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Friday February 25, 2011

She spared the rod and spoiled corporal punishment in school

Special to The Globe and Mail

On Feb. 14, 1973, B.C.'s education minister gave a popular Valentine to the children of the province. That was the day that Eileen Dailly banned the strap.

Dailly, who died on Salt Spring Island, B.C., on Jan. 17 from complications of skin cancer surgery, was British Columbia's education minister and later deputy minister in the NDP government of Dave Barrett. Having climbed through the ranks as a teacher and five-term school board trustee, she was widely regarded as having the best credentials for the job.

Although the NDP was in power only from 1972 to 1975, Dailly successfully pushed through some groundbreaking legislation: the banning of corporal punishment, for which she faced hundreds of death threats; the introduction of sex education in the schools; and the initiation of the first aboriginal school district.

She was in a hurry to get things done and made use of her access to the levers of power. One reporter from that time described Dailly's thrill at having "instant communication at the whirl of a dial." A far cry from opposition days and busy signals.

Former Social Credit cabinet minister Hugh Curtis remembers her as being "a lady in the true sense of the word." She wrinkled her nose at profanity and sipped tea out of rose-patterned bone china, always with a daintily crooked finger and a smile. She liked everyone and their stories, and said if she had it all to do over again, she would have become a radio interviewer.

Dailly learned politics at her mother's knee. Mary Scott Gilmore, born in Dundee, Scotland, told her daughter how they once drove Winston Churchill out of town. "They had the nerve to think that they could just dump Churchill into [their] riding and beat [their] candidate, the Labour candidate," Dailly said in an interview with Vancouver historian Ken MacLeod. Roused by her mother, she became a member of the CCF, precursor to the NDP, when she was only 15, a full three years before she could legally vote.

Her father, Joseph Gilmore, taught her the art of risk-taking by example. As a member of the crew on a sailing ship, he left Ireland for Canada in 1906. Like the wee lads depicted in old films about seafarers, he was hoisted up the mast and left alone to cling tight in the wind while on patrol duty.

In 1917, he was working on a ship just outside Halifax on the day of the infamous explosion. He had been called out to help a fishing boat in distress. When he returned to the Halifax harbour later that day, a tanker and a munitions boat had collided, the town was in shambles and thousands were dead or injured.

Dailly was born on Feb. 15, 1926, and raised in South Vancouver. She remembered one particular history teacher who taught her the importance of always asking questions and seeking answers - a skill that came in handy for politics.

"[Mr. Read] used to say to our class: 'When was the Magna Carta signed?' Everyone sat for a minute and then he said: 'I don't care when it was signed. I want to know why it was signed.'"

But there was another teacher she remembered who used a thick oak stick to whack his errant students. Their cries no doubt burrowed themselves in her memory and inspired her political drive to outlaw such attacks.

A lover of theatre, she graduated from John Oliver High School in 1944 and was torn between choosing a career on the stage or in front of a classroom. Fresh in her mind was Paul Robeson's magnificent performance of Othello at Vancouver's Orpheum Theatre. She chose the presumably less risky option: teaching. At 18, she took her first job in a one-room schoolhouse, with a pot-bellied stove, on Denman Island.

While patrolling the school playground one day her peace was interrupted by a bullying boy. This boy made a lasting impact on her life when he snatched her purse and ran it up the flagpole.

She was told to strap him as punishment. But she hated the roughness of this discipline and painfully watched the child's humiliation grow and his self-esteem plummet. She swore off the strap.

She returned to Vancouver in 1946 and began teaching with the Burnaby School Board. In 1951 she married James Dailly, a Vancouver fireman who, like her mother, hailed from Dundee City. She took a few years off to be a stay-at-home wife, but soon returned to the public arena and launched herself into a life in politics, where she remained for the next 30 years.

Her political leanings were shaped by the Depression, when fully two thirds of the families in South Vancouver were on relief. While her father trudged to the docks daily looking for work, she often answered the door to desperate people asking for handouts.

In 1956, she was elected trustee for the Burnaby School Board and was re-elected four times, serving three terms as chair. Ten years later, she was elected as the first MLA for the NDP in the new riding of Burnaby North. Breaking new ground, she served five terms in office, including as the NDP's education critic in opposition to the Social Credit government.

When Barrett's NDP government took power in 1972, he chose her as minister of education. She was the second woman to hold this office and the first woman to be named deputy premier.

When the province's School Act was amended to abolish the strap in 1973, it was a first in Canada. It wasn't until 2004 that the Supreme Court agreed that corporal punishment was unwarranted in schools and outlawed it across the country.

Dailly was harangued and threatened for her so-called permissiveness toward children, but she stood her ground. "I don't think you can print the things they said about mom," said her son, Rob. The RCMP even visited her office at the legislature to check the risk for snipers.

Former B.C. NDP leader Carole James was Dailly's friend and colleague. About those times, she said, "Eileen always remembered that, at the very end of it, Dave Barrett told her it was a good thing a woman took on the issue because he wasn't sure that a man would have the strength to get it done."

In 1974, Dailly was a force in creating the first aboriginal school district, in the Nass River Valley. As a result, the Nisga'a were given input as school trustees and in building curriculum.

She based this need for reform on clear observation. "I could see from the figures how few native Indians graduated from school and also how few native Indian teachers there were," she reflected in the MacLeod interview. "And so that's where something concrete could be done."

During her tenure in government, she made it mandatory for all school districts to provide kindergarten, paving the way for a more equitable education. She also introduced sex education in the classroom and weathered the predictable storm that followed this controversial move. As was typical, she remained solid in her convictions.

"She was an iron fist in a velvet glove," said former Burnaby city councillor Celeste Redman. "People were running in the office, screaming about how it was going to make our children sexually active. Eileen remained incredibly polite."

Dailly retired her seat in 1986, having not lost an election in 10 years. She joined the executive of the provincial Retired MLAs Association and realized a dream by volunteering on a community cable television program, where she got to ask questions. She hosted a senior's program called Coming of Age.

Carole James saw Dailly a month or so before she died. "She called me, she wanted to know what was going on with all the turmoil we're going through in British Columbia. ... She said, 'Come have lunch with me! I want to talk it over with you.'"

Right to the end she asked questions and demanded answers, just as Mr. Read had instructed her to do.

Dailly leaves her son Robert, daughter-in-law Sally and grandchildren Brodie, Freddie, Robbie and Roxie.

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