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Manitoba History: William James Sisler, A Most Unconventional, Conventional Man. Part Two: The Educator as Assimilationist, Defender and Public Intellectual

by Jim Mochoruk
Department of History, University of North Dakota

Number 79, Fall 2015

As was noted in the conclusion to Part One of this essay, by the time of the Great War William Sisler had clearly developed a solid reputation as an educator, but it would not be until the war years and particularly the years following the rise to power of the new 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, this period would inaugurate the most interesting and sometimes seemingly contradictory phase of Sisler’s life as it would be the time when he would emerge as both the leading evangelist of unilingualism in Manitoba’s classrooms and as a staunch defender of the very peoples who were typically viewed as “the problem” which a unilingual system needed to ‘fix’.

The struggle to rid Manitoba’s school system of its “multi-lingual” character had been long and drawn out; indeed, in one way or another it had been going on since 1890. William Sisler’s take on this battle is perhaps the most appropriate place to commence the second part of this analysis of his life and work, for this struggle is not only central to his life story, but once again his version of this fight tells one much about how he chose to see his role in history.

Sisler advocated physical activity among his pupils, seen here exercising on the grounds of Strathcona School in 1918.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, W. J. Sisler Collection #237

The autobiographical notes he left for his family tell the story in the following fashion. The basic context is the Rodmond P. Roblin government’s “1898 [sic] to 1906” adoption of methods of “bi-lingual or multilingual teaching followed by the creation of “Special training schools ... to teach this multilingual plan.” [1] Sisler then indicated that after he and his teachers at Strathcona had proven the efficacy of his “direct method” of teaching English,

I determined to find out independently what the specially trained teachers were doing in the country schools. To this end I spent some time in schools between L. Winnipeg and L. Manitoba. I found some teachers having a very poor knowledge of English attempting to teach one, two and in one extreme case three languages in addition to English. In one extreme case a teacher had pupils speaking only Ukrainian, Polish, or German and tried to teach each of the groups English through the medium of the home language. He was using books in all these languages. I secured some of these books and reported to J. W. Dafoe, editor of the Free Press what I had found. He listened intently and then said, ‘Sisler I know it is a bad situation but the time is not ripe for doing anything about it.’ Shortly after this he sent out a reporter A. V. Thomas to visit various schools and write a series of articles reporting his findings. This was no doubt to prepare the public for what was to come later—abolishing bi-lingual teaching in the schools which was done in 1916. [2]

In another iteration of this tale Sisler eschews references both to his unofficial/personal visits to the bilingual schools and to his conversation with Dafoe and simply notes that

By the years 1910 to 1915 we had demonstrated that teachers knowing only English could take pupils speaking Ukrainian, Polish, German, Yiddish or any other language and teach them much better than any bilingual teacher could do. This was brought to the attention of Dr. Thornton, Minister of Education. He visited the school observed our work, sent me out with the official trustee Mr. Stratton [one of the new officials brought in by the Liberals in 1915] and I made confidential reports on many schools throughout the province. [3]

Immediately thereafter bilingual schools were abolished and (in a somewhat overlapping account of what happens next) Sisler noted that

The next step was to prepare teachers in the direct method of teaching English. Dr. Thornton then Minister of Education visited my school for several days to satisfy himself as to what we were doing. He gave me charge of special summer sessions for teachers and also had me spend some time inspecting and reporting on their work in their country schools. Whitemouth, Vita, Tolstoi, Hadishville, Districts north of Shoal Lake, Beausejour and the Inter-lake country. [4]

So, according to Sisler, not only was it the success of his program of unilingual instruction in the day and night schools of Winnipeg which inspired the complete reshaping of Manitoba’s educational landscape, but in one of his versions of the story he himself had conducted an independent investigation of those schools. Then, instead of turning to officials of the Department of Education Sisler had taken his story to the influential editor of the Manitoba Free Press who soon after launched a major investigation of the bilingual schools; [5] an investigation which resulted in the demise of the entire system.

There are, however, a few problems with this interpretation. While there is no reason to doubt that Sisler was in some of these bilingual schools during some of the summers of 1911–1916—his photo albums indicate that he was in several locations where such bilingual schools were being conducted [6]—or that he might have actually chatted about these matters with the editor of the Free Press, the idea that J. W. Dafoe needed any urging to attack the existing educational system is rather amusing. Dafoe had been using the Free Press to attack the bilingual schools since the days when it was only French and German Mennonite schools which had fallen into this category. More to the point, since 1907 Dafoe had been attacking the Roblin administration’s education policy on every front, but perhaps most vociferously on the issue of compulsory school attendance. According to his biographer, Dafoe was by 1909 so thoroughly aroused that he “had begun a campaign which he vowed would never end until education in Manitoba was compulsory, secular, and conducted in English. He turned his reporters loose, and whenever they turned up an interesting item he followed it up the next day with an editorial.” [7] Given this, Sisler’s role in leading the charge against bilingual education in Manitoba was almost certainly less seminal than he would have wanted his readers to believe.

Indeed, by the time that Sisler’s preferred method had been proved effective at Strathcona and the night school (plus in at least three other north-end schools) the writing was clearly on the wall for bilingual education in Manitoba. The history of this change has been studied well and often, so really does not need a full repetition here. Suffice it to say that dissatisfaction with Manitoba’s educational system had been mounting for years, often whipped up by Dafoe and the Free Press. But an all-out political battle over instituting a fully realized system of unilingual, secular and compulsory public education in Manitoba had been put on hold from the late 1890s until 1910. The provincial Liberals, who had been responsible for accepting the Laurier-Greenway compromise of 1896 and for passing the amendments to the Manitoba Public Schools Act in 1897, and the Conservatives, who became the inheritors and, under Premier Roblin, the defenders and executors of the terms of the compromise, jousted for political advantage over the schools question for the better part of a decade. Various attempts by Roblin’s government to quell the rising tide of the Protestant majority’s dissatisfaction with the compromise of 1896-1897, while retaining the political support of the French Catholic hierarchy and the increasingly important “New Canadian” vote, were relatively successful in political terms. But in creating an effective and efficient educational system they were far more problematic. [8]

The creation of bilingual schools in a whole array of languages in rural Manitoba (14 languages by one count), the publication and distribution of bilingual textbooks and the publicly funded training of well-qualified bilingual teachers in four languages (French, German, Polish and Ukrainian) was an educational experiment of some magnitude, and in the best of circumstances would have needed substantial amounts of funding, public support—and perhaps most crucially—time, in order to succeed. But given the political and economic realities of the day, none of these was forthcoming. From its very inception the bilingual system was an experiment of which the Protestant majority clearly disapproved. Not surprisingly then, despite some fairly positive and even optimistic reports on the bilingual schools by the official school inspectors and the Deputy Minister of Education, [9] the evolving bilingual system was consistently attacked for its costliness, its inefficiency and perhaps above all, for its failure to assimilate and “civilize” Manitoba’s swelling foreign population. That the Roblin government seemed to be doing little to meet these criticisms, such as passing a compulsory school attendance law for Manitoba’s children, earned it the growing displeasure of an increasing number of Protestants, especially those who were most inclined to be supporters of various social, political and educational reform efforts. Its failure to act on such matters also cost it the support of Manitoba’s Orange Order—quite a blow for Conservatives. [10] However, until 1910, while the Free Press might have given voice to many of their complaints, these reformers did not have a unified political base from which to operate. [11] Beginning in 1910, however, when the Provincial Liberals and their new leader, T. C. Norris, began to link themselves to the various reform movements this began to change. By the time of the provincial election of 1914 the Liberals had made it their official policy to do away with bilingual schools and to pass a comprehensive school attendance act. True, the Liberals lost that election—but the Conservative majority in the Legislature had dwindled substantially and the opposition parties, when combined, had actually outscored the Tories in terms of popular vote. [12] Even more to the point, when the Conservative government fell in 1915 as a result of the Legislative Building scandal and the Liberals came to power, there was absolutely no question in the minds of Premier Norris, Education Minister Thornton or almost anyone else associated with the Liberal government that bilingual education was going to be done away with. Of course, a special study would be conducted by the Department of Education and the problems and inefficiencies of the existing system would be trotted out yet again, but it was all a foregone conclusion. [13] By September of 1915 the Liberals, who had campaigned on promises to do away with the existing system and institute a meaningful compulsory attendance law in 1914, held 42 of the 49 seats in the legislature, a very clear majority. Perhaps even more to the point, Manitoba, the Dominion of Canada and the entire British Empire was now at war—in some cases with the home countries/empires of the ‘foreigners’ who wanted schools taught in their languages. To many it was now quite literally the patriotic duty of the new Liberal administration to enact a major overhaul of Manitoba’s education system.

Once this particular die was cast William James Sisler would most definitely have his day in the sun. For whether or not he had played any substantive role in bringing the system of bilingual education down, there is no question that it was the system he and his teachers had been developing since 1907 that Education Minister Thornton chose as a substitute for the old bilingual approach. Indeed, Sisler was the logical—perhaps the only—choice to head up this new initiative. Not only did he and his teachers have an enviable reputation related to this sort of work in North Winnipeg, but the word of their work had definitely spread beyond the north end. For the first time ever, in his report on Winnipeg schools for 1913-1914, Superintendent Daniel McIntyre had specifically acknowledged the work being done with students who entered north end Winnipeg schools without any English language skills. In this case he had focused upon those who were older, and who may have already had some academic instruction in their own language, but the important fact was that McIntyre had pointedly saluted the efforts of the staff at Aberdeen, Norquay, King Edward and Strathcona Schools who had been focusing upon unilingual English language instruction as the first and most crucial step in preparing these pupils to make real academic progress. [14] Even more to the point, Sisler had also just recently completed writing what would become a seminal text in the field, Spelling and Language Lessons for Beginners in English, and had placed it with Canada’s leading publishing house. [15] Given all of this it is not at all surprising that the new Minister of Education contacted Mr. Sisler in October 1915, visited Strathcona to observe Sisler’s methods and asked him for more information on his school and exactly how he had developed and applied his methods in both the day and night schools of Winnipeg—and somewhat pointedly the Minister also asked for Sisler’s opinion on “the value or otherwise of bilingual teaching.” [16] Shortly thereafter Sisler was called upon to help prepare the teachers who, from 1916 onwards, would be charged with bringing the new unilingual system to fruition in the districts previously served by bilingual teachers. Sisler was about to embark upon the busiest—and perhaps the most complex—chapter of his life.

Sisler was keenly interested in the lives of Manitoba’s new immigrants during his forays into rural areas of the province, as illustrated by his personal photo albums filled with images such as this one of a family at Warren in 1912.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, W. J. Sisler Photo Album, Photo #139, 1978-42, C51

In many ways the years from 1916 until 1920 constitute the period that best defines the Sisler legacy. It is the period when one can most clearly see the duality which marked Sisler’s work with, and attitude towards, the foreign-born population which his schools served. On the one hand, there is no denying that it is during this period that Sisler most clearly emerges as one of the leading forces of a heavy-handed cultural assimilation for “New Canadians.” His advocacy of unilingualism in the school system, his ongoing development and application of an aggressive brand of “citizenship training” in the day and night schools [17] and his hands-on work in preparing unilingual teachers to take over the formerly bilingual public schools of Manitoba are all important parts of his legacy. But this is also the period in which Sisler emerges as the defender of these New Canadians, and cautiously at first, as a celebrant of their cultures, values, talents and potential as full-fledged citizens. In essence, Sisler the liminal figure comes into view; a figure who occupied and sometimes sought to define the space where the dominant culture and Winnipeg’s ethnic “others” intersected and created the hybridized culture that would come to define first the north end and then the city itself for many years to come. But before jumping into this particular analysis it is important to consider the sheer magnitude and variety of the work Sisler undertook during this period, for such a consideration tells us much about how Sisler fit into this rarified space.

To begin with, Strathcona School and all of its extra-curricular activities (minus the now defunct cadet corps) not only continued to demand Sisler’s attention, but the school’s enrolment went through another huge growth spurt, greatly increasing the principal’s workload. In 1916 the Winnipeg School Board arranged for an entire German Lutheran School to become part of Strathcona School—bringing an additional 200 students under Sisler’s direct control. And this was only part of the expansion of 1916; by the end of the year Sisler had an additional seven classrooms operating in buildings “off-campus” (but all within a block of Strathcona), accommodating a total of 400 students. By 1918-1919 he estimated that he had 1500 students under his direction, split into 30 classes ranging from Kindergarten to Grade VII. Given the physical limitations of Strathcona School, Sisler found himself supervising 23 classrooms on campus, two in church basements, two in the Ukrainian National Home and three at Robertson Memorial. [18]

Despite all of this additional work for himself and his teachers—or perhaps because of it—far from slowing down in any of his commitments to the school and its students, Sisler (now in his late 40s) seemed more active than ever, particularly in regards to his involvement with students and their families. Because he actually left a form of diary/journal for the years after 1916, [19] one can get a much better sense of the amount of time and attention he paid to individual students and their families. Moreover, one clearly sees the type of understanding that he had developed regarding the circumstances of his pupils’ home lives. In fact, Sisler had paid careful attention to the economic conditions confronting these people for quite some time. In one of his latter day autobiographical entries he included a picture he had taken and labelled in 1910 of women “at 540 Aberdeen Ave getting work tickets to begin office cleaning at 5:30-11:30.” As he noted, these babushka-clad women would get 25¢ per hour plus car fare to go and clean downtown office buildings and stores. He understood that the financial circumstances of these people were such that no matter how small the wage (in this case $9.00 or less per week) it could make the crucial difference in family survival. And while he did not necessarily approve, clearly believing that mothers should be at home looking after their children (he felt that the husbands who were supposed to be tending the children during evenings were not always diligent in their care of the children, possibly owing to their long days of back-breaking manual labour), he recognized that in many north end dwellings both parents had to be employed if the family were to get by. This had many results for Sisler and his teachers, but on one very practical level it meant that “There was little opportunity to meet them [the parents] excepting on Saturday afternoons, on Sunday or in the evening during the week.” [20] If the parents could not or would not come to the school during business hours Sisler and at least some of his teachers would go to them—and judging by his own unedited diary entries for 1916–1920, it was Sisler in particular who conducted the greatest number of visits.

Sisler’s awareness of the circumstances surrounding the work life of the foreign-born denizens of the north end eventually led him to believe that the single greatest problem confronting his students was not culture, not religion, not even language—rather it was economics. As Sisler saw it, the “necessity for parents to go out to work for low wages left children home for longer or shorter periods to look after themselves. Older children were often required to be responsible for the home for several hours day after day. When either parent could not get work, the situation was worse as often food was scarce and new clothing was out of the question.” [21] His journals for 1916-1920 are filled with just such instances. In one case, in the fall of 1916 Sisler visited the home of the same student three separate times. The issue was truancy: the boy in question was repeatedly found playing out on the streets and scrounging in a nearby fruit warehouse for food. In the course of his visits Sisler came to realize that the problem was that there was simply no one at home to look after or control the boy. The father was a poorly paid labourer for the CPR, which meant that the boy’s mother had to go out washing every day to help the family get by and the same applied to the teenaged sister, so the boy was left entirely to his own devices. [22]

Interestingly, Sisler’s personal notes never seemed to pass judgement upon the families he visited. When confronted by a situation where an 11-year-old girl was being kept at home in order to look after the younger children and keep house (and once again, he recorded many such cases during this four-year period), he certainly did not approve, but as his detailed notes on the earnings of the family members indicate, he once again placed the blame on poverty, not willful neglect or disregard for the value of education. The father was a labourer earning 29¢ per hour, the mother brought in an additional $10.00 per week by going out washing and scrubbing, a teenaged sister was making $6.00 per week working full-time at a candy factory while a brother was bringing in an extra $4.00 per week as a newsboy. In the face of war-time inflation, with a gross income of $34.00 per week this family, which had six small children at home, could barely survive. And while Sisler clearly felt that the mother should be at home looking after the children, he also understood the decisions that were being made. [23]

What is perhaps most striking about Sisler’s interactions with these families is that he often involved himself directly in family affairs when it concerned the welfare of his students. After witnessing a heart-warming display of affection between a man and his youngest child, Sisler’s heart clearly went out to the hard-working, but unemployed father of one of his students; a man who was filling his days by cutting cordwood at the city yard. When Sisler saw just how dire the family’s circumstances were, he took it upon himself to write a letter to a local official of the CNR, vouching for the man in hopes that he would get steady employment. Unfortunately, his efforts were to no avail as the man was Austrian-born (judging by the name almost certainly Polish or Ukrainian) and the railway was not willing to hire any “aliens” in 1916. [24] In another instance, when Sisler discovered that one of his students, Frank, a 12-year-old Polish boy, was staying home to look after two younger siblings so his mother could go out to work, Sisler did a little bit of personal investigating. As per usual the core problem was poverty—the father made only $2.50 per day which, as Sisler noted, wasn’t enough to make house payments and pay the back taxes that were owed. Things would have been tolerable, however, if the older brother Mike had been willing to contribute his $13.00 weekly earnings to the family coffers. But, “Mike had run away from home,” forcing his mother to work outside the home and 12-year-old Frank to become the caregiver to the youngest siblings. Sisler, who obviously knew the older brother—presumably he, too, had been a student at Strathcona—simply noted in his diary “I will try to get Mike to return home so that his mother need not go out to work. Six children.” [25]

Sisler also took it upon himself to investigate the working conditions confronting his students’ parents. October 1916 found him out at some of the West Kildonan truck farms observing Ukrainian women doing the stoop labour involved in harvesting turnips. He discovered that the women were earning $1.50 per day plus board, which was a huge improvement over the previous year when they had received only 75¢ and had to bring “their own food”. The reason for this increase was simple. As explained to him by a local informant, in 1915 most of these women’s husbands had been unemployed and they were desperate for work at any rate, but now that “’Their men are all working ... they won’t come unless they get good wages’”. To his credit, it was not Sisler who characterized $1.50 per day as “good wages”. [26] In another such instance Sisler took one of his Sunday afternoons to check out the working conditions at the Canada Cement Factory in Tuxedo where he was clearly less than impressed by what he saw. The plant not only “works on Sundays. [But] Men here work 11 hours on the day shift and 13 hours on the night shift in dust and almost unbearable heat. No recreation whatever ...” [27] And if the foregoing indicates that Sisler was willing use up his own free time and travel considerable distances to try to understand the living and working conditions of his students’ families, it turned out that he was also willing to go to some extraordinary personal lengths to give current and former students a chance in life—and sometimes even a second chance. As noted in Part One, Sisler often helped his older students find work so that they could afford to stay in school and even lent them money on occasion, [28] but more remarkable still was this—former students who had gotten into trouble with the legal system were occasionally released from jail on condition that they be paroled to him. [29]

Sisler encouraged his students, many of whom had agrarian roots in Europe, to learn to garden.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, W. J. Sisler Photo Album, Photo #24, 1978-42, C51

This sort of activity on Sisler’s part bespeaks both an impressive level of commitment and an ever-growing set of ties into the community. Indeed, he very pointedly moved into the north end on a full-time basis during this period: from 1915 until 1919 he lived at 437 College Avenue and then moved into the North End YMCA on Selkirk Avenue, where he remained for the better part of two years. [30] As such Sisler became very much a part of the local landscape and took part in many of the activities the north end had to offer. In this latter regard his diaries provide fascinating glimpses of Sisler consciously building community ties. For example, we see him attending performances of Ukrainian plays and musicals that he could not even possibly have hoped to understand with his friend Theo Stefanik. In the course of one such visit Sisler ended up rubbing elbows with Archbishop Budka and getting the Reverend father’s views on the deleterious effect of Ukrainians being interned ‘without cause’ and being denied the right to vote in the election of 1917 (Budka felt this treatment would result in 75% of the Ruthenian population returning to the “old country” once the war ended). He also heard Budka bemoan the loss of the bilingual schools—Sisler obviously kept his views on these schools to himself as there is no record of a fist-fight breaking out! [31] Sisler also happily spent time attending the lengthy religious services of some of the churches of his students. In one instance he was up at 4:30 am for the blessing of the Easter food at the “Russian church on Mackenzie” [Orthodox] followed by attendance at “the Ruth. Church” [Ukrainian Catholic] immediately thereafter, essentially a day-long set of religious and musical extravaganzas that left him tired but decidedly impressed by the music—and the stamina—of the participants. [32]

Of course attendance at such events, and strengthening his ties with the ethnic communities, was also a part of his never-ending campaign to win over foreign students (and their parents) to the public school system. Thus his diaries are also filled with references to students who moved back and forth between the parochial and public schools and the attacks that were launched upon these children and their families by their own priests, nuns and other religious leaders and educators for choosing the public schools. [33]

While one suspects more than a bit of bias in Sisler’s reportage of these instances, there is no question that many of the religious leaders felt that they were engaged in a life-and-death struggle with what they saw—with considerable justification—as the “Protestant” public schools, and as a consequence they did put considerable pressure upon their congregants to remain faithful to the parochial schools.

Even as Sisler was involved in these sorts of activities, which clearly took up a significant portion of his free time, it must also be remembered that the night school continued unabated throughout the war years, consuming three nights of every school week for five months of the academic year. Nor did he neglect his coaching duties as he led several Strathcona teams to city championships between 1915 and 1919. And although he doesn’t make too much of this in his various journals, it is also the case that Sisler was once again devoting time to his own education, for by 1913 he had enrolled in the University of Chicago’s B.S. program in Education, a degree that he would work on (sporadically) over the course of many summer sessions for over a decade. [34] Even more to the point, by 1916 he was being called upon to make official visits of inspection to bilingual and formerly bilingual schools in the countryside, in several instances making such visits even during the course of the regular school year. [35]

During the Christmas break of 1919, Sisler visited Pine River School in the largely Ukrainian-speaking area north of Dauphin.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, W. J. Sisler Collection #74, N9671

What strikes one most about his personal records of these school visits is a seeming anomaly: in many instances his diaries say almost nothing about the schools in question—one assumes that those notes were all contained in his official reports. Instead, his notes concerning visits to the rural school districts for 1916 and the following years are filled with references to crops, local economic conditions, the value of locally produced commodities like butter, eggs, and honey, [36] and the potential for introducing rural-oriented manual training into the schools and for offering extension courses in the same places via the Agriculture College; courses that had nothing to do with language and everything to do with dairying, the use of gasoline engines, animal husbandry, soil conservation and other such practical, farm-related programs. [37] References to whom he billed the costs associated with his photographic supplies and travel expenses and a few other comments in later diaries make it obvious that he was multi-tasking the entire time he was visiting these country schools. He was very definitely doing work for the Provincial Department of Education, but it was sometimes in his role as an expert on language education and sometimes as an expert in manual training, a program which the new Minister of Education was keen to see further developed in the rural schools. But it was also apparent that he had some sort of mandate from the Extension Department of the Agricultural College to promote an array of agricultural extension classes. [38] (As it turns out Sisler was multi-tasking in another regard as well, for his innate curiosity led him to ask local informants about the historical development of many of the areas he visited, information which would show up in some of his much later work for the Manitoba Historical Society.) Sisler’s diverse talent and interest set was very much on display during these trips.

It was also in 1916 that Education Minister Thornton tasked Sisler with setting up summer institutes where teachers were to be immersed in his direct method of language instruction. Starting first with a summer session held at Strathcona School in 1916, Sisler would spend at least part of every summer between then and 1920 running such institutes and coordinating model schools of specially recruited foreign language students who served as Guinea pigs for teachers being trained in the direct method of ESL. That first summer Sisler and his hand-picked teachers had 45 teachers enrolled in the “practical course in the teaching of English to children who had learned another language at home ...” [39] As he later described it,

A class of six-year old children was recruited from the vicinity of Strathcona School. One of our regular teachers was placed in charge of it. This class attended school for every morning for five weeks in the months of July and August, taking the regular work of Grade One.

Teachers in training observed the work done and under direction did some teaching themselves. During the remainder of the day they learned children’s songs and games, discussed methods of teaching and prepared aids for use in their own schools. They also had lectures and demonstrations by medical health officers and a public health nurse. Many of the schools to which they were going were far away from any doctor or nurse and the teacher often had to take responsibility in cases of contagious disease and to give first aid in case of accidents. These classes were continued for four summer sessions and altogether some two hundred teachers were given this special training.

Thus the methods developed in our school were carried to country districts and the multilingual plan previously used was entirely discarded. The children were freed from the handicap of broken English and within a few years spoke as well as did those in purely English-speaking districts. [40]

In this case Sisler’s triumphalist tone and assessment of his role in the change to unilingual instruction is quite accurate, although his diaries indicate that the impact of the change may not have been felt quite as rapidly or as completely as the last sentence quoted above might have led readers to believe. For example, while out on an inspection tour at Pine River, a largely Ukrainian-speaking district north of Dauphin, during the Christmas break of 1919, he noted how matters were just beginning to improve (albeit quite markedly) as the school had had an English-speaking teacher for only three months. [41] More dramatically, an intensive set of inspections he carried out after his summer institute ended in August of 1920 yielded far less satisfactory results. As he noted in his diary, “Visited 19 schools in the vicinity of Oakburn. In none of them are the children (chiefly Ruthenian) learning to speak English. Most of the teachers speak very poorly. Report sent to Dep Minister Educ’n.” [42]

Still, if there were problems in certain locations, there was absolutely no question that his work was having an impact. As early as 1917–1918, School Inspector Stevenson of Division #25 [Dauphin] had noted the strong progress being made out in his largely Ukrainian and Polish-speaking district by teachers using Sisler’s direct method. In fact Stevenson singled out the value of Mr. Sisler’s “summer course” and special sessions on the direct method that he offered at the Easter Teachers’ Convention. [43] And his efforts were being lauded to a much wider audience, as witnessed by a particularly fulsome piece in the Free Press on his summer school program of 1917; a program which the paper described as being “unique in Canada” and marked by the “missionary spirit” of those attending. [44]

Of course Sisler was more than just an inspector, teacher and administrator in this program. He also played a crucial role in setting curriculum and in creating and preparing teaching materials for unilingual teachers to use once they were in the classroom. Thus, in addition to his 1915 textbook, Spelling and Language Lessons for Beginners in English, between 1916 and 1921 Sisler compiled a series of 100 reading lessons for use in the rural schools; lessons which were multigraphed and distributed by the Department of Education, although never published in book form. He also composed a work entitled “Hints to Teachers of Evening School” complete with outlines for work by various grades, which was printed and published by the Provincial Department of Education in 1920. (One of the many innovations of the Department of Education during this period was the attempt to create night schools for adult learners in smaller towns and villages throughout the province; so this was a most useful publication for teachers undertaking this work outside Winnipeg.) Finally, Sisler also created “An Illustrated Chart for Teaching Oral and Written English” which the Department published in 1921. [45]

With all of this work of inspection, teacher training and curriculum development it is no exaggeration to say that Sisler was in many regards the heart and soul of the pedagogical side of Manitoba’s move to a strictly unilingual public education system between 1916 and 1920. Indeed, one can find him leading special classes for teachers working in non-English districts as late as 1928. [46] Nor had he given up his less official work of curriculum design as it related to promoting the values of Canadian citizenship in both day and night schools. Peaceful Invasion contained an excellent description of this work in the night school, but said less about similar developments in the day schools. [47] Fortunately, later in life, Sisler provided an interesting description of the sort of civics program he had developed and implemented in the public schools. In discussing the ideal form of citizenship training—which he believed should stress the teaching of Canadian history and geography “through the liberal use of coloured pictures and dramas on a definitely planned course from primary grades right through to the end of the High School program,” [48]—Sisler noted:

I had such a course at Strathcona and Issac Newton Schools. Canadian Songs and Stories were featured in primary grades and continued throughout the course. A hundred and fifty selected slides, songs and a good picture of the Canadian Ensign surround[ed] by a wreath of Maple Leaves worked the youngest to the oldest to a high pitch of patriotic enthusiasm. Hundreds of groups of 300 to 400 through the years viewed such pictures. Sometimes they furnished material for classroom exercises in oral and written English. [49]

If one adds to this Sisler’s well-articulated views on English language training and on how cadet training (until the Great War), organized sports and even gardening all contributed to the creation of morally upright citizens, or at least citizens in the making, a relatively complete picture emerges of the methods he used to “construct” Canadians out of the mass of immigrants who deluged his schools. True, he always gave credit to institutions such as All Peoples, Robertson Memorial, the YMCA and a few other such missionary and social service agencies in the north end for carrying on similar work with the New Canadians, especially the children, but nonetheless he remained firmly convinced that it was the public schools above all other institutions which were doing the difficult work of assimilating these peoples into a cohesive whole. And he made no bones about this: his goal was Canadianization of these newcomers.

Of course all of this does make Sisler sound rather like a run-of-the-mill assimilationist; someone who, like Principal Sparling or Charles Gordon, was afraid that if the immigrants were not fully and forcibly assimilated they would drag ‘us’ down to their level. Nor is there any question that there were moments when, much like J. S. Woodsworth, Sisler expressed views that came close to these perspectives. But it was also the case that even during the years 1916 to 1920—when he was the leading figure in the sort of educational reform that was near and dear to the hearts of those who truly despised the immigrants—he was developing a much more complex set of attitudes towards these “New Canadians”, a term he eventually came to despise as being derogatory. And this is not just something which is manifested in his latter-day autobiographical writings or in the feel-good story that is Peaceful Invasion, works undertaken when he was consciously constructing himself in quite heroic terms for both his family and for a wider reading audience.

As intimated earlier, Sisler had long cultivated ties into the ethnic communities, typically and by his own admission to further his agenda of convincing parents to take their children out of the parochial schools and place them in the public schools of the north end. It is also quite clear that Sisler and his teachers intruded themselves into the lives of their students and their families in a whole host of ways that could smack of paternalism—the sort of “we know what is best for you and your child” attitude that was a standard trope of middle-class reformers, social workers and educators who worked with immigrants and other impoverished peoples. Beyond this, even at a distance of 20 to 30 years, Sisler could be remarkably culturally chauvinistic, a tendency which made him either blind or insensitive to certain cultural or religious practices. For example, as late as 1944 he still could not see that his vignette in Peaceful Invasion about a couple of youthful soccer players who could not take the street car to Saturday games, and whose father had to be informed that it would be all right for his sons to play soccer on Saturday because no hands could be used in the game, was far more revealing about his ignorance of Jewish religious observance—or worse, his willingness to foment dissension between father and sons over a mere game—than it was about the immigrant parent’s lack of understanding about soccer and Canadian culture. [50]

Sisler with a grade 8 class at Isaac Newton Junior High School, November 1925. Sisler is in the back row, third from the right, wearing his characteristic three-piece suit.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, W. J. Sisler Collection #249

Still, there was something quite different about Sisler and his attitude to the foreign-born, something which had been growing for years, but which comes into view most clearly during and immediately after the Great War, a time when so many other Winnipeggers were being whipped up into paroxysms of xenophobia. [51] Part of it might have been related to his awareness of the economic, political and social injustices that he saw all around him in the north end. As noted earlier, he was constantly confronted by the impact of poverty upon his students and their families. No matter how hard these people worked or how hard they tried to make a better life in their new country, many of these families were but one illness, one accident or one lengthy bout of unemployment away from economic disaster. Thus, when he was out and about checking on the welfare of students and their families in the aftermath of the great influenza epidemic in December 1918, he couldn’t help but notice the impact that Influenza-related lay-offs had upon many families. On one level, “watching” Sisler making these visits at a time when the epidemic was still not entirely over, and making numerous calls to the City Relief Office, to public health officers and to Social Services to get some aid for these families—and on at least one occasion going out and buying milk for a destitute family out of his own pocket—reminds one that Sisler was a profoundly decent man. [52] His diary notes also remind one that he experienced these peoples’ sufferings not at some safe distance, but in a very immediate and human fashion.

Although his diary notes are usually written in a simple matter-of-fact style, at times Sisler’s growing distaste for social inequities shone through. For example, he used his diary to make an uncharacteristically caustic comment late in 1917 when he was recording the result of a visit to the home of one of his (probably) Jewish students. Ten-year-old Adam Meyer had apparently written Mr. Sisler a note asking that he and his sister be allowed to miss school one day apiece each week so that they could take turns staying at home to look after three younger siblings while their mother “goes out washing”. When Sisler visited the family to discuss the matter late on a Wednesday afternoon in October he discovered that the father worked in the sewer, presumably as a labourer digging sewer lines, and was afraid that once cold weather set in, he would have no work. Because they had house payments of $79.00 per month plus taxes, the family felt it was imperative that Mrs. Meyer work as well. All of this was troubling enough but, while Sisler was visiting, he noticed that one of the three younger children was crying in pain the whole time he was there. It turned out that she had a “bad ear” and needed an operation. The doctor had told the family that unfortunately such an operation would cost $100, and there was simply no way they could come up with that sort of money. When Sisler got home and recorded this visit in his diary he couldn’t help but wonder somewhat bitterly “What do the women do who have their washing done by Mrs. Meyer?” [53] Nor is this the only reference in his diary to children having other treatable maladies left unattended for want of money; children being left lame for want of a simple operation seemed particularly common. [54] Clearly this sort of inequity was beginning to eat at him.

It was also the case that during the war years Sisler was continually struck by a new social reality: many of his students’ parents were no longer looked down upon just for being foreigners, but in many cases, regardless of their actual place of birth, were now despised as “enemy aliens”. In the case of one student’s family, the father “could not get work and because he was Austrian the city would not give anything. Told that if interned the city would help him. Was sent [to the internment camp in Brandon] in Dec. 1915. City gives groceries and pays rent. Get no clothes. Mother has to go out to work.” [55] On a follow-up visit Sisler discovered that the father had recently been granted a limited release and was now allowed to work on a farm near Brandon. As a consequence the entire family had left Winnipeg to join him—a very good thing as far as Sisler was concerned, for he had discovered that during the period when the mother had been left on her own in Winnipeg, not only had she been forced to go out to work, but in doing so she had also been compelled to leave three small children unattended at home—a situation Sisler clearly deplored. [56] In another instance he learned that the father of one of his students had lost his job with the railway simply “because he speaks German”, and this in spite of the fact that he was from Russia, one of Canada’s Great War allies, and had two brothers serving in the Russian Army! [57] Sisler was also keenly aware that many of his eastern and central European students’ fathers had originally lost jobs due to the economic downturn of 1913-1915, but were then kept out of work due to their ethnicity well into 1916 and 1917, even if they were not actually enemy aliens. [58] Then there was the case of the Haas family—a mixed Russian/Hungarian family who so desperately wanted to be Canadian that they spoke only English in their home (music to Sisler’s ears to be sure)—but who found themselves unable to get steady work early on in the war simply due to the sound of their name. [59]

Perhaps it was this sort of injustice, repeated time after time in the homes of his students, or perhaps it was the words of Bishop Budka concerning the unfairness of internment and disenfranchisement for so many Ukrainian-speakers, which led Sisler to take the time in the fall of 1918 to interview the Intelligence Officer for Military District #10, the man most responsible for handling the enemy aliens of Winnipeg. But whatever the motivation for his visit Sisler discovered that this officer, Capt. Campbell, actually “sympathizes with Ruthenians”. As he told Sisler, there were approximately 25,000 enemy aliens who had to report, of whom 20,000 were Austrian/Ukrainian. Campbell declared quite unequivocally that

’Austrians have been loyal.’ Most of the Ry labourers are Austrian. Hundred[s] of troop trains have travelled over 2,000 3,000 4,000 miles to the ocean. How easy it would be for one of these men to pull a few spikes—unscrew two or three nuts, lift a rail even a few inches out of place and wreck a whole train. In all the four years [of the war] there never was but one wreck and that on the evidence of RR men was purely an accident. [60]

Sisler did not record his personal view of Captain Campbell’s comments, but as would soon prove, he obviously agreed with them.

On Sunday, 26 January 1919, Sisler witnessed part of the infamous anti-foreigner/anti-radical rampage of some of Winnipeg’s returned soldiers in the north end. As he recorded in his diary/journal,

At about 4 o’clock this afternoon there was rioting led by young fellows in uniform. The Leaders were mere boys. One wearing a naval uniform and another who was certainly not Eng[lish] Irish Sc[ottish] or Canadian. He might have been Gr[eek], Sp[anish], It[alian] or Fr[ench]—They carried a flag and if they met anyone who looked like a foreigner—stopped him and demanded his papers. If not produced quickly they proceeded to pound him. I saw four soldiers pound a man in front of the church at McGregor and Pritchard. They went into houses on Pritchard and Manitoba and a man was badly beaten in front of [unintelligible] Manitoba. He was unconscious when the police came to pick him up. There must have been 20 policemen right at hand but they did nothing to stop the rioting.

Aust-Hung Hall—MG & Mt [McGregor and Mountain—this structure was badly damaged by the rioters and, according to newspaper reports, the club’s piano and furniture were actually thrown out onto the street by rioters] [61]...

Man beaten in own yard—Boyd

House entered Edel [unintelligible] Ave

House entered money taken—Boyd

Kraemers store—$25 damage

Pool-room (Polish) Selkirk Ave. Money stolen from till

Filbert Boyd Ave. Entered house at 11K [o’clock] Made as if to go in room where wife and daughter were sleeping. [62]

While almost everyone in Anglo-Celtic Winnipeg, including Mayor Gray, was excusing the actions of the returned men and even the “hooligans” who accompanied them, as quasi-legitimate responses both to the growth of political radicalism [63] and to the perceived unfairness of “aliens” holding jobs while some returned men were unemployed, [64] Sisler was clearly disgusted both by the violence and by the inaction of the authorities. And it was an almost startling level of inaction. Mayor Gray was lauded by the Free Press for his actions in keeping rioters from “pitching out alien employees bodily” at the Swift meat-packing plant in Elmwood on the second day of rioting, simply by speaking to them, but it was rather notable that when addressing the rioters the Mayor had indicated that he actually supported the goals of the mob, just not its method. As Mayor Gray put it,

We want to get the aliens out [of their jobs at Swifts and elsewhere] and I am with you in that, but let us do it constitutionally, ... Go back to the city and show them [employers] that you will give them a chance to get rid of the aliens and if they don’t do it then is the time for reckoning. Send a letter to every employer of alien labor in town and ask for the foreigners to be replaced. Give them three days to do this. [65]

For his part, the manager of the plant, a Mr. Ingram, promised to go over employee lists with representatives of the returned men, but he also defended his employment policies, in most “colourful” terms saying “We have had to get aliens to do it [some of the work] after failing to get white help. I will have every alien off the job tomorrow if the boys can get me men to fill their places.” [66] Meanwhile, according to this same lengthy press report, after this “meeting” in front of Swift’s broke up the mob split off into smaller groups, one heading to plants in St. Boniface to apply similar pressure on employers, another staying in Elmwood to harass other manufacturers while a third headed off to the north end where the “reds” and foreigners lived. As the depredations of the mobs continued, no returned men were arrested and the police, under the “direction of Inspector Stark”, followed the biggest group in squad cars, doing nothing to stop the men’s occasional assaults on people or property, simply allowing the mob to disperse of its own volition at about midnight of the second day of rioting. [67] Clearly, there was much for Sisler to be disgusted with.

Sadly, the problems confronting Winnipeg’s “foreign element” would only deepen over the ensuing months. As Morris Mott has noted, employers throughout Winnipeg, fearful of more such direct actions by returned soldiers, began firing “alien” employees in large numbers. Meanwhile, the Norris government established an “Enemy Alien Inquiry Board” which Mott likened to a “witch-hunting vigilante committee”, which handed out its own loyalty cards to “good” foreigners even as they designated others as disloyal and reported them to the authorities for internment and deportation. [68]

In this context it would have been the simplest thing in the world for Sisler to join in with the growing chorus of Anglo-Celtic nativists. In fact, given the temper of the times, and his now well-established position as a major critic of bilingual education, it would have made some sense for Sisler to cut his ties with the ethnic communities, physically remove himself from the north end and perhaps even look for a school in another district. Given that several new schools were then either planned or under construction, with his experience and high profile, he could almost certainly have secured a principalship elsewhere in the city. But he opted to do none of these things; rather, a bit later in 1919 we find Sisler moving even farther into the heart of North Winnipeg, taking up residence at the North End YMCA on Selkirk Avenue and, far from dissociating himself from the “aliens,” he seemed to actually increase his ties. Thus, one could find Sisler spending one of his Sundays going from one Eastern European church to another taking in the special Easter services [69] while later in the year he could be found attending meetings held by some of the more nationalistic Ukrainian-speakers—meetings, as he described them, designed to build support for an autonomous Ukrainian state in territories then part of Russia and Eastern Galicia. [70] Indeed, while other Winnipeggers seemed to be retreating even further into their ignorance and biases concerning these “dangerous foreigners” Sisler was spending much of his spare time deepening his understanding of the history of Eastern Europe, particularly of the Ukrainian-speakers, of the Jews of Eastern Europe and of the history of immigration to North America, all through a somewhat systematic reading program. [71] Nor did he keep his relatively positive views of these people to himself. When R. L. Richardson, federal MP for Springfield and the publisher and editor of the Winnipeg Tribune, made an inflammatory speech in the House of Commons claiming that the “Ruthenians” of Springfield were on the verge of open insurrection, stirred up by Bishop Budka [72], Sisler just had to challenge him. In a letter written the very same day that reports of Richardson’s speech appeared in the papers, Sisler told the MP that he was certain that,

either the report [in the Free Press] is incorrect or that your information is entirely wrong. As you may know my work here is in the midst of the Ruthenian people of Winnipeg and I have frequent opportunity of meeting the leaders among them. I have also travelled in the country districts each summer in Springfield, Beausejour, Stuartburn, Shoal Lake, Dauphin and North of Russell. I have never yet heard from a Ruthenian any expression of Sympathy with Germany, nor any suggestion of a revolution by force. It is true that those who became citizens and were deprived of the franchise [73] felt keenly over it but were content to wait until again given the right to vote through constitutional means. My opinion of the Ruthenians is that if they are treated as Canadians and not as aliens they will be found to [be] as good citizens in every way as any people in the country. [74]

While this was certainly a polite rejoinder, and not even a public “letter-to-the-editor” sort of communication, it tells us much about Sisler’s views. He was very definitely swimming against the current of public opinion in the toxic atmosphere that was the Winnipeg of 1918–1919 when he said that these Ruthenians could be just as good citizens as any other people in Canada. And perhaps more to the point, a few months later while addressing the National Conference on Character Education (held in Winnipeg that October), Sisler reiterated the core sentiment of his comments to Richardson for a national audience stressing that, if these immigrants and their children had not yet made the transition to complete allegiance to Canada, at least part of the blame lay with the host society for not providing enough of the sort of public institutions (outside the school system) which could inspire pride in being Canadian. [75] Indeed, while the speaker to whom he was responding (Dr. J. T. M. Anderson of Saskatchewan) had attacked the creation of National Homes and other such ethnic societies by the Ruthenians as a retrograde step in the process of assimilation, Sisler viewed them in a much more benign light, likening them to the St. George’s, St. Andrew’s and St. David’s societies so beloved by Anglo-Celtic Canadians. [76] Of course, he wished that the Germans, Ukrainians and Poles would be more engaged with the larger community and not be so insular, but he did evince an understanding of why these people would band together and, as he put it, build “a splendid building” for $60,000 (the Ukrainian Labour Temple in north Winnipeg) in which theatrical productions, meetings and other such events could be held. The question in his mind was why the larger society was not investing comparable amounts in community-based structures and institutions where people of all ethnicities could mingle and engage in activities in the common language of the host society. [77] Precious few people of Anglo-Celtic descent were saying such positive things about the Ukrainians and other eastern and central European immigrants in the Winnipeg of 1919–1920, particularly not in the aftermath of the General Strike—the blame for which popular opinion laid squarely at the feet of “dangerous foreigners”. Even fewer were willing to shoulder any blame for the failure of the immigrants or their children to assimilate to the Canadian way of life. Sisler had certainly proven himself to be quite unconventional in this regard.

Still, having said all of this, it would be a serious mistake to try to portray William Sisler as either an overly heroic figure or the sole representative of Anglo-Celtic Winnipeg who cared about, or who had faith in, the potential of the so-called “foreign element”. It is, however, fair to say that both during the worst days of nativist rage (1916-1923) and then during the much calmer period (at least in terms of ethnic relations) of the second half of the 1920s and into the 1930s, he was a valuable ally for those immigrants and their children who were fighting against the prejudices which shaped their lives and limited their opportunities. He used his position both as an educator and as a public intellectual—someone who was regularly called upon to share his expertise on the “foreign question” in Manitoba—to defend the “New Canadians”. Of course he had his own prejudices and predilections. Clearly he was most drawn to those families who consciously sought to fit into the economy and culture of Canada, and he continued to have little patience for groups such as the Hutterites and more traditional Mennonites who seemed particularly resistant to assimilation. And he came to actively despise the pro-communist politics of some of the Eastern Europeans. [78] Still, one of the most notable features of his own evolution over the next two decades was that he came to believe that the acculturation he so clearly desired could be accomplished without the immigrants giving up all of their cultural baggage, or their ethnic, linguistic and religious pride. Indeed, he came to see these things as a positive good. He was particularly impressed by the emphasis that many of the Jewish and Slavic parents placed upon musical education for their children, willingly paying for costly music lessons out of very small wage packets. [79] He also came to a far more accepting position in regards to the role played by the various religious organizations and language-based secular organizations; [80] somewhat ironically, given his long-term fight with church-run schools in the years prior to 1918, Sisler actually came to bemoan the drifting away from the churches and the moral standards that had defined the lives of the immigrant generation among their Canadian-born children. Whereas he had once been profoundly troubled by what he saw as the undue influence of priests and other such leaders, as he told a Winnipeg audience in 1927, he now saw their dwindling influence on the youth as a factor which contributed significantly to the criminal behaviour of some of the immigrants’ offspring in the 1920s. [81] Indeed, by the time his teaching career had ended he was offering fulsome praise of the work carried out not only in the churches, but in the “many clubs and societies where old-world customs, language and culture are perpetuated”. [82] In effect, in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s Sisler was developing what might best be termed the “folklorama” view of Winnipeg, decades before such a view had become popular. And it is certainly of some significance that in one of his last public appearances in Winnipeg, only a year before he passed away, the by-then 85-year-old Sisler showed up at a packed Winnipeg school-board meeting to argue that a proposed school in the north end should not be named after yet another British statesman—in this case former Governor General and novelist Lord Tweedsmuir—not when the name and example of former Isaac Newton student and war hero, Andrew Mynarski, VC was available. [83] According to newspaper reports the impact of Sisler’s comments was nothing short of electrifying: when the former principal of Strathcona and Isaac Newton schools stood up to speak the respect he received was universal. A hush fell over the room as he began to talk about his former pupil and the larger Mynarski family which, as he pointed out, had lived in North Winnipeg for over 50 years and (perhaps not so incidentally) had all been taught by him at various times. As he told the assembled crowd

‘It is a bit of arrogance on the part of anyone to suggest that the name Mynarski was not suitable for a school. If the boy is worthy of a Victoria Cross surely he’s worthy of having a school named after him. There were 1100 names on the honor roll of the Isaac Newton [School]’ he said, ‘among them the name Mynarski. Fifty graduates lost their lives in the second war. Others had won military honors.’ To loud applause, Mr. Sisler concluded: ‘More than 90 per cent of those names were what some call foreign.’[84]

What most of those listening to the dapper old gentleman, attired in suit and bowtie, probably did not know was that this support came at a certain cost to him, as Lord Tweedsmuir was a bit of a personal hero to Sisler, for he had been the Governor General, who in Sisler’s opinion had been one of the strongest voices for Canadian unity and Canadian nationalism, great passions of Sisler’s for many years. [85] Even more to the point, Sisler was supporting a protest against the use of the name Tweedsmuir launched by another one of his former students—one of whom he most certainly did not approve—Communist Party member and School Board Trustee, Joe Zuken. [86] Yet none of those factors could sway him from doing what he saw as the right thing, and not just for Mynarski, but for the larger multi-ethnic, but most assuredly Canadian, north end community.

The preceding observations concerning Sisler’s relationship to the community of immigrants and their children reduces 35 years of his life to a few paragraphs, a reduction of staggering proportions. This is certainly not meant to suggest that he did little of significance after the “heroic” early phase of his career. Nothing could be further from the truth, for the years from 1920 to 1938 when he retired, and then from 1938 until his death in 1956 were years of considerable accomplishment for the now veteran educator. In 1921 he would take up a new post in the north end, this time as principal of a relatively new type of school for Winnipeg, a Junior High—Isaac Newton. [87] Here he would once again be working with the children of immigrants, coaching them in sports and serving as their champion in the public realm. He would also oversee Isaac Newton’s transition from a junior high to a high school in the early 1930s, continue to offer night school classes and serve as a regular contributor to Winnipeg’s ongoing discussion about the challenges of educating the children of immigrants both within and outside Winnipeg. [88] And even in retirement, which was forced upon him in 1938, [89] Sisler remained active both in the Teachers’ Federation he had helped to found and in the larger public realm. Thus, he served in various provincial and national capacities with the nationalist and autonomist “Native Sons of Canada”, including as President of the organization in 1946. He was, as well, an important advocate for more and improved playgrounds and community centres for Winnipeg in general and Elmwood in particular from the 1930s until just shortly before his death. And even if the idea of retirement had been repellent to Sisler, if nothing else it afforded him the time to work on his most famous published work, Peaceful Invasion, a work which was greeted by much positive press and which brought him back into the public spotlight in 1945 more fully than at any time since the halcyon days of the 1910s. [90] Retirement also gave him the opportunity to research and write a series of lesser-known historical sketches of pioneer life for the Manitoba Historical Society (the most extensive of which was a triumphalist account of settlement in the Interlake district and the positive contributions made by the region’s various ethnic groups). [91] Thus, in many regards, the remainder of Sisler’s career as an educator and as a public intellectual can be seen as an extension of the work and the attitudes he had developed by 1920.

Sisler with classroom representatives from Isaac Newton High School, circa 1930.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, W. J. Sisler Collection #250, N17283

What makes this phase of Sisler’s life so markedly different from the first 51 years is this: for the first time ever his work life, while clearly still important, took a backseat to family life. In 1921, in addition to starting his new job as Principal at Isaac Newton, Sisler’s life took a dramatic turn when he married a much younger woman, a Scottish-born teacher he had presumably first met while doing school inspections out in the Rembrandt district (he makes no note of meeting Ellen Martin or even of his wedding day. In fact it was only on the occasion of his 20thanniversary that one learns he was married on 17 August 1921). [92] Still, while his diaries are remarkably silent on his courtship and marriage it is clear that marriage had a huge impact upon him. [93] Indeed, to say that the life of this seemingly confirmed bachelor changed dramatically is an understatement of some magnitude. Between 1922 and 1935 the Sislers would have six children, set up house in five different north end and Elmwood locations, build a summer home at Matlock [94] and engage in numerous activities designed to ensure the material well-being and educational success of a very young family with a most decidedly older head-of-household. (Sisler was a first-time parent when he was just shy of his 53rd birthday and continued to have children until he was 65—yet more evidence of a somewhat unconventional life.)

Given all of this it is not the least bit surprising that, from 1921 onwards, Sisler’s diaries and correspondence are far less concerned with his work or with visits to the homes of students, reflecting instead the concerns of what seemed to be, despite his age, a very active and hands-on father. [95] Of course, hands-on is a relative term, for in 1923, 1924 and 1925 Mr. Sisler would take Ellen and his expanding family out to Birtle, Manitoba (where her family still farmed) for the summer months while he headed off to Chicago to pursue work on his long delayed university degree—which he definitely needed in his new position. [96]

Naturally this new family life also implied a whole new set of financial responsibilities and worries, which are also reflected throughout his diaries for these years. As noted in Part One, Sisler had always had quite the entrepreneurial streak. However, none of his “business deals” receive much attention in his diaries prior to his marriage, nor did he seem to keep very accurate records of his business dealings or business correspondence prior to 1920. However, his correspondence files do indicate that he had always been interested in taking a flier on an interesting proposition that might yield a profit. For example, a 1920 letter from a co-investor makes it clear that he had co-owned two mineral claims in the Central Manitoba mining district for some time, [97] but after 1921 his interest obviously deepened. Over the years he would amass over 3000 shares in companies such as Gold Pan Mines and the Manitoba Marble Quarries, shares that he held onto for the rest of his life, despite their steadily decreasing value. [98] Indeed his interest in mining and mining ventures was intense enough that in 1932, while well into his 60s, he took and passed the “Prospector’s Course” put on jointly by the University of Manitoba’s Department of Geology and the Provincial Department of Mines and Natural Resources, presumably so that he could conduct his own search for precious minerals. [99] Perhaps even more substantial was his interest in real estate, both rural and urban. When conducting a probate search the Sisler family lawyer located 11 certificates of title that had been registered in Sisler’s name at one time or other. And those clearly do not include the real estate holdings held solely in Ellen’s name at the time of Mr. Sisler’s death, including their home at 39 Sylvia. [100] At various times Sisler had owned two quarter-sections of hay land in the Balmoral district, [101] land which in 1921 Sisler had thought was worth $2100 and which his bankers thought he might be able to sell for $3000 in 1924. He also had property in the Rural Municipality of St. James in the mid-1920s, [102] and in 1934 he bought, fixed up and rented out a house at 215 Niagara Avenue. [103] Beyond this, at some point in the 1920s he also purchased a set of 5 acre lots from the Diocese of St. Boniface (collectively plot 288) out near Speers Road which he hoped to eventually sell for a profit, but which in the meantime he often leased to local farmers or—in a pinch—put in his own alfalfa crop in order to cover taxes. [104]

Unfortunately for Sisler very few of these ventures ever seemed to make him much money. Efforts to sell off his land in Balmoral—he had clearly held onto it for too long—and the lots in St. Boniface did not go well when the markets turned downwards in the 1930s. [105] However, despite this type of setback his diaries indicate that the Depression had little direct impact upon him or his family in its early phases. Indeed, as the world and local economy plunged further and further into chaos between 1929 and 1931, Sisler felt confident enough about his financial position to finance a $1000 mortgage loan for his father-in-law, [106] to buy land for a summer cottage at Matlock and to purchase all the needed building supplies for that summer home. Then, just as the Depression was reaching its nadir in 1932, he signed contracts totaling approximately $6,000 for the construction of his much larger new home. [107] More to the point, given the lack of any mortgage documents on this property it seems likely that Mr. Sisler actually had the necessary funds on hand to pay cash for this house. [108]

Because Sisler had a steady job—and a well-paying one by the standards of the day [109]—his family did not experience the Depression in the same way that so many of his students’ families did. He still had a car and actually upgraded to newer models twice during the 1930s, [110] which allowed the family not only to take advantage of their summer home at Matlock, but was also the mode of transportation for camping/road trips to Chicago and Banff in the summers of 1933 and 1936. In fact, even when the economic impact of the Depression came home directly to the Sisler household in the summer of 1933, when he was informed that he would be losing half a month’s pay and face an annual salary reduction of 21%, [111] it did not deter him from taking the two oldest children on a 3100-mile road trip to Chicago and Ontario. [112] And as it turned out, he and his family never actually felt the full impact of the 21% salary reduction because in November 1933 he was notified that because Isaac Newton had become a de factoHigh School offering classes all the way through Grade Eleven, Sisler was reclassified as a High School Principal, giving him a $200 salary boost. [113]

The real crisis for the Sisler family—and once again crisis must be understood as a relative term—came when the Winnipeg School Board forced Mr. Sisler to retire at the end of the 1938 school year when he was approaching his 69th birthday. As disappointed as he was about this when first informed of the Board’s decision in May, he was downright bitter when he discovered in June that “my pension would be $1034[,] about $86 per month.” As he confided to his diary, “Families the size of ours on relief get as much or more than this.”[114]

His concern was well justified for, while he was certainly in better financial shape than the majority of Winnipeggers, the reality was that in 1938 he still had six children at home, ranging in age from fifteen down to two, and he intended to see that these children had every educational opportunity possible and would not have to defer their educational or career aspirations as he had done. As a result, one of the overriding concerns for the remainder of his life was finding additional sources of income to supplement his pension. Thus, immediately upon retirement Sisler could be found grumbling about grading what he viewed as the horrendous papers of the students who had just taken the old Departmental examinations. But he felt he had no choice but to take part in this exercise as he needed the $71.36 that this work provided. [115] Then, through the patronage of a former student, he tried his hand at selling insurance for Monarch Life, doing so on a part-time basis for approximately three years. [116] He also looked for government work via the Civil Service Commission immediately after the Second World War broke out, [117] and regularly supervised examinations for Queen’s University until he was well into his 80s. [118] He also worked as a substitute principal in the Winnipeg area for short periods of time, [119] and taught remedial math, physics, English and “current events” to Royal Canadian Air Force recruits during the Second World War. [120] Indeed, even the publication of Peaceful Invasion was in some ways motivated by financial considerations. He had not been able to find a publisher for either an updated version of his 1915 school textbook—although not for lack of trying [121]—or for his new book on Winnipeg. Thus, he decided to self-publish and self-distribute Peaceful Invasion, which he was convinced would have strong market appeal, and he turned out to be quite good at promoting the book. [122] He not only garnered considerable press attention, which definitely boosted sales, but he also made certain that copies were always available for sale at all of the class reunions and anniversary celebrations of the two schools he had led. [123] He also worked very hard at securing funding for his new work of historical research on the pioneers via the Manitoba Historical Society [124] and was indefatigable, if unsuccessful, in his search for (paying) publishers of his work. Indeed, he attempted to sell various works on the history of various pioneer groups, both as shorter-length newspaper features for the Free Press and as full-length book manuscripts with his former publisher, Macmillan of Canada, up to the early 1950s. [125]

At this point it would be easy to think that this is all part of a somewhat sad ending to an otherwise remarkable career and life, but this was manifestly not the case. True, there are moments—for example, when observing Sisler selling off his last car, [126] struggling to find buyers for the remaining portions of his little real estate empire in the late 1930s and ‘40s or, perhaps worst of all, deciding to sell his beloved cottage at Matlock [127]—that a certain sense of pathos does descend. However, there is very little that is sad about any of this. These were conscious and rational decisions that Sisler made to ensure the well-being of his family. And in this he was successful. He played a crucial role in ensuring that his six children all received first-class educations, had proper middle-class childhoods replete with music lessons, social activities, sports and summer vacations, had the opportunity to attend university (at least two earned post-graduate degrees while he was still alive), and had the chance to develop their talents to the fullest. In fact one of his daughters, Sandra, became a concert-calibre musician while one of his sons, George, became Winnipeg’s most important mental health care expert. Given the amount of attention and obvious care he evinced in his diaries over the progress and success of his children, including details on how he helped to finance their educations, Sisler was justifiably proud of this other part of his legacy: the private legacy of a middle-class family man who believed wholeheartedly in the middle-class virtues of thrift, hard-work, self-reliance, education, dedication to family and perhaps most of all, respectability. Whether or not one subscribes to these particular virtues—or the profoundly gendered understanding of what constituted a “proper” middle-class family in the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s—there is little question that the William James Sisler who emerges from his various writings is a particularly fine exemplar of male middle-class life.

Sisler, fourth from right in front, presided at the August 1948 meeting of the Native Sons of Canada at the Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg. Another noted Manitoba educator in attendance was H. W. Huntley (far left in front row), founding President of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, in 1919.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, W. J. Sisler Collection #256

In his own terms, Sisler was a Canadian success story. Although he was always frustrated that he had never accumulated much wealth, he had risen from humble origins to a place of considerable attention and respect in his adopted community of Winnipeg and beyond, particularly in his roles as an educator and then as President of the Native Sons of Canada. And there is little doubt that he would have been overjoyed to have a north end school named after him in recognition of his many accomplishments. That he felt an almost compulsive need to tell the story of his contributions, and at times improve upon that story, tells one much about human frailty but even more about how memory, history and autobiography can intersect in interesting ways. But even after deconstructing his writings and concluding that he was not quite as important a figure in some matters as he would have wanted his family and other readers to believe, there is little question that he played an important role in the reorientation of the system of education in Winnipeg and Manitoba between 1907 and 1920. He was, if not the high priest of educational unilingualism and assimilation, certainly one of its most important and effective functionaries. But as significant as this “contribution” may have been I would argue that he had an even greater role to play in the history of Winnipeg and Manitoba. At a time when the vast majority of Winnipeg’s social, political, economic and cultural leaders had not only turned their backs upon the “foreign element” but also condoned physical and economic attacks upon it, Sisler had not. Rather, he moved back into the “foreign” quarter, deepened his ties with the communities in any way he could think of and emerged first as a defender of the various ethnic groups who populated the north end and eventually as an advocate of many of the cultural and religious practices which were identified with them. Long before it was popular to do so, Sisler, be it in the pages of Peaceful Invasion, in numerous talks to civic groups and academic gatherings and in the pages of Winnipeg’s newspapers in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, helped to popularize a vision of a hybridized Winnipeg. In this sense he was not so much a heroic figure as he was a denizen of that third space where it was not only the immigrants and their children who were being acculturated but where the dominant society was also changing.

There can be no more fitting way to conclude this consideration of Sisler’s life and career than to return to that School Board meeting of April 1955 when he proudly addressed the assembled crowd not only on behalf of his former student Andrew Mynarski, but also on behalf of all of those who called the immigrant sections of Winnipeg home. But we need to recognize that this was not an act of courage—he was not bucking the popular wisdom as he had been when he defended the foreign-born so many years earlier. In 1955, after all, Winnipeg was only two years away from having Steve Juba become its first (and long-serving) Ukrainian-Canadian Mayor. Sisler was really only recognizing, albeit in powerful fashion, the new common sense of the age: Winnipeg was a multicultural and multi-ethnic city. But it needs to be noted that in at least some small fashion it was a common sense that he had helped to make possible. His was a complicated legacy, but perhaps a fitting one for this most unconventional of conventional men.


1. Archives of Manitoba (hereafter AM), MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger – Personal Recollections,” p. 207. (Roblin did not become Premier of Manitoba until October 1900.)

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., p. 125.

4. Ibid., p. 207.

5. One assumes that Sisler is referring to the famous series of articles and editorials on the bilingual schools that were published in the Manitoba Free Press (hereafter MFP) – with some similar pieces also appearing in the Winnipeg Tribune – in 1913 and 1914.

6. See for example, AM, C51, “Sisler Photo Album” pictures #95, 99 and 100, Malanton, circa 1916; #104, Frazerwood (sic), circa 1912; and #105 Ladywood, circa 1912.

7. Murray Donnelly. Dafoe of the Free Press, Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1968, p. 58.

8. See James Blanchard, “Rodmond P. Roblin, 1900-1915,” in Barry Ferguson and Robert Wardhaugh (eds.) Manitoba Premiers of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 2010, pp. 128-130, 133-134.

9. There are many examples of such positive reports scattered throughout the Annual Reports of the Department of Education. See for example, Manitoba, Report of the Department of Education for the year ending 31 December 1905, p. 53; ibid., … for the year ending 31 December 1906, pp. 62-63; ibid., for the year ending 31 December 1907, p. 47; ibid., for the year ending 30 June 1913, pp. 13-14, 105-128; and ibid., for the year ending 30 June 1915, p. 71. The most fascinating set of positive comments – given his later attack upon the system – were those made by Deputy Minister of Education Fletcher in his report for 1913-1914. Concerning the bilingual schools and their teachers he noted: “The outlook … has never been so hopeful as it is at the present time. Our own secondary schools are beginning to furnish French, German and Ruthenian students who are not only able to give instruction in two languages, but to inculcate the true spirit of Canadian patriotism. See ibid., for the year ending 30 June 1914, p. 19.

10. Blanchard, “Rodmond P. Roblin, 1900-1915,” p. 134.

11. This was, of course, the heyday of Progressivism, of the Protestant Social Gospel, of the Woman’s Suffrage and Temperance movements, the Single Tax and a whole slew of related social and political reform movements. See Lionel Orlikow, “A Survey of the Reform Movement in Manitoba, 1910-1920,” Winnipeg: unpublished University of Manitoba MA Thesis, 1955, Chapter One.

12. Blanchard, “Rodmond P. Roblin, 1900-1915,” p. 134.

13. See, “Special Report on Bilingual Schools in Manitoba, Department of Education, 1 February 1916. Charles K. Newcombe, Superintendent of Education to Hon. R. S. Thornton, Minister of Education, Winnipeg, 14 January 1916.” Mr. Sisler is indeed cited in this report (p. 26) in regards to his work at Strathcona, and as might have been suspected, one of his concerns was that “There is a good deal of moving back and forward to neighbouring parochial schools. Jewish and other church holidays as well as economic conditions amongst these pupils affect attendance.”

14. Manitoba, Report of the Department of Education for the year ending 30 June 1914, p. 62.

15. Sisler’s notes indicate that it was published by the Macmillan Company of Toronto in 1915 and that in two editions it sold nearly 10,000 copies. This may have been uncharacteristically modest on Sisler’s part, for according to the first edition was released in 1915 and seems to have been reprinted in 1917 and 1920 while the 2nd edition was dated 1927 (this version was a few pages shorter) with at least one more reprinting in 1930. See AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger – Personal Recollections,” p. 126.

16. Ibid., Box 6, #65, “rough draft, letter Sisler to Provincial Minister of Education, 29 October 1915; and ibid., R. S. Thornton to W. J. Sisler, Winnipeg, 29 October 1915. (This second letter, although located in the same larger file, was found tucked away in a sub-file entitled “Education Papers – Racial Statistics.”)

17. Sisler was clearly becoming an acknowledged “expert” in regards to citizenship training for students. At the 11th Annual Winnipeg Public Schools Convention, held at Kelvin High School, Sisler presented a “model class in civics” to the assembled teachers, based upon his own work at Strathcona. See, MFP, 18 December 1915, p. 27.

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

19. There are several of these: in chronological order they are located in ibid., Box 3, File n/a “Little Beige Book”(this deals exclusively with his school visits of 1916); ibid., Box 3, File n/a “Little Black Book” (this is his often “disordered” diary for 1916-1921); ibid., Box 10, “Minute Book” (actually his diary for the years 1921-1948); and ibid., Box 10, Diary #3 “Cash Box”, 1948-1956. Unfortunately in the “Little Black Book” there are occasions when dates are missing and when inserted pages – which are dated - seem to be out of proper chronological order. Still, despite some drawbacks this diary is a treasure trove of information on Sisler’s activities during this period.

20. Ibid., Box 10, “Ledger – Personal Recollections,” p. 211.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., Box 3, File n/a “Little Black Book,” 16 September 1916.

23. Ibid., 6 May and 17 May 1917.

24. Ibid., 29 March 1916.

25. Ibid., 16/17 September 1917.

26. Ibid., 9 October 1916.

27. Ibid., n.d. [probably 23 September 1917].

28. Sybil Shack, “The Education of Immigrant Children During the First Two Decades of this Century.” Manitoba Historical Society Transactions, Series 3, Number 30, 1973-74 Season (Online version - [10/24/2013 4:59:03 PM]), p. 6.

29. See for example, AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers,” Box 5, File 48, Correspondence, 1876-1956, “Letter for John Pinkanz (sp.?), to Mr. Sisler, Principal Strathcona School, 11 March 1918 from Provincial Goal.”

30. Henderson’s Directories, 1916, p. 1398; ibid., 1918, p. 1235; ibid., 1919, p. 1124; ibid., 1920, p. 1269; and ibid., 1921, p. 1239.

31. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers,” Box 3, File n/a “Little Black Book,” 20 January 1918.

32. Ibid., Sunday, 20 April 1919.

33. See for example, ibid., 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.

34. Ibid., Box 10, “Minute Book” (actually his diary for the years 1921-1948) tucked into the rear of this (p. 177) was his University of Chicago, College of Education “Membership/Registration Card” dated 20 June 1913 – with his address listed as McGregor and Burrows. Sisler would complete this degree in the summer of 1925.

35. Ibid., Box 3, File n/a “Little Beige Book,” 7 October 1916.

36. He was fascinated by the possibilities of bee-keeping and would later have some hives of his own up at his summer cottage at Matlock.

37. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers,” Box 3, File n/a “Little Beige Book,” 21, 22, 23 June, 11 July and 7 October 1916. (His trip to Whitemouth is a good example of an instance in which he made proposals for farm-related programs.)

38. Ibid., Box 3, File n/a “Little Black Book,” 7 October 1916.

39. Ibid., Box 10, “Ledger – Personal Recollections,” p. 123.

40. W. J. Sisler, Peaceful Invasion. Winnipeg: the author, Ketchen Printing, 1944, pp. 32-33. The number of teachers who took Sisler’s summer course was probably even greater than his estimate, for while the first year saw 45 to 50 teachers enrolled, subsequent sessions (according to the Department of Education) typically held 60 students, which may explain why in 1920 the summer institute was moved out to the grounds of the Manitoba Agricultural College. In any event, with a summer institute held every summer for five years – not the four Sisler mentions in Peaceful Invasion, the total number of “graduates” would probably have been somewhere between 250 and 300. For an example of reports of the number of teacher trainees served see, Manitoba, Report of the Department of Education for the year ending 30 June 1919, p. 9.

41. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers,” Box 3, File n/a, “Little Black Book,” 26 December 1919.

42. Ibid., 25-30 August 1920.

43. Manitoba, Report of the Department of Education for the year ending 30 June 1918, pp. 100-101.

44. MFP, 13 July 1917, p. 9.

45. See AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger – Personal Recollections,” p. 126.

46. Ibid., “Minute Book – diary 1921-1948”, pp. 15-16.

47. Sisler, Peaceful Invasion, pp. 76-78.

48. Ibid., “Ledger – Personal Recollections,” p. 226. (underlining in the original).

49. Ibid.

50. Sisler, Peaceful Invasion, p. 40. Sybil Shack made a similar observation on this matter – and perhaps an even more telling one on Mr. Sisler’s incomprehension of the impact of running cadet corps among the children of people who had themselves fled from militarism and enforced service in Imperial Armies. See Sybil Shack, “The Education of Immigrant Children During the First Two Decades of this Century,” Manitoba Historical Society Transactions, Series 3, Number 30, 1973-74 Season, Online version - [24 October 2013 4:59:03 PM]), p. 11.

51. In this regard see Morris Mott, “The Foreign Peril: Nativism in Winnipeg, 1916-1923,” Winnipeg: unpublished University of Manitoba MA thesis, 1970, Chapter One.

52. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers,” Box 3, File n/a, “Little Black Book,” various entries, 8 December 1918 - 25 January 1919. In particular see 8 December 1918.

53. Ibid., 3 October 1917.

54. See for example, ibid., 14 September [1917?].

55. Ibid., 8 May 1917.

56. Ibid., 10 June 1917.

57. Ibid., 7 May and 17 May 1917 [?].

58. See for example, ibid., 29 March 1916.

59. Ibid., n.d. [probably Sunday, 30 September 1917].

60. Ibid., 4 November 1918.

61. See MFP, “Socialist Meetings Broken Up and Property Damaged Throughout City,” 27 January 1919, p. 1.

62. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers,” Box 3, File n/a, “Little Black Book,” Sunday, 26 January [1919]. (It is of some interest that many of the smaller events he describes occurred on Boyd – only one street over from his residence on College Avenue. Thus these events truly hit close to home for Sisler.)

63. The riot had started in Old Market Square where returned soldiers had gone to break up a planned mass meeting that was to be addressed by various socialist speakers. It was widely assumed that the core support for the most radical political movements came from the German, Ukrainian, Russian and Jewish communities. See MFP “Socialist Meetings Broken Up and Property Damaged Throughout City,” 27 January 1919, p. 1.
This action had then degenerated into roving mobs of returned soldiers and their supporters moving from various labour and socialist meeting rooms, attacking any perceived foreigners they encountered en route to Elmwood and the north end where some of the incidents described by Sisler were perpetrated. The following day the mob began turning its attention more directly to firms that employed foreigners in Elmwood and throughout the industrial districts of the city. See MFP, “Veterans on Search for Alien Workers,” 28 January 1919, p. 1.

64. Ibid.

65. Ibid.

66. Ibid.

67. Ibid., p. 2.

68. See Morris Mott, “The Foreign Peril: Nativism in Winnipeg, 1916-1923,” Winnipeg: unpublished University of Manitoba MA thesis, 1970, pp. 23-24.

69. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers,” Box 3, File n/a, “Little Black Book,” Sunday, 20 April 1919.

70. Ibid., 21 November 1919.

71. Ibid., Box 7, File 70, Notebooks and Scrapbook. (This file contains his reading list and some book notes. In particular, see p, 61.)

72. MFP, “Expects Uprising in Springfield in May,” 1 May 1919, pp. 1, 12.

73. This was done under the terms of the War Time Election Act of 1917.

74. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers,” Box 5, File 48, Correspondence, 1876-1956, Copy, WJ Sisler, 437 College Ave., Wpg, to Mr. RL Richardson, MP, Ottawa, 1 May 1919.

75. Sisler’s formal comments were made in response to a lengthier address by Dr. J. T. M. Anderson on “The School and the Newer Citizens of Canada.” Both are reprinted in Report of the Proceedings of The National Conference on Character Education in Relation to Canadian Citizenship, held 20-22 October 1919 in Winnipeg, pp. 101-103.

76. Ibid., p. 103

77. Ibid.

78. See notes 80 and 86 below.

79. Comments upon this are found throughout his various journals and feature prominently in his 1944 work, Peaceful Invasion. See particularly pp. 62-65.

80. There was one major exception to this – he became a serious critic of all ethnically based organizations that had ties to the Communist Party. One of his most overt public attacks upon the activities of Communists among the youth of the North End may be found in his paper “New Canadian in North Winnipeg” presented to the Educational Committee of the United Church at Stella Mission, 15 February 1937. Located in AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers,” Box 6, #64, “New Canadian in North Winnipeg, pp. 2-6. See also AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers,” Box 10, Minute Book [actually his diary for 1921 to 1948], pp. 67-70 and ibid., Box 10, Ledger Book, pp. 218-225.

81. MFP, 8 April 1927, “Quota Club”, p. 8. (Sisler was speaking to this local club at its dinner meeting at the Royal Alexandria Hotel. Among other things he commented upon the many contributions the foreign-born and their children had made to Canada and spoke specifically about “their willingness and ability to learn, their genuine regard for religion and their musical gifts.” Just as importantly he noted that the increase in criminality among the younger generation was a result of their being emancipated from the standards and values of their parents – and spending too much time in “pool-rooms, dance halls and picture shows.”)

82. Sisler, Peaceful Invasion, pp. 84-85.

83. Winnipeg Free Press (hereafter WFP), 20 April 1955, “VC’s Backers Get Trustees to Reconsider,” pp. 1-2.

84. Ibid., p. 2.

85. Tweedsmuir quotations from the 1930s show up on a regular basis throughout Sisler’s personal diaries and notes, particularly during the 1940s when he was most heavily involved with the Native Sons of Canada.

86. Sisler’s journals and some of his speeches become markedly anti-communist from the mid-1930s onwards. While Principal of Isaac Newton his school had been subject to some student actions which had clearly been organized by young Communists and supported by leading Communist politicians from the North End – including young Joe Zuken! See AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers,”Box 10, Minute Book [actually his diary for 1921 to 1948], pp. 67-70 and ibid., Box 10, Ledger Book, pp. 218-225.

87. Winnipeg was the first city in Canada to create such schools and had opened the first such institution only in 1919. Isaac Newton had been in the planning stages since that time but post-war construction costs had delayed actual building. The school commenced classes in Aberdeen, Strathcona and King Edward Schools in September 1921 but the physical school was not ready for occupancy until 2 January 1922. See AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers,” Box 10, Minute Book [actually his diary for 1921 to 1948], pp. 1-2.

88. See for example, “Sisler Address to Manitoba University Committee, May 1936, ‘Immigrants and Education’ in AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers,” Box 6, #64 ; see also, “New Canadian in North Winnipeg”, presented to the Educational Committee of the United Church at Stella Mission, 15 February 1937. Located in ibid.

89. Ibid., Box 10, Minute Book [actually his diary for 1921 to 1948], “Friday, 13 May 1938”, p. 91.

90. The Winnipeg Free Press used the publication of Peaceful Invasion as the launching pad for a multi-part series on Sisler’s work and on the development of the North End. See WFP, 5 March 1945, p. 11; ibid., 6 March 1945, p. 9; and ibid., 7 March 1945, p. 13.

91. See for example, AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers,” Box 3, “Settlement of the Interlake Region, Summary for Historical Society – September 1, 1948.”

92. According to her obituary Agnes Ellen Martin was born in Scotland in 1899. This would have made her 30 years younger than her husband. One other source in Sisler’s papers indicates that she might have been born a few years earlier, cutting the age gap to 25 or 26 years. See WFP, Obituaries – “Agnes Ellen Sisler”, 4 August 1981, p. 48.

93. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers,” Box 10, Minute Book [actually his diary for 1921 to 1948], p. 121.

94. In 1921 he and Ellen purchased a house at 238 Inkster only to sell it the following April, as it was too large for “the two of us”. They then moved to the Machray Block – 242 Machray between Main and Aikins – where they occupied two different apartments between 1922 and the fall of 1924 when they moved into a home at 11 Sylvia St. in Elmwood. This house was expanded in 1926 when they were expecting their third child. Then, in 1931 Sisler bought a lot up at Matlock for $100, near where his in-laws had relocated, and he and the “boys” spent the summer building a cottage on the lot (only $200 was spent on materials). The following year the Sislers had a brand-new, even larger home built on a neighbouring lot on Sylvia St. at a cost of slightly over $6,000. See ibid., pp. 1-39.

95. His diaries indicate that he regularly took the children on various outings, including tobogganing and skating during the winter months and swimming in the summer, had his three little boys (aged 9, 7 and 4) help him build the family cottage in 1931, took the older children on extensive road/camping trips – including one to Chicago and Ontario in 1933 and another to Banff in 1936 – and had them all out with him for nature tramps in and around Matlock during the summer, and taught all of them how to garden – one of his great passions – both at home on Sylvia Street and out at Matlock. Ibid., various entries, pp. 2-154.

96. Ibid., pp. 2-3.

97. Ibid., Box 5, File 48, Correspondence 1876-1956, “Letter, J. D. Perrin, Sec-Treasurer, Manitoba Finance Corporation to WJ Sisler C/O YMCA, Selkirk Avenue, August 27, 1920”. Perrin was one of the premier mine developers in Manitoba during this period – at least among smaller mining concerns.

98. Ibid., Box 9, File 89A, Will and Probate – “Letter, Thomson, Thomson and Thomson, 310 Paris Building to The Executors of Estate of William James Sisler, deceased, October, 1956.”

99. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers” Box 10, “Ledger – Personal Recollections,” p. 485.

100. Ibid., Box 9, File 89A, Will and Probate– “Letter, Thomson, Thomson and Thomson, 310 Paris Building to The Executors of Estate of William James Sisler, deceased, October, 1956.”

101. See AM, Box 5, File 49, Business Papers, 1920-1939, “Letter, Royal Bank of Canada, Stonewall, Mb, to W. J. Sisler, 11 Sylvia Street, September 27, 1924” This letter is about a potential sale of the two adjoining quarter-sections of land he owned in the Balmoral district and the 10 head of cattle Sisler had on an adjoining farm.

102. In this connection see ibid., a series of communications clipped together from the Sec-Treasurer of the RM of St. James, 1925, 1926 and 1927 re Lot 38, Block 4, Plan 994.

103. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers,” Box 10, Minute Book [actually his diary for 1921 to 1948], 28 September 1934, p. 52.

104. See for example, ibid., 14 August 1934, 1 October 1934, 7 July 1935, 18 April 1938, 9 October 1939, 23 May 1941 (at this point his sale of 10 acres of lot 288 fell through and the land was returned to him, forcing Sisler to seed the land with oats and alfalfa in hopes of making enough to cover the land taxes), and 20 July 1941.

105. Re St. Boniface, see ibid. Concerning the lands at Balmoral see ibid., 31 January 1937. In this instance Sisler was being offered $200 cash and agreement to pay off two years’ worth of back taxes on a quarter-section of land that he had purchased for $1600 in 1921 and which had earned Sisler “only enough to pay taxes since that time”, pp. 79-80.

106. Ibid., Box 5, File 49, Business Papers, 1920-1939, note in Sisler’s hand indicating he had a $1000 mortgage note – at 7% – on Mr. Martin’s Matlock property, ca. April 1929.

107. Ibid., Box 10, Minute Book [actually his diary for 1921 to 1948], pp. 34-49.

108. This is not all that surprising given all of his years of bachelorhood, a steady professional income during that period plus all of the additional income derived from his night school and summer work.

109. When appointed as Principal of Isaac Newton his base salary in 1921 was increased to $3600 per year and this rose by the mid-1920s to $4000, where it remained for the next decade. This does not include any earnings for evening school, summer institutes or work for the Department of Education or the Agricultural Extension Department. Because of the impact of deflation on overall prices the purchasing power of Sisler’s salary actually increased from the pre-depression years throughout 1930-1932. When his salary was cut by 21% in 1933 his purchasing power was reduced to approximately its 1928 level.

110. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers,” Box 10, Minute Book [actually his diary for 1921 to 1948], 14 February 1934, p. 51; and 15 September 1937.

111. Ibid., 15 June 1933, p. 41.

112. Ibid., 26 July 1933, p. 48. (He kept careful records of this trip and noted that the total cost, including rides for the boys at the Exhibition grounds in Chicago, was $125.00.)

113. Ibid., 15 November 1933, p. 50.

114. Ibid., 30 June 1938.

115. Ibid., 16 July 1938, p. 95.

116. Ibid., various entries, 12 September 1938 - 31 August 1941, pp. 96-121.

117. Ibid., 24 September 1939.

118. See for example, ibid., Box 10, Diary #3 “Cash Book” 1948-1956, 12 April 1953 (this is the final reference of many to invigilating examinations for Queen’s University at the Winnipeg School Board Office – Mr. Sisler was 83 years old!)

119. Ibid., Box 10, Minute Book [actually his diary for 1921 to 1948], 13 December 1941, p. 124.

120. Ibid., 31 May 1943, p. 136. (He had been teaching at the “Air School” for 3½ months – half days – at this point.)

121. There is considerable correspondence related to his attempts to get a new edition published during the war years. Mr. Sisler never gave up and in 1947 he was still trying to peddle this to Macmillan and Co. – and was now also looking to have the same publisher handle his newest work on “The Pioneers of the Prairies.” See ibid., 18 February 1947, p. 160.

122. Ibid., 28 October 1944, p. 144.

123. WFP, 5 March 1945, p. 11; ibid., 6 March 1945, p. 9; and ibid., 7 March 1945, p. 13.

124. AM, MG 10, F2 Box 4, “Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba – Fellowship – Sisler.” According to this file Sisler received a total of $419.56 from the society between 1947 and 1953 to help underwrite his research trips.

125. AM, MG 14, C28, “Sisler Papers,” Box 10, Minute Book [actually his diary for 1921 to 1948], 18 February 1947, p. 160; and ibid., Box 10, Diary #3 “Cash Book” 1948-1956, 20 November 1948, 9 February 1950 and 15 October 1950.

126. Ibid., Box 10, Minute Book [actually his diary for 1921 to 1948], 25 October 1942, p. 131.

127. Ibid., Box 10, Diary #3 “Cash Book” 1948-1956, 30 June 1950, p. 34.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 23 July 2020

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