These intriguing photos are from a series of images that depict a ‘Pro-Rec’ mass demonstration held at Brockton Oval in Stanley Park in 1940. “Pro Rec”, short for Provincial Recreation, was a community sport and recreation initiative offered through the Physical Education Branch of the BC Department of Education. It was developed by Jan Eisenhardt (program administrator) with the support of BC Minister of Education, George Weir.
The community-oriented scheme (initially set up in 1934) offered volunteer-run games and recreation classes for those unemployed aged 15 and over. The program proved so popular, that the Pro-Rec program was eventually made available to all in 1936. Summer displays (like these from 1940) were used to promote a changing schedule of activities.
It all started with the economic depression of the 1930s. BC (and Vancouver in particular) was especially hit hard by the Great Depression. Groups of men who had headed west in hopes of employment and a milder climate found only desperation and poverty. City of Vancouver officials were burdened with providing what relief they could to thousands of unemployed people, while maintaining order in the midst of widespread hardship. Earlier solutions for unemployment, like the Unemployment Relief Camps (basically hard labour camps), were highly criticized and eventually discarded in favour of “more constructive and less punitive” solutions like the Pro-Rec program. Recreation and sport were seen as an antidote to economic woes. And so in November 1934, the publicly funded British Columbia Pro-Rec program was formed.
The head of the Pro-Rec program, Jan Eisenhardt (1906-2004), was born in Denmark and came to Vancouver in 1928 at age 22. He worked for the Vancouver Parks Board, initially as a playground supervisor and was soon promoted to the Supervisor of Playgrounds. Eisenhardt brought to Canada a Scandinavian sensibility and a “dedicated commitment to physical health and activity as a means for securing social and personal freedom”. The Pro-Rec program he developed is noted for its innovative approach to both fitness and unemployment issues.
The Pro-Rec program offered free classes and sports to its members including: exercise and fitness classes, bowling, basketball, volleyball, boxing, wrestling, gymnastics, and dancing. Pro-Rec also sponsored swimming galas, organized mass gymnastic displays, and social activities like hiking, picnics and youth hostelling. The BC 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. In many communities, a church hall or a school auditorium served as the local Pro-Rec Centre. Pro-Rec participants came from “all walks of life” – unemployed youth, housewives, young working women and business men.
I discovered that there was even a Pro-Rec marching song, it appeared on a leaflet for the 6th Annual “Pro-Rec” Mass Demonstration.
Pro-Rec Centres’ Marching Song (Words by Alex Hood):
We’re hale and hearty Pro-Rec’s, the pride of old B.C.
Of all Canadian people, there’s none so fit as we.
Wave on the Pro-Rec banner, while lusty voices ring
Until the nations echo, the Pro-Rec song we sing!
The impressive demonstrations by young women’s Pro-Rec fitness classes staged at Stanley Park in the summer were highlights on the annual program of events (think Pep-Rally for Pro-Rec). These Pro-Rec displays combined exercise, health, fitness, grace and a splash of glamour which gave them a youthful, contemporary feel. They proved very attractive to a wide range of young women (and men I imagine) in the city. In fact, overall the Pro-Rec program attracted more women than men, very unusual for a physical recreation program. Clearly, ahead of his time, Jan Eisenhardt supported the professional and personal advancement of female Pro-Rec leaders and members.
BC’s successful Pro-Rec program inspired other provinces to initiate their own recreation schemes, as well as influencing national recreation programs sponsored by the federal government. Jan Eisenhardt’s work in BC was so highly regarded that he was appointed the first National Director of Physical Fitness in 1943 after Canada passed the National Physical Fitness Act.
Inconceivably Jan Eisenhardt’s career as the National Director of Physical Fitness came to an abrupt end in the early 1950s. In the midst of the Cold War he “was designated a security risk” and was (inexplicably) blacklisted as “Un-Canadian”. At the same time, “Fading idealism and Cold War skepticism” led to the 1943 national scheme being dropped 10 years after it began. Canada’s National Physical Fitness Act was repealed in 1954.
The Pro-Rec program in BC was dropped in 1953. Curiously this coincided with the advent of local broadcast TV, thus a generation of couch-potatoes was born.
The story of Jan Eisenhardt’s blacklisting was told in the National Film Board of Canada film “The Un-Canadians” directed by Len Scher, 1996.
Check out this moving image footage (ca. 1939) from the COV Archives (click here) at the 11:45 min point there is about 1.5 minutes of Pro-rec material.
More about the BC Pro-Rec program and the National Fitness programs can be found by consulting these sources:
*Strong, Beautiful and Modern: National Fitness in Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada 1935-1960 by Charlotte MacDonald (Chapter. 5).
*“Pro-Rec:” Recreational and Physical Education, 1934 – 1953 – article written by Patrick A. Dunae
For a more detailed account of Jan Eisenhardt’s life check out this source:
Fun fact: In addition to conducting community-based athletic programs, the Recreation and Physical Education Branch of the BC Department of Education published a monthly magazine (The Gymnast) and produced a series of radio broadcasts entitled “Gym of the Air”.
Update 4/21/2020: A reader named Barry contacted me to let me know that his parents were both members of Pro-Rec, in fact, they met in the program! They were married in 1940. He also sent me a scan of this large group photo that he had that features a large group of Pro-Rec’ers, including Barry’s parents, posing for a photo. It looks like Jan Eisenhardt is pictured front and centre (with head turned) so it must be documenting a significant Pro-Rec occasion. I will have to investigate further to see if I can determine the occasion for and the location of this group photo.
A later updated version of this article appeared in Scout Magazine on November 18, 2019.