David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

An Education Lesson From 100 Years Ago

Brandon Sun, October 17, 2016 - David McConkey

One hundred years ago, Brandon was the centre of a flourishing innovative educational program. Then the program was abruptly cancelled. Today, it is all but forgotten. But the issues surrounding it are still with us.

What was it? It was the “Ruthenian” bilingual education program. It was ended in 1916 by a new provincial government amidst the frenzy of the First World War.

Let’s step back and set the scene. Starting in the 1890s, the province of Manitoba allowed for bilingual education. If there were 10 or more students who spoke a language other than English, bilingual education could be provided in the local school. So, schools offered bilingual programs in French and other languages. In early twentieth century Manitoba, there were increasing numbers of immigrants from eastern Europe who spoke the Ruthenian language. Ruthenian? Today we call it Ukrainian.

To ensure proper bilingual instruction for Ruthenian-speaking children, the province established a special teacher training school. This school was set up in 1905 and moved to Brandon in 1907. The province also developed the bilingual Manitoba Ruthenian-English Reader. This two-part series was published for the province by Thomas Nelson and Sons in the United Kingdom. The teachers and the readers met a growing demand not only in Manitoba, but also in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

The Ruthenian teacher training school in Brandon taught young men who had grown up in Ruthenian-speaking communities in the province. The men came to Brandon and lived in residence at the Hughes Block, 144 10th Street. They attended classes at the Brandon Normal School on Queens Avenue.

“Ruthenian School Trains Brightest Boys to Teach,” a Brandon Daily Sun headline stated in an August 1915 story about the program. The prospective teachers, the Sun said, were “the brightest boys from the Ruthenian settlements in the province.” J.T. Cressy, principal of the training school, explained that those entering the three-year program made a commitment to teach for a number of years upon graduation. The Ruthenian school’s aim was to train “bright boys and then send them back to teach Canadian customs among their own people.”

By effectively teaching Ruthenian-speaking children, the government wanted to bring these immigrants into a common national culture. And in those days, that identification was as citizens of Canada, and also as loyal subjects of the British Empire. 

“From my personal contact with Ruthenian students,” principal Cressy stated, “I have come to the conclusion that in the years to come the Ruthenian people will do their share in making Canada a great nation, and will say as Britishers, ‘One king, one empire, one race, and one flag’.”

“Teach Canadian customs”? We are still discussing this contentious issue today – in Canada and in other countries where immigrants and refugees are flocking. What are our values? Should we screen prospective newcomers for their values? Should our goal be assimilation? Or multiculturalism? Expect the debate to continue.

By 1916, there were 6,500 Ruthenian (including some Polish) students attending more than 100 bilingual schools in the province. But that year, the new Liberal government shut down the Ruthenian and other bilingual education programs. The Liberals, who had been elected the year before, instituted sweeping changes in addition to ending bilingual education. They also made schooling compulsory for children up to the age of 14, introduced the right of women to vote, and prohibited the sale of alcohol.

Part of the reason for ending the Ruthenian program in 1916 was the Great War. Canada was at war: not only with Germany, but also with Austria. And many Ruthenians in Canada had immigrated from Austria. So the Ruthenian language was associated with our enemies. Many Ruthenian-speaking men, including some of the former Ruthenian bilingual teachers, were now “enemy aliens” locked up in internment camps. One of the camps was right here in Brandon.
The Brandon Ruthenian training school is a piece of our history that is largely forgotten today. But even as it was being dismantled, it was disappearing from our collective memory. At the time, the closing of the training school received scant notice in the community and in the Brandon Daily Sun.

What about the Manitoba Ruthenian-English Reader? The provincial government ordered that all copies of the books be destroyed. Some were even burned in a bonfire on the Manitoba Legislative Building grounds – near the statue of Queen Victoria.      

* * * *
See also: 

Dark Side of Brandon’s Past

Reflections on “Brandon’s Ghetto”

Reflections on the Great War

Early Feminists Dreamed of a World Free of Alcohol, Drugs and War

East End Pioneer Clifford Sifton Changed the Face of Canada

Manitoba History – A Citizen Appreciation



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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