Lieutenant Colonel William Michell

World War I hero and OSSTF’s first president

The 100th anniversary of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF/FEESO) is the perfect time to remember the forgotten men and women who risked their professional careers to create the Federation in the months that followed the end of World War I.

Almost totally forgotten is the Federation’s first president, William C. (Billy) Michell, who left his principal’s office at Toronto’s Riverdale Collegiate Institute to join the war against Germany in late 1914. He headed overseas with the Canadian Expeditionary Force as a major in May, 1915. Michell was upset to discover in England that he would remain there as a transport officer. He lobbied hard to be part of the front-line war in France and finally accomplished that in 1917, accepting a reduction in rank from major to captain to transfer into the trenches.

On Thursday, August 8, 1918, Michell won a coveted Military Cross for outstanding bravery at the Battle of Amiens in the north of France. The story of how Michell won his medal deserves retelling for OSSTF/FEESO members who have never heard of him. It is a revealing glimpse of the man who returned from World War I to help create the Federation.

In the pre-dawn hours of August 8, Capt. Michell of the Queen’s Own Rifles Regiment was shivering in a cold, damp trench as he waited to lead his company against German trenches not far away. He probably could not help wondering whether he would still be alive when the sun rose.

At precisely 4:20 a.m. there is a thunderclap of artillery. Thousands of Canadian and Australian shock troops pour out of their trenches, advancing behind a deafening non-stop artillery barrage with the entire British Fourth Army following closely behind them. Michell recognizes a staccato sound coming from the left of his advancing company. A German machine gun post, hidden by a dense fog, is firing mercilessly into the men in front of Michell. Without hesitation, Michell signals to his headquarters staff to follow him to the left in a suicidal charge against the unseen machine guns. Bullets are flying everywhere. Michell’s quick response catches the Germans by surprise and the machine guns are silenced, saving the lives of scores or perhaps hundreds of young Canadian soldiers. Michell, a prime target at the front of the charge, is “severely wounded” in the opening minutes of what becomes Germany’s worst defeat to that date. Michell’s actions on that day will win for him a coveted Military Cross, recognizing “courage and gallantry that impressed all ranks.” Months later after the war ends, Michell is welcomed back to his principal’s office in Toronto as a war hero, cheered by press, politicians and a grateful city.

Fast forward to December 30, 1919. Sixty-two high school teachers arrive secretively from around the province, at Toronto’s Oddfellows’ Temple Hall to create a new professional organization called the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. The man unanimously chosen as their first provincial president was William Charles (Billy) Michell from Riverdale Collegiate Institute.

Today, OSSTF/FEESO’s first president is almost totally forgotten by the Federation that he helped to create a century ago. Equally forgotten is the secrecy that surrounded the founding meeting of OSSTF in Toronto. Delegates arrived in groups of three or four to hide the fact that a large group was meeting. The Russian Revolution had happened just two years earlier and Canadian politicians and editorial writers were quick to blame labour unrest upon communist/Bolshevik sympathizers. The founding meeting of OSSTF took place without one word about it in public print.

Ontario public high school teachers badly needed a strong voice to speak up for them. In 1914 their average annual salary was $1,322. Five years later, the average salary had inched up to $1,709 (an annual increase of less than $80!). Meanwhile, the consumer price index had skyrocketed by 63.2 per cent, leaving teacher salaries at a poverty level. Delegates at the December 1919, meeting were looking for a leader to rescue them. They found him in William Michell, the principal turned war hero.

Also prominent at the OSSTF founding meeting was Hamilton teacher Walter Clarke. More than a year earlier, Clarke was teaching Latin for the third year at Lindsay Collegiate Institute. The Department of Education permitted Latin teachers to offer their own Grade 13 final exams that spring, allowing students with 60 per cent or more not to write the later much-feared departmental exams. The son of the Lindsay school board chairman’s son failed Clarke’s Latin exam miserably and the father ordered Clarke to change the mark to 60 per cent. Clarke refused. The infuriated chairman vowed to “get him.”

Clarke promptly moved to the Hamilton school system, where he began promoting the idea of a strong provincial federation that would protect teachers against similar injustices. He spent many evenings and weekends preparing a paper that argued for greater security for teachers, including higher salaries. The editor of the Hamilton Herald promised to publish the paper without charge if Clarke delivered it somewhere as a speech, making it legitimate news. Clarke read it to a meeting of Hamilton staff and the Herald published it on November 6. Clarke and his supporters purchased 1,000 copies of the issue and mailed a clipping of the article to every public secondary school in Ontario. It was accompanied by a letter from Walter Clarke asking whether the staff would send a representative to a Toronto meeting over the Christmas vacation to discuss forming a high school teachers’ union. The response was both immediate and positive.

Meanwhile, the idea of creating a new strong teacher group was gaining traction at the same time in Toronto. A secret meeting was held at Toronto’s Central YMCA on November 12 to create a Toronto Federation of High School Teachers. Major William Michell was elected president on November 19. Shortly after that, Walter Clarke came to Toronto to show Michell the overwhelmingly positive responses he had received from the letter he had sent to every public high school in Ontario. Michell and his Toronto federation enthusiastically booked the Oddfellows’ Temple Hall for December 30, where Michell was unanimously elected OSSTF/FEESO president. He received more honours the following spring when he was promoted to lieutenant colonel as commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, Queen’s Own Rifles Regiment. One year later, Michell reported to the second provincial meeting of OSSTF/FEESO in Toronto that close to 90 per cent of public high school teachers in collegiates and high schools had become paid-up members (the annual fee was $3). The big news, however, was that the 1920 meeting approved a bold schedule of minimum salaries for its members. The minimum for teachers in high schools or collegiates in rural districts, villages or towns was $1,700. The minimum in a city high school or collegiate was $2,000. The minimum for teaching in a continuation school was $1,300. The schedule was sent to every board of education on February 25 over the signature of OSSTF President Michell. Inevitably, some school trustees complained to the press, but on September 2, 1921, the Bracebridge High School Board placed an ad saying that henceforth its teachers would be paid according to the OSSTF salary schedule.

Thanks to a remarkable teacher delegate from Ottawa, Jesse Muir, the 1920 OSSTF meeting made history with the first mention of the Federation in print. On the day after the meeting, the Globe carried a brief item on Page 4 under a bold headline: EQUAL PAY FOR EQUAL WORK, RIGHT OF WOMEN IN SCHOOLS. Delegates had approved a motion from Muir recommending that “the principle of equal pay for equal work be adopted into the general policy of this Federation and that the adoption of this policy be at once made public through the press.” Delegates had no problem with the first half of the motion, but some worried about going to the press. Muir, who was one of five women teachers as official delegates, hung firm and helped to write the Federation’s first press release.

Anyone who knew Jesse Muir would not be surprised by her determination. She made waves in April, 1920, by resigning as head of the Modern Languages Department at Lisgar C.I. after the Ottawa Collegiate Institute Board turned down the request of a women teachers’ delegation for equal pay with men teachers holding similar qualifications. Trustees knew that the University of Ottawa had been wooing Muir for years to become their Dean of Women and made many calls asking her to change her mind. She held firm. On May 7 the board held a special meeting to reverse their vote on equal pay for men and women teachers holding the same qualifications. Jesse Muir had carried the day.
Muir was elected third vice-president of OSSTF at the 1920 Toronto meeting and served at least two years on the provincial executive, sharing platforms around the province with Col. Michell and Walter Clarke. She resigned from the executive before becoming president and had little to do with Federation activities from then on. A colleague at Lisgar explained years later that Jesse Muir felt she had made her point and directed her energies elsewhere. Meanwhile, William Michell served as the founding president of OSSTF for two years and then became the national president of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation for a one-year term in 1924. He was eventually promoted in Toronto as the supervising principal for all Toronto high schools. Few OSSTF/FEESO members know today that Michell is honoured at the archives of the Queen’s Own Rifles Regiment in Toronto. A shadow box with Col. Michell’s medals and the citation for his Military Cross award is displayed at the regiment’s archives at Casa Loma.

Walter Clarke, who taught Latin at Delta Secondary School in Hamilton for the remainder of his career, was part-time OSSTF general secretary for two years (1920 and 1921) and was provincial president in 1924. He became the founding editor of the Bulletin magazine in 1921, serving in that role for five years. Clarke eventually retired to Gravenhurst and spent his final years writing a handwritten history of OSSTF’s early years before his death in 1971 at the age of 81. The manuscript was found under his bed by his landlady and kept in safekeeping until the author of this article drove to Gravenhurst to reclaim it for the Federation in 1978. Clarke’s history turned into a widely circulated Federation booklet during OSSTF’s Diamond Jubilee in 1979.

This jackdaw history of the Federation’s founding years was written with hopes that it may encourage others to write similar stories about forgotten OSSTF/FEESO pioneers in their part of the province. It is fitting, therefore, that we end with Walter Clarke telling us how OSSTF members from around the entire province threw their support behind colleagues in Fort William in the first major confrontation between a local school board and the brand new federation.

In late 1921 the staff of Fort William Collegiate Institute was the first in the province to threaten mass resignations. The local school board’s salary committee had selectively offered increases of $200 to five teachers and $700 to the principal while freezing all other salaries. Trustees anticipated no trouble in finding replacements if the staff did resign. To their surprise, principal E.E. Wood announced he would rather “exist on bread and water than be untrue to my staff.” At the same time OSSTF President William Michell officially declared the support of all Federation members in Ontario for their Fort William colleagues. Walter Clarke described the stand-off in great detail in OSSTF’s provincial magazine, the Bulletin, which later became Education Forum.

As Michell predicted, the Fort William board received no outside applications. Two weeks before the resignations were to take effect, the board voted for a negotiated contract that restored full harmony. Bulletin editor Walter Clarke was over the moon about the historic moment. OSSTF members, he said, proved that they had “the right stuff.”

OSSTF/FEESO still has “the right stuff” a century later. You will soon be able to read all about it in a history that a team of OSSTF/FEESO veterans has been researching and writing for months in preparation for the Federation’s 100th anniversary in 2019. It’s time to remember why OSSTF/FEESO is recognized as one of the finest organizations of educational workers on this planet. Happy 100th anniversary to everyone!

About Jack Hutton
Jack Hutton is a former OSSTF/FEESO Provincial Office Communications Director.

3 Comments on Lieutenant Colonel William Michell

  1. Harvey J Cowan // November 20, 2018 at 8:41 pm // Reply

    Thanks very much for this history of our beginning. It makes me proud to be a member (now ARM) of such an honourable organization that was founded by strong willed teachers who had the vision to represent all public secondary teachers.

  2. Tom Henderson // November 20, 2018 at 10:00 pm // Reply

    Jack, you are still writing! Amazing. Great to read your stuff again.

  3. John Gibb-Carsley // November 20, 2018 at 10:09 pm // Reply

    Thank you Jack for providing a detailed account of the nascent years of OSSTF and of those who were instrumental in laying the foundations of the federation.

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