Language and Manitoba's

Early Public Schools

Early efforts to make Manitoba children into little Brits

By George Siamandas

According to urban historian Alan Artibise, that was the objective of Winnipeg's ruling class between 1890 and 1919 was to make school children little British citizens. Schools were seen as the most powerful assimilating force. As a force that could "elevate" the foreign born to the level of Canadian life, engender Canadian national sentiments, and encourage Canadian standards of living and traditions.

The first school opened on October 21, 1871. But prior to this education had been in the hands of churches: the Catholics, the Anglicans and the Presbyterians.

The 1871 Manitoba Public Schools Act created a dual public system, funded by the province. Recognizing the need for two languages, English and French, reflected the political reality of Manitoba's population then which was about 6,000 French speaking and 6,000 English speaking.

As Winnipeg became a city of immigrants there came a growing concern that the foreign borne were either not being taught in English or that they were not even being taught at all.

In 1890 the Thomas Greenway government introduced the Manitoba School Act a bill that set up a school system and told churches if they wanted their own schools they would have to pay for them themselves. This was in defiance of the 1870 Manitoba Act which had guaranteed parallel Protestant and Catholic publicly funded schools.

Greenway who was Manitoba's first Liberal premier, came to be known as the premier who banned French in Manitoba. He also banned French in the legislature, the civil service and the courts. It became a national issue which required 6 years to be somewhat resolved.

This new law angered not only the French but also the Germans and the Ukrainians. Many immigrants had come to Canada with an understanding that they would be free to educate their children in the ir own schools and with their own language. Some groups like the Mennonites even had it in writing from the Parliament of Canada.

Greenway had moved to Manitoba from Ontario in 1878. He was involved in starting the townsite of Crystal city and came into power in 1888 during a debate over railway issues.

Denominational schools were seen as being expensive, inefficient and a barrier to the creation of a united British character. And where once the French had been 50% of the population, now it was only 13%. An early trampling of a minority. It was time for a pragmatic system, one that set out to concentrate on basic education.

By 1907 Mayor Ashdown had the Winnipeg school division set up the first English classes for adults setting up 16 classes in the first year.

Immigrants largely wanted their kids to learn English, but many were also sending their kids to their own language schools. In 1911 at least 3,000 children were going to private or separate schools. Thousands more were going to evening or weekend schools. In 1907, 13 languages of instruction were being used in Manitoba and there was still no compulsory school attendance. In February of 1913, 64,126 kids went to English schools while 12,437 were going to German, French, Ukrainian and Polish language schools.

On March 10, 1916 the TC Norris government once again abolished bilingual teaching and the following week passed a bill for compulsory school attendance. From then on, if you were between 6 and 14 and lived near a school, you now had to go school.

Yet despite the new law, the private bilingual schools continued to operate.

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