By Geoff Peters,
retired director of BCTF Communications and Campaigns Division, president of the Coquitlam Teachers’ Association 1978–81, and retired Grade 1/2 and music teacher
Al Blakey was an inspiration to fellow teachers, truly the right president at the right time, and a powerful contributor to progressive change in our province. Al will long be remembered as an activist, friend, mentor, and colleague whose leadership helped create a stronger union and improve working and learning conditions in BC’s public schools.
Rebuilding the BCTF to empower teachers
In the early 1970s, Blakey was elected to a progressive BCTF Executive Committee with four main goals: put the Federation firmly in the hands of the membership; broaden the scope of bargaining to include salaries, bonuses, and working and learning conditions; build stronger ties with labour; and add a social justice arm to the Federation.
Until that time, all Federation decisions were made by BCTF staff. Al understood that empowering BCTF members would require change within the organization to ensure every teacher was connected to the decision-making bodies. Strengthening members’ roles in the Representative Assembly, provincial zone meetings, and the Annual General Meeting further democratized the Federation.
Over the next few decades, Al worked tirelessly in pursuit of these goals. “Push back at the beginning from conservative and administrator members was fierce. Blakey, with his long view of history, never wavered, and was instrumental in fundamentally changing the BCTF into the powerful democratic organization of today,” said Gale Tyler, who served on the Executive Committee with Al.
The executive committee also established new standing committees, including Working and Learning, Status of Women, Bargaining, and Program Against Racism. Each committee had local association contacts to encourage member participation.
Mentoring the next generation of leaders
Despite his role in high-level leadership, Al always found time to listen to members and offer his wisdom and advice. Throughout his career, Al was a mentor and guide to many BCTF activists, including several past presidents.
Pat Clarke, BCTF president from 1984–86, stated, “I would not likely have become as active in the BCTF without Al’s encouragement and persuasion. I learned a lot from Al.”
Cathy Lambright, former president of the Terrace Teachers’ Association, noted, “Al was engaging, knowledgeable and so willing to help those of us who were very nervous. His belief and service to public education and social justice left a lasting impression. Al paved the way for many of us who came after.”
David Denyer, retired editor of Teacher magazine, credits Al for giving him the courage and confidence to get involved in his union at the local and provincial level. “Al was an extraordinary guiding influence,” said David.
Al’s legacy continues to live on through his influence on public education in BC and the lessons he shared with union leaders who followed his footsteps. Jackie Worboys, who served on the BCTF Executive Committee with Al, shared, “Al mentored so many of us, providing thoughtful ideas, provoking and supporting us to change the BCTF. He led us into new, exciting, and controversial territory at the time. Today’s teachers reap the benefits of that long, determined vision of Al and his cohorts.”
Serving on the Vancouver School Board
After serving on the BCTF Executive Committee and in a BCTF staff role, Al returned to the classroom before getting elected to four terms on the Vancouver School Board (VSB). From 1999 to 2012, Al worked alongside, and inspired, several trustees. Patti Bacchus, former VSB Chair recalls, “I learned so much from him. He was such a compassionate and wise man. He knew what was real and what mattered.”
Mike Lombardi, who previously worked as director of the Professional and Social Issues Division at the BCTF, said working with Al as a fellow trustee was a privilege. “Al was a passionate and tireless advocate for public education. As a teacher, union leader, and school trustee, he made a real difference to the teaching profession and public education,” said Mike.