"Pro-Rec:" Recreational and Physical Education, 1934 - 1953

British Columbia Archives I-00461

The Recreational and Physical Education Branch of the Department of Education was established in November 1934. The first branch director was Ian Eisenhardt, formerly Supervisor of Playgrounds for the Vancouver Parks Board. Eisenhardt was principally responsible for administering the Provincial Recreation Program, a community-oriented scheme popularly known as Pro-Rec

The innovative Pro-Rec program was conceived by the Minister of Education, Dr. G. M. Weir, in order to provide healthy recreational activities and to combat the "demoralizing influence of enforced idleness" among unemployed youths. At first, Pro-Rec activities were limited to youths between the ages of 16 and 21 years but by 1936 the program was available to all residents of the province. Pro-Rec came to be the centre piece in provinicial adult education programs.

Typically, Pro-Rec involved calisthenics, team sports, track and field events, dancing, and physical fitness activities. Pro-Rec also sponsored swimming galas and organized mass gymnastic displays. The Recreation and Physical Education Branch provided instructors for the various Pro-Rec activities, along with basic gymnastic apparatus and athletic equipment. In turn, local communities were expected to provide a facility that could serve as a recreation centre. A church hall or a school auditorium served as the local Pro-Rec Centre in many communities.

The first public recreation scheme of its kind in the British Commonwealth, Pro-Rec was an unqualified success. The number of Pro-Rec centres increased from nineteen in 1934 to 174 in 1939, while enrolment increased tenfold (from 2,700 to almost 27,000) during the same period. The Pro-Rec budget also increased substantially during these years, rising from $16,000 to nearly $43,000 at the beginning of the war.

Some of these costs associated with the Pro-Rec movement in British Columbia were met by the federal government. The federal Unemployment and Agricultural Assistance Act (1937) established a Dominion-Provincial Youth Training Program to fund projects "designed to provide physical training and health education for unemployed young people." Ottawa subsequently contributed to B.C.'s Pro-Rec program through the Youth Training Act (1939), the Vocational Training Co-ordination Act (1941) and the National Fitness Act (1943).

In addition to conducting community-based athletic programs, the Recreation and Physical Education Branch published a monthly magazine (The Gymnast) and produced a series of radio broadcasts entitled Gym of the Air. Pro-Rec officials were active in promoting the youth hostel movement and—during the Second World War—in organizing patriotic activities and displays. As well, Pro-Rec was associated with several of programs designed to combat juvenile delinquency.

British Columbia’s Pro-Rec program served as a model for recreation schemes in other provinces. Pro-Rec also influenced recreation programs sponsored by the federal government. Indeed, Eisenhardt’s work was so highly regarded that he was appointed the first National Director of Physical Fitness in 1943.

When Eisenhardt left for Ottawa, Jerry Mathisen, Pro-Rec’s Chief Instructor for Men, was appointed director of the Recreation and Physical Education Branch. With Hilda Keatley, Provincial Supervisor for Women, Mathisen organized Pro-Rec’s spectacular mass gymnastic displays. Some of these displays involved as many as 2,000 participants and drew close to 10,000 spectators. Mathisen left the branch in 1946 and was replaced by Ernest Lee, formerly physical education instructor at the Vancouver Normal School. Lee directed the branch until 1953 when long-time Pro-Rec instructor R. J. "Bus" Phillips was appointed Acting Director.

The Recreation and Physical Education branch was dissolved later that year; Pro-Rec was discontinued at the same time, although some of its programs were carried on by the newly-established Community Programs Branch. The new branch employed regional consultants to provide community groups with advice, information, and instruction, in a wide range of recreation activities. The branch also provided grants-in-aid to local recreation commissions and school districts for the purpose of developing courses in recreation activities. Lawrence J. (Lawrie) Wallace was the first director of the Community Programs Branch.

Written by Patrick A. Dunae

Patrick A. Dunae, The School Record (Victoria: British Columbia Archives and Records Service, 1992), pp. 65-67. See also Phyllis Barbara Schrodt's unpublished doctoral dissertation "History of Pro-Rec: The British Columbia Provincial Recreation Program, 1934 - 1953" (Ph.D. thesis, University of Alberta, 1979). A copy of Dr. Schrodt's dissertation is available in the British Columbia Archives and is catalogued there as Add. MSS. 1941.