The Education of Immigrant Children During the First Two Decades of this Century

by Sybil Shack

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 30, 1973-74 Season

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Please let me say again that I was most honoured to have been asked to speak to this group this evening and especially honoured to be asked to give the Charlotte Mass Memorial Address.

When I sat down to write this paper I knew I couldn’t write about Charlotte, that it would be better just to talk about her. I suppose it has something to do with getting older and seeing not only the older generation pass away but the members of your own begin to go also. To have someone who was as vital, as alive, as warm as Charlotte, leave us so unexpectedly is something that I don’t think any of her friends or family has recovered from.

In all of the tributes I’ve heard about Charlotte in the last year, few have reached the inner core of her. I’ve heard Charlotte praised as a teacher; I don’t know how many people in the audience have had the opportunity, as I had on several occasions, to see her actually working with children, particularly with young children. I think any of those who saw that, found something in Charlotte that we didn’t see when we saw her in her more formal role. Those of us who shared the warmth of her hospitality knew that she was a good cook, but she was a good cook not so much in the sense that her food was extraordinary but in the feeling that, when we sat at her table, she shared herself with us, her guests, and that we became part of her. I’ve heard people talk about Charlotte and her contribution to the general community, but those of you who never saw Charlotte with older people have missed something that lives on as a memory. Charlotte was, perhaps, at her best with the very young and the very old. She had respect for age; she saw dignity in age, even when other people were perhaps repelled by the manifestations of decay that set in with all of us. Perhaps, in a way, it was fitting that she was taken away from us when we remembered her as young and vital and full of the force of life. She left us with very precious memories.

I’d like to say, too, a word about Monty Israels. Monty was one of those people to whom Jews referred as a "gitter Yid," a "good Jew," but not in the sense merely of being a good Jew in the orthodox fashion or a good Jew in terms of religion; but a good Jew, a "gitter Yid," in the sense that people went to him with their problems. I think Charlotte had the same kind of ability to attract people’s confidences and people’s confidence. Monty was the sort of man that people were willing to go to with personal questions that had nothing to do with law or nothing to do even with their relationship with Monty. They were willing to listen to his advice because they knew that he gave it from the heart and from a very sharp and excellent mind.

And so, in dedicating this address, inadequate as I know it is, to Charlotte, I hope you will also remember Monty. Both of them, in one sense, represent the people I’m talking about and, if I may, I’m going to change the title of my talk.

Instead of talking about immigrant children I’d like to talk about the children of immigrants. Often they were the same but sometimes they weren’t. And the children of immigrants often went through the same kind of traumatic and interesting experiences as immigrant children.

When I began to prepare this talk I didn’t know what I had let myself in for. I’m quite sure that if I had known I would never have undertaken the task. I realize now that it would take several volumes to do justice to it and far more time than I have or could spare; so though I know it is poor policy for a speaker to apologize in advance I am going to have to ask for your forbearance because this is not a deeply researched paper, and I present it to you with humility. It is something that is personal and I hope you will take it as such.

I’m going to start with my mother because she was indeed both an immigrant child and the child of immigrants. Pauline Katz was thirteen years old when she reached Winnipeg in May, 1904, and was enrolled in Grade VII at Aberdeen School. She had a distinct advantage over many of her classmates. Her family had left what is now the Ukraine, where Austria and Russia and Poland come together at a point that shifted with every treaty. The family settled in New York in the summer of 1896, so when she arrived in Manitoba in 1904 she spoke and read and wrote English. In other respects she was very like about a third of her class. She was poorly dressed and probably undernourished by today’s standards. Her only sweater and her only winter dress were grimy and shapeless with wear. I would guess that for most of the winter the dirt was firmly entrenched in the roughened skin on her wrists and her ankles were always cold and chapped.

The rooms in which she lived were behind her father’s store and butcher shop on Pritchard Avenue and the summer shed in which she and her sister slept let in wind and snow through the ill-fitting single sheathing of boards. It was not unusual when the snow fell and the wind came from the northwest for the girls to wake in the morning to find a fine layer of snow on the comforters which covered them. The nearest water was from a pump on the corner and the only way of heating it was in a big pot or kettle on the wood burning stove in the kitchen, the pipes of which heated meagrely the other two or three rooms of the house and the few rooms behind the store. Baths were luxuries which could be afforded only by the wealthy who had plenty of heat and water and a bathroom. My grandmother and the children did the best they could with what they had but the children, like their companions in the school, could not have been as clean as we expect our children to be. Moreover, a staple of their diet was goose fat and garlic rubbed on black bread. (I’m sure there are members of this audience who can remember this, I could remember it, both firsthand and second.) Woollen socks, wet felt boots, goose fat did nothing to sweeten the air in the classroom!

My mother was one of the thousands of girls and boys who arrived in Manitoba between 1897 and 1929, swarming into the schools, overwhelming a tiny city and swelling its population many fold in three decades. The provincial population, largely of British origin and often British-born, was about 150,000 in 1891. A scattering of Francophones, a few Icelanders and Mennonites were the only minority groups of any consequence although a few Jewish families and a very few Central Europeans had already arrived and settled here. As a result of the extensive advertising campaign instituted by Clifford Sifton and a joint railroad and government policy encouraging immigration, ten years later the population had risen to 255,000, of whom about 16,000 were from the new population source, eastern Europe-eastern, central and southern Europe, as a matter of fact. In the next five years, that is by 1906, the population grew to 365,000 and the new minority groups had more than quadrupled to 73,000. It’s hard for us to realize this tremendous growth and what it must have meant in the way of absorption. In 1884 Winnipeg had a population of 16,694; by 1911 it had grown to 136,035 and by 1913, which was the peak year of immigration in Canada, the numbers were 203,000. In 1913, 400,870 people came to Canada. I’m not going to plague you with any more statistics, but I think you have to get the feel of the numbers before you can really realize what happened. In 1913 then, 401,000 people came to Canada, many of them from central and southern Europe, most of the latter from central and southern Europe, to western Canada. If you’re interested in reading about that migration, particularly the Ukrainian group, I recommend you to Vera Lysenko’s book, Men in Sheepskin Coats.

Although immigration was being encouraged not only by the Government of Canada but also by the great transportation companies, it was by no means universally popular; in fact, it was very unpopular with large numbers of the population-not the indigenous population who didn’t know what was happening, but by the previous wave of immigrants. So these arrivals were by no means universally welcomed, especially when the wave of immigration brought into Canada such large numbers of people who were obviously not Anglo-Saxon. In J. S. Woodsworth’s book Strangers Within Our Gates, published in 1909, Mr. Woodsworth was sympathetic to the immigrants whose plight he saw so clearly through his work in the Methodist Mission in Winnipeg. He quotes an American example regarding the high incidence of crime among immigrants and I quote here:

Roughly speaking, the foreigners furnish more than twice as many criminals, two and one-third times as many insane, and three times as many paupers as the native element.

By the way, he doesn’t mean Indians when he says "the native element."

We might endure the criminality of the adult immigrants with more composure, if we had any assurance that their children would be as orderly as the native-born. But we find just the opposite to be the fact; the children of immigrants are, therefore, twice as dangerous as the immigrants themselves. [1]

Mr. Woodsworth, having given the American example, went on to say:

The immigration to Canada has been so recent that here, again, we have no statistics on which to base conclusions of any value. The annual police returns for Winnipeg for 1907 show that immigrants are fairly prominent in the police court, more so than their numbers would warrant. [2]

And he quotes the figures. That book is very interesting. J. W. Sparling, for whom Principal Sparling School in the west end of the city is named, wrote in his introduction

Perhaps the largest and most important problem that the North American continent has before it to-day for solution is to show how the incoming tides of immigrants of various nationalities and different degrees of civilization may be assimilated and made worthy citizens of the Commonwealths. The United States have been grappling with this question for decades, but have not yet found a solution. Canada is now facing the same problem, but in an aggravated form. A much larger percentage of foreigners, in proportion to our population, is coming to us just now, than came at any one period to the United States. The larger the percentage the more difficult is the problem of solution. Western Canada has this problem in an even more perplexing form than has the East. And the city of Winnipeg might, without any misuse of words, be called the storm centre of this problem for Canada.

Mr. Sparling recommends Mr. Woodsworth’s book to those "who are desirous of understanding and grappling with this great national danger," and emphasizes the point.

... For there is a danger and it is national! Either we must educate and elevate the incoming multitudes or they will drag us and our children down to a lower level. We must see to it that the civilization and ideals of Southeastern Europe are not transplanted and perpetuated on our virgin soil. [3]

It is rather interesting now to read what people had to say of us because we, you and I, were constituting the dangers.

I hasten to explain that Mr. Woodsworth was not anti-foreign. He was, if anything, in advance of his time, and again and again in his writing he expressed the need to think of the immigrants, not as stereotypes but as individual human beings. The opening of his preface, for example, reads

What does the ordinary Canadian know about our immigrants? He classifies all men as white men and foreigners. The foreigners he thinks of as men who dig the sewers and get into trouble at the police court. They are all supposed to dress in outlandish garb, to speak a barbarian tongue, and to smell abominably. [4]

In Manitoba: A History, W. L. Morton wrote:

The great immigration that began in 1897 had been greeted with mingled hope and apprehension, hope that the West was at last coming into its own, apprehension that it would not be possible to assimilate the newcomers to the British-Canadian way of life which had been established in the first generation of settlement. It was taken for granted that they would and should be assimilated ... [5]

A little later he wrote:

... the boom was setting up ever sharper strains in the structure of the community, none was severer, or more feared, than the strain of incorporating the thousands of European immigrants. The American settlers caused little concern in the West, although the "Americanization" of the West aroused fears in eastern Canada. [6]

Does that sound familiar?

Nor were doubts entertained as to the power of the old community to absorb the north European immigrants. The Scandinavians, the Germans, and other people of related stock and Protestant faith. It was the Slavs, the Galicians, in fact principally the Ukrainians who were feared as "strangers within the gates." [7]

He went on:

When the tale of the immigrants was counted, it was apparent that all the diversity of Europe in race and creed had been imposed on the already diversified population of Manitoba of the first generation. The leading question of the day was whether this conglomeration of peoples could be fused with the British Canadian majority to make a real community which would preserve salient features of the old British legions, English speech, the rule of law, the democratic process, and the creed of common friendliness and good neighbourhood. [8]

At this point Mr. Morton brings me to the topic of my talk tonight in what is not, I think, too roundabout a fashion since the story I’m telling springs from the next sentence:

The great agency of assimilation in North America was the public school, and Manitoba, at the cost of a severe struggle, had established a common, or national school system partly in anticipation of the need of unifying a diverse population. [9]

It is of that school system and the job it did in the years from 1900, with more emphasis on the early than the later years since then, that I’m going to speak this evening. Except for a brief reference I’m going to ignore the famous Manitoba Schools Question not because it isn’t vital to the subject, but merely because I haven’t the time. I’m also going to pass over the tremendous work done by volunteer organizations, churches, immigrant aid societies and I’m saying nothing at all about the education ,hat went on in parochial schools, evening and Sabbath schools. All these are part of the education of the children of immigrants and if I were to write a book on the subject I should most certainly deal with them. Tonight I must limit myself to the public schools, to the period from roughly 1900 to 1920, and to Winnipeg.

So let me come back to the school that Pauline Katz came into in 1904. Aberdeen School was opened in 1893 in what the chairman of the board, at that time, D. C. McIntyre, said was away out on the prairie. It is now in the heart of the city. Like the old Norquay, which in 1892 replaced a still earlier building that had been destroyed by fire, and like so many of the school buildings of that era, it had a peculiar type of construction, which I’m sure many of you sitting in the audience are familiar with. I was going to say I had suffered through it, but it was really rather interesting to go downstairs to go upstairs. To reach the same level you had to go down the stairs and across the hallway, and up another set of stairs. The principal’s office and the nurse’s room were often on one of the landings. The wooden floors always creaked and smelled of oil that had soaked in over generations. When I attended Aberdeen School in 1923-24 I’m sure it wasn’t very different from what it had been when my mother attended it in 1904. The same principal, Arthur E. Hearne, who had greeted my mother in 1904 presided benevolently in 1923 over what was by then a much larger institution. Some of you will remember him, just and kindly, he listened with an understanding heart to the problems of his pupils and their teachers. By 1904 his school population was growing so rapidly that walls could not contain the children. In 1905, even as another building was going up on Aberdeen grounds, the famous Aberdeen No. 2, Pauline, with others, was transferred to Machray School. It, like, Aberdeen, was filling rapidly with the enrolment growing daily, most of its new students from central Europe, and most of them Jewish. The principal there, J. B. Wallace, who later became superintendent of elementary schools in Winnipeg, also taught the Grade VIII class and is remembered with awe and respect by his former students. He also had a phenomenal memory. Machray, as I remember it, as late as the twenties, had prestige. It was not as greenhorn a school as Norquay or Aberdeen, or Strathcona, or even a shiny new girls’ school like William Whyte, built in 1914 just before the war broke out. In 1905 and 1906 great empty spaces still separated Machray School from the settlements farther south and it was not unusual for a child to lose a boot in the slimy waters of the ditches that lined the road as she slipped off the muddy crest. Or to stray off the road altogether when the unobstructed wind from the north and west blew up a blizzard just at four o’clock-at the time she had to make her way from College Avenue and Charles Street to Pritchard Avenue between Salter and Powers. At Machray English was the predominant language on the playground and names like "MacTavish," "MacDonald" and "Sutherland" still outnumbered the "-skis," "-ovitches" and "-bergs." The newcomers were more easily indoctrinated with the joys of English speaking when they had to play as well as work in the English language.

Strathcona School became the centre of education for the immigrants who arrived in Winnipeg after 1905 and settled in the North End, not because it was essentially different from the other schools in the area, but because its principal, W. J. Sisler, stepped to the forefront of those concerned with the education of the children who were entering the schools in such unprecedented numbers.

In his own book which he published privately in 1944, Mr. Sisler outlined the problem. He moved into Strathcona School in 1905 when it opened. I remember the building well since I taught in it for five months in the fall and winter of 1942-43, and there are people in the audience here, among them my cousin Merle Brownstone, and Rose Victor, who attended Strathcona School a little later than 1905 but still under the tutelage of Mr. Sisler. Like Aberdeen it had wooden floors and a strange arrangement of stairs leading up and down its curious levels. It had been built to accommodate five to six hundred pupils but so thinly settled was the district that its enrolment, when it opened, was somewhere between two and three hundred, most of them children of English-speaking parents. By the end of the second year of its existence it contained over four hundred children and by the end of the third year an incredible nine hundred, ninety per cent of them, by that time, non-English. J. W. Chafe in his book, An Apple For The Teacher, quotes Mr. Sisler in 1955 when he was eighty-five years old. Mr. Sisler said:

The first of the immigrants to enrol were the Jewish children, aged six to twenty. They were followed by the German-speaking, then the Slavs, mostly Ukrainians. Our great problem, of course, was language. Imagine a young teacher facing fifty or more pupils who couldn’t understand her, in many cases couldn’t understand each other! There might be twenty different languages spoken in the class. We had to find a way to teach them. [10]

Over the years I have heard a great deal about Mr. Sisler from his former pupils and from teachers who taught under his regime. I remember substituting one day at Isaac Newton School when he was there as principal, and I saw him at teachers’ meetings once or twice after I joined the Winnipeg staff as a teacher. Perhaps the best picture emerged from a conversation I had recently with Mrs. Rose Victor who entered Strathcona School at the age of fifteen at the height of the flow of newcomers. She said to me and I think I have the quotation correct, W. J. Sisler did a tremendous job with immigrant students, especially the older ones who came in eager to learn. Sixteen or eighteen hours a day of study was not enough for them, so anxious were they to learn. Mr. Sisler and his teachers were there to help them, to help us, that is. There were no discipline problems with us. We just asked for more and more. When I say Mr. Sisler helped us, that’s exactly what I mean. He helped us by getting jobs to make it possible for us to stay at school, he even lent his students money to further their education. Nothing was too much trouble when it came to his girls and his boys. But in a way, he was like two different people, on the one hand, he was sympathetic and interested; on the other, his discipline was very strong. He was perhaps too severe on little boys who couldn’t walk in a straight line and thought it more fun to roll down the stairs than to walk in an orderly fashion.

I can remember several people, my friends, telling me stories that we wouldn’t dare tell about a teacher or a principal today. Stories of Mr. Sisler grabbing a kid by the scruff of the neck, or the seat of the pants and throwing him downstairs or clipping a particularly bad and cheeky boy on the chin. The days in which that kind of discipline was routine are gone forever. Mr. Sisler, however, is remembered with deep gratitude and deep appreciation.

Mrs. Victor spoke, too, with appreciation of the teachers she had for her two years at Strathcona School and with equal gratitude of the policy which pushed students quickly through the elementary grades and encouraged them to go on through high school. She spent two years at Strathcona, learned English quickly and, in spite of almost no formal schooling in the old country, made it into high school where she first felt the inadequacy of her early school experiences. Later, she, in turn, became a teacher of immigrant children and learned firsthand the problems faced by a young teacher with little or no previous training trying to cope with large classes of children.

But more of that later, and of the curriculum and teaching methods. Let me come back now to the schools. I have already mentioned the phenomenal growth of the school population. No school building program could keep up with it. The increase in school enrolment in the thirteen years between 1954 and 1967 (and I’m quoting Mr. Chafe again) was roughly 25%; between 1900 and 1913 it was 200%. Enrolment went from 7500 to 22,000 and teachers from 119 in 1900 to 527 in 1913, buildings from sixteen (that’s in Winnipeg proper) some of them small frame structures to thirty-eight, mostly built of stone and brick, many of them still standing. [11]

What happened at Norquay School was probably typical of the other schools in the North End where the immigrants were concentrated. I spent an afternoon there a few weeks ago, a fascinating afternoon. I wish that I had time to spend more hours there and I hope someday to be able to return and do exactly that. I looked at old registers and record cards. They go back some distance into the nineteenth century since the original Norquay School was built on the present site in 1882. Though some of the early records were destroyed in the fire, those of you here who were teachers would be very interested in those old registers. They are large single sheets, marked off for a total term, for September, October, November, December. Although there was room for about fifty names on the register in many of the classes two of these registers were needed to register a single class.

Unfortunately, I had to be selective and could not gather the rich harvest to be reaped. There were, however, many things to be learned. For example, Miss L. L. Kennedy, in 1900, taught a class of Grade III and IV children at Norquay School. She had been hired in 1891 with a professional second class certificate which meant that she had completed Grade XI in the teachers’ course for which neither French nor Latin was required. Some of the people with second class certificates did not have and did not require advanced mathematics. Miss Kennedy’s salary, after nine years of teaching was $575.00. The average enrolment in her class that year, for a mixed grade, was 46.42 for the fall term. I wasn’t too shocked at the figure because in my first year of teaching on the Winnipeg staff in 1935, that was about my average enrolment for the fall term. I had forty-eight children in the class in Grade IV.

Some people in this audience will remember Miss Annie Pullar. She was music supervisor when I started school in Grade 1 in 1917 and was still music supervisor when I began to teach in Winnipeg in the thirties. Someone had said that she sounded as if she had a canary in her throat, so trilling were the notes that issued from under the high collar and velvet ribbon. I can see that some of you remember her. If we hadn’t been there to hear, we would never have believed that such sweet, full volume could come from so small a woman. How she must have delighted her mixed lots of Grade 5 and 6 youngsters at Norquay School in 1900! She had six and a half months of teacher training and was paid $650.00, so she must have had something that Miss Kennedy didn’t have, or more likely, as was the case when I first came on Winnipeg staff, Grade 6 teachers rated higher on the prestige ladder and the salary scale than Grade 4 teachers. The lowest were Grade 1 teachers.

Some St. John’s alumni will remember Miss Kate E. Haffner who taught French and German at St. John’s for many years. In 1900 she had a Grade I class at Norquay School and she had a professional first class B certificate - Grade XI and two subjects in Grade XII, earned after five and a half months at the Normal School. She had fifty pupils on the roll and the average attendance for the term was thirty-nine. Attendance was not very good in those days for a variety of reasons.

Alice Bowen, with four and a half months of training, for $500.00 a year, was also teaching a primary grade in which were enrolled children from six to thirteen years old. Some of the older ones were retarded but a great many of the older ones were children who had come in from overseas and were put into Grade I classes until they were ready to move on. These were the ladies who taught the first of the children coming into the schools without English.

In 1900 the majority of names on the Norquay register were AngloSaxon, (with apologies to the Scottish and Irish, the term is used to cover all residents of the British Isles) but a few others were beginning to appear. Alice Bowen, for example, taught Max Singerman, Louis Kornberg, and Jack Fingerote. At that time Jack was thirteen years old. By the way, the English-speaking teachers had understandably a great deal of trouble with foreign names. Tongues and orthography that can easily handle "McLaughlin" and "Thistlethwaite" find "Timchorych," "Chelmelnitsky" and "Semchysyn" very difficult to handle. As a result, I found what was obviously the same child appearing in successive registers or even on successive pages of the same register, identified by first and surnames with a variety of very creative spellings. By 1906 the names that had been a minority in the 1900 registers were coming close to a majority position. The effect of immigration was strong in Norquay. Names like "Greenberg," "Goldstein," "Freedman," "Abramovitch," spelt in a variety of fashions, and here and there a "Hollenberg" showing up, were common. By 1910 they had pushed out most of the Anglo-Saxon names. I was interested to see my own family connections liberally represented - Pearl and Dave Berg, Isaac Bercovitch, I. D. Rusen, appeared in a very spotty spot check of some of the old registers.

Miss Margaret Harper registered a Grade I class in September of 1906. She had twenty-six boys and thirty girls in her class and their ages ranged from six to fourteen. There were two fourteen-year-olds, two thirteen-year-olds, four twelve-year-olds, only one or two six-year-olds. I wondered as I looked at her roll whether parents had been asked to delay the entrance of six-year-old children or whether recent immigrants were reluctant to send such little ones to a strange school where a strange language was spoken by strange-looking women so unlike their own mothers, whose work-worn hands spoke of a hard life in faraway lands. In any event the attendance was not very good and the dropout rate very high. By the end of the term eighty-eight children had appeared on her roll. Four pages of register were required to list them. Norquay must have been a stopping-off place; newcomers, perhaps moved in with relatives or friends for a few months and then moved on. Natie Abramovitch is an example. He attended sixteen out of nineteen days in September, five out of twenty-three in October, and then disappeared from the class though his name remained on the roll. He was eleven years old.

From September to December, 1906, Miss M. G. Conklin had a Grade II class with an average attendance (this figure represents those actually attending school) well into the seventies. In September the average attendance in her class was 77.42, in October 75, in November 82, in December 81.95.

One wonders at the courage and stamina of these teachers and can only admire the job they did. As Mrs. Victor said about her teaching experience in 1917, just seven years after she herself arrived in Canada:

Forty-eight pupils, ages six to fourteen, in three grades, difficult discipline, many of the youngsters neither civilized nor motivated. I lost pounds and pounds. (this was at Strathcona.)

I went to Mr. Sisler and told him I couldn’t take another year of it. So the next year he gave me a Grade II class, just as large. I found that most of them had been in class four in Grade I, the slowest children in the beginning class. I was glad to be able to leave to get married.

These were the teachers, most of them women, at least in the seven grades. Grade VIII was often taught by the principal himself, at least when the enrolment was low in the early 1900s. My mother was taught both by Mr. Hearne, principal of Aberdeen School and by Mr. Wallace, principal of Machray School. I don’t want to be accused of female chauvinism if I quote some of the pupils who had these men and women and I won’t name my informants, but several of them told me that they were more than a little overawed by the men, and were uniformly inspired by the women. Maybe that’s because they were talking to me, more likely it was because the principal was probably the only man in the school. He strapped the boys.

Speaking of the women, one elderly woman said to me recently:

They were so kind to us. We must have been hard to put up with, because we admired them so much that we wanted to be close to them. We walked around at recess hanging onto their skirts and sleeves. We stood as close to them as we could get when we went up to the desk to get our spelling marked. We wanted so badly to please them. Most of them were very good to us. We wanted to be like them and we were ashamed of our parents and grandparents.

Another friend of mine, herself for many years a teacher and now retired, who also wishes to remain anonymous, confessed that she was scolded for not bringing her report card back to school. She said she lost it on the way to school, although she had torn it up and thrown it away because she was ashamed to tell her beautiful teacher that her mother and father couldn’t read English or sign their names.

Almost all the teachers were of Anglo-Saxon origin (again I use the adjective loosely) although following the change in the Public Schools Act which outlawed so-called bilingualism, that is teaching of children in the language of their homeland, there was a drive by the Department of Education to train and send into the schools teachers of various ethnic backgrounds. As early as 1900 a Miriam Finkelstein taught a Grade IV class at Norquay. She had twenty-seven boys and thirty-six girls in the class with an average attendance for the term of 47.88. By the late teens and early twenties there was a fair sprinkling of teachers who were either naturalized Canadians themselves or the children of immigrants, though generally for the next twenty years they taught largely in rural schools with, and I’m quoting, "foreign populations." There were notable exceptions of teachers who were not of English-speaking background being allowed into elite areas like Fort Rouge or the South End, but on the whole, they were kept comfortably among their own, as I was told, where no one could be offended by their presence. And those of us who taught in Winnipeg in the ’30s know how true that was.

Attendance in the schools tended to be poor, especially until the School Attendance Act was passed in 1916. A good deal of the absence was legitimate. The old registers have written in "sick" or "illness" in spaces showing a child’s absence for two or three weeks and quarantine, of course, was established for everything, so that children might be kept out of school for six or eight or ten weeks because measles ran through the family. I remember, as a matter of fact, being excluded as a diphtheria carrier, my first year in school in 1917, and being out for months on end. Hygiene was poor, sanitary standards were low, living quarters crowded and at least, in the early days, water hard to come by, especially in the winter months.

I remember a pupil of mine in the middle ’30s, fourteen years old in Grade IV (taller than I was) telling me that his mother sewed his father into his underwear in October, woolen underwear, he said. The occasion for the information I should say, arose out of a discussion of why Arabs in the desert wear wool all year round.

But attendance was poor for other reasons. In one of the registers I found several notations to the effect that boys of twelve and thirteen were withdrawn from school to go to work. I’m sure their contributions to the family budget were desperately needed. Moreover, children who didn’t understand the language and had little incentive at home to learn for the sake of learning became easily discouraged and dropped out of school early. As a matter of fact I was surprised and touched by the large numbers who braved the hazards of the schools of those days and stayed on until fourteen or fifteen.

I should explain that the record cards that were left behind at Norquay School are those of children who left Norquay School. Any that continued on in the city system had their cards forwarded with them, so the cards that were left (and available to me) were not typical of the children; they were typical of those who dropped out or who had to withdraw for one reason or another. Most of the stories on these old cards, a great many of them dating back to the twenties, were very sad indeed. Sophie K., for example, was born in Winnipeg in 1913 and dropped out of school in 1928. Her mother was listed as Austrian, her father Ruthenian. That was a common notation on the cards - "Ruthenian," "Ruth." for short. She spent two years in Grade I, two years in Grade II, so that she was ten years old by the time she reached Grade III. Then she spent one year each in Grades III and IV. Her attendance in Grade V dropped off radically during the three years (yes, three years) she spent in Grade V, until a grateful teacher wrote "Withdrawn" on her card in May of 1928. There were no special classes. One can only wonder what the school had done for or with, her. Was she a genuine retardate? Was she a victim of large classes and a rigid program of studies? Something kept her in school until she was fifteen, so either she, or her parents, had some kind of ambition for education. Sophie was only one of many boys and girls, whose needs were not being met in those schools of long ago.

And that brings me to the programs that the children of those years struggled with. Winnipeg, in spite of its huge classes and its tremendous demands on its teaching staff, had a great advantage over the rural areas where the damage done by the bilingual solution to the Manitoba School Question had wrought inestimable damage. W. J. Morton wrote:

The backwardness of Manitoba schools was becoming notorious in Canada and the English speaking world.

This was a general attitude as the comment of Mr. Herbert Samuel revealed in 1913 when he remarked that in the matter of education Manitoba was a generation behind the civilized world. The worst fears of the early 1900s seemed to be confirmed. In 1915 Robert Fletcher, Deputy Minister of Education, informed his Minister, Dr. R. S. Thornton, "The situation is just about out of hand." The only remedy, Dr. Thornton decided, was to abolish the bilingual system entirely. That was the system whereby any school might teach in the language of the parents if there were ten or more children in the school whose parents wanted instruction in the language. As a result, through a substantial part of the province, English was neither spoken nor used in teaching. There was true linguistic chaos.

In Winnipeg in 1911, a quarter of the population was "foreign-born," "foreign" meaning not English-speaking. If their Canadian-born children were included, the proportion would obviously be much higher. Long before 1911, people like W. J. Sisler, J. S. Woodsworth, and many others realized that the newcomers could not be Canadianized until they were fluent in English. The Winnipeg schools, therefore, gave their first priority to the teaching of English in spite of the existing law. Sisler came to the conclusion very quickly that English could not be taught through "grammar and literature, that it must come through what he called "direct teaching." He used and helped his teachers and teachers in other schools affected by the peaceful invasion, to use the oral approach. It was no good teaching phonics, he said, or giving formal lessons in reading until the children understood the words that were being used as illustrations for the phonics. He used concrete objects-"door," "windows," "scribbler" - all everyday words of school and the world around the children. He devised charts showing action words "running and walking," "talking and listening," and "reading and writing." He suggested action songs and singing games to help children get the rhythm of the language. He decided that it was not merely impractical to have the children taught by teachers who spoke the children’s languages, he believed it was neither possible nor desirable. And this is interesting because we have come full cycle, and we’re reaching the stage now where we are saying that Indian children should be taught in native language until Grade III or IV, in order that they may feel comfortable. To be trite - in education history certainly keeps repeating itself. As far as practicality was concerned, of course, there might be children of six or eight different language groups in the same crowded classroom. It would be impossible to get teachers who spoke all of these languages. Better to get them all communicating in English, Sisler said. He discovered that children could and did learn from a teacher who was completely unfamiliar with their native languages. He believed - and his former students fervently agree that he carried through his convictions - he believed that the occupied, busy child did not have time to get into trouble and he kept his students busy, not merely during school time but after school hours. Those of you who attended Strathcona or Isaac Newton School later on know about his garden plots for which he was famous and which his students remember with a great deal of pleasure.

Incidentally, some of his students still smile when they recall the documents he used to send home to their parents in praise of activity, especially of the gardening project. This gentleman was so sensitive to the condition and needs of the parents of his pupils that he regularly sent home notices in four different languages, yet in the spring of 1908 he circulated a leaflet to these same parents, some of whom could not read or write in any language, much less English. Let me quote from this leaflet:

When a child produces something by his own skill and work he will realize that he has some inherent right in the article produced and that others have a similar right to what they produce. Dishonesty, not only of children but of adults in their, social, business and political life is a result of failure to understand these rights. In the realm of nature is there anything more wonderful than the regeneration of life from an insignificant withered seed? It is a miracle seen so often that we classify unnoticed so wonderful that the most learned cannot discover the secret, yet so simple that the little child can understand in the main, conditions which bring it about. [12]

A wonderful thought but I wonder how many of the parents who got the notice knew what it was all about.

Art, music and physical education (and "physical education" again I am afraid must be in quotes) were considered important in Mr. Sisler’s school. There was a form of military drill for the boys; the cadet corps was well and truly trained. Said Mr. Sisler

At one time we had three companies of cadets who knew their company and battalion drill much better than did most militia units of that time. [13]

These cadets were boys whose fathers and brothers had fled Europe, partly to avoid military conscription. I have a picture at home of my uncle, Jacob Shack, standing rigidly at attention in his cadet corps at Strathcona School. His father, my grandfather, had been one of Nicholas’s soldiers, conscripted into the Russian army at the age of five years.

Cadet training disappeared during the first World War but the dummy wooden rifles with which the boys were equipped gathered dust in the attics of the old school buildings for years. They were still in Laura Secord School during the 1940s when I taught there. (One of them was used to hold up a corner grocery store by one of my pupils.) Boys’ sports were very important and the North End established quite a reputation for itself. But again one wonders how much understanding was of the students of the school. I’m quoting now from page 40 of Mr. Sisler’s book, Peaceful Invasion

I remembered two boys who were not allowed by their parents to ride on a streetcar or do any work with their hands on Saturdays. As most of our games were played on that day, this restriction would apparently keep them out of the games. The boys made no objections to walking long distances to the games and when it was pointed out to the father that soccer was played with the feet and using the hands was contrary to the rules there was no further objection. The boys developed into good players and used to rise early and walk a mile or two in order to be on the field in time to begin play at nine o’clock. [14]

The story may be amusing but to me it is significant, because the parents of those children valued the Sabbath and obviously the teachers had no idea of what they were doing to separate the children from their parents.

The academic program reflected the strong Protestant British tradition in this part of the world. British history was taught in the elementary school and the readers were a sturdy uncompromising collection of patriotic lore, interspersed here and there with a little Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier. (That made them North American.) I have a copy of a Victorian reader, fifth grade, published by Copp Clark Co. Ltd. and W. J. Gage Co. Ltd. in 1898. The title page says it was authorized by the Advisory Board for Manitoba. On the flyleaf there is an inscription to indicate that it was used by at least two little girls in 1907 and in 1910. The first piece in it is "The Red River Voyageur" by Whittier, followed by "The Pilgrim’s Progress," "A Canadian Boat Song," "The Pickwickians on Ice," "For the Strength of the Hills We Bless Thee," (I think that is a hymn by Felicia Hemans) and so on through 438 tightly packed pages, the last containing Psalms 46, 42 and 43. No compromise with reading levels in that book. "Raleigh and the Queen," "Cromwell’s Expulsion of the Long Parliament," this latter by Lord Macaulay, not an author renowned for the simplicity of his style; "The Vision of Sir Launfal" and ... need I go on? It is not hard to imagine the difficulties encountered by ten-year-old children barely learning to speak English as they tried to cope with sentences such as these by Carlyle on the nobility of work:

Destiny on the whole has no other way of cultivating us. A formless chaos, once set it revolving grows round and even rounder, ranges itself by mere force of gravity into strata, spherical courses, is no longer a chaos but a round, compacted world.

That is good solid Grade V reading. I must say that the little girls who were subjected to this had written in their round Edwardian hand meanings of practically every word and when you read the dictionary meanings of these words and tried to make meaning of those two sentences you were really lost! Byron, Addison, Milton, all the greats of English literature, with a few Americans and Canadians thrown in, are there to challenge the young learner, or as more frequently happened, to defeat him utterly.

Arithmetic was a stern and demanding subject. I have some old arithmetic books at home. They deal with laying shingles on roofs, and estimating the costs of wallpaper. Many of my generation went through that program too. City children later strove to make sense of questions about bushels of alfalfa and learned the length of the chain and the fathom. Yet, in spite of this program, they learned, and thousands of them loved to learn.

In geography the children studied little about the lands of their origins. I have an old Morang’s Geography at home. Except for a few weeks spent on the political map of Europe on which Bukovina and Galicia and Bessarabia are not even marked, the British, the Scandinavians, the Icelanders, and the Germans were favoured immigrants.

By the way, the myth that northern Europe produces a population of sturdier, more honest, more intelligent and generally superior to that of central and southern part of the continent was almost as strong in Manitoba in the years between 1900 and 1930 as it was in Germany after 1930 - almost - but fortunately not quite. I can support the point with quotations from as generous and liberal a man as Mr. Woodsworth. But even though so favoured, except for the British they had little attention paid to their heritage, geographical or historical.

If there is any doubt that the public school has or had a powerful influence on the moulding of a new generation in Canada, one has only to listen to those of us who came through the system. We are Canadian, we are Anglicized, we are even in a sense Christianized, in the Protestant image, although we remain strongly Jewish, or Greek Orthodox or Catholic or what have you. Our eyes still fill with tears and our hearts with emotion when we recite "The Burial of Sir John Moore" as my mother does, or "The Torch of Life" as I can do. Our heads may bring humour to our acceptance of the values we learned in the schools but our hearts still respond. Perhaps that is why Dr. Sheppy Hershfield can write and his readers can read with nostalgia of the old games fought bitterly-North against South. In my time Kelvin High represented the prosperous "south end" and St. John’s High School the underprivileged "north end." The rivalry between the two identical buildings, located at opposite ends of the city, was real and deadly. It was also strongly engrained in their graduates. When, twenty-two years after leaving St. John’s, I became a teacher at Kelvin I suffered pangs of guilt at my treachery; I had gone over to the enemy!

Vince Leah can recall the good old days when neighbours got to know one another over the barriers of language and custom. Edith Paterson’s books about the early history of the city can sell like hotcakes. They all recall those days when for the oldsters life was young and full of promise. When the chilblains and the wet felt boots and the bags of garlic hung around their necks to ward off colds were just part of life, a life hard but full of promise. When soccer was strictly an English game and there was no Hungaria or Italia or Rumania team. The Strathcona Junior Football Club, 1917, had on its roster, J. Kornek, P. Geller, A. Leach, A. Teplisky, Phil Black, I. Kristovsky in the back row of a proudly posed picture. In the second row were W. Fogel, J. Liskus, A. Foster, W. J. Sisler, C. Hershfield, H. Hollis, A. Minkus; and in the front row, holding the trophy very proudly, H. Korman and W. Kusick. Nothing to write home about now when Winnipeg takes pride in itself as Canada’s most cosmopolitan and best-integrated city but something for 1917. The intermediate B Lacrosse team, Winnipeg Schools, 1913, was made up of D. Krentz, Sam Pearlman, A. Timchoruk, N. Kerchinsky, A. Melowich, L. Goiman, W. Maslick, W. J. Sisler, F. Cantor, Stanley Zed, N. Bendit, Con Borger, Saul Pearlman and B. Egilson. Many of them had also played with the Strathcona Intermediates in 1910-11. Maybe they were the first lot to give the "north end" its reputation for being tough and unbeatable, a reputation it kept long after the better-fed, better-equipped south-enders began to win a few trophies.

We hear complaints in the schools today about the discipline. What must have been the problems of the young, inexperienced, under-trained girls, who in the nineteen tens taught classes of fifty or sixty in rooms built to hold thirty or forty! What must have been their problems with boys and girls over-aged and under-motivated, bewildered and defeated by a new language and a new way of life, uprooted and rebellious as they were! I have heard tales of children coming to school, bruised and swollen as a result of beatings at home, hostile and uncooperative. I have also heard tales dimmed to a pleasant kind of remembering by the passing years, of children strapped at school because they didn’t learn, shoved around, and occasionally kicked out, because they questioned authority. By the way, it’s always the men who tell these stories and they always tell them with a kind of pride.

In four or five years, both boys and girls were out in the country teaching, in ten or twelve years boys were doctors and lawyers, thanks to the fathers who worked twenty hours a day, seven days a week peddling or tailoring or shop keeping, to mothers who plucked chickens that sold for five cents a head, to devoted teachers who came into schools in the dark of a winter morning to help a child who wanted to learn and who stayed at the school long after the lights were on in the winter afternoon to coach youngsters for the dreaded entrance examinations at the end of Grade VIII; thanks to men like A. D. Hearne and W. J. Sisler and Charles Laidlaw and Mr. Huggins who patted their little students on the head, learning to overlook the lice and the layers of grime. All these contributed to the making of Canadians.

The teachers and the administrators fought for health services for the schools and for realistic programs to meet the needs of their children. They were half a century ahead of their time in wanting good physical conditions for their children to work in, in using audio-visual materials to teach the language, in recognizing that children had individual needs and aspirations. Their work brought a rich harvest, not merely in academic fields. The pupils of these teachers made names for themselves in every field of human endeavour-often far from the province that welcomed them and educated them. Their children and their children’s children continue to reward those who led and cajoled and sometimes drove them into learning.


1. J. S. Woodsworth, Strangers Within Our Gates, (Toronto, 1909), p. 248.

2. Ibid., p. 249.

3. Ibid., pp. 3-4.

4. Ibid., p. 5.

5. W. L. Morton, Manitoba: A History, (Toronto, 1957), p. 296.

6. Ibid., p. 308.

7. Ibid., p. 309.

8. Ibid., p. 311.

9. Ibid., p. 311.

10. J. W. Chafe, An Apple For The Teacher, (Winnipeg, 1967), p. 63.

11. Ibid., pp. 66-67.

12. W. J. Sisler, Peaceful Invasion, (Winnipeg, 1944), p. 60.

13. Ibid., p. 61.

14. Ibid., p. 40.

Page revised: 29 July 2015