Public schools and ratepayers in late 19th century New Brunswick: a linguistic divide?

By Elisa Sance

On January 18th, 1899, Patrick Swift from District #7, Parish of Harcourt, New Brunswick wrote a letter [1] to James R. Inch, Chief Superintendent of Education to protest the hiring of a third-class [2] French teacher in an English district. In his letter, the plaintiff explained that the trustees of the district turned down several good English-speaking candidates with a second-class license, including one individual who was bilingual but whose first language was English, to accommodate an influential “Frenchman”.

The development of the public school system in New Brunswick in the mid to late nineteenth century created a growing need for trained teachers, and letters such as this one were not uncommon as school districts were staffing their schools with, at times, professionals that eluded concensus. The level of qualification needed for teachers to work in a given district was directly correlated to the ratepayers: the most qualified teachers were to work in the highest valued districts. Yet, at times, districts that qualified for a second-class teacher would choose to hire third-class teachers, often for reasons that pertained to the language(s) they spoke.

In Belledune, a third-class francophone teacher was hired in place of a second-class teacher in a district with both English and French families, much to the dismay of Thos A. Mc Curdie who wrote to the Chief Superintendent of education to express his disapproval.[3] Mc Curdie was concerned by the lack of qualification of third-class teachers and argued that the anglophone pupils in the district were more advanced than the francophone and having a third-class teacher would place the anglophone student at a disadvantage.[4] He also wrote that the teacher in question was not capable of teaching English.[5] Unfortunately, we cannot tell from the correspondence whether the individual simply did not speak English or if his English was not good enough in Mc Curdie’s eyes. The plaintiff went as far as taking the time to compile the assessable valuation of both the English-speaking and the French-speaking families who lived in the district to point out that not only was the French-speaking population paying a smaller amount of taxes than the English-speaking population, but some of them also defaulted on their payments on a regular basis.[6] In response to Mc Curdie, Chief superintendent of education Inch agreed to forbid the employment of a third-class teacher in the district and advised to look for a bilingual teacher who could meet the needs of both populations.[7]

This is a call that some district would make to accommodate all parties involved in the case of mixed districts, but also in some French districts. The same year, Theresa McManus, a third-class school teacher of Memramcook, contacted the department of education after being offered a position in a district she knew to be “valued above the limit” for third class licensed teachers.[8] She explained that in the past, Chief Superintendent Inch had allowed her to teach in such districts despite her third-class license because she was bilingual. The district in question in this letter was comprised of a majority of Francophone ratepayers who specifically wanted a bilingual teacher for their children. In mixed districts, the language divide could lead to the division of a district so as to have a school for each language group, although requests for bilingual teachers seem to often have been the ratepayers’ first choice.

These are only a few examples among many others, but it is important to note that teachers whose first language was French tended to have a third-class license. Teachers who spoke French were in high demand because they were needed in French districts, but Francophones would have to wait until 1883 to have access to a teacher training program in French. From 1848 to 1883, teacher training programs were only offered in English. In addition, historically, French-speaking populations in New Brunswick had a lower literacy rate than the English-speaking majority. It is thus not surprising that there was at the time less highly trained teachers whose first language was French.

Language difference was a barrier to New Brunswick’s project of free and accessible public education—a barrier that the English-speaking top-down government neglected to consider until much later, which meant that the public school system still had a long way to go to properly serve the francophone population of the province. But French-speaking communities were not the only communities to be neglected by the provincial government at the time. Black communities also struggled, and in their case, race relations were adding to the difficulty to provide properly trained teachers.

The school of Otnabog, near Saint John, New Brunswick is one example. When the first letters were exchanged in 1913, it had already been three years that the community was without a teacher.[9] Despite the involvement of the Premier and of the Chief superintendent of education, the position remained vacant. In his letter of June 13th, 1913, W.S. Carter, chief superintendent of New Brunswick wrote to the Premier that white teachers were unwilling to teach at a “colored school,” and there was no licensed black teacher available in the province.[10] In subsequent letters, the administration devised several compromises to secure potential candidates, sometimes looking as far as the “Southern States,” but without success.[11] In 1906, the Chief Superintendent of Education in New Brunswick estimated that “not more than six to ten colored teachers [had] passed through the Normal School,” and even fewer were employed in the public school system.[12]

By imposing stricter standards for teachers’ qualification, New Brunswick set to dramatically improve its education system. Yet, the wide disparities in terms of access and attitudes towards education made it challenging to effectively provide the same chances to every child in every district, and it is only much later in the twentieth century that the school question in New Brunswick was to find a true resolution.


Elisa Sance is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Maine.


Notes:

[1] Letter, Patrick Swift to James R. Inch, January 19, 1899, RS116 B2d Language, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Fredericton, New Brunswick

[2] There were three types of licenses for teachers in New Brunswick at the time. First-class, second-class, and third-class, ranging from fully trained teachers to individuals with little to no formal training acting as teacher.  The third-class license was meant to disappear eventually and only existed as a temporary solution to the dire shortage of trained professional, particularly amongst francophone populations.

[3] Letters, Thos A. McCurdie to James R. Inch, February 21st, 26th, and March 5th, RS116 B2d Language, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Fredericton, New Brunswick

[4] Letter, Thos A. McCurdie to James R. Inch, February 26th, 1901, RS116 B2d Language, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Fredericton, New Brunswick

[5] Letter, Thos A. McCurdie to James R. Inch, March 5th, 1901, RS116 B2d Language, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Fredericton, New Brunswick

[6] Letter, Thos A. McCurdie to James R. Inch, February 26th, 1901, RS116 B2d Language, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Fredericton, New Brunswick

[7] Letter, James R. Inch to Mr. McCurdie, March 3rd, 1901, RS116 B2d Language, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Fredericton, New Brunswick

[8] Letter, Theresa McManus to R. B. Wallace, August 9th, 1901, RS116 B2d Language, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Fredericton, New Brunswick

[9] RS116 B2a Blacks, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Fredericton, New Brunswick

[10] Letter, W. S. Carter to J. K. Fleming, June 13th, 1913, RS116 B2a Blacks, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Fredericton, New Brunswick

[11] Letter, J. K. Fleming, July 13th, 1914, RS116 B2a Blacks, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Fredericton, New Brunswick

[12] Letter, Chief Superintendent to J. C. Hamilton, April 30th, 1906, RS116 B2a Blacks, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Fredericton, New Brunswick

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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