In this edition of Scout’s long-running You Should Know historical series, Christine Hagemoen traces the story of a physical fitness program that once upon a time had Vancouverites sweating en masse. Indeed, long before the ubiquity of our sometimes cult-like yoga fraternities, well-branded workout cliques and countless running groups, we had something called ‘Pro-Rec’.
The intriguing photo at top is from a series of images that depict a ‘Pro-Rec’ mass demonstration held at Brockton Oval in Stanley Park in 1940. Short for Provincial Recreation, Pro-Rec was a community sport and recreation initiative offered through the Physical Education Branch of the BC Department of Education developed by Jan Eisenhardt (program administrator) with the support of BC Minister of Education, George Weir.
The community-oriented scheme was initially set up in 1934 and offered volunteer-run games and recreation classes for those unemployed aged 15 and over. From its modest beginnings with 300 individuals, Pro-Rec membership in Vancouver grew to 3,000 by the end of its first year of operation. The movement soon spread to other B.C. communities and by 1939 membership had grown to 25,000. Summer displays (like these pictured from 1940 above) were used to promote a changing schedule of activities.
It all started with the economic depression of the 1930s. The Great Depression hit B.C. – Vancouver in particular – very hard. Groups of men that had headed west in hopes of employment and a milder climate had found only desperation and poverty. City officials were burdened with providing relief to thousands of unemployed people with little support from the Federal Government, while maintaining order in the midst of widespread hardship. Earlier solutions for unemployment, like the 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 established.
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 initially worked for the Vancouver Parks Board 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 goal of the program was to establish all-around fitness of body and mind. It 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. Participants came from “all walks of life” – unemployed youth, children, “housewives”, young working women, and “business men”.
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!
A later version of the Pro-Rec song, with different lyrics, was sung to the tune of Anchors Away:
Happy Pro-Recs are we, strong gay and free
Smartly we step along and smile and sing our marching song
Ours is a happy life – Come join the fun
You’ll find that fitness pays
It’s easy – Once you see – How it is done.
An impressive demonstration of Pro-Rec fitness, like the one staged at Stanley Park in the summer, was the highlight 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 to be very attractive to a wide range of young women (and men) 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 B.C. 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 story of Jan Eisenhardt’s blacklisting was told in the 1996 National Film Board of Canada film “The Un-Canadians” directed by Len Scher…
The Pro-Rec program in B.C. was finally dropped in 1953. Curiously, this coincided with the advent of local broadcast TV. And lo, a generation of couch potatoes was born!