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Ways of Working: Labour and Manual Training at Canadian University College

par David Ridley

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Action is for the sake of contemplation... to labour is to pray. Work is the discipline by means of which 'body holds its noise and leaves Soul free a little.'

- Eric Gill, A Holy Tradition of Working

Un groupe de travailleurs du Alberta Industrial Academy qui coupe du bois, c. 1907, rivière Saskatchewan-Nord.Religious life is full of paradox. The 18th century American sect known as the Shakers expected the destruction of the world at any moment. Nonetheless, they were meticulous craftsmen and farmers, leaving a legacy of elegant furniture and beautiful orchards. The Catholic contemplative Thomas Merton said of them: "When you expect the world to end at any moment, you know there is no need to hurry. You take your time, you do your work well." What seems self-contradictory often illuminates the profound understandings of human communities. A paradox of this sort resides in Seventh-Day Adventism. Arising out of nineteenth century American revivalism and millenialism, this Protestant denomination has historically "...expect[ed] a kingdom of God from the heavens, [while they] work diligently for one on earth."1

The Seventh-day Adventist Church operates schools, health care facilities and publishing houses, all of these attentive to this-worldly realities. The very number and success of Seventh-day Adventist institutions shows a substantial organization and work ethic.2 This link between diligent work and the expected Advent is reflected in the curriculum and philosophy of Canadian University College (CUC) Since its founding in 1907, manual training has been integral to the Seventh-day Adventist formation of mind and spirit in Central Alberta.

Of course, the desire to instill a work ethic in the young is not the exclusive preserve of the Seventh-day Adventists who built CUC. The agrarian ideals that historically made up the Alberta zeitgeist look to manual work as a way of cultivating the virtues of industry, sobriety and self-reliance. Nor is the concern overlooked by other religious schools in Central Alberta. Prairie Bible Institute at Three Hills and the turn-of-the-century Red Deer Methodist Industrial School saw student work as part of the moral formation, as much as helping these institutions to subsist. Work experience programs in contemporary schools also use this method of formation. However, the history of manual training at CUC serves as a window on the particular religious ethos of Seventh-day Adventists in this region. Manual training has not only been instructive in "teaching the dignity of labour"3 and helping students defray the cost of tuition. Its history at CUC provides a glimpse of the living traditions and experience of Seventh-day Adventists in central Alberta. Through this, one can see how the core concerns of the community have fared, while accommodating the sea change in worklife that has occurred through the post-war decades.

For the first generation of Adventist students in Alberta study was contingent on actually building a school. One of the forerunners of CUC, the Alberta Industrial Academy, was established on farmland west of Leduc in 1907, after prospective students passed part of the winter cutting timber from a government lease for the first classrooms. When the school opened in November of 1907, one hour of labour per day was required of each student, supplementing the $3.00 per week charge for lodging and tuition. 4 The school settled on its present site in 1909 as part of an educational-medical venture of the Alberta Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. It was proposed that the Edmonton Adventist sanatarium would move and serve as a source of medical care for the young town of Lacombe. The need for the school took priority and the sanatarium plans were not carried through.

By 1912, students were compensated for their forty to fifty hours of labour each month at the rate of ten cents per hour. This was raised to twenty cents per hour by 1927. "Skilled labour," provided by those familiar with building construction, earned a premium on the general wage, as did those who took on the less savoury task of hauling coal for the school's heaters and boilers. By 1918, the school had forty acres under cultivation, including ten acres of potatoes, a three acre vegetable garden and the remainder in feed oats. Milk cows and laying hens were tended by students. The student work was subject to grading. And to a large degree, student work sustained the fledgling Academy, creating a strong internal economy and making the school largely self-sufficient within the Seventh-day Adventist community.

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