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Edward Annand Corbett: Innovator and Educator

Though Ned Corbett would later serve Albertans with zeal and vision which would become near-legendary, the welcome he first received from the province was far from a warm one.

As a McGill theology student on his first mission, Corbett arrived in Banner Lake, Alberta early one May to find the place buried under six feet of snow and his reception every bit as chilly. The family with whom he expected to stay refused him on the grounds that the last missionary had stolen their blankets, and at the schoolhouse where he was to preach he was greeted as "the new encumbrance."

Fortunately, he would later gain warmer memories of Alberta mission stations — particularly of Fort Saskatchewan, where he served as a student minister and first met the woman who would become his wife.

Edward Annand Corbett was born in Truro, Nova Scotia in 1887. Through hard work — he handled horses for the CPR, peeled potatoes, worked as a lifeguard on a Rhode Island beach, traversed Quebec by horse and buggy selling stereopticons, and took on a variety of other jobs — he earned the wherewithal to complete high school and finance his first few years at McGill University. Once he decided on theological school, he was eligible for a $300 annual scholarship and his summers were spent serving missions in the West.

After his ordination, Corbett preached in Saskatchewan briefly before returning to Montreal to become secretary at McGill’s Strathcona Hall.

Serving overseas during the First World War, Corbett assisted at Henry Marshall Tory’s Khaki University before being sent home late in 1918 suffering from the effects of mustard gas and tuberculosis. Two years later, he had recovered sufficiently to accept a job offer from Tory. The U of A president, who had a remarkable ability to recognize the right person for a job, brought Corbett to the University’s Extension Department as an assistant to its director, A.E. Ottewell.

Corbett took over when Ottewell became registrar. The department had been well organized, but Cornet was instrumental in expanding it. The extent to which it was to become involved in the life of the province is well stated by Thelma LeCocq, who wrote a profile of Corbett in 1949: "Under his supervision, rural Alberta was served by 350 travelling libraries, 500 dramatic groups supervised by a full-time director, had art exhibits brought to its door by means of two travelling trucks, learned better farming through the help of soil experts. Nor was the department above tending to the simplest needs and, in remote communities where there was no church, couples were married, babies baptized and the dead buried by the department’s librarian who was an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church. So much did the communities look to the University, that one couple who went to Edmonton to be married felt it only natural to go to the Extension department to have the ceremony performed."

The reputation Corbett earned in Alberta was such that when 500 people got together at a convention in 1935 to found the Canadian Association for Adult Education, they naturally chose Corbett to be its first director. The following year, he arranged for a one-year leave from the University and left for Toronto to get the CAAE underway; he ended up staying until 1951.

Corbett was an innovator. Not only was he the prime mover in the founding of the radio station CKUA at the University of Alberta in 1925 and of the Banff School of Fine Arts in 1933, his influence was later felt in the founding of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the National Film Board, and Canada’s Wartime Information Board. He was also the creative force behind the National Farm Radio Forum, which was broadcast on CBC Radio. At its peak, the Forum had 30,000 listeners organized into listening groups in rural districts across Canada, and pre-broadcast information was mailed each week to 24,000 addresses.

After retiring from the CAAE, Corbett turned his energy to writing. He is the author of several books of Western Canadian history and of Henry Marshall Tory: Beloved Canadian and the autobiographical We Have With Us Tonight.

When the pioneer adult educator died in 1964, tributes were received from the length and breadth of Canada. They described in glowing terms his many accomplishments, but no words put into sharper focus the depth of his contributions to ordinary Canadians than those offered by George V. Ferguson on a CBC Radio broadcast: "... on the prairies in the 1920s and 1930s, when the dust blew, and the crops failed, he saved many a family and many a little village from the depths of despair."

Published Summer 1991.

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