The FISA Story: Meeting a Challenge

The beginnings of the Federation of Independent School Associations in BC (FISA BC) lie in the turbulent mid-sixties. It was a time of questioning and social upheaval, a time in which change and innovation clamoured for additional funding in operating and capital accounts for schools throughout the nation and abroad. The independent schools in British Columbia were not exempt from the effects of the worldwide shifts in perspective and focus, but over time, they benefited from increased tolerance with respect to the demands of minorities throughout the world. The sixties were the incubation years for the changes to come.

B.C. independent schools had operated without support from the provincial government since the 1870’s, but in spite of this had steadily grown in number, especially in the post World War II period. Even official legal recognition was lacking for the education services they performed to the benefit of society.

Thus it was understandable that, in the sixties, groups of independent schools in British Columbia were casting about to find ways to achieve both legal recognition and funding for their financially strained operations. For any one group of independent schools to pursue these goals on its own, however, would have been impossible, as was exemplified by the long struggle for recognition and support carried out by the Roman Catholic schools during the late forties and fifties.

Their determined attempts did score some success, in gaining access to free textbooks, some limited school health services, and school property tax exemption. Helpful as these concessions were, however, they did not bring the kind of relief that was required for long term needs, perhaps even for survival.

The First Gathering

The first exploratory meeting of independent schools representatives of British Columbia took place on October 17, 1964 at the invitation of Mr. E. R. (Ned) Larsen, headmaster of Shawnigan Lake School, who was also chairman of the Independent Schools Association.

During that first meeting, it became apparent that several other groups of independent schools had also laid plans for consultations with like-minded groups. Hence, the assembled representatives soon agreed that joint action was desirable and decided on the appointment of a committee to formulate a constitution for an organization to speak for independent schools. This committee included spokesmen from the four independent school groupings that were to be the backbone of determination in the struggle to come. They were Mr. Ned Larsen from the Independent Schools Association (ISABC), Brother J. B. Clarkson and Mr. John Busch from the Roman Catholic Independent Schools (CIS), Mr. Gerry Ensing from the Society of Christian Schools in B.C. (SCSBC, formerly National Union of Christian Schools, District 12), and Mr. D. H. Neumann from the Mennonite Educational Institute and Mr. W. van der Kamp from William of Orange Christian School representing the Associate Member Group (AMG).

Constitution and Structure

The major consideration in the formulation of the constitution was whether to form a federation of schools or a federation of associations. The latter was chosen, so that no one point of view would receive a majority of votes by the sheer weight of its numbers. Thus a federation of associations was formed, with all associations, regardless of size, having an equal vote in policy making, even though fees were to be paid on a per student basis. It was accepted that the associations that had the most students would benefit the most when eventual success was achieved.

Moreover, it was argued, since the Federation would be pursuing the acceptance of a minority point of view, it should grant equal rights to minorities within its own membership.

After a series of meetings during the year 1965, the Federation of Independent School Associations in British Columbia (FISA BC) was formally founded on January 19, 1966, a, year and three months after the first exploratory meeting had been held. That historic meeting took place in the library of Corpus Christi School in Vancouver, where the late Archbishop James Carney, an enthusiastic backer, was the parish priest at the time.

There were only a dozen supporters present for that historic gathering. They were Mr. Ned Larsen of Shawnigan Lake Boys School (ISABC), the first President; Mr. John Busch of the Catholic Schools Association (CIS), the first Vice-President; Mr. Gerry Ensing of the Vancouver Christian School (SCSBC), the first Secretary; Mr. Walter van der Kamp of the William of Orange Christian School (AMG), the first Treasurer; Miss Rosalind Addison, Miss Muriel Bedford-Jones and Mrs. H. Symonds of Crofton House School (ISABC); Most Rev. Remi De Roo, Bishop of Victoria (CIS); Mr. H. Klassen of the Mennonite Educational Institute (AMG); Mr. I.J. Levi of the Vancouver Talmud Torah (AMG); Mr. D.H. Neumann of the Mennonite Educational Institute (AMG); and Mr. A.F. Penstock of the Seventh-day Adventist Schools (AMG).

FISA BC in Action

It took considerable time for the groups, and the personalities within them, to become acquainted to the point where mutual appreciation, respect, and trust developed. The diversity within the organization was accentuated by two naturalized Canadians who were key contributors in the early meetings: Father J. V. O’Reilly, an Irish Oblate priest from Prince George; and Walter van der Kamp, a Dutch Calvinist and principal of William of Orange Christian School, then located in Burnaby. Consequently, it was not until November 1, 1967 that the Federation of Independent School Associations presented its first formal brief to the Honourable Lesley R. Peterson, Minister of Education at the time. This brief marked the first formal claim by FISA BC to legal recognition of, and equitable funding for, independent schools in the province. Failure to obtain a meeting with the whole cabinet was an indication of the long upward road FISA BC was to travel.

That first official presentation was followed by numerous others. The Federation had set itself the task of making the political climate receptive to both the recognition and the funding of independent schools. It was the Honourable Ralph Lofmark, a Social Credit Cabinet Minister in the sixties, who left the lasting impression on FISA BC representatives that governments will only legislate when the political climate encourages it. His astute observation inspired FISA BC to engage in intensive non-partisan political action, without potentially embarrassing confrontation.

The development of this respectfully collaborative approach took ten years.

Changing the Climate

Initially, the climate was hostile. No political parties in B.C. had official positions or policy statements on independent schools and their place in society. Many individual politicians, as well as political parties, lacked basic information regarding independent schools or their aims and objectives.

To take the initiative and maintain it required tremendous effort on the part of many volunteers, especially in the early years of the Federation when organization was minimal. There were many who faithfully served countless hours on the FISA BC Executive Board (see Board of Directors – Past Board Officers). There were people such as Joe Bruch in Victoria, Gerry Voogd and Rev. Henry Van Andel in the Lower Mainland, Peter Klassen in Nelson, the Beesleys and the Curries in Kamloops, the tireless Father J.V. OReilly and Mike Van Adrichem in Prince George, all of whom spearheaded activity at the grass roots level and used their particular talents and contacts to promote the independent school cause.

The story of independent schools, individually and collectively, had to be told locally and across the province through the media. Information was gathered and distributed where it would be of the greatest benefit. Supporters of independent schools were activated and encouraged to join the political party of their choice. Although the Federation itself was always non-partisan politically, it nevertheless strongly encouraged local independent school supporters to be personally and individually active within the political parties of their choice, in order to further the cause of independent schools without becoming one-issue activists.

In 1969, a public relations firm was engaged to help in publicizing the issues, and in preparing information for the media. It soon became evident, however, that the work to be done by volunteers was thereby increased rather than diminished, and that an effective coordinating effort was lacking. Thus, it was decided to appoint a full-time executive director to take care of the public relations role and to coordinate other political activity throughout the province. Gerry Ensing, who had spearheaded the first FISA BC overt political action campaign in the summer election of 1969, was appointed to this key role in September of that year. His duties included travelling throughout the province to activate independent school supporters, speaking to public meetings and service clubs, and soliciting interviews by the media, especially on open line shows, in order to communicate the independent school story to the public.

In addition, the FISA BC executive director, executive board members, and federation supporters attended all possible educational and political conferences and conventions wherever they might be held in British Columbia. Countless hours were logged by committed individual volunteers attending local, regional, and provincial conferences in order to make the independent school point of view known. Very few conventions of the provincial political parties, or the B.C. School Trustees Association, or the B.C. Teachers Federation were held without the FISA BC executive director or other independent school resource people being present as observers. In the background of many of these activities was the sage advice of Tom Griffiths, FISA BC mentor and legal advisor.

It was the involvement of people at the “grass roots level” that made the Federation’s political success possible. Local independent school supporters wrote letters at appropriate times, phoned open line shows, and button-holed local politicians and educators, school board members, business people, and anyone willing to listen, in an untiring effort to tell the independent school story.

The free issue of textbooks, access to some limited health services, and exemption from municipal property taxation for independent schools were already in place when the Federation came on the scene. These concessions, gained by the efforts of the Roman Catholic community, were valuable precedents, a kind of informal recognition of the value of the independent schools’ contribution to society.

The Edge of the Wedge

During the W.A.C. Bennett Social Credit era, until 1972, the Federation itself achieved only one success: equality with respect to Workers’ Compensation Board rates. That equality with public school teachers resulted in a reduction of rates by two-thirds and easily paid for the cost of membership in FISA BC. The Federation was earning its keep.

In the meantime, FISA BC was beginning to gain good political allies in the governing party, such as Douglas Little, Jim Chabot, Don Phillips, Herb Bruch, and Herb Cappozzi. An open challenge had been made, and a crack was clearly visible in the governing caucus. Although not widely acknowledged, the independent schools’ protest vote played more than a minor part in the election result of 1972. Independent school supporters packed all of the 2,500 Queen Elizabeth Theater seats in downtown Vancouver in one of the best attended and most enthusiastic of a series of political rallies sponsored by FISA BC during the election campaign. Premier W.A.C. Bennett’s widely reported outburst that “only over my dead body” would independent schools ever gain access to public funding became a prophecy in political terms.

In 1972 the New Democratic Party formed the government. During its three years in office a “committee on basic services to children,” appointed by Premier Dave Barrett, produced a report which would have made some library services and other peripheral benefits available to independent schools. However, the 1975 election intervened before the recommendations could be implemented.

The basic services report of the NDP administration was an indication of the changing attitudes towards independent schools in the province. The climate had changed from being completely hostile to independent schools in the mid-sixties, to the point where the NDP in 1975 was willing to provide services to independent schools, short of paying direct grants for actual academic services.

During the NDP years, in 1973, the Federation was granted access to Federal grants for the purpose of teaching French in independent schools, an achievement which brought many hundreds of thousands of dollars to independent schools in British Columbia. This became the first of several administered fund programs that FISA BC would manage in future years and represented another small measure of recognition for independent schools, providing another justification for the existence of FISA BC even though it was only a monetary measure of worth.

The Beginnings of Success

In the same year, 1973, the Social Credit Party with young W.R. Bennett at the helm made a total about-face by officially accepting a policy favouring recognition and funding of independent schools. The Federation efforts were beginning to bring concrete results.

The Liberal party already had such a policy and was really the first political party on record in British Columbia to support the claims of independent schools to recognition and financial support. It campaigned during the 1969 election on that platform and confirmed its support of independent schools during the 1975 convention, with the ever enthusiastic support of both Dr. Pat McGeer and Garde Gardom.

In 1975, the Progressive Conservative party under Dr. Scott Wallace accepted a resolution favouring support for independent schools. The tide had turned from hostility to courtship. But FISA BC was not yet celebrating.

The Social Credit Government that came to power in the fall of 1975 followed up its 1975 election campaign with a promise in the Speech from the Throne in 1976, confirmed in 1977, that funding would be made available to independent schools. There was light at the end of the tunnel.

The Breakthrough

March 30, 1977, marked the day that Bill 33, dealing with grants for independent schools, was introduced in the House. After months of sporadic debate and many hours of consultation with FISA BC President John Waller, Vice-President Case Pel, and Executive Director Gerry Ensing, the Bill passed third reading on September 7, 1977 to become the Independent Schools Support Act, followed by its proclamation on September 27, 1977. The Act made per student grants amounting to a maximum of thirty per cent (about $500) of the per student operating costs of the local public school districts available to qualifying independent schools. Curricular and other obligations that the legislation provided for posed no threat to the schools’ independence, and it was left to the discretion of the schools whether or not to participate in the funding scheme. The celebrations were on, and in the supporting religious communities prayers of thanksgiving were offered.

FISA BC did not consider its work to be completed with the passage and proclamation of the Independent Schools Support Act. Numerous practical decisions had yet to be made regarding the application and implementation of the new Act. Many precedents would be set.

FISA BC realized that legislation with respect to independent schools, even if it had been completely written by supporters of independent schools, might become a threat to them in the future. Vigilance in monitoring implementation and development was called for. Although there were some who considered that FISA BC had served its purpose, the continued existence of the Federation was never in doubt for those who appreciated the role it had played in the realization of the new legislation.

FISA BC’s Expanding Role and Sullivan Commission Changes

Since 1977, the activities of FISA BC have continued to be vital to the independent schools sector. FISA BC is not merely the legislative observer for independent schools, but also the only significant and credible voice for independent schools in the province. No legislative or regulatory changes have occurred since 1977 without prior consultation with FISA BC, and in many cases, FISA BC has been proactive in proposing the changes. Between 1978 and 1986 several major briefs were presented, all with significant results. In 1984 the “Students Meet the Arts” (now called “ArtStarts in Schools” program, courtesy of the highly respected Vancouver Foundation, became the second FISA BC administered fund program.

On March 1, 1988, just over two years after Fred Herfst assumed the responsibilities of Executive Director, FISA BC made a major presentation to the Sullivan Royal Commission on Education, the first such commission since the Chant Royal Commission of the early 60s. Subsequent government action on the Royal Commission recommendations, a number of which incorporated original FISA BC proposals, resulted in the new Independent School Act, passed July 7, 1989 and proclaimed Sept. 1, 1989. One of the FISA BC recommendations, which both the Royal Commission and the government adopted, raised the maximum per student grants for independent schools to fifty per cent of the per student operating costs in the local public school districts, without any intrusive change in curricular or other obligations. The fact that the new School Act, also passed in 1989, specifically recognized parental right to choice in education is also of great significance.

As a result of the Royal Commission recommendations, FISA BC began to participate in numerous Ministry of Education committees or task forces. For example, FISA BC received a seat on the Ministry’s Education Advisory Commission appointed as a result of the Royal Commission recommendations and its successor, the Education Advisory Council. FISA BC also has members on the Sector Advisory Committee, the British Columbia Teachers Council, and the British Columbia Council for International Education. In addition, since the late 1980s, FISA BC has become the agent for the distribution of specific project funding for the Ministry of Education on behalf of independent schools, including French as a Second Language, ArtStarts in Schools, FSA, SET-BC and Dry Grad grants, as well as District Authority Awards.

FISA BC Moves Into the Twenty-First Century

Since the turn of the century, not only has enrolment in independent schools increased appreciably FISA BC has also been increasingly involved in entering into educational policy discussions at the Ministry and committee levels. FISA is recognized as a valued educational partner by the Ministry of Education and currently has representation on fifteen provincial committees. The tradition of presenting briefs, first begun in 1967, continues today with over 60 briefs formally submitted to the Ministry of Education and other pertinent ministries such as the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

Here are some highlights illustrating the success of FISA’s steady political engagement. In the year 2000, FISA BC orchestrated a massive and successful lobbying campaign which resulted in over 20,000 letters arriving in government offices, overturning the proposed cuts to independent school funding.  Funding for special needs students within independent schools was increased from 50% to 100% in 2005.  Funding for distance learning was initiated in 2002 enabling the 16 independent online schools to provide exceptional learning services to students throughout the province. Independent schools wishing to maintain half-day Kindergarten programs rather than moving to full-day K programs were given permission to do so in 2010.  Independent School Teacher Certification was protected within the BC Teacher Regulation Branch when the government dissolved the BC College of Teachers in 2011. In 2016 the Property Taxation (Exemptions) Statutes Amendment Act was unanimously approved by the legislative assembly, eliminating the exposure of up to $5 million in annual property taxes to independent school authorities. Also in 2016, nine additional schools were awarded Special Education School (SES) status enabling access to additional funding for students with unique learning needs. The 2016 Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling restoring class size and composition levels in the public system heavily impacted the independent school system due to the movement of qualified educators between the two sectors. To assist independent school authorities in mitigating the effect FISA successfully petitioned for access to BCPSEA’s Make a Future services and for Classroom Enhancement Funding to be included in the operating grant calculations. During the 2020-2022 COVID-19 pandemic, FISA accepted the role of coordinating the Independent School Rapid Response Team to assist independent school authorities in building effective practices for continuity of learning and operation during uncertain times.


In the fifty-six years of its existence, FISA BC has grown from virtual insignificance to a substantive stakeholder in education in British Columbia. From representing 23,000 students in 120 schools in 1966, it is now the umbrella organization for over 85,000 students in more than 320 schools. It speaks with the voice of independent schools, representing approximately 95% of independent school enrolment, a measure of the respect the Federation enjoys in the independent school sector.

The Federation of Independent School Associations in B.C. has, in the half-century of its existence, proven beyond any doubt that it has been true to its purpose of maintaining and affirming the independence of educational institutions and providing a myriad of choices for parents and guardians. Its motto, “Freedom Involves Secure Alternatives,” has inspired and will continue to inspire the Federation and its supporters to ensure that the choice of alternatives in education is within easier reach of all citizens and residents of British Columbia.

(Written in 1991 for the 25th anniversary of FISA BC, revised in 2022)
A detailed history was printed in 2002 covering the political struggle from colonial times to 2001 in Justice Achieved: The Political Struggle of Independent Schools in British Columbia. Cunningham, V. (2002). 311 pages, hardcover. Vancouver, BC: Federation of Independent School Associations.