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Manitoba History: “An Excuse for Being So Bold”: D. W. McDermid and the Early Development of the Manitoba Institute for the Deaf and Dumb, 1888–1900

by Sandy R. Barron
History Department, University of Calgary

Number 77, Winter 2015

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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In March of 1891 Duncan Wendell McDermid, principal of the Manitoba Institute for the Deaf and Dumb (MIDD)[1] in Winnipeg, received a letter from the father of a fifteen-year-old student. James Wilkie had written to offer the Institute $58 in lieu of tuition, as the newly founded school offered free admission, room, and board to deaf students. The money, Wilkie wrote, should be “applied towards forming a nucleus for a suitable Library for the D & D Institute,” the lack of which was “to be regretted and which furnishes me an excuse for being so bold.” [2] The principal endorsed Wilkie’s gesture in his subsequent communication to the provincial government, and enclosed MLA Findlay Young’s support for the money’s contribution to a Library Fund. [3] The MIDD, called the Manitoba School for the Deaf after 1912, faced a litany of institutional challenges beyond the procurement of a library in its first decade. McDermid’s first full year of correspondence with the Minister of Public Works offers a glimpse into the difficulties confronting 19th-century public institutions that arose with the growing recognition of the deaf as citizens possessing civic and educational rights, rather than as only deserving recipients of private charity. After its founding in 1888, the school struggled to consolidate itself as a first-class, publicly funded educational institution in pre-Confederation British North America, a time when the novelty of education for the deaf had given way to an acceptance by the general public that it was a legitimate and necessary enterprise. Realizing Manitoba’s recently enshrined goal of free education for deaf children, as well as the province’s compulsory educational requirement for all deaf children of school age, remained difficult in the school’s first few years in the face of a minimal provincial appropriation and the reluctance of some parents to send their children to the residential school for the deaf in Winnipeg. It is the purpose of this article to consider how the MIDD, despite these significant roadblocks, transformed from a school reliant on private and religious charity to one dependent on public funds, which allowed the school to incrementally improve its professional standing and bring its practices up to the emerging North American standard.

The three-storey brick building that initially housed the Manitoba Institute for the Deaf and Dumb was built between 1889 and 1890 at
the corner of Portage Avenue and Sherbrook Street in Winnipeg. Designed by local architect Charles H. Wheeler, and expanded in the
early 20th century, in 1914 the facility moved to the recently-vacated Manitoba Agricultural College in Tuxedo (now the Asper Jewish
Community Campus). Since 1912 it has been known as the Manitoba School for the Deaf.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg - Buildings - Provincial Government - Deaf and Dumb Institute #9, N28761

Education of the deaf in Canada has only recently been examined by academic historians. Earlier work on deaf education presented the movement’s history as divided into pre- and post-deaf-education eras, and omitted consideration of the difficulties faced by provincial schools and governments to develop and consolidate effective educational institutions. The stories of schools, in other words, both began and ended with their founding. Since the 1980s, a small number of scholars have begun to focus attention upon the difficulties of establishing schools for the deaf as well as on the motivations of hearing administrators and politicians involved in school operations. The valuable and ground-breaking work of Margret A. Winzer focusses on the periods before deaf education was firmly established in Canada, as well as on the efforts of deaf and hearing North Americans to have the education and integration of deaf individuals be recognized as a right, including institutional development after the founding of schools. [4] Winzer traces how 19th-century advocates for the pre-lingually deaf and hearing-impaired pursued childhood education as a primary goal, as well as the importance of the financial and moral support of clergy to the success of the deaf education movement. Most important for the scope of this paper is Winzer’s argument that reforms within institutions of special education almost exclusively came from both educators and individuals who were educated within them. [5] While focussed on the establishment of deaf and blind institutions in the Maritimes, Joanna Pearce has argued that the Halifax Asylum for the Blind and the Halifax Institution for the Deaf and Dumb represented a movement from a charitable institutional model to an educational, rights-based one, and that this transition was a key step in the emergence of what Mariana Valverde has called a “mixed social economy.” [6] Pearce’s research also points to the importance of the clergy and individual provincial legislators in establishing free deaf education as a provincial right in 1872 in Nova Scotia. Other scholars have begun to focus on the difficulties and successes of the development of schools for the deaf through time. Michael Reis, for example, has outlined the effect of fiscal challenges faced by day-schools for the deaf, as well as the effect of shifts in state politics on the Indiana School for the Deaf in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. [7] This article maintains that the primarily public model of funding for the Manitoba Institute for the Deaf and Dumb allowed the school to evolve and develop through time, albeit in opposition to rigid provincial budgets. The establishment of specialized educational institutions in late Victorian Western Canada was, then, a more complicated process than a diametrical model of progress in deaf education may suggest.

Some scholars have presented the development of institutions to serve disabled individuals in a simplistically negative light. While Veronica Strong-Boag, in her discussion of the transition of the care of disabled children from private to public support, correctly highlights how residential and “segregationist” schools like the Manitoba Institute for the Deaf and Dumb quickly outstripped the fiscal expectations of provincial governments, she groups deaf schools with other coercive 19th-century public institutions. [8] These public bodies, she argues, became little more than “eugenic warehouses” that sought to offer limited training and support to disabled children in order to ameliorate the toll such care took on private families and private charities. [9] Such a view of educational institutions for the deaf, which portrays deaf students and staff as victims, underestimates the agency that they increasingly exercised at the MIDD after 1890 in shaping the school’s mission. Principal McDermid’s efforts to improve the school’s material and educational standing and the Ministry of Public Works’s acceptance of many of his requests also challenge Strong-Boag’s assertion, albeit only in the limited context of the MIDD. McDermid firmly believed in the importance of provincial support for the school, and clearly sought to improve the Institute’s functioning through concerted lobbying for supplies, sign language-fluent employees, and building improvements that he felt were necessary to the development of a new type of specialized institution that had successful precedents throughout North America and Europe. “Surprise is frequently manifested by persons unacquainted with the need of an institution of this kind,” McDermid wrote in his Annual Report for 1890. “We...differ from ordinary schools.” [10]

This article does not attempt to present a thorough picture of the school’s fiscal circumstances from 1888 to 1900. Instead, it places singular importance on Duncan McDermid’s appraisal of the school’s needs and requirements communicated through his letters to James Smart, the Minister of Public Works at the time. Its conclusions are drawn from McDermid’s correspondence with Smart, his Annual Reports to the Manitoba Legislature, a school history written by McDermid for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and the Institute’s self-published newspaper, Silent Echo. Manitoba newspapers and the American Annals of the Deaf were also consulted to draw conclusions about the MIDD’s larger political and social meaning in the province and in the continental Deaf community.

Provincial Minister of Public Works James Allan Smart (1858 – 1942) corresponded frequently with Deaf and Dumb Institute Principal D. W. McDermid in the early days of its operation.

Provincial Minister of Public Works James Allan Smart (1858 – 1942) corresponded frequently with Deaf and Dumb Institute Principal D. W. McDermid in the early days of its operation.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Personalities - Smart J A #1

On 13 January 1888, Liberal Leader Thomas Greenway was called upon by the Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba to form a government. The incoming administration was swept in on a wave of resentment towards the CPR monopoly in Western Canada, but quickly began to pursue other priorities. Greenway, with his key ally—Brandon MLA James Smart—began to overhaul Manitoba’s educational system. The goal was to ensure the government’s fiscal control over education by seeking to eliminate the bilingual or “dual” system of French and English schools then in place and bringing schools under direct government supervision and responsibility. [11] The Manitoba Institute for the Deaf and Dumb, while not directly linked to the “Manitoba Schools Question” that has dominated scholarship about Greenway’s premiership, was certainly part of this larger movement of centralization in education. While notions of fiscal restraint may seem to be at odds with the establishment of a new institution to serve a small minority of the province’s population, the Greenway government’s endorsement of the MIDD can perhaps be best understood as a consolidation of provincial political power, rather than simply a charitable or altruistic enterprise. After early 1889, the MIDD was financed and overseen by the Ministry of Public Works, which also oversaw the province’s emerging asylums. [12] Manitoba, as the first province in the Dominion to legislate compulsory deaf education, and only the third to offer free education to all deaf students—after Nova Scotia and Ontario, created a uniquely difficult yet visionary system of deaf education. The Greenway government had taken sole accountability for deaf education, unlike in Ontario and Quebec, where church and private contributions were central to the operating budgets of the Belleville, Raymond-Dewar and other Canadian deaf schools. [13]

In addition to the centralizing mission of the Greenway government, the MIDD originated as an outgrowth of an ethically motivated movement to address the needs of deaf children in the growing province. A survey carried out by the Manitoba Legislature in early 1888 by MLA Frederick H. Francis found that at least 37 pre-lingually deaf and hard-of-hearing children of school age were living in the province’s Protestant communities alone. [14] The 16 January 1888 edition of the Brandon Sun remarked that “government assistance is required. There is no doubt that the number of deaf and dumb in the province is a large percentage, and that they should grow up without the advantages of an education is not desired.” [15] After the City of Winnipeg refused to fund the school, the Winnipeg Ministerial Association, under the leadership of Congregationalist Minister Hugh Pedley, agreed to partially fund a small deaf school under the principalship of Hamilton native J.C. Watson, a former teacher at the Washington Institute for the Deaf and Dumb. The coalition’s aim was to lobby the provincial government to take over the school in late 1888. [16] Pedley and Francis, along with Francis George Jefferson, a recent deaf immigrant, and Sarah McPhee, the mother of a deaf child, met with members of the Greenway government to argue for the establishment of a provincial school. [17] While the school operated in its first year under Ministerial Association support, it largely achieved financial solvency through Watson’s personal financial contributions, as the WMA contributed only $100 in 1888. [18] After initially rejecting the initiative, the Liberal government of Thomas Greenway appropriated $25,000 to build and maintain the school in early 1889, and declared deaf education to be compulsory and free in the province. [19] All spending appropriations were controlled by the provincial government. A group of five parliamentarians operated as an oversight committee, receiving the school’s concerns and monitoring its spending and progress. [20] The school operated under Watson in Winnipeg’s Fortune Block until his resignation for health reasons in 1890, and his ultimate return to the Washington school. Duncan McDermid, a teacher of the deaf working in Iowa, was hired as the school’s next principal. His wife Mary, a deaf graduate of the Ontario Institute, was appointed as his assistant teacher. The school moved into its new building at 657 Portage Avenue, at the corner of what is now Sherbrook Street, shortly after McDermid’s arrival.

Storekeeper and MLA Frederick Henhurst Francis (1845–1895) lobbied to establish the Manitoba Institute for the Deaf and Dumb.

Storekeeper and MLA Frederick Henhurst Francis (1845–1895) lobbied to establish the Manitoba Institute for the Deaf and Dumb.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Personalities - Francis F H #4

The establishment of the MIDD for both the purposes of bureaucratic centralization and the amelioration of bleak employment prospects for deaf citizens reflects larger 19th-century North American trends in deaf education. American deaf schools emerged in the early 19th century from a climate of public and scientific fascination with the deaf that was an outgrowth of Enlightenment interest in the role of language in human development. [21] Interested French educators, including Roch-Ambroise Cucurron Sicard and Laurent Clerc, developed methods for codifying existing sign languages and educating deaf citizens who were largely considered to be incapable of intellectual development before the Enlightenment. In 1817, Clerc helped found the first American deaf school in Hartford, Connecticut which benefitted from the public’s scientific fascination with deafness as well as their concern for the spiritual well-being of pre-lingually deaf people. Berger argues that during much of the antebellum period, the operation of a state-operated school in the United States was a symbol of an individual state’s power and benevolence. [22] Buildings were large, opulent monuments to modern educational science and state legitimacy, and remained so throughout the post-Civil War period, a period characterized by the growth of oralism, or the outlawing of sign language in many American schools. Manitoba’s legislators were motivated by this same mixture of moral concern and “province-building” during the late 1880s and early 1890s.

Duncan McDermid was born in 1858 in Martintown, Ontario. When he was only twelve years old and still a student, he began to work at the Ontario Institute for the Deaf and Dumb in Belleville as a clerk and telegraph operator. From 1877 to 1882, he worked as a teacher at the school, and moved to the Iowa Institution as a teacher from 1882 to 1890. After arriving at the MIDD as principal, he quickly established close ties with Winnipeg’s charitable and business community, and worked hard to establish the school’s connections with the community and increase public support for the nascent school. His association with philanthropic social groups like the Manitoba Club, of which he was president, and the St. Andrew’s Society helped to increase the provincial profile of the MIDD. [23] He and his wife were key figures in the proliferation of sign language in Manitoba, and the McDermid family, including their two hearing children Howard and Ruth, acted as teachers and interpreters for the deaf in court proceedings and church services for decades. [24] The Manitoba School largely resisted the wave of oralist education then sweeping the United States, a movement characterized by the prohibition of sign language on deaf campuses and the uniform determination to teach deaf children to speak and read lips in order to facilitate their greater integration into hearing society. [25] The McDermid family were tireless advocates for the deaf, and were seminal figures in the early development of Deaf Culture in Western Canada. [26] Duncan strove throughout his tenure as principal, as did Howard McDermid after his father’s death, to establish and maintain links to the larger North American Deaf community through the establishment of a school paper and publication in the American Annals of the Deaf.

The establishment of a school for the deaf presented key differences from the founding of a school for hearing students. The Manitoba school taught students using the “combined method,” meaning that pre-lingually deaf students were taught primarily through the medium of sign, and those students who had developed aural language abilities before their hearing impairment were taught lip-reading and elocution, or the oral teaching method. “Our object is to secure the greatest good to the greatest number and to accomplish this the use of the two systems of instruction seem (sic) necessary,” McDermid wrote in 1891. [27] The Annual Report for 1890 shows that out of 29 students attending the school as of December of that year, nine were “born deaf” or, by assumption, pre-lingually deaf. [28] While other students became deaf through childhood illness, the age at which they became hearing-impaired is not provided within McDermid’s data; so, it is not possible to determine with any degree of comfort the number of students involved in sign instruction versus those in oral instruction. As we will see, McDermid felt that hiring employees who were proficient in sign was a key responsibility of his position and of the Provincial Ministry of Public Works; so, the distinction between the number of sign students and oral students is not a practically meaningful one. Sign language was the lingua franca of the school, and in order for employees to function there, they required receptive and expressive abilities in sign language.

The teaching staff. This photograph from around 1908 shows members of the teaching staff at the Manitoba Institute for the Deaf and Dumb, from left: Miss Bartlett, Miss Augusta Spaight, Miss Lily Turriff, and Dr. Duncan W. McDermid.

The teaching staff. This photograph from around 1908 shows members of the teaching staff at the Manitoba Institute for the Deaf and Dumb, from left: Miss Bartlett, Miss Augusta Spaight, Miss Lily Turriff, and Dr. Duncan W. McDermid.
Source: University of Winnipeg Archives and Records Centre, Western Canada Pictorial Index, J. H. Adamson Collection, #17752-A0563

The specialized needs of the Manitoba Institute in the early 1890s can be categorized in two ways: the infrastructural demands of a residential school, and the unique methods and demands of a school for the deaf. From 1890 to 1892, McDermid kept up a vigorous correspondence with Public Works Minister James Smart that highlighted the structural, fiscal, and practical problems that the principal likely felt were keeping the school from becoming a first-class institution. Among these were his concerns about the lack of qualified teachers and the Greenway Cabinet’s unwillingness to pay competitive wages for them, the need to balance compulsory legislation with the fiscal needs of distant rural families, as well as the lack of adequate fire protection, sewage removal, filtered water capabilities, and medical attendance at the school. During the period under study, two of McDermid’s fears were realized—1891 saw both a fire and a fatal scarlet fever outbreak at the school. A recurring theme in McDermid’s letters was the need for the government to accommodate the unique nature of educational institutions for deaf students, and he repeatedly tried to couch his requests as being necessary to meet the demands of a new kind of residential educational institution. During McDermid’s first two years as principal, the MIDD progressed slowly but incompletely toward meeting these goals.

Several of McDermid’s most pressing concerns with the new building challenged the developing school’s role as a residential entity. McDermid requested on several occasions in his correspondence and personal interactions with the Ministry of Public Works that the school be afforded a laundry facility and medical attendance in the building, which he argued were necessary to the operation of a residential school. “I feel that the interests of the Institution demand that you should understand more fully the straits we will be in if there is no provision made for laundry and medical attendance ... I fully believe that I will require altogether for Incidentals (sic) laundry and medical attendance more than $600 ... no matter in what way you consider the question the expenses can not be reduced without seriously crippling our work.” [29] Providing on-site laundry and medical support for the residential school would save the province money, he argued. An infirmary was added to the school shortly before a scarlet fever epidemic struck the school in late 1891, resulting in the illness of eight students and one student’s death. [30]

Fire protection was another of McDermid’s recurring infrastructural concerns. On 2 March 1891, he wrote to Smart that “the protection of the building from the danger of fire and the inefficiency of the sanitary arrangements are so fully recognized as to their immediate necessity that further suggestions are out of place.” [31] While it seems that the two men discussed the issue outside of their correspondence, adequate fire protection measures were not taken before fire gutted the upper floors of the Sherbrook and Portage building on the morning of 27 October 1891. The fire seems to have been helped by two overlapping problems of which McDermid had complained—the shortage of water buckets to extinguish flames and the absence of a permanent medical attendant. The school’s newly hired matron was fumigating a room with sulphur for a sick child, and her candles may have started the blaze, she admitted in a 6 November report. [32] The school was relocated to merchant A. G. B. Bannatyne’s residence at Armstrong’s Point for the next year, where McDermid’s fire prevention requests were finally met. The infrastructural challenges to the establishment of a functioning residential school were only incrementally addressed by the Department of Public Works, often in response to related crises. Water filtration, sewage disposal, and overcrowding remained a problem at the school’s numerous locations until its relocation in a newly built, permanent facility in Tuxedo Park in 1922. The problems in both quality and quantity of water are unsurprising, given Winnipeg’s ongoing difficulties in ensuring a consistent city-wide water supply under a private system that served the city until 1900 and drew from the polluted Red and Assiniboine rivers. [33]

The principal devoted most of the space in his letters to Minister Smart, however, to advocating for new expenditures to accommodate the specialized educational needs of deaf schools, rather than simply addressing the infrastructural shortcomings at the Sherbrook and Portage building. Throughout 1891, McDermid repeatedly requested that an additional teacher be hired. In his second Annual Report to the Manitoba Legislature, and in several letters to Minister Smart, he argued that the education of deaf students was a uniquely challenging enterprise that demanded a higher teacher-to-student ratio than the education of hearing students. “I have already explained verbally,” McDermid wrote,

that it is absolutely necessary to have a much larger percentage of instructors in schools for the deaf than in speaking and hearing schools, and the relative number of teachers to be employed cannot be decided by a comparison with the methods adopted in hearing schools. It would be considered extravagant and unnecessary to employ three or four teachers for forty speaking children, but on the other hand experienced instructors of the deaf would not consider such a number sufficient for forty deaf children. The explanation lies in the fact that the greater part of the instructor’s time is taken on individual teaching. [34]

McDermid revealed that he had sought out a new instructor, and had settled on Augusta Spaight, an ex-assistant at the Ontario Institute, whose “services could be secured for $400 per annum with board and lodging.” [35] This amount, McDermid admitted, was well below the market value for instructors of the deaf, who were difficult to attract to state and provincial schools in light of their small number and highly specialized training. Spaight, McDermid argued, had “limited schoolroom experience,” but was “an expert signmaker and thoroughly understands the ways of the deaf.” It would be, he wrote, “an easy task to train her in the methods of instruction peculiar to the deaf.” [36]

While the Department of Public Works did consent to Spaight’s hiring, McDermid’s choice of a new teacher offers readers some insight into the financial strain under which the school found itself. Spaight’s annual salary was at least $200 below the amount that a seasoned teacher would command, McDermid argued. In his Annual Report, which covered the period from January to December, 1890, he provided a table which compared student-to-teacher ratios for selected North American deaf schools. For example, the American Asylum for the Deaf had 130 students to sixteen teachers, the MacKay Institute in Montreal had 34 students to four teachers, and the Halifax Institution had 55 students to five teachers. [37] He quoted the unnamed principal of the Clarke Institute for the Deaf in Massachusetts to further bolster his argument that Manitoba would have to contribute more in order to ensure the success of the school’s mission over time. “The number of persons employed as instructors,” he quoted, “is determined with what is judged to be for the best interests of the pupils, rather than with reference to the expense incurred.” [38] James Smart would have been able to quickly ascertain McDermid’s point: the Manitoba Institute had a student-to-teacher ratio that was close to twenty to one, while the schools he cited had ratios that were better than ten to one. In order to implement the province’s vision of a self-sufficient deaf citizenry, the school had to bring down the student-to-teacher ratio.

Deaf children exercise on the grounds of the Deaf and Dumb Institute, circa 1905.

Deaf children exercise on the grounds of the Deaf and Dumb Institute, circa 1905.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg - Buildings - Provincial Government - Deaf and Dumb Institute #11, N28763

Teaching staff were far from the only human resource problem faced by the Manitoba Institution in early 1891. McDermid wrote to Minister Smart on 9 December 1890 about the resignation of Archibald Ferguson, the institution’s caretaker. This letter provided the principal with an opportunity to make two key points about the school’s pressing needs—that the caretaker and supervisor positions should be distinct, and that a supervisor should be proficient in sign language. Ferguson’s shortcomings seem to have lain in failing to communicate effectively with the children and in balancing his caretaking and supervisory duties. “It is a difficult task,” McDermid wrote, “to keep so many children out of mischief with proper supervision, but without this restraint it is like bedlam while they are at play.” [39] Deaf children, the principal stated, required “the constant direction of a person of good moral character,” [40] as the school served as a conduit of both educational and moral learning. According to McDermid, the residential setting presented moral danger to students, as “their conduct and progress in school are greatly influenced by their training out of school” and their socialization was occurring in a setting without parental guidance. [41] McDermid assured Smart that the hiring of two new employees to accommodate distinct positions could be “filled satisfactorily within the present appropriation of fifty dollars per month.” [42] The challenges of building a specialized educational institution were beyond the simple procurement of quantitatively adequate financial and human resources, though these were clearly important to McDermid. Employment at the MIDD necessitated specialized skills, principally in knowledge of sign language and teaching methods for the deaf. The principal’s attempt to have Ferguson serve as both caretaker and supervisor had been “useless on account of other demands upon his time and partially on account of his ignorance of the sign language.” [43]

McDermid also justified infrastructural requests solely upon the unique pedagogical needs of a deaf educational institution. “From the fact that all the recitations of deaf mutes are written it is very important to have large and superior blackboards,” he wrote on 9 March 1891. “Those now in use are made of a rubbery cloth and are very unsatisfactory ... a great deal of dust is produced whenever they are used. This cannot be otherwise than unhealthful to both the teacher and pupil, and I would recommend that slate be purchased.” [44] He made similar arguments for the new building to be wired with electric light, as the education of pre-lingually deaf students depended on the medium of sight more than any other. [45] “As all knowledge comes to the deaf through the medium of the eye, the question of light is of unusual importance in a school of this kind, and I sincerely hope that you will succeed in introducing electricity. The light furnished by our lamps is insufficient, and at best they are unsafe ... as it is almost impossible to keep them (the children) from meddling with them.” [46] There is no extant documentation confirming that the Portage Avenue building was wired for electricity that year, though requisitions for lamp purchases continued at least until 1895. [47]

In the same letter, the principal argued that books for a suitable library had to be purchased. McDermid again based his plea upon the unique nature of deaf education and the needs of pre- and post-lingually deaf students. “I need not expand upon the value of reading matter for the deaf as an aid in their education ... it will require not less than $200 to procure a sufficient number of books to make the library of use to our school works.” [48] There were donations to a new Library Fund by private citizens, including the now departed MLA Francis and the aforementioned James Wilkie, but these were not enough to ensure the building of a usable library. While there is certainly ample evidence of private charity in both contributions to the Library fund and donations of Christmas presents for the students after the school’s adoption by the province, it is clear that McDermid considered private contributions alone to be insufficient to support a specialized school and to allow it to develop.

Vocational education quickly became part of the MIDD’s mandate under McDermid’s leadership. The movement toward practical training in employable skills was an attempt to expand the merely educational opportunities offered to the deaf by the school into a wider integration into the adult workforce. Vocational training was, argues Margret Winzer, an attempt to inculcate a sense of Victorian self-sufficiency in the pre-lingually deaf, and reflected low expectations for deaf employment prospects held by hearing educators and administrators. [49] McDermid chose to hold classes in printmaking for male students and domestic labour for female students, as these were among the most frequent modes of employment practised by urban deaf North Americans and had been part of deaf school curricula since the early 19th century in the United States and Britain. [50] The principal began calling for vocational programs in 1890. In his second Annual Report to the Legislature, McDermid argued that vocational training was a key component of fostering self-sufficiency for deaf adults after their school years. He made the point that provincial spending on printmaking equipment would allow the “means of more perfectly educating our children and enabling them to become self-supporting members of society. The authorities of boarding schools and colleges are fully recognizing the benefits of manual training ... but how much more important is such an education to those that are deprived of hearing and speech.” [51]

McDermid was able to secure funding for a printmaking class and newspaper by early 1892, again by arguing that vocational training was an integral part of the new type of specialized institution that he was charged with leading. The school developed a newspaper called Silent Echo in 1892 with the key purpose of giving students practical experience in the field and engaging other deaf communities in North America more generally. Printmaking was taught by both Principal McDermid and by Angus McIntosh, a deaf photo engraver for the Manitoba Daily Free Press, during the evenings. The program was successful enough that The Voice, the organ of the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council, complained in 1897 that the MIDD “select(s) one or two trades, such as printing and blacksmithing, and in consequence increase(s) an already too plentiful supply of men.” [52] By 1905, McDermid had also succeeded in securing the employment of some students in civil service positions at the Post Office. [53]

The enforcement of the compulsory attendance rule proved to be difficult for the province. Though compulsory education for the deaf was strongly supported by McDermid and the Liberal government, it presented financial and logistical problems to not only the province, but also to parents of deaf children who lacked the fiscal means to send their children and perhaps lose their contributions on the family farm. In his Annual Report for 1890, McDermid was uncompromising in his view that the legislation should be enforced strictly. “I hope the government will consider the advisability of enforcing the provisions of the law, if parents will disregard the interests of their deaf children,” he wrote, adding that the failure to educate pre-lingually deaf children led to the teaching of deaf adults, which he characterized as “the effort to train a mind that has been living in mental darkness for eighteen or twenty years.” [54] The experience of educating deaf citizens who were above school age was “one of the most annoying and discouraging things a teacher of the deaf has to contend with,” McDermid wrote. [55] The statutory education law provided for a penalty of $25 or less than thirty days’ imprisonment for violators. [56] There is, however, no evidence that legal measures were ever brought to bear upon the parents and guardians of truant students.

In a letter to Minister Smart in March 1891, McDermid’s tone softened considerably. He had exchanged letters with rural families who pleaded that their non-compliance with the law was due to a lack of funds to send their children to Winnipeg and the economic blow of the loss of their children’s farm labour. “Taking into consideration the difficulties that are presented to the teacher in instructing adult deafmutes and the chances against these children ever having the advantages of an education,” he wrote, “I respectfully recommend that an appropriation be made to defray the railroad expenses and if need be the clothing expenses of indigent and orphan children.” [57] McDermid and the Ministry of Public Works were contending with a new, perhaps unexpected, expense of residential schools—the transportation costs of students to travel to a metropolitan centre to reside in and attend school. The centralizing nature of the MIDD necessitated that the government offer new kinds of financial assistance to citizens outside the metropolitan centre, which would ensure their ability to comply with the law without hardship. McDermid estimated that the number of deaf students who did not attend the school was between 15 and 20 in March 1891, and revised this number upward to 23 by the end of the year. [58] The only way to have those students attend the school in Winnipeg was for the Province to shoulder some of the financial burden on behalf of rural and economically disadvantaged citizens. While it is unclear if the government did provide a small rail transport subsidy, the Canadian Pacific Railway lowered the cost of transportation for MIDD students in late 1891. [59]

For the rest of the century, the number of students in attendance rose, but truancy remained a problem, as the numbers of absent students did not fall, according to subsequent annual reports. Absenteeism was addressed only in an attendance table in McDermid’s annual report for 1891, and the problem was not given the prominent attention it had received in his annual report for 1890. [60] This suggests that rural poverty was a stumbling block for the province’s compulsory deaf education law, and perhaps that some young deaf Manitobans in rural communities were already receiving the training and experience that they would need to carry out their lives as agricultural labourers or operators of family farms. It also suggests that many rural families valued their deaf members’ contributions on the farm more than a potential education that would not necessarily add to their value as farmers and agricultural labourers. As Alison Prentice and Susan Houston have argued, education was not always synonymous with schooling in 19th-century Canada. [61]

The advantages of public support and funding were cited by the principal in several sources. In his annual reports and letters, McDermid reflected on the differences between the prospects of success for private charity and public expenditure in funding new educational institutions. One of his statements about the desirability of public expenditure helps to place the incremental and ad hoc nature of the Institute’s financial and professional consolidation in context, and is worth quoting at length:

Experience has proved that when the State undertakes the responsibility of providing institutions for the care and education of its defective wards, that the most liberal and generous support has been supplied and every effort put forth to foster and promote the well being of those for whom the institution has been established. The need of an improvement or change has only to be stated and if proven to be a real and urgent necessity it is usually granted, thus permitting no backward step in the general progress of the work, as is the case where schools are supported by private contributions. The history of the Manitoba Institution is no exception to this rule. [62]

While there may have been an implied plea for increased provincial support in McDermid’s words, it is more likely that his opinion was stated with a degree of real conviction. The principal’s requests were often met, excluding the pleas for better fire protection and sewage disposal at the new building. The Manitoba Institute for the Deaf and Dumb of 1891 was a markedly different enterprise from Watson’s school operating under church and private charity alone. It was more fiscally sustainable, largely due to the steady provincial appropriations under the compulsory education rule, in contrast to the private charitable funding model that was made feasible only through the use of Watson’s personal funds. McDermid may have argued steadily for incremental building improvements and funding increases to bring the MIDD up to North American standards, but he certainly recognized that the school could not carry on without the province’s funding and leadership.

One way to trace changes in financing methods for deaf schools in late Victorian Canada is to consider “exhibitions,” as Pearce has done in her study of the origins of free education for the deaf and blind in Halifax. [63] Exhibitions, or examinations, were events in which schools would reach out to the community by publicly displaying the abilities of deaf students in order to strengthen charitable support. Pearce argues that public examinations, in which children would read or sign monologues and answer metaphysical questions, amazed crowds and were important in soliciting charitable contributions from the public for the Halifax School during its consolidation in the 1860s and 1870s. In Manitoba there were exhibitions for Members of the Provincial Legislature as late as 1892, as reported in the first edition of the school’s newspaper, Silent Echo. [64] These exhibitions, however, were very different from those delivered in Nova Scotia twenty years earlier, or in Yorkshire, England in the 1880s and 1890s, as described by Amanda Bergen. [65] First, they were not open to the public, but were a feature of Legislature Members’ visits to the school. They were not designed to solicit funds, but to “thank” legislators for their support, as provincial commitment to the school was already securely enshrined in law. Second, and more important, the phenomenon of exhibitions for the deaf and blind, so popular in France, Britain and the United States during the first 75 years of the 19th century, became more infrequent perhaps due to waning interest in deaf education as a scientific novelty or a “miracle,” and the growing recognition of deaf education as a right supported by the state. England, in Bergen’s example, remained a qualified exception to this trend in part because deaf education in northern Britain retained a private, charitable character into the 20th century. McDermid, a strong supporter of the state’s obligation to provide educational opportunity to its most vulnerable citizens, certainly saw the guarantee of public support for the education of the deaf as an end to the inconsistent returns and perhaps degrading pursuit of charitable funds from the public and churches through exhibitions.

Provincial funding, then, was central to the MIDD’s mandate and operation and a key to its survival. Principal McDermid’s prediction of a growing student body proved to be correct, and was especially aided by the explosive population growth of Winnipeg and the Canadian West during the “Laurier Boom” of 1896–1913. By the 1901–1902 school year, the school had enrolled 45 students from Manitoba and 13 from the Northwest Territories. [66] Thirteen students also attended that year from British Columbia through an interprovincial agreement that saw the BC Government pay tuition, room and board costs for student attendance. [67] The school’s staff also expanded quickly throughout 1892 and 1893. McDermid’s 1893 school history named 10 employees, including the distinct supervisor and caretaker positions, along with a night watchman and a permanent attending physician. The school had added a deaf teaching assistant named John Byrne who also doubled as the supervisor. [68] Most important, Byrne’s hiring satisfied McDermid’s earlier key demand to Minister Smart that the supervisor be proficient in sign. While the professional development of the school and the achievement of effective specialization were incremental, the period from 1890–1893 saw a distinct improvement, and many of McDermid’s requests were acceded to by the Department of Public Works. By 1918, there were 167 students at the school, including 93 from the other three Western Canadian provinces, as the renamed Manitoba School for the Deaf had solidified a regional reputation as the primary centre of the deaf education movement in the Canadian West. [69]

In its formative years, the Manitoba Institute for the Deaf and Dumb slowly and incrementally developed the specialized professional, pedagogical, and infrastructural standards that were necessary to the successful operation of a deaf school. Many of these improvements, especially in the key years under study between 1890 and 1893, were attributable to the pressure of Principal Duncan McDermid on the Ministry of Public Works to adopt the standards and human resources protocols common at longer-standing Canadian and American deaf schools. The hiring of deaf employees, beginning with McDermid’s wife Mary and continuing with Angus McIntosh and John Byrne, assured the primacy of sign language and equal opportunity for communication at the school. The teacher-to-student ratio fell in 1892–1893 and continued to fall for the rest of the century. Manitoba was slowly implementing the principle, adopted in early 1889, that deaf education should be free and compulsory for all of its residents. The structure of public funding allowed the school to build upon its gains, as the volatile pattern of funding through private and religious charity was replaced. Deaf education and vocational training were only prophylactic measures against a disempowered deaf citizenry, yet they represented a meaningful concentration of provincial will and resources during a period of low public investment in social spending in other areas. Deaf education may have lost its sense of “philosophical marvel.” [70] It had become an accepted part of the emerging Canadian public educational system, but it was far from assured a secure future in Manitoba in 1889–1890. The protracted consolidation of the school’s fiscal, infrastructural, and professional health was a complicated process that challenges a diametric depiction of deaf history into tidy pre-and post-deaf educational eras.


1. This article will use the contemporary name for the school where applicable, despite its negative modern connotations. The school, still located in Winnipeg, is now called the Manitoba School for the Deaf.

2. Archives of Manitoba (AM), GS 0123/GR 1607, “James P. Wilkie to Duncan McDermid, 2 March 1891.”

3. AM, GS 0123/GR 1607, “Duncan McDermid to James Smart, 8 March 1891.”

4. Margret Winzer, “Deaf-Mutia: Responses to Alienation by the Deaf in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” American Annals of the Deaf, vol. 142, no. 5 (December 1995): 363-367; Winzer, “A Tale Often Told: The Early Progressionof Special Education,” Remedial and Special Education, vol. 19 (July/August 1998): 212-218.

5. Margret Winzer. “Confronting Difference: An Excursion Through the History of Special Education,” in The Sage Handbook of Special Education, ed. Lani Florian. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2006, p. 22.

6. Joanna L. Pearce. “Not for Alms but Help: Fund-Raising and Free Education for the Blind,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, vol. 23, no. 1 (2012): 134; Mariana Valverde, “The Mixed Social Economy as a Canadian Tradition,” Studies in Political Economy, vol.47 (1995): 33-60. A mixed social economy can be considered to be a system of privately delivered social services that is financed by public institutions. This model was not adopted by Manitoba in 1889, as the MIDD operated directly within the Manitoba Ministry of Public Works.

7. Michael Reis. “A Tale of Two Schools: The Indiana Institution and the Evansville Day School, 1879-1912,” in The Deaf History Reader, ed. John Vickery Van Cleve. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 2009, pp. 85-115. Reis argues that the Indiana Institute’s staffing was conditional upon the party in power at the state house. In 1879, the newly elected Democratic government was able to force the school’s superintendent to resign, leading to a series of school leaders whose only qualifications were political. The Indiana Association of the Deaf was founded in opposition to the state school’s leadership.

8. Veronica Strong-Boag. “‘Children of Adversity’: Disabilities and Child Welfare in Canada from the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First Century,” Journal of Family History, vol. 32, no. 4 (October 2007): pp. 422-423. Strong-Boag links the Manitoba School for the Deaf with institutions like the Ontario Asylum for Idiots and the Toronto Home for Incurable Children.

9. Strong-Boag, “Children of Adversity,” p. 423.

10. Duncan McDermid. “Second Annual Report of the Manitoba Deaf and Dumb Institute,” Journals of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, vol.23 (1891): 79.

11. Keith Wilson. Thomas Greenway. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1985, p. 30.

12. While this fact challenges a view of the MIDD as a charitable entity after the government takeover, it does not necessarily support an association of the school with asylums in an operational sense. A Department of Education that could accommodate both mainstream schools and a deaf institution did not exist until the early 20th century, when the MIDD was moved from Public Works to Education. Clearly, the MIDD does not easily fit into static institutional categories, be they charitable, punitive, or educational.

13. Stéphane-D. Perreault and Sylvie Pelletier, L’Institut Raymond-Dewar et ses institutions d’origine: 160 ans d’histoire avec les personnes sourdes. (Québec: Septentrion, 2010), p. 53; R. Mathison, “The Ontario Institution,” in Edward Allen Fay, ed., Histories of American Schools for the Deaf, 1817-1893. Washington D.C: Volta Bureau, 1893, pp. 8-10.

14. The Manitoba Daily Free Press, 2 October 1888, p. 3.

15. Brandon Sun, 16 January 1888, p. 4. The Sun was staunchly supportive of the Greenway government and the MIDD. For example, in the 28 April 1892 edition, the editorial board dismissed the Roblin Opposition’s allegations of improper hiring at the MIDD in two articles.

16. Duncan McDermid. “Manitoba Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb,” in Edward Allen Fay, ed., Histories of American Schools for the Deaf, 1817-1893. Washington D.C., Volta Bureau, 1893, pp. 1-2.

17. Clifton Carbin. Deaf Heritage in Canada: A Distinctive, Diverse, and Enduring Culture. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1997, p. 136. F.G. Jefferson came to Canada from the British Isles in 1884 as part of a deaf colonist scheme organized by Elizabeth Booth, a British advocate for the deaf.

18. Carbin, Deaf Heritage, p. 137.

19. American Annals of the Deaf,1890, vol. 35, no. 2, p. 165. (hereafter AAD)

20. McDermid, “Manitoba Institution,” p. 5.

21. Douglas Baynton, Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign Against Sign Language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, pp. 15-34.

22. Jane Berger, “Uncommon Schools: Institutionalizing Deafness in Early-Nineteenth-Century America,” in Foucault and the Government of Disability, ed. Shelley Tremain, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005, p. 159.

23. Keith Wilson, “Duncan McDermid,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, 1901–1910, eds. Ramsay Cook and Jean Hamelin, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994, p. 622.

24. Carbin, Deaf Heritage, p. 140.

25. For a detailed discussion of the manual/oralist debate that was raging in the late 19th century, see Baynton, Forbidden Signs. Baynton links the rise of oralism to growing American nationalism in the post-Civil War period, and argues that oralism was adopted by most American schools in the late 19th century as a means of inculcating a sense of national identity in the deaf.

26. The convention of capitalizing the word “deaf” dates from the late 20thcentury, and refers to a Deaf individual or group who self-identifies as culturally deaf. I use “deaf” when I am referring to historical individuals or a movement, and “Deaf” when referencing modern Deaf Culture.

27. Duncan McDermid. “Third Annual Report of the Manitoba Deaf and Dumb Institute,” Journals of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, vol.24 (1892): 50.

28. McDermid, “Second Annual Report,” p. 82.

29. AM, GS 0123/GR 1607, “McDermid to Smart, 23 March 1891.”

30. Carbin, Deaf Heritage, p. 142.

31. AM, GS 0123/GR 1607, “McDermid to James P. Smart, 9 March 1891.”

32. AM, GS 0123/GR 1607, “Matron Hossie, Statement Regarding October 27th, 1891 Fire.”

33. Alan F. J. Artibise. Winnipeg: A Social History of Urban Growth 1874–1914. Montreal and London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1975, Chapter 12; Ennis, David A. “Pressure to Act: The Shoal Lake Aqueduct and the Greater Winnipeg Water District,” Manitoba History, vol. 72, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2012): 13.

34. AM, GS 0123/GR 1607, “Duncan McDermid to James P. Smart, 1 October 1891.”

35. Ibid.

36. Ibid.

37. McDermid, “Second Annual Report,” p. 79.

38. Ibid. Though the Clarke Institute was an entirely oralist school unlike the MIDD, McDermid evidently felt that this distinction did not hamper his larger point.

39. AM, GS 0123/GR 1607, “Duncan McDermid to James Smart, 9 December 1890.”

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid.

43. Ibid.

44. AM, GS 0123/GR 1607, “McDermid to Smart, 9 March 1891.”

45. Ibid.

46. McDermid, “Second Annual Report,” p. 81.

47. AM, GS 0123, “Lamps for Deaf and Dumb Institute,” 14 August 1895.

48. McDermid, “Second Annual Report,” p. 81.

49. Margret Winzer. The History of Special Education: From Isolation to Integration. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 1993, pp. 145-146.

50. Robert M. Buchanan. Illusions of Equality: Deaf Americans in School and Factory 1850-1950. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 1999, p. 17; Carmen M. Mangion, “‘The Business of Life’: Educating Catholic Deaf Children in Late Nineteenth-Century England,” History of Education, vol. 41, no. 5, (July 2012): 587. Agriculture remained the largest source of employment for rural deaf citizens in these countries.

51. McDermid, “Second Annual Report,” p. 80.

52. The Voice, 15 May 1897, p. 4.

53. Wilson, “McDermid,” p. 622.

54. McDermid, “Second Annual Report,” p. 77.

55. McDermid, “Second Annual Report,” pp. 77-78.

56. AAD, 1890, vol. 35, no. 2, 165.

57. AM, GS 0123/Gr 1607, “McDermid to Smart, 9 March 1891.”

58. McDermid, “Third Annual Report,” p. 49.

59. McDermid, “Third Annual Report,” p. 53.

60. McDermid, “Third Annual Report,” p. 49.

61. Alison L. Prentice and Susan E. Houston, eds. Family, School and Society in Nineteenth-Century Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1975, p. 6.

62. McDermid, “Third Annual Report,” pp. 49-50.

63. Pearce, “Not for Alms,” pp. 139-140.

64. “Silent Echo,” 29 April 1892, vol. 1 no.1, in Early Canadiana Online,

65. Amanda Bergen. “The Public Examination of Deaf and Blind Children in Yorkshire, 1829-1890,” Northern History, vol. 41, no. 1 (March 2004): 149-162.

66. Carbin, Deaf Heritage, p. 142. The Northwest Territories included, until 1905, the areas that became the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

67. Duncan McDermid. “Report of the Principal to Superintendent of Education, Victoria, B.C,” Thirty-First Annual Report of the Public Schools of British Columbia, 1901-1902. Victoria, BC: Province of British Columbia, 1902): 278.

68. McDermid, “Manitoba Institution,” p. 7.

69. Carbin, Deaf Heritage, p. 143.

70. Bergen, “Public Examination,” p. 162.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 7 April 2020

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