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First Days of School

Before There Were Schools (continued)

Black and white photograph of a woman fishing through a hole in the ice. A child is seated beside her.

Inuk woman and child fishing, Igluligaarjuk, Nunavut, 1952

Black and white photograph of three young boys posing in field, filling a large woven basket with potatoes. There is a large horse-drawn cart in the background.

Children gathering potatoes, Prince Edward Island, ca. 1921

Two hundred years ago, most people did not go to school, but that does not mean that they did not get an education. Before there were schools, children learned from their parents. Some were taught to read and write, some were not, but everyone learned the skills and knowledge necessary to survive in life.

Some children were taught in their home; others learned while working the land (since most people lived in the country); and still others acquired a trade as an apprentice in a workshop. The same was true of Aboriginal youth whose knowledge of hunting, fishing and other skills were passed down by their parents and community members.

Poster advertising classes at a private school "for ladies and gentlmen."  The poster lists tuition fees.  Courses are divided into male (English, mathematics, classics) and female (English, French, music, art, needlework and embroidery). Other expenses are also listed, such as fuel and candles. The students were expected to supply their own beds, bedding and towels.

Advertisement for a private school for young men and young women, Picton, Ontario, 1850

Black and white photograph of young students, uniformly dressed, viewed from behind. They are separated by gender and seated at desks with a female teacher at the blackboard.

A teacher and students in a classroom at the Montreal Protestant Orphan Asylum, ca. 1900

Wealthier families were able to hire tutors for their children or send them to private schools. Churches often helped to educate children in Sunday schools. If you lived in a larger centre, there were special schools for instruction of the poor that were run by religious societies.

Most young people, though, did not attend what we view today as "school." This was also true in other countries at the time. Children were needed at home, to do household chores or work in the fields. Whatever schooling there might be was casual and not compulsory. Children of all ages might gather in small groups for a few months of the year to be taught reading, writing, arithmetic, as well as religion and morals.

Black and white photograph of two women sitting at a loom weaving. At left, a young child is rocking an infant in a cradle.

A mother weaving beside her children. Cap à l’Aigle, Québec, ca. 1910

Black and white photograph of  an adolescent boy wearing a cap and handling a plough pulled by two horses

A boy with horse and plough, Dr. Bernardo's Industrial Farm, near Russell, Manitoba, 1900

Young people were considered to be adults at a much younger age than they are now. The term "teenager" did not yet exist and "adolescent" was an uncommon word. By the age of 13, you would have been considered a young adult and unless you were from a wealthy family, you would be working.


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