Manitoba Historical Society
     Keeping history alive for over 144 years

Manitoba History: The Geography of Bilingual Schools in Manitoba

by John Lehr and Brian McGregor
Department of Geography, University of Winnipeg

Number 61, Fall 2009

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

Please direct all inquiries to

Help us keep
history alive!

Language rights have long been a thorny issue in Manitoba politics. When Manitoba entered confederation in 1870 a dual educational system was established allowing Roman Catholics to operate their own tax-supported schools independent and separate from the Protestant section. These rights came under attack in the late 1880s when the Manitoba government determined that the province should have a single non-denominational English language school system. In 1890 the dual system of Catholic and Protestant schools was abolished, a centralized Department of Education was created to administer the newly non-sectarian schools, and English was made the sole official language of the Provincial Legislature and courts. [1] After the election of Wilfred Laurier ‘s Liberal federal government in 1896, Manitoba ‘s provincial legislature softened its stance on the language issue, conceding in a somewhat ambiguous amendment to the Manitoba Schools Act, that bilingual instruction could be used under certain circumstances. [2]

The purpose of this amendment was to sooth French susceptibilities; achieve an amicable compromise on the issue of French language rights and to pave the way for an eventual unilingual English education system. Its proponents thought that only French Catholics and a few Mennonite communities would take advantage of the opportunity but the massive increase in Slavic immigration into Manitoba after 1896 soon changed the situation.

Ukrainian immigrants arriving from Galicia and Bukovyna, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were almost all adherents of the Greek Catholic or Greek Orthodox Churches. Greek Catholics acknowledge the Pope as the head of their church but maintain the Slavic liturgy and a tradition of secular (married) priests. In Canada they fell under the jurisdiction of Archbishop Langevin‘s Roman Catholic Diocese of Saint Boniface, which saw an opportunity to extend its influence into the emerging Ukrainian colonies and to use them as a political weapon to defend and extend French religious and language rights. [3]

Schools and churches were usually the first institutions established by settler communities. Schools often came first because the province mandated they be built where and whenever ten children of school age were present in a district further than three miles from the nearest school. On the other hand, the families of the children attending one of these schools might belong to a number of different religious denominations and choose to worship at some distance from their homes. Each rural school served an area of roughly 18 square miles or one-half of a Township whereas a church‘s congregation might be scattered over a far wider area. Thus, the establishment of schools is an excellent indication of the location of the frontier of settlement in western Canada at any given time. [4]

In addition to the French, Germans (mostly Mennonites), and Ukrainians took advantage of the amendment to the Manitoba Schools Act that specified when ten pupils in a school spoke a language other than English “the teaching of such pupils shall be conducted in French, or such other language, and English upon the bilingual system” (authors’ italics). By 1915 there were 276 Bilingual schools in Manitoba. [5] One hundred and fifteen were French/English, 67 were German/English, and 94 were Ukrainian/English schools.

One year later, in 1916, Manitoba‘s bilingual school system was abolished. It was a casualty of patriotic fervour inflamed by Allied propaganda and driven by resentment of special privileges given to Mennonite conscientious objectors and enemy aliens from Austria-Hungary. A good dose of anti-Catholic and anti-French prejudice also helped to seal the fate of bilingual schools in the province. To be fair, there was a genuine fear of Balkanization among Manitoba‘s governing English elite, and establishment of a provincial system of secular unilingual English-language schools was seen as an antidote. Nevertheless, when the relatively small number of bilingual schools (276) is compared to the much larger number of unilingual schools (over 1,200) in the province, it becomes clear that this concern was somewhat overblown. In fact, large areas of the province were entirely devoid of bilingual schools.

Not surprisingly, the distribution of bilingual schools in Manitoba paralleled the geography of ethnic settlement in the province. When mapped, the presence of a bilingual school can identify a small area of ethnic clustering that would be easily submerged when using data sources that present aggregate data for large geographic areas, such as census divisions. Since each bilingual school‘s catchment area was about half a township this map enables us to present an accurate representation of the location of three of the most important ethnic/linguistic groups to settle in Manitoba.

Figure 1. Bilingual schools in southern Manitoba, 1915.

Figure 1 shows that German-speakers were clustered in the East and West Mennonite reserves south of Winnipeg but smaller pockets of German settlement occurred in the northwest of the Interlake region, west of Lake Manitoba in the Glenella area, and in the Brokenhead and Whitemouth regions. Ukrainians were found in the “colonies” of Stuartburn, Cooks Creek, Interlake, Dauphin and the Strathclair/Shoal Lake district. A small Ukrainian and Polish settlement south of Saint Norbert is marked by a solitary Ukrainian school amidst a sea of French schools. French Manitobasettlements followed the Red, Assiniboine and Seine Rivers but the presence of French schools identified smaller clusters of French settlement in the southwest of the province and south of Lake Dauphin. By adjusting symbol size to indicate the number of students attending each bilingual school a better indication of the numerical size of each ethnic community can be conveyed.

Figure 2. French-English bilingual schools, 1915.

An inventory of bilingual schools in Manitoba in 1915 noted the birthplace and place of education for all bilingual schoolteachers. In the French schools most teachers were born in Manitoba (38%) and Quebec (27%) with only 15 percent born in France. Teachers in the German schools were mostly born in Manitoba (64%) with 13 and 11 percent born in Russia and Germany respectively. In Ukrainian schools the situation was quite different as at least 70 percent of the teachers were born overseas, mostly in Western Ukraine. Only four percent were born in Manitoba, a reflection of the recent arrival of Ukrainians in Manitoba.

Figure 3. German–English bilingual schools, 1915.

Most teachers in French bilingual schools were educated in Manitoba (45%) or Quebec (20%), with 12 percent receiving their education in France. Teachers in the German schools were most likely to have been educated in Manitoba (73%); 16 percent were educated in Europe and Manitoba, but only two percent received all their education in Europe. Most Ukrainian teachers received some or all of their education in Manitoba, 54 percent were completely Manitoba educated and 16 percent were educated in Europe and Manitoba. Only four percent received their entire education in Europe.

Figure 4. Ukrainian–English bilingual schools, 1915.

These differences in the background of teachers employed in the French, German and Ukrainian bilingual schools are all explainable in terms of the circumstances of each group‘s immigration, their length of residence in Manitoba and their level of education at the time of immigration. For example, the Manitoba government established a Ruthenian Training School in 1902 to train bilingual teachers for the frontier schools in Ukrainian districts. Many of those who attended had received some education in Ukraine before their families immigrated to Canada. Mennonites, who had relatively high rates of literacy when they came to Manitoba in 1874-1876, had sufficient time to produce a generation of Canadian-born and educated teachers by 1915, and hence had a higher ratio of Manitoba-educated teachers.

Figure 5. Birthplace of teachers in bilingual schools, 1915.

Not every student who attended a bilingual school belonged to the group speaking the other language of instruction. For example, occasionally unilingual English-speaking students living in, or on the fringes of, a “foreign” settlement would find themselves in a bilingual school where the de facto language of instruction was Ukrainian or German and the language of the playground was certainly not English. Such students usually became proficient in the lingua franca of the district. School inspectors worried that in schools where teachers spoke limited English and few if any of the students had much proficiency in the language, integration of the immigrant population into mainstream Canadian life would be impeded.

Figure 6. Place of education of teachers in bilingual schools, 1915.

Mapping historical data and depicting it graphically can offer insights often overlooked in a simple reading of the text. These maps and graphs may help to put the Manitoba Schools Question into a geographical context and thereby provide a clearer understanding of a crucial issue in Manitoba‘s history.

Figure 7. Number of students in bilingual schools by second language and ethnicity, 1915.


1. Gerald Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History, Toronto and London: University of Toronto Press, 1984, pages 217-218.

2. Statutes of Manitoba, 1897, C. 26, Section 10.

3. Cornelius J. Jaenen, “Ruthenian schools in western Canada, 1897-1919” Paedagogica Historica 10 (3): 524-526 (1970).

4. John C. Lehr and Brian McGregor, “Using schools to map the frontier of settlement on the Canadian prairies,” Great Plains Research 18: 53-66 (Spring 2008).

5. All data cited here were obtained from the Inspection Reports, Bilingual Schools, 1915, Department of Education, Manitoba, Archives of Manitoba.

Page revised: 3 January 2016

MHS YouTube Channel

Back to top of page

For queries on the above page, please contact the MHS Webmaster.

Home  |  Terms & Conditions  |  FAQ  |  Contact Us  |  Privacy Policy  |  Donations

© 1998-2023 Manitoba Historical Society. All rights reserved.