Manitoba Historical Society
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The Language Problem in Manitoba's Schools

by Robert Fletcher

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 6, 1949-50 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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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When the Province of Manitoba was formed in 1870 a clause in the Manitoba Act provided that either French or English might be used in the debates of the Legislature or in the Courts of the province, and that both must be used in the legislative records and journals and in printing the statutes.

In 1871 the Legislature of Manitoba passed a statute providing for the establishment of a school system similar to that existing in the Province of Quebec. A Board of Education consisting of two sections, one Protestant and the other Roman Catholic, was constituted. Each section was empowered to regulate matters pertaining to the conduct of its own schools - such as the text books to be used, the subjects of study, the language of instruction - and to control the inspectoral, examination and licensing standards in all schools under its jurisdiction. Each section had its own Superintendent of Education. The Roman Catholic population at that time being very largely French-speaking, it was natural that French was made the language of instruction in most of the schools controlled by the Roman Catholic section of the Board. In 1874 came the Mennonites, who had an agreement with the Federal Government promising them liberty of religion and of education in schools as provided by law. [1] The language of instruction in their schools was German. Incidentally, I should add that they operated private schools and in addition to German composition and grammar, taught the Bible, writing and elementary arithmetic. (No English was taught.)

In 1890 the Legislature passed an Act abolishing the Board of Education and the office of Superintendent of Education, and creating a Department of Education and an Advisory Board to which it committed full authority in the matter of curriculum, text books, examinations, qualifications of teachers and the form of religious exercises to be used in schools. [2]

A second Act repealed all former statutes relating to education and provided that all public schools should be free, and non-sectarian and authorized religious exercises to be conducted according to the regulations of the Advisory Board. [3]

The Legislature in 1890 also swept away the previous provision under which either French or English might be used in the debates in the legislature and which required that the records and journals be printed in both languages. [4]

The effect of all this was to make English the official language of the Province and the language of instruction in the schools. Only school districts operating under the provisions of the Public Schools Act could receive grants-in-aid from the Provincial Government or levy taxes for the support of their school or schools.

The leaders among the Roman Catholics took exception to this legislation and the so-called "Manitoba School Question" raged for some years, reaching its height at the time of the Dominion Election in June, 1896, when Wilfrid Laurier (later Sir Wilfrid) came to power. In November of the same year an agreement was entered into between the Manitoba Government and the Federal Government. This agreement was ratified by the legislature at its session in 1897. It contained the following clause: "where ten of the pupils speak the French language (or any language other than English) as their native language, the teaching of such pupils shall be conducted in French (or such other language) and English upon the bilingual system." [5]

You will note the very sweeping provision made in the matter of language by this legislation. It has been said that this was in consideration of the Mennonites. Primarily, this right was intended for the French alone and, as subsequent events proved, it would have been in their interest, to quote the Manitoba Free Press, "if the drafters of the legislation had had the courage to say what they meant."

When I entered the Department, in August 1903, the problems created by this legislation were already in evidence. The tide of immigration had brought us settlements of peoples speaking new languages. They were promptly coached in this matter of special privileges in the schools, and teachers were not available. Moreover, there was no compulsory education Act; but if there had been such an Act its provisions could not have been enforced when we could not furnish bilingual instruction.

In 1903 the Provincial Government erected a Normal School building in St. Boniface to train teachers for the French bilingual schools. The first session in the new building opened in January 1904. The minimum scholarship requirement for admission to the session was known as Part 2, Third Class, or Grade X in today's curriculum. Prior to January 1st, 1904, the Department had received one application from a young woman qualified to enter the school. On the opening day between forty and fifty young men and women presented themselves. A few possessed Grade VIII standing, but the great majority had not gone that far in school. It appeared that the chief qualification required was the age limit, sixteen years for a girl and eighteen years for a boy. Knowledge of the English language, both written and oral, was strictly limited. That was the material with which we had to strive to build a proper bilingual system. I saw some of these young people at work in the schools later. French was the language of instruction, and even in the attempts to teach the children to read English the teacher gave her instruction in French. The schools in effect were not bilingual, as intended by the legislation. Yet while the French teachers mainly were incompetent to teach English, the French parents were insistent upon the teacher being quite competent in the French language. Instance the Union Point case where the trustees were fined on complaint of a French-speaking parent that the teacher engaged was not competent to teach French. His daughter was preparing for entrance to high school and did not speak English. He charged that the teacher spoke English while teaching French. Please note that this girl did not speak English, although she had reached the top grade in the school and was the product of the so-called bilingual system.

Following the passing of the Public Schools Act in 1890, the Liberal Government secured the services of a Kansas man, Mr. H. H. Ewert, whose duty it was to persuade the Mennonites to adopt the public school system and to supervise the schools which they might establish under the Act. All things considered, he met with fair success. Education, however, was bedevilled by politics and my first official act, two days before I actually entered upon my duties in the Department, was to visit Gretna and inform Mr. Ewert that he had been dismissed and to arrange with someone to take over the class in training under him in a Normal School session. A provincial election had been held in the preceding June and Mr. Ewert was accused of having supported the Liberals in the campaign. The policy of the Liberals was continued under another man.

The problem of schools for the children of Polish and Ukrainian settlers was aggravated by the church which prompted these people to insist on bilingual teaching. To meet the situation, a special training school was established in Winnipeg in 1905. Young men of Polish and of Ukrainian nationality who had had some education in their native tongue were enrolled in a residential school and an effort made to give them a working command of the English language. In 1907 the Ukrainian section of the school was transferred to Brandon. Needless to say, these teachers were ill-equipped to give instruction in English, but it is only fair to say that they did their best under trying circumstances. This is borne out by the fact that their schools ranked second in the matter of progress in English in the special survey made under Dr. Thomton's direction in 1915. The Mennonite public schools were placed first and the French schools rated a poor third.

A return to an Order of the House gave the following information on Polish and Ukrainian bilingual schools as at 31 December 1914: [6]

Number of School Districts


Number not operating


Number which had made no return for the term ending December 31


Number of teachers employed


Number of English-speaking teachers


Gonor School District employed one English-speaking and one Polish bilingual teacher. Ethelbert School District employed one English-speaking and one Ukrainian bilingual teacher.

When the Roblin Government introduced the Flag Policy in 1907, a number of the Mennonite school districts which had come under the provisions of the Public Schools Act reverted to the status of private schools. While some of these later returned to the Public Schools system, others remained out until 1916 when the passing of a Compulsory Education Act enabled the Department of Education to deal with them.

In the summer of 1911, Hon. George Coldwell and I spent two days driving among the villages around Winkler and Altona which were operating as private schools. The school building usually had living quarters for the teacher at one end. The teachers generally were not too well educated and spoke little or no English. Some of them eked out their small salaries by serving as the village herdsman during spring, summer and early fall. The main text book was the Bible. Copy books showed that the children's writing in German script was very good. Some very elementary arithmetic also was taught. The only language used was German.

Some very peculiar situations developed under the bilingual legislation.

Polish settlers began moving into Donald School District north of Winnipeg on the east side of the Red River. In due course they petitioned for bilingual teaching in Polish and English. The early settlers of the district were descendants of Selkirk settlers and Hudson's Bay Company factors. They countered with a petition for bilingual teaching in Gaelic and English. English remained the sole language of instruction until the enrolment in the school justified the employment of two teachers, when a teacher speaking Polish was added to the staff.

From a rural school district north of Beausejour with an enrolment of around fifty pupils came petitions for bilingual teaching in Polish, Ukrainian, Swedish and Gaelic. Each petition was quite legal. Naturally English, the common denominator, remained the sole language of instruction.

In another instance, Ukrainians moved into a district settled by French-speaking citizens and gradually took over control of the School Board, appointing an Ukrainian teacher. The French complained bitterly, but they had shown no concern for the Ukrainian children when they were in control. Fortunately for them there were sufficient children to justify a two-room school. So we had one room for Ukrainians and another for the French.

These examples illustrate the absurdity of the legislation.

Speaking in the House of Commons on 18 February 1890, Mr. Laurier said, it is imperative for us French Canadians to learn English," and as the years passed one noted a growing appreciation among all the groups of the necessity for their young people to learn English. The case was well put by O. D. Skelton in a Bulletin of the Departments of History and Political and Economic Science, Queen's University, April 1917, as follows:

"Is it just and expedient for the English-speaking majority in eight of our Provinces to use their power to require that every child in their bounds should be given an adequate mastery of English? On this point there is very general agreement. Undoubtedly this is not only our power but our duty, alike for the nation's sake and for the child's sake. In any democracy the foundation of common action, of common ideals and common purpose, is free intercourse and full understanding. In a country like Canada it is doubly essential that as few language bars as possible be added to the natural bars that check free intercourse. Without the widest possible knowledge of English no common Canadian consciousness is conceivable. It is equally clear that this training is desirable in the child's own interest. This is and will be overwhelmingly an English-speaking country, still more so an English-speaking continent. Many a door of opportunity will be barred to the child who lacks this key."

By 1916 the schools were producing young people with a fair knowledge of English. There was a marked improvement in this respect in the secondary schools in French communities, and the leaders among the French set themselves the task of seeing that their young people destined for the teaching profession measured up to the required standards. The Department endeavoured to maintain a sympathetic attitude to all the groups while insisting upon instruction in the schools being carried on in the English language as required by law. It was a case of "make haste slowly"; but improvement on the whole was steady. In order to deal with certain sections of the Mennonites we had to take authority to set up school districts and to administer them through an official trustee. This resulted in a trek of a considerable number to Mexico and later to South America; but the great majority fell in line. Today there are no better teachers as a group than those in the Mennonite districts and you will find teachers of Polish, Ukrainian and French descent rated among the top-notchers of the profession.

Some may say, what about the Scandinavian settlers? They seemed deter-mined to acquire English from the day they landed and were never a problem.

A few recalcitrant school boards and communities among the French, Polish and Ukrainian settlements insisted upon their teachers breaking the law and teaching little English, thus putting the teachers in danger of losing their certificates. In some cases the pressure on the school board came from the priest in charge of the parish. All such cases were dealt with promptly by the appointment of an Official Trustee for the district.

In closing I wish to pay tribute to our good friends in the City of St. Boniface who directed the schools there through these difficult years. They developed real bilingual schools which are a credit to the Province and demonstrated the feasibility of bilingual teaching when it is supported by the good-will of the community.


1. Canada Sessional Papers, 1916, No. 203.

2. Statues of Manitoba, 1890, 53 Vic. chap. 37.

3. Ibid. Chap. 38.

4. Ibid. Chap. 14.

5. Ibid. 1807, 60 Vic. Chap. 26, Sec. 10.

6. Manitoba Legislature, Return To An Order of the House Skewing Statistics re Polish and Ruthenian School Districts in the Province of Manitoba, 1915.

Page revised: 16 December 2012

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