mennonite Educational Institute and Mr. W. van der Kamp of the William of Orange Christian School representing the Associate Member Group (AMG).

Constitution and Structure

 The major consideration in the formulation of the constitution was whether to form a federation of schools or a federation of associations. The latter was decided on, so that no one point of view would receive a majority of votes by the sheer weight of numbers. Thus a federation of associations was formed, with all associations, regardless of size, having an equal vote in policy making, even though fees were to be paid on a per student basis. It was accepted that the associations that had the most students would benefit the most when eventual success was achieved.

Moreover, it was argued, that whereas the federation would be pursuing the acceptance of a minority point of view, it should grant equal rights to minorities within its own membership.

After a series of meetings during the year 1965, the Federation of Independent School Associations in British Columbia (FISA) was formally founded on January 19, 1966, a, year and three months after the first exploratory meeting had been held. That historic meeting took place in the library of Corpus Christi School in Vancouver, where the late Archbishop James Carney, an enthusiastic backer, was the parish priest at the time.

There were only a dozen supporters present for that historic gathering. They were Mr. E. R. (Ned) Larsen, of Shawnigan Lake Boys School (ISA), the first President; Mr. John Busch, of the Catholic Schools Association (CIS) the first Vice-President; Mr. Gerry Ensing, of the Vancouver Christian School (SCSBC), the first Secretary; Mr. Walter van der Kamp, of the William of Orange Christian School (AMG), the first Treasurer; Miss Rosalind Addison, Miss Muriel Bedford-Jones and Mrs. H. Symonds of Crofton House School (ISA); Most Rev. Remi De Roo, Bishop of Victoria (CIS); Mr. H. Klassen of the Mennonite Educational Institute (AMG); Mr. I.J. Levi of the Vancouver Talmud Torah (AMG); Mr. D.H. Neumann of the Mennonite Educational Institute (AMG); and Mr. A.F. Penstock of the Seventh Day Adventist Schools (AMG).

FISA in Action

 It took considerable time for the groups, and the personalities within them, to become acquainted to the point where mutual appreciation, respect, and trust developed. The diversity was accentuated by two naturalized Canadians, who were key contributors in the early meetings: Father J. V. O'Reilly, an Irish Oblate priest from Prince George, and Walter van der Kamp, a Dutch Calvinist and principal William of Orange Christian School, then located in Burnaby. Consequently it was not until November 1, 1967 that Federation of Independent School Associations presented first formal brief to the Honourable Lesley R. Peterson, Minister of Education at the time. This brief marked the first formal claim by the FISA to legal recognition of and equitable funding for independent schools in the province. Failure to obtain a meeting with the whole cabinet was an indication of the long upward road the FISA was to travel.

That first official presentation was followed by numerous others. The Federation had set itself the task of making the political climate receptive to both the recognition and funding of independent schools. It was the Honourable Ralph Lofmark, a Social Credit Cabinet Minister in the sixties, who had left the lasting impression on FISA representatives that governments will only legislate when the political climate encourages it. His astute observation spurred the FISA on to intensive non-partisan political action, without engaging in potentially embarrassing confrontation.

The whole process took ten years.

Changing the Climate

Initially the climate was hostile. No political parties in B.C. had official positions or policy statements on independent schools and their place in society. Many individual politicians as well as political parties lacked basic information regarding independent schools, or their aims and objectives.

 To take the initiative and to maintain it required tremendous effort on the part of many volunteers, especially in the early years of the Federation when organization was at a minimum. There were many who faithfully served countless hours on the FISA Executive Board (see Appendix). Then there were people such as Joe Bruch in Victoria; Gerry Voogd and Rev. Henry Van Andel in the Lower Mainland; Peter Klassen in Nelson; the Beesleys and Curries in Kamloops; and tireless Father J.V. OReilly and Mike Van Adrichem in Prince George, all of whom spearheaded activity at the grassroots and used their particular talents and contacts to promote the independent school cause.

The story of independent schools individually and collectively had to be told locally and across the province through the media. Information was gathered and distributed where it would be of the greatest benefit. Supporters of independent schools were activated and encouraged to join the political party of their choice. Although the Federation itself was always non-partisan politically, it nevertheless strongly encouraged local independent school supporters to be personally and individually active within the political parties of their choice, in order to further the cause of independent schools without becoming one-issue activists. Enthusiastic participants included Jan and Rita Waenink, Joe Fitton, and Bill Meredith. Hugh and Meldy Harris were particularly active in Kelowna, hometown of the Bennetts.

In the year 1969 a public relations firm was engaged to help in publicizing the issues, and in preparing information for the media. It soon became evident, however, that the work to he done by volunteers was thereby increased rather than diminished, and that an effective coordinating effort was lacking. Thus it was decided to appoint a full-time executive director to take care of the public relations role, and at the same time to coordinate other political activity through out the province. Gerry Ensing, who had spearheaded the first FISA overt political action campaign in the summer election of 1969, was appointed to this key role in September of that year. His task included travel throughout the province to activate independent school supporters, to speak to public meetings and service clubs, and to solicit interviews by the media, especially on open line shows, in order to get the independent school story across to the public.

In addition, the FISA executive director, executive board members, and federation supporters attended all possible educational and political conferences and conventions wherever they might be held in British Columbia. Countless hours were logged by committed individual volunteers attending local, regional, and provincial conferences in order to make the independent school point of view known. Very few conventions of the provincial political parties, or the B.C. School Trustees Association, or the B.C. Teachers Federation were held without the executive director, or other independent school resource people, being present as observers. In the background of many of these activities was the sage advice of Tom Griffiths, the FISA mentor and legal advisor.

It was the involvement of people at the "grass roots level" that made the Federations political success possible. Local independent school supporters wrote letters at appropriate times, phoned open line shows, and button-holed local politicians and educators, school board members, business people and anyone willing to listen, in an untiring effort to tell the independent school story.

The free issue of textbooks, access to some limited health services, and exemption from municipal property taxation for independent schools were already in place when the Federation came on the scene. These concessions, gained by the combined efforts of the Roman Catholic community, were valuable precedents, a kind of informal recognition of the value of the independent schools' contribution to society.

The Edge of the Wedge

 During the W.A.C. Bennett Social Credit era, until 1972, the Federation itself achieved only one success, equality with respect to Workers' Compensation Board rates. That equality with public school teachers resulted in a reduction of rates by two-thirds and easily paid for the cost of membership in the Federation. The Federation was earning its keep.

In the meantime the FISA was beginning to gain good political allies in the governing party, such as Douglas Little, Jim Chabot, Don Phillips, Herb Bruch, and Herb Cappozzi. An open challenge had been made, and a crack was clearly visible in the governing caucus. Although not widely acknowledged, the independent schools' protest vote played more than a minor part in the election result of 1972. Independent school supporters packed all of the 2,500 Queen Elizabeth Theater seats in downtown Vancouver in one of the best attended and most enthusiastic of a series of political rallies sponsored by the FISA during the election campaign. Premier W.A.C. Bennett's widely reported outburst that "only over my dead body" would independent schools ever gain access to public funding became a prophecy in political terms.

In 1972 the New Democratic Party formed the government. During its three years in office a "committee on basic services to children," appointed by Premier Dave Barrett, produced a report which would have made some library services and other peripheral benefits available to independent schools. However, the 1975 election intervened before the recommendations could be implemented.

The basic services report of the NDP administration in itself was an indication of the changing attitudes with respect to independent schools in the province. The climate had changed from being completely hostile to independent schools in the mid- sixties, to the point where the NDP in 1975 was willing to provide services to independent schools, short of paying direct grants for actual academic services.

During the NDP years, in 1973, the Federation was granted access to Federal grants for the purpose of teaching French in independent schools, an achievement which brought many hundreds of thousands of dollars to independent schools in British Columbia. It became the first of several administered fund programs that the FISA would manage in future years. It represented another small measure of recognition for the independent schools, and another piece of evidence that the FISA was worth having, even when its worth was only measured in monetary terms.

The Beginnings of Success

 In the same year, 1973, the Social Credit Party with young W.R. Bennett at the helm made a total about-face by officially accepting a policy favouring recognition and funding of independent schools. The Federation efforts were beginning to bring concrete results.

The Liberal party already had such a policy and was really, the first political party on record in British Columbia supporting the claims of independent schools to recognition and financial support. It campaigned during the 1969 election on that platform and confirmed its support of independent schools during the 1975 convention, with the ever enthusiastic support of both Dr. Pat McGeer and Garde Gardom.

In 1975, the Progressive Conservative party under Dr. Scott Wallace accepted a resolution favouring the support of independent schools. For the independents the tide had turned from hostility to courtship. But the FISA was not yet celebrating.

The Social Credit Government that came to power in the fall of 1975 followed up its 1975 election campaign with a promise in the speech from the throne in 1976, confirmed in 1977, that funding would he made available to independent schools. There was light at the end of the tunnel.

The Breakthrough

 March 30, 1977, marks the day that Bill 33, dealing with grants for independent schools, was introduced in the House. After months of sporadic debate, and many hours of consultations with FISA President John Waller, Vice-President Case Pel, and Executive Director Gerry Ensing, the Bill passed third reading on September 7, 1977, to become the Independent Schools Support Act, followed by its proclamation on September 27, 1977. The Act made per student grants available to qualifying independent schools that amounted to a maximum of thirty per cent (about $500) of the per student operating costs of the local public school districts. Curricular and other obligations that the legislation provided for posed no threat to the schools' independence, and it was at the discretion of the schools whether or not to participate in the funding scheme. The celebrations were on and in the supporting religious communities prayers of thanksgiving were offered.

The Federation of Independent School Associations did not consider its work to be completed with the passage and the proclamation of the Independent Schools Support Act. Numerous practical decisions had to be made yet regarding the application and implementation of the new Act. Many precedents would be set.

The FISA realized that legislation with respect to independent schools, even if it had been completely written by supporters of independent schools, might become a threat to them in the future. Vigilance in monitoring implementation and development was called for. Although there were some who considered that the FISA had served its purpose, the continued existence of the FISA was never in doubt for those who appreciated the role it had played in the realization of the new legislation.

The Continuing Role

 Since 1977, the activities of the FISA have continued to be of vital value to the independent schools sector. The FISA is not merely the legislative observer for independent schools, but also the only significant and credible independent schools' voice in the province. No legislative or regulatory changes have occurred since 1977 without significant prior consultation with the FISA taking place, or the FISA proposing the changes. Between 1978 and 1986 several major briefs were presented, all with significant results. In 1984 the "Students Meet the Arts" program, courtesy of the highly respected Vancouver Foundation, became the second FISA administered fund program.

On March 1, 1988, just over two years after Fred Herfst assumed the responsibilities of Executive Director, the FISA made a major presentation to the Sullivan Royal Commission on Education, the first such commission since the Chant Royal Commission of the early sixties. Subsequent government action on the Royal Commission recommendations, a number of which incorporated original FISA proposals, resulted in the new Independent School Act, passed July 7, 1989, and proclaimed Sept. 1, 1989. One of the FISA recommendations, which both the Royal Commission and the government adopted, raised the maximum per student grants to fifty per cent of the per student operating costs in the local public school districts, without any intrusive change in curricular or other obligations. The fact that the new School Act, also passed in 1989, specifically recognized the parental right to choice in education is also of great significance.

As a result of the Royal Commission recommendations, the FISA now began to participate in numerous Ministry of Education committees or task forces. For example, the FISA received a seat on the Ministry's Education Advisory Commission appointed as a result of the Royal Commission recommendations, and its successor, the Education Advisory Council. It also has members on the Board of Examiners, and the College of Teachers. In addition, since the late eighties the FISA has become the agent for the distribution of specific project funding for the Ministry of Education on behalf of independent schools. The presentation of briefs, first begun in 1967, continues. In 1990 alone three were presented one to the Ministry of Education on graduation requirements; another to the College of Teachers on teacher certification; and a third to the Royal Commission on Health dealing with health services for students.

In the twenty-five years of its existence the FISA has grown from virtual insignificance to a substantive stakeholder in education in British Columbia. While representing 23,000 students in 120 schools in 1966, it is now the umbrella organization for more than 35,000 students in 175 schools. It speaks with the voice of schools representing in excess of 8.5% of the independent school enrollments, a measure of the respect the Federation enjoys in the independent school sector.

The Federation of Independent School Associations in B.C. has in the twenty-five years of its existence proven beyond any doubt that it has been true to its purpose of maintaining and affirming the independence of educational institutions outside of the public system. Its motto, "Freedom Involves Secure Alternatives," has spurred and will continue to spur the Federation and its supporters on to ensure that the choice of alternatives is within easier reach of all citizens of British Columbia.

(Written in 1991 for the 25th anniversary of the FISA)
A more detailed history was printed in 2002 covering the political struggle from colonial times to 2001 in: Justice Achieved: The Poltical Struggle of Independent Schools in British Columbia. Cunningham, V. (2002) 311 pages, hardcover. Vancouver, BC: Federation of Independent School Associations.
Copies are available from the FISA office

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