Manitoba History: William James Sisler, A Most Unconventional, Conventional Man, Part One: The Educator as a Young Man

by Jim Mochoruk
Department of History, University of North Dakota

Number 78, Summer 2015

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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William J. Sisler is not particularly well remembered today. Even in his adopted home of Winnipeg, if his name rings a bell at all, it is because a north end high school—the largest in Manitoba—was named in his honour in 1957. Aside from graduates of that school, who may have read his plaque or the school’s website and therefore know a few factoids about him, [1] it is only a handful of historians of education and of Manitoba who know anything of significance about Sisler, particularly about his approach to teaching English as a second language and his work with the children of immigrants in the north end of Winnipeg. [2] And even the scholars who are aware of his work know of it primarily through Sisler’s self-published book, Peaceful Invasion, a triumphalist account of his work with the non-English speaking students who flooded North Winnipeg’s classrooms shortly after the turn of the 20th century; an account which is often accorded “primary source” status for studies in the history of education. [3] Of course, this is hardly surprising given that there is precious little secondary work available on Sisler; in fact, aside from one largely hagiographic piece in Manitoba Pageant,almost nothing has been written on him. [4]

Sisler posed for the camera in front of his one-room school at New Stockholm, Saskatchewan Territory in 1900, the place where he first developed his ideas on the ‘direct method’ of teaching English.

Sisler posed for the camera in front of his one-room school at New Stockholm, Saskatchewan Territory in 1900, the place where he first developed his ideas on the ‘direct method’ of teaching English.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, W. J. Sisler 287

This lack of both popular knowledge and scholarly attention is regrettable for a number of reasons. To begin with, Sisler was one of western Canada’s most influential—and to some French, Polish, German and Ukrainian teachers and clerics, most infamous [5]—educators at a crucial juncture in the history of education in Manitoba, and hence in the history of ethnic relations both in and beyond Manitoba.

But his involvement in the pedagogical solution to what might best be thought of as “round two” of the Manitoba Schools Question constitutes only one, albeit highly visible, part of Sisler’s professional life. [6] Sisler’s career as an educator encompassed not only his development and advocacy of the “direct method” of what would now be described as ESL training, but it also brought him to the sharp edge of several other innovations in pedagogy and educational philosophy between the close of the 19th century and the late 1930s. He was, for example, involved in the original implementation of Manual Training (shops and craft work) in Winnipeg’s schools in 1901. He was also an early and enthusiastic advocate for intramural sports, military drill/cadet corps and generalized physical training in the city’s schools. As principal of his own school, he also became Winnipeg’s most successful developer of the school garden movement. Even more notably, Sisler pioneered basic adult literacy classes (night school) for the city’s foreign-born population, ran one of Winnipeg’s first “Junior High Schools”—a new departure in education at the time—and capped his career by transforming that institution into a High School. Given all of this, it is no exaggeration to say that he was an active participant in the almost complete reconceptualization of public education that was sweeping North America in the first few decades of the 20th century; indeed, William Sisler was right in the heart of it, both as a participant and as a sometimes critical chronicler and commentator.

Now, while all of these aspects of Sisler’s professional life should be examined more fully, these are not the only considerations that make him so deserving of further attention. To begin with, his biography is the tale of a moderate Canadian success story—a rise from humble beginnings to a career capped by a not inconsiderable level of public acclaim, a notable level of social and cultural influence, and at least some modest economic success—although certainly not wealth (but not for lack of effort on his part!). As such, his biography provides a window into male middle-class life in western Canada in general and Winnipeg in particular during the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, although the gendered nature of Sisler’s story is something which could be (and often has been) overlooked as quite unremarkable given the times, it clearly deserves some attention. Beyond this, Sisler’s biography also reminds us that every life is in some ways sui generis, for I would argue that W. J. Sisler was a most uncommon, common man. His experiences, perspectives, sense of his own place in history and even his life-style choices were often outside the mainstream of his times. And yet, in his scattered journal entries, diaries and particularly in the unpublished autobiographical accounts he penned for family consumption, Sisler represented, or better yet, constructed himself as the most conventional of conventional men; indeed, while reading through these personal papers one cannot help but be struck by the emergence of Sisler as almost the ideal representative of the respectable middle class. Finally, while it is easy to view him in Gramscian terms—one of the “organic intellectuals” of the overarching cultural hegemony, seeking to “Canadianize” his students and their families and bring them into harmony with the existing liberal democratic and capitalist order—I would also argue that he was something more. In effect he was a denizen of, and in some ways a crucial figure in defining and redefining the outlines of, the third space—that place where cultural hybridity flourished and redefined relations between “the other” (in this case immigrants) and the dominant society. Indeed, one can see him as a liminal figure who, while sharing most of the cultural biases of the dominant society, eventually became an admirer and a defender of the cultures and peoples he worked so hard to assimilate into the Canadian mainstream. If carefully parsed, the Sisler “story” is illustrative of some extremely important developments in Canadian history and several broad themes in social and cultural history even as it constitutes the fascinating life story of a complex individual.

What follows is an attempt to use Sisler’s own fairly voluminous—if sometimes confusing and even problematic—private papers, his published works and several other primary and secondary sources to rescue him from an undeserved obscurity. Perhaps more importantly, this pair of articles seeks both to reassess Sisler’s role in shaping the educational landscape of western Canada and to examine his carefully constructed identity first as a successful—even heroic—agent of “Canadianization” among the “New Canadians,” then as an advocate of the “New Canadians,” and finally as an anti-colonial challenger to the concept of Canada as a “British” nation. But even more to the point, while no pretense is made that this is a complete biography, it is an attempt both to reconstruct large sections of a complex single life and to examine the ways in which memoirs and autobiographical writings can both illuminate and obfuscate our understanding of the past.

William James Sisler started life in much the same way as so many of the other young men who would rise to prominence in the Canadian west. Born on an Ontario farm, most probably on 2 November 1869, [7] he came from a fairly humble background. The family farm where he was raised was just one generation removed from the pioneer phase and, according to his recollections, not overly prosperous. As a result, his schooling ended surprisingly early: [8] for purely financial reasons Sisler was out of school and working full-time after completing Grade 8 in 1884. [9] From then until age 19 he worked on the family farm, interspersed with time spent as a hired hand on a neighbouring farm, a winter season spent as a teamster hauling timber and cordwood out of the bush, and two summers working as an assistant for local carpenters. Still, despite this early work and academic record it was always clear to Sisler that he was bound for something better, certainly more than life on a “rented farm” in Scott Township might offer. [10] Deciding that his best economic opportunities lay in the west, in mid–1889, he left home and secured work in Manitoba, first on a farm, then as a “cookie” for a bridge-building crew and finally as a semi-skilled labourer on a crew, that was building railway stations and water towers for the new Northern Pacific line between Morris and Brandon. [11]

When this work ran out in the bitter cold of January 1890—his last job had been to shingle a water tower just outside Brandon in -40 °F. weather—Sisler headed to Winnipeg and enrolled in the Winnipeg Collegiate Institute (WCI) to commence work on the equivalent of a High School education. [12] As soon as he had completed his third-class examinations (essentially Grade 10) in July 1890, he secured employment with the building department of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and worked in all four western provinces and northwestern Ontario over the course of the next eighteen months. An inveterate autodidact, when he found that he would be spending the entire winter in Fort William building a new railway hotel, he eschewed life in the CPR bunkhouse, arranged to take lodgings with a similarly inclined co-worker and both young men immediately signed up for the “CPR Library” where they had access to a wide variety of books and contemporary newspapers and magazines with which to indulge their shared passion for learning. [13]

In a brief autobiographical entry written half a century after the fact, Sisler recounted with considerable gusto tales of his travels between the Lakehead and the Rockies, particularly his encounters with the high and mighty—most notably William Van Horne of CPR fame and the not-yet-famous minister-cum-novelist Rev. Charles Gordon/Ralph Connor, who ran the Presbyterian mission at Banff. But he also wrote of the hoi polloi, the drinkers, gamblers and assorted ne’er-do-wells he encountered along the western frontier. Moreover, even 50 years on, Sisler still found the class-based pretentions of one English traveller, who had initially been quite friendly towards him, but then snubbed him after he discovered that his articulate young conversation partner was but a common labourer, almost comical—although offensive none-the-less. [14]

Sisler clearly relished his work, his freedom, and what he described as his “wanderings”—largely his experiences of tramping through and exploring the Rocky Mountains and then Northwestern Ontario either on his own or with workmates during his time off. [15] But he clearly believed that his future would hinge upon acquiring more formal education; a belief that brought him back to the Winnipeg Collegiate Institute in the winter of 1892–1893, at its newly opened Kate Street facility, where he acquired his “Second Class Non-Professional certificate.” [16] It was at this point, after yet another summer working on construction crews with the CPR, that Sisler had his first brush with teaching: he acquired a temporary Manitoba teaching permit and accepted a $40.00 per month position teaching in a one-room school at Squirrel Creek, Manitoba. [17] But this single-semester engagement (January to July of 1893) was never intended to be anything other than a way-station on Sisler’s journey towards educational and financial success. Of far greater significance to him was that in the fall of 1893 he headed east for what he hoped would be a wholly new professional career, this time in medicine.

Sisler spent an unhappy three years teaching at the one-room school at Squirrel Creek, Manitoba where he observed the badly divided locals.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, School Inspectors Photographs, GR8461, A0233, C131-1, page 31

On his way back to Ontario and Trinity Medical College, Sisler travelled via Chicago, which was just then hosting the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Judging by his diary of this trip Sisler’s brief time as a teacher had certainly left its mark, for he paid very careful attention to a series of educational exhibits from various American states and Canadian provinces. [18] Still, for all of his interest in matters educational, he had a new direction in his life, and after a four-day sojourn at the Exposition he resumed his trip to Toronto and medical school. For the next two years—broken up by a return to Winnipeg for work in the summer of 1894—Sisler applied himself with considerable diligence to his studies and did quite well. [19] After the close of his second year of medical school he secured “second class honours” in his course work. However, after finding what he deemed to be a decent job working for a building contractor in nearby Lemonville, Ontario for the summer of 1895 (he made $1.25 per day plus board [20]), he concluded that he simply could not afford to complete his medical training. Instead, he headed back to Winnipeg and, in August 1895, enrolled in the provincial Normal School in Winnipeg (which was still part of the Winnipeg Collegiate Institute). By January 1896, he had secured both his Professional Second Class Certificate and a position teaching back at Squirrel Creek—this time for $45.00 per month. [21]

Even at this point, as one peruses Sisler’s journals, it is apparent that despite having given up on medicine, despite having gone to Normal School to earn a teaching credential and despite being well into his 20s, he had not yet decided that education was his life’s work. In fact, like so many other young men of his generation Sisler was certain that teaching would constitute nothing more than a brief phase in his life. [22] Somewhat surprisingly then, in a decision he later claimed to regret, he ended up staying at Squirrel Creek for nearly three years. While there, he honed his skills as a teacher and developed what would become a lifelong passion for observing the people around him. And what he found at Squirrel Creek—located between MacGregor and Woodside—was a population in transition. Many of the original settlers, typically Anglophones originally from Lanark County, Ontario, had sold their land and moved on to new farming frontiers or to the urban frontier of Winnipeg. In their place had come some fairly well-heeled purchasers directly from the British Isles who looked down their noses at their rough and ready Canadian neighbours, often refusing their advice on how to cope with farming conditions in Manitoba. [23] His observations on these often negative interactions would give Sisler some material for one of his later essays on early settlements in Manitoba [24] while his experience with the newly arrived British immigrants fuelled his growing resentment about the way in which native-born Canadians faced discrimination in their own country from those who hailed from the “old-country.” In any event, at the end of 1898 Sisler gladly left Squirrel Creek and its quarrelsome denizens for Winnipeg and Wesley College in order to take the next step in his educational journey, the pursuance of his Arts degree.

The Winnipeg to which Sisler returned in early 1899 was a bustling place, the epicentre of the western Canadian railway, settlement, wheat, construction and investment booms. It was also becoming the receiving centre for the waves of Canadian, American, British and European migrants who were flooding into the “last, best west.” Opportunity seemed to beckon at every turn, and the now 29-year-old Sisler was well aware that someone with his fairly diverse skill set could choose his own course, but he had now decided quite firmly that what he needed most of all was a university-level education. From January to April of 1899 Sisler prepared for the Latin and German examinations that he needed to pass in order to gain full admission to the Arts program at Wesley College. After passing both exams, he rather casually made what he would later view to be a quite momentous decision: he agreed to serve as a temporary replacement for a college friend (D. P. Miller) who was supposed to take up a teaching post at a one-room school out in the District of Saskatchewan. As it happened, Miller couldn’t get away from Wesley in time to start the contract on 15 April and so asked Sisler to fill in for him. [25] Sisler made it clear to all involved, however, that this was a short-term engagement—in fact only for one month, as he had already secured much better paying construction work with McDiarmid Brothers Contractors in Winnipeg for the summer of 1899. [26] And this is exactly what he did: Sisler spent one month teaching in the settlement of New Stockholm before returning to Winnipeg for a summer of construction work and the resumption of his studies at Wesley College. Still, he must have both liked his work at New Stockholm and impressed the local school board during his brief time there, for no sooner had he passed his “previous examinations” [27] in the spring of 1900 than he signed on for a seven-month contract to once again teach at their one-room school.

No longer just a short-term replacement Sisler was going to have to do some serious teaching this time round. Nor was this to be a simple task, for New Stockholm’s school-age population all spoke Swedish, Norwegian or Danish at home and had precious few English language skills when they arrived at the school house. Sisler quickly decided that the only way to handle the situation was through a mix of firm discipline and somewhat innovative pedagogy. In fact, it was here at New Stockholm—or so Sisler would later claim—that he stumbled across the teaching method which would help him to solve what he viewed as Manitoba’s greatest educational dilemma: to wit, how to educate the foreign children who inundated the west’s schools during the great boom.

He quickly instituted one firm rule: English was the only language to be used in the school house and on the playground. [28] After overcoming some initial opposition to this ‘foreign-language’ ban, largely by disciplining a few recalcitrant students, Sisler turned to the second part of his plan. Instead of focussing upon either the then approved tactic of teaching English via phonics and then concentrating on developing reading skills, he decided that “... the six or seven year old children could soon be taught to speak [English] by using words most needed in conversation and incorporating them as far as possible in the reading and spelling lessons.” [29] In effect, Sisler took simple concrete items that the students could see and touch, named and labelled them (nouns), and then worked on some very basic verbs and encouraged students to start constructing sentences around those everyday objects and actions—not a series of abstract sounds and letters. Before he left New Stockholm, Sisler was absolutely convinced of the value of this “common sense” method of language instruction. He made a point of visiting the classrooms of nearby schools (where the population was largely Swedish-, Hungarian- and Finnish-speaking) where he observed students—following a more traditional phonics-based approach to English language education—reading materials that were well beyond their actual verbal and aural comprehension levels. As he observed: “There were children reading in the 4th reader who could not understand anything in English. It was here that I concluded that speaking should keep pace with reading or be a little in advance ...” [30] Of course, this passage was written long after the fact, but there is little doubt that even in 1900 Sisler was already experimenting with methods of English-language acquisition for ESL students.

It is also worthwhile noting that, unlike at Squirrel Creek, Sisler seemed to have enjoyed everything about his sojourn at New Stockholm. The work, the children and the local families all pleased him greatly—although he was a bit surprised to discover that, many of the settlers he came to know were overtly pro-Boer and pro-German despite Canada’s participation in the war that was then raging in South Africa. [31] But on the whole he liked his summer teaching work very much, and especially enjoyed the weekends when he and some other male teachers from the surrounding district were free to get together and cycle around the countryside, explore the prairie lakes, fish, swim and take part in various social activities. Sisler also took the opportunity to observe some of the summer gatherings of Plains Cree that were held in and around Crooked and Painted lakes. It is in this connection that one also gets a glimpse of Sisler the budding entrepreneur. Rather casually, while recording a bicycle trip to the reserves, Sisler mentions his favourable impression of the Crooked Lake band’s cattle-ranching operation and his decision to purchase an Aberdeen Angus bull from the farm manager that would serve as the sire for the small herd he (Sisler) had already put together and left in the care of one of the Swedish settlers of the district. [32] This propensity to have some type of money-making venture on the go, in addition to his regular employment, would turn out to be a constant feature of Sisler’s life. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that over the succeeding years he developed a quite notable entrepreneurial cast of mind.

Despite an offer to stay on at New Stockholm when his contract expired in the fall of 1900, Sisler was ready for more new challenges, although once again he did not know exactly what those might be. In one version of his recollections he noted (incorrectly, at least concerning the year) that, “When I finished my term at New Stockholm School in October 1901 (sic) I was out of a job. I believe I did during November and December help in getting in supplies of wood, tools etc. for opening a double centre for Manual Training [in Winnipeg] but earned very little.” [33] Given that, there are no other mentions of this early connection to the manual training program, which was still many months away from being started, this quite tentative latter-day addition to his autobiography may not be completely accurate. What is certain is this; upon leaving New Stockholm Sisler ended up back in Winnipeg, undertook some form of temporary work that fall and early winter and shared rented rooms in Winnipeg with a friend named C. C. Strachan. Then, in January 1901 he secured another short-term teaching job, substituting for yet another male teacher for part of one term, this time in Manitoba’s oldest English-language school in the parish of Old Kildonan, a position that offered what he now viewed as the woefully inadequate salary of $45.00 per month. [34] Still, if the pay was poor, this position would prove to have its perks, most notably the living arrangements he secured. Close enough to Winnipeg for him to return every weekend, he kept up his shared lodgings in the city with Strachan and boarded with the James Harper family of Old Kildonan from Monday to Friday. In retrospect, Sisler believed this appointment changed his life forever—and for the better. The Harpers and many of their friends and acquaintances were descendants of the early Red River/Selkirk settlers and every night they would regale the new schoolmaster with their tales of early Manitoba history, including all sorts of fascinating details concerning the events of the Riel Rebellion of 1869–1870. While he later regretted that he had not had the wit to record all of their stories for posterity, he did credit the Harpers with fuelling his love for local history—something which would play an important role in his later years. [35]

At the end of this contract, Sisler was once again at loose ends with no definite plans for the immediate future, but yet again, a new opportunity arose: “In May 1901 I got an urgent call to come to Winnipeg at once to begin work in the MT [Manual Training] Dept. of the Public Schools.” Unfortunately, he provides no details on why he was selected or was so urgently needed. However, Sisler was very clear on the question of salary and his unique status as a Canadian teaching in the program. In the first regard, he was paid $50.00 for the first month and was then “put on the regular schedule as paid to men they had brought from the old country—$80 per mo.” [36] As to the second matter, Sisler proudly claimed to be the first Canadian-born man—more precisely, the first non-British born—ever to be employed by the Macdonald Trust for teaching in this program. [37] Even at this point, while we know that this was to be the start of an uninterrupted run of 37 years working in Winnipeg schools—and despite claims made in other places [38]—Sisler was still far from being committed to a life in education. In fact, he viewed this new position as nothing more than another “temporary job.” [39] But whether intentional or not—and certainly according to Sisler he never seriously considered teaching to be his life’s work at least until he became a school principal in 1905, and even then always had his eye out for other opportunities—the die had been cast and Sisler had in fact embarked upon his career as a full-time public educator.

The world of public education in Winnipeg that he entered via the side door of manual training and the Macdonald Trust was an interesting place; a world that was both expanding rapidly and experiencing a profound set of transitions. As someone who already had some experience of life and work in the one-room rural schools of Manitoba and the District of Saskatchewan, Sisler would have been keenly aware that in educational terms he had entered into a fairly privileged place, not least because his own salary had increased from $45.00 to $80.00 per month almost overnight. [40] And Superintendent Daniel McIntyre would work very hard to get those salary ranges adjusted upwards—sometimes quite dramatically—over the next two decades, both to encourage more men to enter and stay in the profession and to stem the loss of qualified teachers to the rapidly expanding western regions beyond Manitoba’s boundaries. [41] It was also the case that Winnipeg’s school system was quite innovative. Over the first decade of the new century Winnipeg not only got the new manual training program for boys that brought Sisler to the city in 1901, but at the same time the Winnipeg School Board also began offering a domestic science/home economics program for girls. [42] It also provided basic music and drawing instruction for all students, began offering regular instruction in gymnastics/physical education in all schools below the secondary level [43] and, by the close of the decade, was providing students with free medical inspections from qualified MDs with follow-up work and home visits conducted by trained nurses. [44] These were ‘luxuries’ which the rural schools could only dream of in the first decade of the 20th century.

Still, if Winnipeg could afford to do more for its students and teachers than any other district in the province, it was also facing challenges of unprecedented proportions. Population growth in Winnipeg was so rapid between 1901 and 1912 [45] that eighteen schools—including Strathcona—had to be constructed or reconstructed to hold the swelling school-age population. [46] But even with all the new classroom space being constructed, average class sizes had risen to over 60 by 1906. [47] Add to this the fact that a sizable percentage of the children flocking into Winnipeg’s schools were unable to speak English and it is clear that educating Winnipeg’s masses was a task of almost Herculean proportions. Complicating matters even further, of course, was the political legacy of the Manitoba Schools Question and the interesting ‘solution’ to this matter as embodied in the Laurier-Greenway compromise of 1896 and the 1897 amendments to the Manitoba Public Schools Act; a legacy which guaranteed that all attempts at substantive educational reform, including the passage of effective compulsory attendance laws, quickly became political hot-button issues. This then was the exciting, if somewhat problematic, educational world that Sisler entered when he returned to Winnipeg in the spring of 1901.

An undated photo of Strathcona School was clearly taken sometime after the major expansion of 1910–1911. Note the size of the trees
in the foreground. There was no vegetation of any sort on site when the school was first constructed in 1905.

An undated photo of Strathcona School was clearly taken sometime after the major expansion of 1910–1911. Note the size of the trees
in the foreground. There was no vegetation of any sort on site when the school was first constructed in 1905.
Source: Winnipeg School Division

And what of Sisler himself? What can one say about him at the start of this new chapter in his and Winnipeg’s history? Well, to begin with, at 31 years of age it turned out that, despite his attendance at the WCI, Normal School and Wesley College—and his years of teaching experience, he still wasn’t fully qualified as a permanent teacher in Manitoba! As a result, Sisler had to sit yet another set of examinations in May 1902 in order to earn his First-Class Normal School Diploma and then teach full-time for a year before receiving his permanent licence. [48]

In terms of his private life, Sisler was still unmarried and seemed to have no inclination to change that status, at least not yet. Indeed, Sisler seemed to have inhabited an almost entirely male world since leaving the family farm at 19. Aside from his experience of teaching mixed classes of boys and girls in Squirrel Creek, New Stockholm and Old Kildonan, his had been a largely masculine existence. His friends, compatriots, employers and teachers (at the WCI, Trinity Medical College and Wesley College) had been exclusively male. His construction work experiences, his various shared living arrangements, the pattern of friendships and adventures he described in his journals, and almost every description he gave of his life, travels and experiences are remarkable for many reasons, but perhaps especially so for their failure to mention women, save for a brief comment about Mrs. Harper and his somewhat disparaging comments on the “Forty beauties from different nations” that he saw at the Columbian Exhibition in 1893. [49] And even after he returned to Winnipeg in 1901, he seemed to continue occupying an almost exclusively male space, particularly in regards to his work with the manual training program. Not only was this program exclusively male in terms of its teaching personnel, but it was also exclusively male in terms of the student population served. The same may be said of his extra-curricular involvements, coaching boys’ sports teams, teaching boys to swim, leading the cadet corps and serving in the militia. Indeed, Sisler clearly saw himself as a bit of a “man’s man.” An active outdoorsman and sportsman, he indicates in his journals that he loved rambling across the Canadian ‘wilderness,’ as well as swimming. Indeed, Sisler was a long-standing member of the Royal Life Saving Society and apparently taught swimming to male students from Norquay, Machray and Strathcona Schools for many years. [50] He also played football/soccer, lacrosse, baseball, rugby and most other sports, several of which he would coach at various North Winnipeg schools and affiliated organizations for the next few decades. [51]

Sisler was already committed to the idea that organized sports and physical activity cultivated all the right manly virtues in young men [52]—a view he would express quite clearly in Peaceful Invasion. He also believed strongly in the virtues associated with military drill for boys. As he confided to Lord Aylmer in the Officers’ Mess of Winnipeg’s 90th Regiment (Aylmer had just inspected Sisler and the other troops of Military District No. 10), Sisler had actually joined the regiment as a reserve officer primarily in order to better prepare himself to lead the boys under his charge in military drill. He thought it a terrible mistake when such drill was later done away with by the Winnipeg School Board during the Great War. [53]

Sisler was also an inveterate traveller and explorer. In fact, travelling either on his own or with a series of male companions and, more importantly, after the turn of the century, always with his newly acquired camera, he turned out to be quite a documentarian. His photo albums provide rich testimony concerning his travels throughout Manitoba, starting just after the turn of the century. [54] Of particular note are the numerous images he captured of pioneer Ukrainian settlements in the Interlake, Stuartburn and Dauphin regions from 1903 to 1919, the record of a trip up to Warren’s Landing on Lake Winnipeg, [55] snapshots of street scenes of New York circa 1905 and several other such images of his various travels. He also took photos of his schools, the gardens he and his students maintained on and off the school grounds, the championship sports teams he coached, the cadet corps he drilled and the like. [56]

In terms of his work life, it is evident that almost from the moment of his arrival back in Winnipeg Sisler involved himself in a whole host of activities that were school-related, yet outside of his prescribed duties. Once out of the Stovel Block [57]—he taught there for only a few months—Sisler worked at the Machray and Norquay schools in the older part of the north end from 1901 to 1904, a region which was still primarily Anglo-Celtic in terms of its ethnic composition. Of course, he had boys from other schools coming in to attend his wood shop classes, but it was the boys of these schools who benefitted from Sisler’s extra-curricular passions. As a manual training teacher Sisler worked exclusively with the older boys, grades five through eight, which could include youths from as young as 10 to as old as 18. And it was with these boys in mind that Sisler quickly added a host of extra-curricular activities to his schedule. He organized and coached the Machray boys’ soccer and lacrosse teams, and led the soccer team to a north division championship in 1904. He also served as the school’s cadet corps instructor, which, as already noted, played the determining role in his decision to join the militia. In all of these activities, Sisler developed a reputation as a stern but fair educator who gave unstintingly of himself to the boys. As a result, he was remembered with considerable affection by several of the young men he taught and coached during this period. [58] However, it must be observed that it is always from outside sources that one gets a description of Sisler the stern—even heavy-handed—disciplinarian, never from Sisler’s own journals or published works. True, he was happy to tell some amusing tales on himself, such as the oft-repeated story about how he settled an ongoing fight between two boys by taking them down to the basement of the school, putting boxing gloves on them and having them fight it out in a proper and manly fashion. [59] Other accounts from former students and colleagues were a bit less light-hearted and included tales of “Mr. Sisler grabbing a kid by the scruff of the neck, or the seat of the pants and throwing him downstairs or clipping a particularly bad and cheeky boy on the chin.”[60] Although such forms of physical ‘discipline’ were not unheard of in the public schools of the day, Sisler got quite angry later in life when stories of his approach to discipline were included in published reminiscences, speeches and stories about him. [61] One cannot help but suspect that by the 1940s and 1950s these stories did not accord with the image he was consciously constructing of himself as William James Sisler, enlightened educator.

In any event, with all of this additional activity—coaching several sports, leading the cadet corps and serving in the militia (as well as the necessity of preparing for his First Class examinations in 1902 and his lengthier militia training courses in the springs of 1903 and 1904)—one would have thought that Sisler would have had more than enough on his plate. This, however, was not the case. As early as 1904 he had signed up as a member of the organization that future Mayor of Winnipeg, Sanford Evans, had brought west with him—the Canadian Club; an organization that would certainly help to sharpen Sisler’s sense of Canadian nationalism. [62] Beyond this, despite receiving a quite decent salary—by 1904, as part of the regular staff of the Winnipeg school division, Sisler was earning a base salary of $1100 for a ten-month contract [63]—he was always on the lookout for more opportunities to earn money, especially during the summer months. While one might have expected that someone with Sisler’s background in construction, to say nothing of his current work as a wood shop teacher, would have been inclined to take up some of the plentiful construction work that was on offer in and around Winnipeg, Sisler went in a very different direction: he became a freelancer for the Manitoba Free Press. As he described it in his journals, from 1903 to 1910, he worked as “a cub reporter in Wpg, [did] crop reporting under direction of E. Cora Hind and travelled over Manitoba, Sask. and Alberta and (sic) reporting on livestock and in the judging ring at the Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition. At Brandon in 1906 I was in charge [of] reporting the Brandon Provincial Exhibition.” [64] William James Sisler was indeed a man of many parts—farmer, entrepreneur, construction worker, medical trainee, military officer, coach, shops teacher and now newspaper man!

Of course it was none of these that would bring him his greatest fame; rather this would be a result of the next major step in Sisler’s educational career trajectory—his 1905 move into administration via appointment as principal of the newly constructed Strathcona School. Without meaning to denigrate Sisler in any way, or to diminish his recent success as a manual training instructor, athletic coach and drill instructor, it needs to be observed that there was precious little in his career or training up to this point which prepared him to become the administrator of what at first would be an almost exclusively primary school (grades one through four), or to single him out for the honour of being, at the age of 35, the youngest school principal in all of Winnipeg. [65] His recent experience as a manual training specialist—dealing exclusively with older boys—was far from fulsome preparation for his new job. Nor did his experience of teaching in one-room schools really prepare him for the job of school principal, as he had never before had any supervisory or administrative role to play. Meanwhile, his academic qualifications, while solid by the standards of the age, were hardly outstanding. He was still nowhere near completing a university degree; in fact, as matters would turn out, that was still more than 20 years in the offing. But he did have one qualification that made him extremely appealing to the authorities of the Winnipeg School District: in 1904 he was one of only 17 male teachers and principals in the Winnipeg School District and this is almost certainly what catapulted him to the head of the line, particularly over the heads of the 19 women who were university graduates and the 30 who shared the exact same First Class Certificate standing as Sisler and who, in many cases, had far more seniority and experience as teachers. [66] Reading the reports of the Department of Education and hearing the tone of desperation in the words of Winnipeg Superintendent Daniel McIntyre and W. A. McIntyre, Principal of the Normal School, about the “crisis” situation concerning the lack of men to teach in and run Winnipeg’s schools gives one a profound appreciation of Mr. Sisler’s major qualification, at least in the minds of his superiors. [67]

Never one to reflect much on such matters, nor to question the propriety of the gendered assumptions of his age, Sisler’s journals and recollections are completely silent on the question of why it was he who was offered this position in March of 1905. He simply took the job as principal of Strathcona School and got down to business—and it would turn out to be quite an incredible business at that.

The new school that Sisler took over in the spring of 1905 had been built primarily to handle the growing overflow from Aberdeen School on Salter Avenue, a school that was located in the portion of the north end that was experiencing the most rapid rate of growth in a city that was growing like topsy. Located about half a mile northwest of Aberdeen, on MacGregor St., when Strathcona opened its doors in the spring of 1905 it seemed to have been plunked down, willy-nilly, in the middle of nowhere. To its south were the railway tracks and a fairly narrow band of cheap little houses, occupied ca. 1905 by the families of English-speaking railway workers. To the north and west vast tracts of empty town lots quickly gave way to land still being used for dairying and market gardening. It was a bleak, prairie-like setting, and would remain so for a number of years until the surrounding district filled in and “amenities” like grass, trees and gardens literally took root at the school. [68]

Constructed as a 10-room school with the typical classroom capable of holding up to 56 pupils, [69] Strathcona had no overcrowding problem at first. Prior to the official April opening two classes and their teachers from Aberdeen School were moved over to the new location in March and by the close of the school year Sisler had a staff of 7 teachers instructing approximately 300 students. Sisler himself taught the highest grade—which in 1905 was Grade Four—so the teaching staff actually consisted of 8, yielding a teacher-to-pupil ratio of 1 to 37.5, which was excellent compared to the 1 to 61 ratio in most Winnipeg schools at the time. [70] Nor were there any particularly notable problems with the student body’s command of English. As Sisler noted of that first year, “nearly all the pupils were from English-speaking families.” [71]

This nearly idyllic circumstance changed quickly though, for by the following academic year the student body started growing fairly rapidly—up to 433 in the Fall of 1905—although it was still overwhelmingly English-speaking. It was in 1906 that Sisler and his staff noted an increase in the number of “foreign” children—Polish-, German-, Ukrainian-, Russian-, and Yiddish-speakers—and a decline in the number of students from English-speaking homes. Then, what he later characterized as the “peaceful invasion” commenced in earnest in 1906–1907. As he put it, “After the second year nearly all the new pupils came in without any knowledge of English.” [72] Nor was Strathcona the only school so affected. Nearby Aberdeen School also experienced a demographic shift of stunning proportions. By Sisler’s calculation, while Strathcona School declined from 95% (racial origin) English-speaking in 1905 to 8% in 1915, Aberdeen had an almost equally dramatic shift, from 98% English-speaking down to 17% for the same time period. [73] Perhaps even more stunning than this shift, however, were the sheer numbers involved. By 1907 Strathcona, with its 10 rooms of up to 56 seats, had 997 students enrolled! [74] This was an overwhelming situation, which raised all manner of pedagogical issues for Sisler and his staff.

W. J. Sisler (back row, right) with the YMCA Life Saving Class,1909–1910.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, W. J. Sisler 255

Writing decades after the fact, Sisler placed the first few years of his school’s existence into an overtly politicized context. To begin with, he noted that it was at just about this time (meaning 1905–1907) that the Roblin administration was implementing bilingual/multilingual education in Manitoba and that a whole series of primary texts were being printed in Polish-English, Ukrainian-English, French-English and German-English versions for use in the public schools. [75] Sisler apparently never for an instant considered asking for or using any of those primers as aids for his non-English speaking students. Indeed, according to him he had always found everything about the bilingual approach to education both distasteful and wrongheaded, favouring instead a unilingual English approach. So great was his distaste for the bilingual approach and what he perceived to be its inherent dangers of failing to teach students English properly and failing to inculcate the proper Canadian values in the student body, that he noted somewhat melodramatically in his journals that “If we [the staff at Strathcona] had not succeeded in our ‘direct method’ plan I don’t know how far this multi-lingual plan would have gone.” [76] Quite the burden for the novice principal and his staff of almost exclusively young women to take up!

What Sisler failed to acknowledge either in his various private papers or in Peaceful Invasion was that not only was Manitoba’s program of publicly funded bilingual education never operative in Winnipeg proper, but also it was never likely to be attempted there. As he himself argued in Peaceful Invasion, the plethora of languages spoken by the children in a typical city school precluded the use of any simple two-language model. Beyond this, as John Pampallis and other scholars have noted, those who controlled Winnipeg’s public school system were such implacable foes of the bilingual system that any suggestion that it should be brought into the city was simply ignored. [77] Sisler intimated in Peaceful Invasion and in his autobiographical notes that a system of publicly funded bilingual or multilingual schools might very well have been established in Winnipeg if he and his teachers had not been so successful [78]—but given the demographic and political situation in Winnipeg this was hyperbole.

The real challengers to Sisler’s version of a properly constituted “national” and unilingual public school system in Winnipeg were the private, parochial schools run by various religious groups associated with the larger ethnic groups. Approximately 3,000 ‘foreigners’ were attending such schools—most of them in the north end of the city—by the close of the first decade of the 20th century. [79] Sisler was painfully aware of this, for when one examines his papers it is clear that, while he may have been intellectually and pedagogically opposed to the bilingual schools in rural Manitoba, it was North Winnipeg’s parochial schools that were the real bane of his existence for many years, in some instances until as late as 1918–1919. [80] In point of fact, although Sisler never mentions it, the single greatest threat to his vision—and that of the entire Winnipeg Anglo-Celtic educational establishment—came with the passage of the Coldwell Amendments in 1912. Had these changes to the Manitoba Public Schools Act been implemented the complexion of schooling in Winnipeg would have been dramatically altered, primarily by incorporating Catholic teachers and entire Catholic-majority classrooms into the public school system. The impact would almost certainly have been greater in religious terms than linguistic ones, although there would have been a change there as well. But these amendments were a non-starter from the word go: the school authorities in Winnipeg made it clear that they would not be implementing the proposed changes. [81]

In any event, Sisler quickly became aware that among the foreign-born element of North Winnipeg it was German-speaking and Slavic immigrants who were most resistant to sending their children to secular public schools like his, preferring instead to send them to “Holy Ghost and St. John Cantius, Polish Catholic,” to one of the “three German Lutheran schools,” the “one German Catholic school, and to the two Ukrainian-language schools.” More approvingly he noted that, “The Jews had their own schools too but from the very first they patronized the public school and attended their private schools after four o’clock and in the evenings.” [82] Thus, it was the children of Jewish immigrants who constituted the largest segment of non-English speaking students for several years at both Aberdeen and Strathcona schools.

Sisler attempted to address the concerns of German- and Slavic-speaking community leaders about public school education and actively recruited students from these ethnic groups, typically by cultivating ties with some of the leaders of the ethnic groups in question. [83] As he later recalled, “... between 1905 and 1912 I made the acquaintance of some of the leaders of the various groups—Theo Stefanik, T. D. Ferley, Rev. Kroeger, Rev. Kohlmeir, P. Taraska ... and others [and assured them] that our school would not interfere with their religion.” And he went to some lengths to prove his point and to further his ties to these communities. Thus, “When children [of the various religious groups] were preparing for confirmation we were lenient as to letting them leave school early in the afternoon and we even excused them from attendance on special holidays or on a day or two before confirmation. I attended some of the preparatory sessions and a week later the confirmation.” [84] Sisler clearly believed in the personal touch, and he not only attended the occasional confirmation but would sometimes attend other special church services in order to deepen his ties to the community. Indeed, he actually became quite the aficionado of Greek Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholic rituals and church music and—judging by the evidence of his journals—worked hard, if unsuccessfully, to teach himself Ukrainian. [85]

It is at this early stage in his time at Strathcona—1905 and the next few years following—that Sisler’s various journals, autobiographical notes and published work are most problematic, at least in terms of establishing exact time lines and certain supposedly causal relationships. [86] Indeed, there are times when these writings seem to tell one as much about Sisler and his view of himself as they do about the facts at hand. Peaceful Invasion, a self-published book without footnotes or other scholarly apparatus, while useful on many levels, can be quite vague, contradictory, or overtly wrong in places. By way of example, Sisler included a picture of a 1905 class from Strathcona, meant to be a telling illustration of his school’s ethnic and linguistic diversity. The caption indicates that of the 22 children pictured only 5 spoke English as their mother tongue and the remaining 17 had entered school “not knowing a word of English.” This, of course, contradicts the statistical breakdown he had provided of the 1905 student population just a few pages earlier. [87] More significant than this minor lapse—possibly the result of a mislabelled or misdated photograph—Sisler later notes that it was in 1905 that the Winnipeg School Board introduced night school classes for adults seeking to develop basic English language skills. [88] In reality, this decision was made two years later. As Daniel McIntyre, the Superintendent of Winnipeg Schools, put it in his official report for 1907, it was early in that year that “a number of non-English speaking citizens of the northern part of the city made application for the establishment of night schools in order that they might have assistance in learning the language of the country.” The report goes on to note that, after conducting research into how other cities handled such matters, it was decided to “establish ten classes for the purpose of giving elementary instruction to all students about (sic) fourteen years of age who might wish to supplement their education at evening class.” [89]

Pointing out this simple error should not be seen as an attempt to question Sisler’s crucial role in forming and leading night school classes in Winnipeg. There is absolutely no question in this regard: he would be the north end night school’s first and long-time principal and was able to set the school’s pedagogical agenda to a great extent, at least after the first year or two. Still, this discrepancy is important. It not only reminds us of the frailty of human memory and how easy it is for certain mistakes to be perpetuated simply by citing what was, for the most part, a reliable authority—as has been done on many occasions with Peaceful Invasion—but also because it alters our understanding of how and when Sisler’s breakthrough in teaching English actually developed. In Peaceful Invasion the origins of the night school were linked to the problems of the day school with overage pupils. In it Sisler noted that,

In our day school we provided mainly for children entering at the age of six to nine years. We soon had enough older pupils to make up a class ranging in age from ten to sixteen years. We designated this class not by grade but the number of the room it occupied. To the teachers it was “Room Twenty-four” but younger pupils who had made some progress in the mastery of English and were proud of their superior knowledge always referred to it as “The Green-horn’s Class.”

We had some elementary pupils over the age of sixteen, in fact a few up to twenty-one. These were also put in a special class. They never remained long. As soon as they acquired a little knowledge of English they got employment and newcomers took their places. Some of them wished to continue in school but could not afford to lose working time for this purpose. There were others employed during the day who had never attended school since arriving in Canada. In the fall of 1905, it was decided by the school board to open evening classes for the study of elementary English. [90]

The impression left in the reader’s mind is this: problems relating to overage foreign students at Strathcona (and perhaps elsewhere) led to the creation of a night school program in 1905. Of course, this flies in the face of Sisler’s statistical breakdown for the school in that year. Simply put, in 1905 there was no language problem at Strathcona and there were no special classes of over-aged students seeking to learn English. Beyond this, it also misstates the actual date of the commencement of the night classes. However, by coinciding with the year of Sisler’s appointment as principal of Strathcona it does flow nicely into the heroic narrative of a man thrown into an educational and linguistic maelstrom; a man who quickly managed to find a way to conquer all. In Peaceful Invasion there is no mention of ‘non-English speaking citizens’ petitioning for a night school as in Superintendent McIntyre’s account; instead, as Sisler somewhat breathlessly recounts it, advertisements were run in the foreign language press, handbills in five languages were printed and distributed

and “These I took personally to various social and political gatherings. Sometimes I was given an opportunity to speak in English. Though few understood, there was always someone to interpret for the benefit of those who could not understand.” [91] Aside from making himself out to be the central figure of the piece, reaching out virtually unbidden to the ethnic communities—and leaving it up to the reader to surmise who arranged for those multilingual advertisements to be placed and the handbills printed—it also sets up a curious tension between his various accounts of what happens next. In one version of his unpublished reminiscences he said of the night school that the “classes were so successful that some parents began sending their children to day school.” [92] So, in this version it was the presence and success of the night school, which helped to account for the popularity of the public school among the Slavic- and German-speaking population. Even more dramatically, in another quite separate recounting of these events, Sisler notes, “In the night school I originated the whole plan of teaching by the direct method.” [93] So in this version it would seem possible that it was the experience of the night school English classes, which shaped the path chosen by Sisler and his teachers in the day school.

I do not wish to challenge the entirety of Sisler’s published and oft-cited account. However, the reality of what happened in Strathcona School and in the night school was a bit murkier, followed a slightly different timeline, and was part of a slightly different set of political, social and pedagogical interconnections than those suggested in Peaceful Invasion. To begin with, the real challenges began emerging in 1906 when the demographic shift noted above began to take place. [94] There is absolutely no question that the students’ lack of English language skills and the lack of second-language skills among the Canadian-born teachers made student-teacher communication a thorny issue. Even collecting the basic information required of a new student—name, age, address and a few other such matters—was a major challenge; so, attempting to teach the children to speak and read English while they made progress on the core curriculum was a staggering task for the young women who made up the majority of Strathcona’s staff. And it needs to be stressed that the only class-room teaching done by Sisler, as principal, was at the most senior grade level—where language acquisition was not an issue. Thus, the primary burden rested on the shoulders of the exclusively female First Grade teachers at Strathcona.

Despite his apparently seminal experience at New Stockholm, about which he informs readers early on in Peaceful Invasion, [95] his autobiographical notes make it clear that at first he and his teachers followed the standard procedures advocated by the Winnipeg School District’s primary grade supervisors. In Sisler’s less-than-kind summation, this phonics-based approach called for the “children to memorize and copy sounds and symbols of which they did not and could not apply any use.” Then there was the “busy work” with shoe pegs, toothpicks, cut-out letters and other aids to instruction which could take up a quarter or a third of the school day—a huge waste of time in Sisler’s opinion. [96] All of this was bad enough for English-speaking students but to Sisler such an approach was disastrous for those who were not native speakers. By the time that large numbers of non-English speaking students were coming into Strathcona’s classrooms, Sisler definitely wanted to abandon this approach. But he felt that he could not challenge the “directing teachers in the lower grades,” [97] not when, as he put it, he was still the “youngest school principal in Winnipeg.” [98] It is at this juncture that what one might characterize as “Sisler the educational subversive” emerges. In a much more fulsome and far less self-glorifying account than that which appeared in Peaceful Invasion, Sisler notes that, unwilling to challenge the powers that be directly, he surreptitiously

... had two of my best teachers follow common sense methods in teaching their own classes. I consulted with them and soon found that three of the teachers and myself agreed perfectly as to methods to be adopted in primary classes. The first to be convinced were Miss E. Talbot, Miss M. Cameron and Miss O. McLean. Results in learning English and in general work of the school were soon so evident that I determined to put my proposition up to the Superintendent [Daniel McIntyre]. Two events confirmed my decision. 1 I was called into a room one day because a boy was ‘disobedient’? His teacher, still following instructions of the lady supervisor had given a seven year old boy (with others) the task of arranging shoe pegs on his desk in i ii iii iv v ... order. This was repeated until the top of his desk was covered. He was then told to put them in the box and do it over again. With a single stroke of hand and forearm he swept them to the floor. Ordered to pick them up he just sat and sulked. The teacher asked to have him punished. I told her I thought the boy had showed good judgment—‘Wisdom beyond his years.’ He was not punished.

The second event was the appointment of a niece of the Superintendent to a Gr. IV Class consisting of English-speaking children. The teacher, ‘Miss Helen Forest’ did not have the problem of teaching her class a new language but she knew what was going on in the primary classes and she enthusiastically supported my action in trying to get for myself and teachers complete freedom to adopt our own plan in all primary grades. I have good reason to believe that she passed on a good deal of information to the Superintendent, which helped us to get what we wanted. On his next visit to the school after events related above, I let him know what I wanted and gave my reasons. He did not hesitate as he said, ’I’ll take the primary supervisors out but remember I shall hold you responsible for results.’ I thanked him and replied ‘That is exactly what we want. Give me young teachers who really like children and have a bright cheerful outlook and are willing to cooperate and try what to them may be new methods. We will soon prove by results that we have the right method.’ [99]

This is a far more satisfying account than the one available in Peaceful Invasion: it is more detailed; it gives credit where credit is due—and by name; it details exactly how the supervisors were circumvented; and it gives one a much more accurate impression of the time that would have been involved in all the manoeuvring, experimenting and negotiating that resulted in Strathcona School becoming a fully functioning educational laboratory. It also makes clear that the pedagogical ‘enemy’ to be vanquished in Winnipeg was not bilingual education but rather the phonics-based approach.

The relationship between what was going on in the day school and the work being undertaken at the night school is a bit harder to ascertain. In Peaceful Invasion Sisler indicated that, in regards to the night school, at first “Some of our school authorities said that the teacher in such classes as these should have a knowledge of the pupil’s home language in order to teach him English. We tried this plan to a limited extent.” [100] So, at least in the fall of 1907, Sisler’s preferred unilingual, common sense/direct method was not fully implemented in the night school, although he indicates that he did get his way fairly quickly on the most appropriate method of instruction, largely through the selection of teachers for the program. This too raises an interesting point, for in Peaceful Invasion Sisler indicated that he always sought to employ teachers from either the day school or from among university students who were willing to experiment with his new method, and he quite specifically mentioned that this involved both male and female teachers. However, he was frustratingly vague on this score, simply noting that: “The first teachers were recruited from members of the day school staff.” [101] Reading this, one might naturally assume that the cohort of night school teachers was drawn, at least partially, from Sisler’s group of co-conspirators at Strathcona: the day school staff. This, however, was not the case. As Superintendent McIntyre made clear in his report for 1907, “The instruction [at the night school] is given by men who teach in the day school.” [102] So, the exclusively female cohort of primary grade instructors at Strathcona was not included in this work, nor given the opportunity to get the extra pay involved. [103]

In any event, given Sisler’s centrality to the development of teaching approaches both at Strathcona and in the night school, it makes sense that sometime after the fall of 1907 (most probably in 1908 or 1909) the hard-won lessons of the teachers in both places were beginning to merge into a coherent approach to English-language training for the students. And it needs to be observed that this was a remarkably difficult proposition, particularly for the teachers in Strathcona’s first grade and “special” classrooms (such as Room Twenty-four) as they were building a program from the ground up. Starting from the most basic approach of teaching speaking, reading, writing and spelling by physically labelling the common objects that made up a student’s typical environment both inside and outside the classroom, Strathcona’s teachers next incorporated pictures of common objects from outside that immediate environment. In this fashion they focussed upon building up a vocabulary of English words—all of which were attached to physical examples or an easily understood image. Adding simple verbs to the extensive list of nouns resulted in the formation of simple sentences and instructions. Because they were not using the approved course materials, the teachers had to devise their own texts and readers so that the students’ reading work would follow their verbal abilities. Composed on the fly, reading assignments were first placed on the blackboard. Later the readings/lessons were assembled into more permanent form, typed up and then “multigraphed”—in the process producing work books for the next sets of incoming students. [104] As they became more sophisticated, more pictures and illustrations were added and refinements were constantly being made as Sisler and his teachers figured out what was working best and what was not. As the coordinator and supervisor of these efforts, Sisler compiled lists of the most common mistakes made by students as they were speaking English and then devised exercises to correct those errors. [105]

Every possible stratagem was employed to encourage the students to master and expand their vocabulary. The already common practice of singing action songs in the lower grades—which broke up the monotony of the school day, provided a modicum of exercise, and further developed vocabulary—was incorporated into Strathcona’s classrooms. [106] And, if chosen carefully, these action songs and a selection of various patriotic, Canadian and British songs could be, and were used to inculcate a greater sense of what it meant to be a good citizen. There was no question in Sisler’s and his teachers’ minds that they were not just teaching English-language skills and a core curriculum, they were also forging Canadians, both at Strathcona and in the night school. [107]

If some of the foregoing seems overly critical of Sisler’s propensity to make himself into the hero of the piece and—whether consciously or not—to improve the dramatic quality of the tale by altering a few dates, eliding a few events and leaving certain unfounded connections in the mind of his readers, it is still the case that Sisler and his staff accomplished much. Indeed, when one considers the challenges facing them in the years following the “peaceful invasion”—and particularly the tasks confronting Sisler as principal—their work was heroic. They were involved in a variation of what Peggy Pascoe has referred to as “relations of rescue,” seeking to provide the children with the tools that they would need to pull themselves up out of the grinding poverty that defined their lives and those of their families. They were true believers in the redemptive value of education and one cannot help but be struck by the dedication and energy level of virtually all concerned. Not only was a new approach to language acquisition being developed, refined and fully implemented between 1907 and 1910, but Sisler and his teachers at Strathcona made strenuous efforts to become involved in their students’ lives. Much like the north end mission-house workers whom Sisler admired so much, they exhibited an almost missionary zeal in their work of education and Canadianization. [108] It is, of course, easy to lambaste assimilationists such as Sisler for their cultural chauvinism, but it is emphatically wrong to place Sisler and his corps of young teachers into the same camp as the overtly nativist propagandists of this period—or even worse, those of the Great War era when nativism reached new highs, or rather lows. Unlike those who continually bemoaned the existence of large numbers of foreigners in Winnipeg and the Canadian west and despaired of any progress for the immigrants, Sisler et al. actually came to like and even appreciate the students, their families and perhaps most surprisingly, their cultures.

And like mission-house workers and the women of the Margaret Scott Nursing Mission, Sisler and his teachers actually spent time in the homes of their students. [109] Because so many of the parents were seemingly reluctant to visit the school, [110] or unable to due to work and child-care responsibilities, Strathcona’s teachers and Sisler himself routinely made house calls to check up on their students and to interview parents. And all sorts of stratagems were devised to bring the parents into the school; musical concerts, displays of student artwork, and lavish garden shows featuring student-produced flowers, shrubs and vegetables were quickly inaugurated both as part of Strathcona’s core educational work, and also as ways of enticing parents to enter the school. Sisler never tired of pointing out that while the typical foreign-born parent was reluctant, perhaps even afraid, to enter the school to discuss their child’s academic progress, they would come to see these displays of student work: little or no English was required to appreciate music, art or flowers and vegetables. [111]

Under Sisler Strathcona became a remarkable hub of both curricular and extracurricular activity, all of which called for much extra work by the teachers. But if Sisler expected much of his young staff, he clearly expected even more of himself. He took on almost all responsibility for the extramural sports program at the school, especially in regards to coaching the school’s (boys-only) soccer and lacrosse teams, which often involved coaching two teams per season, divided by age group. As attested to by the numerous pictures of Sisler and his victorious charges, these were very successful programs, built upon Mr. Sisler’s uncompensated sacrifice of after-school hours and Saturday mornings. [112] Then there was the cadet corps, in which Sisler took inordinate pride. His Strathcona boys did well in the local competitions for close drill and he got them something which no other school had—“sub-target” rifles from the Department of the Militia for actual shooting practice. [113] Perhaps most dramatic of all, however, was the horticultural and school garden program that Sisler inaugurated. As a farm boy and lifelong horticulturalist, Sisler was a keen advocate of nature study based upon school gardens. He saw these horticultural projects as being useful in many ways, not least of which was that they provided “material”—practical objects—for work in learning English and “in many cases ... enabled teachers to make useful contacts with the homes.” [114]

Strathcona School cadets, circa 1910
Source: Archives of Manitoba, W. J. Sisler 236

So successful was this program that in 1908 it was singled out for praise and attention in the Department of Education’s Annual Report. And it truly was noteworthy. First-grade students started out with flower seeds planted in pots and cans provided from home, tended them under the supervision of their teachers in the classroom until June, and then took them home for the summer. The following September the plants were brought back to school for “exhibition.” Students in grades two and three did much the same except that, in addition to flower seeds, some vegetable seeds were provided along with “type-written instructions as to planting.” In grades four, five and six the focus shifted to vegetable gardens, although almost all of the students still produced some flowers. Sisler estimated that 80% of Strathcona’s now 1000-strong student body was involved in this set of horticultural projects. But this was only part of Sisler’s ambitious program. As he noted,

The gardens at the homes of the children, and in Elmwood, constituted the most interesting feature of the work. At their homes the gardens were in size from fifty to three hundred square feet. These were inspected and marks assigned twice during the summer (June and September). This involves a good deal of work, but it affords the teacher an excellent opportunity to meet the parents who are pleased to see the teacher taking an interest in the work of the children. In connection with the home gardens, a school garden for demonstration and experimental purposes is necessary, as there are many, in fact, the majority, who know very little about proper planting and cultivation. The cost of this could be partly paid by those cultivating the plots. This was done in the case of the Elmwood plots last summer. An exhibition of flowers and vegetables was held at the school in September. The flower show was held in the respective rooms, each child having a bouquet or potted plant on its desk during the day. Tables were arranged for a collective exhibit of vegetables, which, for quality, would have done credit to an agricultural exhibition. The children were asked to invite their parents and the school was open to visitors from three to four o-clock in the afternoon. This was undoubtedly the most interesting and enjoyable day of the school year. I am satisfied that the children learn many valuable lessons from work of this kind. The knowledge that it requires labour to produce the necessities of life is of itself a valuable lesson, which, if learned early in life, through doing things, would bring about a more honest generation of men and women. Knowledge of nature is gained at first hand, and the thoughts are turned in the direction of useful work. [115]

This entry and a follow-up piece in the Annual Report of 1909 [116] speak volumes about Sisler’s work and expectations. To begin with, this program clearly called for much work by him and the teachers; work that had to be done outside of regular school hours and oft-times well away from the school itself. It is also a clear indication of Sisler’s determination to get his teachers, himself and his core values into the homes of the immigrant parents—and of his equal determination to get parents into the school. It was important to him that the points of contact were several and helped to overcome the reluctance of parents to come into the school. [117] Of course, Sisler’s own core belief in the virtues of hard work and entrepreneurism (note how for the larger plots the older children had to pay something but also got to reap the benefits of the gardens) were also clearly on display. But the mention of the Elmwood ‘plots’ opens up another part of the story. Somehow or other—and Sisler never explains exactly how he did this—he not only got permission for his students to set up garden plots in many of the empty town lots near the school (many of their own homes did not have land for a garden plot), but from 1907 onwards, he also arranged for a half-acre plot of land in Elmwood (three kilometres away from the school) to be made available for a group of the older boys to cultivate. [118] Exactly how he did this, and from where the start-up funds came, remains a mystery, but Mr. Sisler was nothing if not resourceful.

It is also the case that Sisler involved himself quite personally in his students’ lives. One former student, who had entered Strathcona in 1910 as a 15-year-old, remembered how much Sisler and his teachers were willing to do for immigrants like herself: “When I say Mr. Sisler helped us, that’s exactly what I mean. He helped us by getting jobs to make it possible for us to stay in school, he even lent his students money to further their education. Nothing was too much trouble when it came to his girls and his boys.” [119] Nor was this student seeing Sisler through rose-coloured glasses, for she was also one of the former students—and a future teacher herself—who remembered, with notable disappointment, just how harsh his discipline could be, especially on the little boys. [120]

In any event, this was obviously a busy and extremely productive phase in the life of both Strathcona School and Principal Sisler. The new approach to teaching English to the new students was well in hand and the problems of communication with new non-English speaking students was diminishing daily. A nucleus of 200 or so now English-speaking older students could be called upon to provide translations as teachers tried to obtain vital information from new arrivals. Older brothers and sisters were teaching younger siblings some English before they even arrived at school. Best of all, by the end of the decade Strathcona was assigned a “visiting teacher who spoke at least five or six languages [and] She served as an interpreter and connecting link between the school and the home.” And Sisler himself, who already spoke a fair amount of German, added to his linguistic stock and could now ask some of the core questions of new students in German, Ukrainian and Swedish—a skill set that served him particularly well in the night school. [121]

Speaking of which, the night school did have some of its own peculiar problems largely related to attendance. In effect, many signed up for the free classes, but in the first few years, a relatively small proportion finished. [122] There were also some instances of religious/ethnic conflict, which erupted among some of the night school students, most notably an incident during the first year of classes that was clearly anti-Semitic in inspiration. [123] Sisler always downplayed such matters and in his later years was wont to say that the schools had played a key role in ending such animosities and creating harmony among all of the students, regardless of their backgrounds. [124] While this may have been an instance of wishful thinking on his part, it is the case that a more or less coherent program was ironed out by Sisler and his night school teachers after the “first two or three years” and, after a small refundable fee was added, many of the initial attendance problems began to dissipate and plans for more advanced classes in English and core academic and social topics—particularly lessons in civics and good citizenship—were put in place. [125]

All in all, by 1910–1911 Sisler could have looked back over the past decade and perhaps been amazed by all that he had accomplished. At the most basic (and personal) level he had gone from being a sporadically employed teacher in one-room schools in rural areas to the principal of a 22-room urban school in the most rapidly growing part of the Dominion’s most dynamic city. [126] Financially this meant that he had seen his annual income rise from $450 (in a good year) to a base salary of over $2100, which was about to rise once Strathcona’s recently completed 12-room addition was factored into the salary equation then operative for Winnipeg’s male principals. [127] To this one would have to add his additional pay as Night School Principal, which varied by the number of students and teachers under his administration, but which would probably have been over $250 per year. [128] Nor does this take into account his additional earnings as a sometime reporter for the Free Press or any of his additional income from small side investments, such as his purchase and subsequent leasing of some farm and hay land up in the Balmoral district (where he again kept a small cattle herd) and a farm lot in an undeveloped portion of rural St. Boniface. Certainly by the standards of the day, an income such as this was substantial and Sisler found himself, as a single man, firmly in the ranks of the middling classes. [129] Moreover, he was clearly the “darling” of some of Winnipeg’s educational leaders. Superintendent McIntyre had given him his own school, granted the young principal considerable leeway to experiment with his direct method of ESL teaching, and had appointed him to head up the first north end night school. Beyond this McIntyre had gone out of his way to use his annual report to praise Sisler’s programs at Strathcona, twice concerning home gardens and once indirectly in his praise of the male teachers who gave up their free time to lead the schools’ sports teams—and Sisler was one of the most prominent and successful of all such coaches. [130]

W. J. Sisler with the Strathcona Football Club, junior champions of the Winnipeg Schools League, 1915–1916.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, W. J. Sisler 243

Of course, Sisler was involved with more than just school-related matters. While his journals and autobiographical notes are frustratingly silent on most aspects of his personal life during this period, it is clear that his increased income had allowed him to indulge his passion for travel. Of course, some of this was undertaken as part of his work for the Manitoba Free Press, but far from all. As mentioned earlier, Sisler made his first forays into the Interlake district, strictly on his own initiative, in 1901 and appears to have followed this up by brief trips into the area north of Stonewall and Balmoral in 1903, 1904 and 1905, and then somewhat more sporadically until at least 1920. [131] But he certainly did not limit himself to exploring Manitoba. In the same year that he was appointed principal of Strathcona School, Sisler made a trip to New Jersey to attend the National Education Association meetings where he not only heard President Theodore Roosevelt speak at Ashbury Park, but also took the opportunity to visit and photograph many portions of New York City. [132] And, in what was perhaps an indication that even at this late date Sisler still wasn’t certain about the ultimate path of his professional career, in the summer of 1907 he spent part of July and all of August in Menomonie, Wisconsin earning a certificate in various aspects of manual and shops training. [133] But of even greater significance to Sisler was the decision he made to travel to Great Britain and parts of Europe in the summer of 1910. This extensive trip, a six-week tour of England, Ireland, Scotland, Belgium and Germany, was part of a tour set up for Canadian teachers and was quite the eye-opening experience for Sisler; indeed, as he confided to his diary, it was a trip he felt that he should have made much earlier in his life. He was most decidedly not impressed by English schools, by their pedagogical methods or by their segregation of the students by sex. And he was even less favourably impressed by the average British citizen, particularly as regarded drinking habits. Sisler viewed the majority of the English—both male and female—as borderline alcoholics who neglected their children on account of drink. [134] Almost every prejudice that he had been building up against the British-born, who in his mind always seemed to receive special treatment in Canada, was vindicated by his experiences on this trip. On a much more positive note, however, he was quite impressed by what he saw and observed on a side trip that he took on his own into Germany. Without any formal contacts or guides, and only his school-boy German to rely upon, Sisler managed to get himself invited into some German classrooms. He was particularly impressed by German orderliness, by the use of the outdoors as a training/teaching area for the students and he was powerfully and positively struck by the ways in which the German school masters inculcated patriotism in their students. The only negative impression he had of anything linked to Germany involved a dispute he overheard in Cologne, but he put this down to the actions of a quarrelsome “Old Jew” and therefore not really reflective of anything truly German! [135]

By the close of his first decade in Winnipeg, Sisler’s life had settled into a fairly regular pattern. During the school year, his days were fully occupied by his work as principal and teacher. He regularly taught the most senior grade at Strathcona until 1911, when its expansion removed him from the classroom permanently. This was augmented by his extracurricular work with the sports teams, the school gardens, the cadet corps and his work as principal of the night school. And although we have no specific diaries or journals detailing his day-to-day activities during this period, judging from the more detailed set of records he kept for the years from 1916 onwards, we know he was also spending some of his evenings and many of his Sundays visiting the homes of students. [136] Small wonder that he no longer had time for the Militia, or after 1910, for work as a reporter. [137] His summers meanwhile had been taken up with travel, reporting for the Free Press, personal educational improvement, visiting and supervising his students’ various garden plots and attending to his personal ventures in cattle ranching and land ownership. But he still found the time to keep up a fairly active program of reading for his own self-improvement and edification. And, although his records concerning his personal reading program commence late in this period—in 1909—it is obvious that he was well aware of the growing calls for massive social reform and change, perhaps even revolution, which were going on around him and was taking steps to educate himself in this regard. Thus, from 1909 into the first years of the Great War one finds Sisler perusing works such as Charles Vail’s Principles of Scientific Socialism, Karl Kautsky’s The Social Revolution, C. Osborne Ward’s The Ancient Lowly, Robert Blatchford’s Merrie England and Gustav Meyers’ History of Canadian Wealth—essentially the C. H. Kerr catalogue of left-wing books. [138]

All told then, by the time of the Great War Sisler had carved out a busy, interesting and seemingly quite rewarding life. But, although he had clearly developed a solid reputation as an educator, it would not be until the war years and the coming to power of the new, reform-oriented Liberal administration of T. C. Norris that Sisler would be propelled to a position of influence and notoriety in a broader setting. The war years were to be crucial ones, both for Manitoba’s education system and for Sisler himself. Indeed, as we shall see in Part Two, this period would inaugurate the most interesting and sometimes seemingly contradictory phase of Sisler’s life, for this is the period when he would emerge as both the leading evangelist of unilingualism in Manitoba’s classrooms and a staunch defender of the very peoples who were typically viewed as “the problem” which a unilingual system needed to ‘fix.’ Momentous times were just around the corner for both Sisler and the education system.


1. Even at that, their knowledge will be quite flawed as the brief blurb on Mr. Sisler that is embedded in the school’s website contains several inaccuracies. See

2. See, for example, Nelson Wiseman. Social Democracy in Manitoba: a History of the CCF-NDP. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1983; J. W. Chafe, An Apple for the Teacher: A Centennial History of the Winnipeg School Division. Winnipeg, 1967; Sybil Shack, “The Education of Immigrant Children during the First Two Decades of this Century,” Manitoba Historical Society Transactions, Series 3, Number 30, 1973-1974 Season; Alexander Gregor and Keith Wilson. The Development of Education in Manitoba, Dubuque: Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, 1984; William Lucow, “The Origin and Growth of the Public School System in Winnipeg,” Winnipeg: unpublished MEd thesis, University of Manitoba, 1950; VictorTurek and Benedykt Heydenkorn., Poles in Manitoba., Vol. 5. Polish Research Institute in Canada, 1967; Roy Loewen and Gerald Friesen. Immigrants in Prairie Cities: Ethnic Diversity in Twentieth-Century Canada. University of Toronto Press, 2009; Russel Field, “Sport and the Canadian Immigrant: Physical Expressions of Cultural Identity within a Dominant Culture, 1896–1945,” Race and Sport in Canada: Intersecting Inequalities (2012): page 29; and R. Rory Henry. “Making Modern Citizens: The Construction of Masculine Middle-Class Identity on the Canadian Prairies, 1890-1920.” Toward Defining the Prairies: Region, Culture, and History (2001): pages 79-89.

3. W. J. Sisler, Peaceful Invasion. Winnipeg: the author, Ketchen Printing, 1944. For this work’s use as a primary source see several of the works listed in endnote #2, perhaps especially Lucow’s “The Origin and Growth of the Public School System in Winnipeg,” and Chafe’s An Apple for the Teacher.

4. Harry Shave, “W. J. Sisler – A Great Canadian,” Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1966, Volume 11, Number 2. A recent, and honourable set of exceptions to this rule is the work of Chris Kotecki, “The Photographs of W. J. Sisler: 1900–1926,” a paper presented at the 19th Biennial Conference of the Canadian Ethnic Studies Association (Winnipeg, MB) 27–29 September 2007 and an article by John Lehr and Meaghan Sawka, “W. J. Sisler’s impressions of the Chicago Columbian Exposition 1893,” Prairie Perspectives, volume 15, pages 8-13 (2012).

5. Sisler was roundly denounced in an editorial published in the French-language press for his involvement in the dismantling of bilingual schools and his supposedly anti-French bias. See, La Liberté, July 1919, clipping contained in Archives of Manitoba (hereafter AM), MG 14 C28 “Sisler Papers,” Box 5, File 48.

6. In regards to the emergence of the original Manitoba School Question in 1889-1890 and the complex political and legal manoeuvrings which produced the Laurier–Greenway Compromise of 1896 see, Jim Mochoruk, “Thomas Greenway, 1888-1900,” in Barry Ferguson and Robert Wardhaugh (eds.) Manitoba Premiers of the 19th and 20th Centuries, Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 2010, pages 89-99.

The most important result of this Compromise, as embodied in the Manitoba Public Schools Act of 1897, was that Manitoba retained the system of “National” schools and school funding that the Greenway administration had first instituted in 1890—in violation of both the Manitoba Act of 1870 and the traditional rights of the French Roman Catholic minority. However, as a concession to minority rights, religious instruction could be offered for a half-hour after school had ended for the day and, where a sizable grouping of one faith (Catholic or Protestant) existed within a school, a teacher of that denomination would be employed. Most famous of all was the matter of bilingual schools. When ten or more students in any school spoke any language other than English, instruction was to be “in French, or such other language, and English upon the bilingual system.” See Manitoba Statutes, 60 Vic, c. 26.

What I have characterized as “round two” refers to the Norris administration’s decision to unilaterally abandon the terms of the Laurier-Greenway Compromise—or more precisely, to abandon the Roblin Government’s attempt to implement the terms of that agreement through the provision of bilingual educational facilities for French-, German-, Polish- and Ukrainian-speaking populations, primarily in rural Manitoba. In 1916, under Norris and his Minister of Education, Dr. Robert Thornton, Manitoba moved to a unilingual model of ‘secular’ public education, replete with a compulsory attendance law, much to the dismay of Manitoba’s ethnic minorities, the Roman Catholic Church, and the entire province of Quebec.

It is interesting to note that in his journals Sisler gives himself a surprising amount of credit for the ultimate decision of Thornton to move towards such a strictly unilingual school system. See, for example, AM MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections” pages 122-125.

7. This is a matter of some debate. Sisler seemed to be a bit sensitive about his age, perhaps because he married a much younger woman and was actually older than his mother-in-law. In any event, he never mentions his exact date of birth and official birth records were unavailable. The 1869 date comes from a family bible which was added to the “Ledger Book” journal in 1978, presumably by his son. See AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” no page number. However, Sisler’s “Certificate of Citizenship”—located in ibid., Box 5, File #53—lists his date of birth as 2 November 1870. Adding to the confusion, according to Sisler’s “Will and Probate File,” included in ibid., Box 9, File 89A, he was 86 at the time of his death on 8 August 1956, which places his year of birth in 1869; so, there is a clear conflict in some quasi-official documents. Given other internal references in his journal notes, for example those concerning his age when he left Ontario, I believe that the earlier date is the correct one. A subsequent visit to the Kildonan Presbyterian Cemetery by Dr. Gordon Goldsborough of the Manitoba Historical Society offers further confirmation, as the family had his date of birth inscribed as 1869. While not exactly incontrovertible proof it shall have to suffice.

8. To be clear, this is only surprising given his future career as an educator. A Grade 8 education would have been a quite reasonable educational level for most Canadians at the time and above average for farm families.

9. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” page 110.

10. Ibid., pages 110, 162.

11. Ibid., pages 128-130.

12. Ibid., pages 130-131.

13. Ibid., page 131.

14. Ibid., pages 100-113.

15. Of particular note in this regard, see Ibid., Box 5, File 55 “Diary of a trip to World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893” and in the same file, “My Wanderings in the Summer of 1891, WJ Sisler.”

16. Ibid., Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections” p 111 and 131. For the certificate, see page 470.

17. Ibid., pages 111-112.

18. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” , Box 5, File 55 “Diary of a trip to World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893.” For an excellent and quite fulsome account of his time in Chicago, see Lehr and Sawka, “W. J. Sisler’s impressions …”

19. AM, MG 14, C28 , “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” p. 112 and clipping, page 475.

20. Ibid., page 132.

21. There is a certain amount of confusion concerning when certain certificates were actually granted. There is no question concerning the dates Sisler attended and completed Normal School—i.e., August through December 1895, but there are some inconsistencies in the dating of the official certificates. See AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” p. 132, and for his various certificates, pages 469-470.

22. It was a constant refrain in the Annual Reports of the Department of Education that male teachers were too rare to begin with and that those who did become teachers tended to leave the profession for other opportunities as soon as possible. By the turn of the century almost every yearly report has something to say about what male administrators referred to as the lamentable “feminization” of the teaching profession and complained that those men who did become teachers were so poorly paid that they soon left the profession for better economic opportunities (even though they were routinely paid considerably more than their female counterparts). See, for example, Manitoba, Report of the Department of Education for the Year Ending 31 December 1903, pages 22, 24; and ibid. for the year ending 31 December 1907, page 21.

23. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” pages 113-114.

24. Done for the Manitoba Historical Society in the late 1940s.

25. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” pages 117, 192.

26. Ibid.

27. The rough equivalent of second year standing in the BA program.

28. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger —Personal Recollections,” page 118.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid., marginal note, page 119.

32. Ibid., page 157.

33. Ibid., page 197.

34. Ibid. Sisler was substituting for a man named Walter Lang. What is of some interest in all of this is that in every case Sisler seemed to get positions replacing another male teacher, which both underlines how often male teachers entered and left the profession, but also suggests that there was an informal male network of teachers and college students who called upon each other for aid in securing work and as substitutes when other opportunities arose. It is also of some interest that Sisler’s dating is sometimes problematic. Although he mentions May as the end-date of this contract at least twice, he also mentions in another place that he was in Old Kildonan for only three months, i.e., until March, and that he started with the Macdonald Trust in April. Because Sisler tended to ‘rewrite’ his autobiographical notes as time went on and because the original contracts are unavailable, it is difficult to be too precise on such matters. While such issues may seem to be of only antiquarian interest, the discrepancies and reconstructions remind us of the perils of taking any document, and perhaps especially a memoir, at face value.

35. Ibid., pages 119-120, 197-200.

36. Ibid., page 200.

37. Ibid., p. 121. The Manual Training program was highly experimental. When it was first implemented in Winnipeg in 1901, Sisler and his fellow MT teachers were not even employees of the Winnipeg School Board. Rather, they worked for the “Macdonald Trust,” a charitable institution established by Montreal’s tobacco king—Canada’s leading educational philanthropist—which provided salaries and equipment for this experiment in practical, hands-on education for its first three years of operation. For an account of the importance of this program to Daniel McIntyre, Superintendent of Winnipeg Schools, see AM, GR 174, G8213 OS 0063-1, 1901 (Unpublished Sessional Papers) Manitoba, Report of the Department of Education for the Year Ending 31 December 1900, n.p.

For more information on the Trust, also known as the Macdonald Manual Training Fund, see Stanley Brice Frost and Robert H. Michel, “Macdonald, Sir William Christopher,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003. Accessed 22 January 2014.

38. See, for example,

39. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 5, File 55 “Diary of a trip to World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893” (addenda written 16 December 1955).

40. It was well known that Winnipeg’s School Board paid all of its teachers and principals—male and female—considerably better than those working either in the private, largely parochial, schools or in the public schools of the rural districts. In 1900-1901 in rural Manitoba the average yearly earnings of a public school teacher were $449.37 while in Winnipeg the average was fully 50% higher, at $671. See AM, GR 174, G8213 OS 0063-1, 1901 (Unpublished Sessional Papers) Manitoba, Report of the Department of Education for the Year Ending 31 December 1900, n.p.

41. In 1903-1904 Winnipeg instituted salary floors and maximums ranging from $500 per year for teachers of grades one through four to a maximum (based on 11 years’ seniority) of $850 for a grade eight teacher ($100 less for the probationary year in each category). There were no gender divisions noted in these minimum and maximum figures but female teachers predominated in the more poorly paid lower grades while the relatively few male teachers taught the upper grades and at the much better paying Collegiate Institute—or like Sisler, were MT teachers. There was a specific gender division for principals of schools and for teachers at the Collegiate Institute. For example, female principals of primary schools could make from $725 to $1000 per year while their male counterparts earned from $1200 to $2000 for exactly the same work. See Manitoba, Report of the Department of Education for the Year Ending 31 December 1903, pages 22-23. As to the gender discrepancy, in 1904 Winnipeg had a total of 160 teachers—of these 17 were male. See ibid., … for the Year Ending 31 December 1904, page 18.

42. AM, GR 174, G8213 OS 0063-1, 1901 (Unpublished Sessional Papers) Manitoba, Report of the Department of Education for the Year Ending 31 December 1900, n.p. See also Manitoba, Report of the Department of Education for the Year Ending 31 December 1905, pages 16-17.

43. Ibid., … for the Year Ending 31 December 1907, page 20.

44. Ibid., … for the Year Ending 31 December 1909, page 28.

45. Winnipeg’s permanent and transient population soared, from a little over 40,000 when Sisler returned to Winnipeg in the spring of 1901 to almost 80,000 in 1905, and more than doubled yet again to reach approximately 185,000 by 1912. These figures are all based upon the city of Winnipeg’s Assessment Office figures, which included non-permanent residents, an important consideration for educators, as the children of transients often attended Winnipeg’s schools while their families were looking for land or employment opportunities throughout the west. See Alan Artibise, Winnipeg: A Social History of Urban Growth, 1874-1914. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1975, Table 6 “Population Growth by Years: City of Winnipeg, 1871-1916,” pages 130-131.

46. These include Somerset, Alexandra, Carlton, Pinkham, John M. King, Wellington, Luxton, Riverview, Clifton, Cecil Rhodes, Lord Selkirk, King Edward, La Verendrye, Aberdeen No. 2, Greenway, Lord Roberts, Laura Secord and Lord Selkirk no. 2.

47. William H. Lucow calculated that in 1906 the average student-to-teacher ratio in Winnipeg was actually 61 to 1. See Lucow, “The Origin and Growth of the Public School System in Winnipeg,” Winnipeg: unpublished University of Manitoba MEd Thesis, 1950, page 19.

48. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” page 469.

49. Ibid., Box 5, File 55 “Diary of a trip to World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893”

50. Ibid., “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” pp. 126-127. Swimming was taught at the YMCA facilities on Selkirk and in the Birks Building.

51. It was “Association Football”—soccer—and lacrosse where he had the most success and experience as a coach within the school system. His work teaching swimming seemed to have been done outside the school at the YMCA facility while his work as a baseball coach was done with students from his school but once again via the YMCA.

52. For a lovely example of Sisler’s heavily gendered language on the “manly” virtues acquired during competitive sporting events see AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” page 227.

53. Ibid., “Sisler Papers,” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” page 148. In various parts of his journals he indicates that he served with the 90th Regiment for six years. It is hard to accept all of his dates as he twice noted that he served from 1900 to 1906, which is a bit problematic. He definitely did serve and received “Certificates of Military Instruction” and passed both his Subaltern’s and Captain’s classes in the springs of 1903 and 1904, respectively, and was still listed on the regiment’s official letterhead as Lieutenant with the unit as late as December, 1906. However, as he was not resident in Winnipeg for most of 1900, being in New Stockholm, and did not have any contact with cadet programs until 1901—his supposed reason for joining the Regiment, it is likely that he joined sometime in 1901 or early 1902. For copies of the certificates, see ibid., pages 483-485.

54. Ibid., Sisler Papers, Box 3, Notebook 4 “Settlement of the Interlake Region, Summary for Historical Society.” In this notebook Sisler explains that it was in the summer of 1900 or thereabouts—it would have been 1901 as he was teaching full-time at New Stockholm during the summer of 1900—that he made his first exploratory tour through the Interlake region and then up along the coast of Lake Winnipeg to Warren’s Landing and Norway House. He did this “purely from a desire to see something not in the news and to get snapshots of persons and places, somewhat different from the ordinary.”

55. Ibid., pp. 1–2. In Sisler’s photo album this trip is erroneously attributed to 1907—which would have been impossible given that he was attending a manual training program in Wisconsin that particular summer.

56. AM, C51 WJ Sisler Photo Album.

57. When the Manual Training program was established in January 1901 the Winnipeg School Board, always short of space, acquired rooms in a privately owned facility—the Stovel Block on McDermot Avenue in downtown Winnipeg—to accommodate work spaces for 40 students, while the old Mulvey school in the south end was reconfigured to handle 20 more work stations and the recently opened (1900-1901) Machray School in the north end was altered to include another 20 workshop spots for students.

58. In this connection, see Shave, “W. J. Sisler—A Great Canadian,” Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1966, Volume 11, Number 2. Shave was one of Sisler’s students at Machray and actually played on this championship team and took part in a 40th-anniversary reunion of the players and coach.

59. Sisler, Peaceful Invasion, pages 20–21.

60. Sybil Shack, “The Education of Immigrant Children during the First Two Decades of this Century.” Manitoba Historical Society Transactions, Series 3, Number 30, 1973-1974 Season, page 6.

61. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, Diary #3 “Cash Box”, 1948-1956.

62. Ibid., “Minute Book” hand-written note, inserted between pages 177 and 178.

63. This compared quite favourably with the wages earned by skilled craftsmen in Winnipeg at this time. A skilled carpenter would have earned 35 cents per hour which, based upon a 10-hour, six-day work week, would have yielded $1092 per annum, assuming 52 weeks of employment. Given that even in boom-time Winnipeg skilled tradesmen always had lengthy periods of under- or unemployment during cold or inclement weather, Sisler was clearly earning considerably more than the average skilled workman. For historic wage data on Winnipeg see, Statistics Canada, (accessed 15 December 2014). Even more to the point, on a national basis, in 1905 the average annual income for all Canadian workers in the manufacturing or production industries was only $375 while white collar supervisory and office workers (a closer comparison to Sisler’s profession) earned $846. So, while averages can be misleading, by almost any standard Sisler was making a decent salary, particularly for someone who had no familial responsibilities. See Statistics Canada, (accessed 15 December 2014).

By this time the Macdonald Trust’s three-year commitment had expired and the MT teachers and equipment had all been taken over by the school district. For Sisler’s 1904 contract, see AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” page 472.

64. Ibid., pp. 152-153.

65. Ibid., p. 208.

66. Manitoba, Report of the Department of Education for the Year Ending 31 December 1904, page 18.

67. See, for example, ibid., page 24; and ibid., … for the Year Ending 31 December 1903, pages 22, 24.

68. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” page 122.

69. Ibid., p. 203. According to School Board sources these were meant for 50 students but Sisler is adamant that they were “seated for 56.”

70. Lucow, “The Origin and Growth of the Public School System in Winnipeg,” page 19.

71. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” page 122.

72. Ibid.

73. W. J. Sisler, Peaceful Invasion, Winnipeg: the author, Ketchen Printing, 1944, page 12.

74. Manitoba, Report of the Department of Education for the Year Ending 31 December 1907, page 15.

75. In the case of the French and German languages such texts had been available for quite some time. It was the languages of the new Slavic arrivals which were added to the mix at this somewhat later date. After 1903 all public school texts were to be made available to the schools free of charge.

76. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” page 122.

77. John Pampallis, “An Analysis of the Winnipeg Public School System and the Social Forces that Shaped It, 1897-1920,” Winnipeg: unpublished University of Manitoba MEd thesis, 1979, pages 79-80. Alan Artibise makes a similar point.

78. Sisler, Peaceful Invasion, page 26.

79. Alan Artibise, Winnipeg: A Social History of Urban Growth, 1874-1914. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1975, page 201.

80. See, for example, AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 3, File n/a “Little Black Book,” 28 July 1916; n.d. [probably 16/17 September 1917; n.d. [probably Sunday, 30 September 1917]; 5 July 1918; Sunday, 15 December 1918; and 1 April 1919.

81. For a more in-depth analysis, see Alan Artibise, “Patterns of Population Growth and Ethnic Relationships in Winnipeg, 1874–1924,” Social History/Histoire Sociale, November, 1976), pages 314-315. See also William Wilson, “Daniel McIntyre and Education in Winnipeg,” Winnipeg: unpublished University of Manitoba MEd thesis, 1978, pages 137-142.

82. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” p. 201.

83. Ibid., p. 204

84. Ibid. Interestingly Sisler cites people like Stefanik and Ferley as his allies in the fight against private schools, and at various times describes Stefanik in particular as a friend; yet he never mentions that both of these men played a crucial role in supporting the bilingual schools he so hated. Stefanik was not only the most stalwart organizer of Conservative Party support in the Ukrainian-speaking community, but he was also an organizer and inspector of the Ukrainian bilingual schools from 1907 to 1910. Ferley, at this point still inclined towards a more socialist-oriented brand of politics, actually served as a Ukrainian-language instructor at the Ruthenian teachers’ college in Brandon. For more detail on both men see Orest Martynowych, Ukrainians in Canada: The Formative Period, 1891-1924, Edmonton: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press, 1991, pages 241, 245.

85. Concerning attendance at church services, see for example AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 3, File n/a “Little Black Book,” 20 January 1918. Regarding teaching himself Ukrainian, see ibid., “Little Beige Notebook” n.p. and ibid., Box 7, File 66, Misc. Notes.

86. Ironically, this is the time period for which Peaceful Invasion is most typically cited as an authoritative source. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find any work dealing with education in Winnipeg or Manitoba during the first decade of the 20th century—even as a sub-theme—that does not cite him extensively. See for example, J. W. Chafe, An Apple for the Teacher: A Centennial History of the Winnipeg School Division, Winnipeg, 1967; Sybil Shack, “The Education of Immigrant Children during the First Two Decades of this Century,” Manitoba Historical Society Transactions, Series 3, Number 30, 1973-1974 Season; Alexander Gregor and Keith Wilson, The Development of Education in Manitoba, Dubuque: Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, 1984; and William Lucow, “The Origin and Growth of the Public School System in Winnipeg,” Winnipeg: unpublished University of Manitoba MEd Thesis, 1950.

87. Sisler, Peaceful Invasion, pages 22, 12. The linguistic/racial breakdown he provided was based upon the Fall 1905 enrolment data when the school population had already risen to 433.

88. Sisler, Peaceful Invasion, page 69.

89. Manitoba, Report of the Department of Education for the Year Ending 31 December 1907, page 21. The response was so overwhelming that six more classes had to be added in that first year, leading to a total enrolment of 600—with 200 more on a waiting list to take the free, 20-week-long, three-nights-per-week program in the fall of 1907.

90. Sisler, Peaceful Invasion, page 69.

91. Ibid., page 70.

92. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” page 201.

93. Ibid., page 125.

94. In 1906 Sisler published a brief piece in the Western School Journal which noted that teaching English had to be the first priority of schools dealing with the children of immigrants. So, by 1906 language acquisition was clearly beginning to emerge as an issue at Strathcona. See Western School Journal, March 1906, page 5.

95. Sisler, Peaceful Invasion, page 25.

96. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” page 208.

97. Here he was referring to the two primary school supervisors, Miss J. I. Ptolemy and Miss M. B. Harris, who had been appointed by the Winnipeg School Board in 1905 to direct the work in all of Winnipeg’s primary classes.

98. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” page 208.

99. Ibid., pp. 208-209. It seems that Miss Forrest taught at Strathcona for only the 1907-1908 school year; so it would have to have been at some point during that school year when her uncle gave Sisler permission to go ahead with his plan.

100. Sisler, Peaceful Invasion, page 70.

101. Ibid.

102. Manitoba, Report of the Department of Education for the Year Ending 31 December 1907, page 21.

103. In its first year of operation the School Board estimated that the cost of the program, including teachers’ salaries, was approximately $4000. See ibid., page 21.

104. Sisler, Peaceful Invasion, pages 28-29.

105. Ibid., p. 30.

106. Ibid.

107. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” page 226.

108. Sisler’s admiration for the people working at Robertson Memorial, All Peoples’ and other such missions is brought up in Peaceful Invasion, but quite briefly. In his autobiographical notes this admiration comes through far more fully. See for example, AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” pages 206, 210.

109. It is of some note that Sisler consciously chose to live in close proximity to his school and pupils even though he could easily have afforded to do otherwise, living instead in rented accommodations on College Avenue and, for a short while, in the north end YMCA.

110. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” page 210.

111. Ibid.

112. See Sisler, Peaceful Invasion, photos pp. 36-39, 49-50.

113. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” pages 125-127, 213.

114. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” page 210.

115. Manitoba, Report of the Department of Education for the Year Ending 31 December 1908, pages 416-417.

116. Ibid., … for the Year Ending 31 December 1909, pages 26-27.

117. He also had come to realize that by limiting the flower and garden show to the late afternoon he was unable to reach many of the working parents, so in 1909 the children’s “agricultural exhibition” was extended into the evening hours. As a result approximately 400 parents attended the September 1909 exhibition of their children’s produce. See ibid., page 27.

118. Sisler, Peaceful Invasion, page 57.

119. Cited in Sybil Shack, “The Education of Immigrant Children During the First Two Decades of this Century,” Manitoba Historical Society Transactions, Series 3, Number 30, 1973-1974 Season, page 6.

120. Ibid.

121. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” p. 203. Regarding the night school see Sisler, Peaceful Invasion, pages 78-79.

122. Manitoba, Report of the Department of Education for the Year Ending 31 December 1909, page 21.

123. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 6, #64, Sisler Address to the Manitoba University Committee, May 1936—Draft “Immigrants and Education by W. J. Sisler,” page 9B.

124. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” page 204.

125. Sisler, Peaceful Invasion, page 74.

126. Strathcona had a twelve-room addition completed in 1911, making it a 22-room school. See Manitoba, Report of the Department of Education for the Year Ending 31 December 1911, page 26.

127. In 1909 the base salary for a male elementary school principal with less than 15 rooms was set at $1500 with increments of $100 per year—up to $2100. So, by 1911 Sisler had already reached that maximum and was in line for a substantial raise when his school was increased to 22 rooms. See ibid. … for the Year Ending 31 December 1909, page 25.

128. No exact salary data is available, but based upon the amount of money the School Division spent on the night school program—and assuming that the majority of funds went to teachers’ and principals’ salaries—teachers could have made up to $250 per year teaching night school. The average teacher probably did not make this much, but, as Principal, Sisler would have been on the high end of the pay scale.

129. On a national basis, in 1910 the average annual income for all Canadian workers in the manufacturing or production industries was only $417 while white-collar supervisory and office workers (a closer comparison to Sisler’s profession) earned $994. So, while averages can be misleading, by almost any standard Sisler was making an excellent salary—particularly for someone who had no familial responsibilities. See Statistics Canada, (accessed 15 December 2014).

130. It was certainly of some importance to Sisler that by 1909 his boys’ soccer teams had emerged as city champions at the intermediate school level, while his junior team of the same year won similar accolades. See Sisler, Peaceful Invasion, photo, page 37.

131. AM, MG 14, C28, Sisler Papers, Box 3, Notebook 4 “Settlement of the Interlake Region, Summary for Historical Society,” pages 1-2. Also see, AM C51, Sisler Photo Album.

132. Ibid., and AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger—Personal Recollections,” pages 148-150.

133. Ibid., “Sisler Papers” Box 9, File 89 A, “Certificate, Stout Training Schools, Summer Session, 1907.” This could have positioned Sisler to apply for a position as Superintendent of Manual Training in either Winnipeg or some other sizable centre if he so desired—manual training programs were now spreading all across North America—or it could have served as his entrée into a teaching position at a technical high school, either of which alternatives would have paid slightly more than his current position, although to be honest one can only speculate as to his motives for taking this lengthy course.

134. Perhaps not surprisingly, given Sisler’s thoroughly gendered world view, it was the British women in particular who disappointed him the most in this regard.

135. Ibid., “Sisler Papers” Box 5, File 56,”Diary of Trip to England.” By the standards of the day Sisler was not particularly anti-Semitic, but he did have a certain propensity to repeat—if not originate—anti-Semitic comments. For a more fulsome discussion of Sisler’s views on Jews and other ethnic groups, see Part Two in this set of articles.

136. See for example, ibid., Box 3, “Sisler Papers” File n/a (“Little Black Book—1916-1921”)

137. Ibid., Box 7, File 66, Misc. Notes. According to a clipping located in this file in February 1908, Sisler was transferred to the corps reserve of the 90th Winnipeg Rifles. This is the last reference to his military service.

138. Ibid., File 70, “Notebooks and Scrapbooks.” Interestingly enough, given his own work in the north end of Winnipeg, one would assume that Sisler only got around to reading J. S. Woodsworth’s Strangers Within our Gates in 1942—probably as part of his research for Peaceful Invasion. Unfortunately he left no indications of exactly what he thought of the works listed above, but it is a reading list that one might not necessarily expect of an elementary school principal and, if nothing else, his reading list from this period indicates both an innate intellectual curiosity and a certain open-mindedness.

Page revised: 22 December 2015