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Old Time Customs
Memories and Traditions and Other Essays
Free Schools in Nova Scotia


FREE SCHOOLS were tried in Nova Scotia as early as 1840. The teacher's salary and other funds needed for the upkeep of the school were raised by voluntary subscription on condition that the school should be free to all children within the section. While the experiment was fairly successful in some places, this way of bringing about the desired end was found ill-suited to the greater part of the Province. People who had no children to educate were slow to believe that they had any personal interest in the school, and so they thought it unreasonable that they should be asked to pay for its support. Indeed there were many parents who regarded the school as one of the things which they could very well do without. And thus it was shown that the free school could flourish only when it had behind it the imperative school tax. It is true that at different times in the early history of Nova Scotia higher conceptions of the value of general education were entertained by leaders in public affairs and measures of reform in this direction were agitated. But these conditions passed away without any practical outcome, save only the comforting thought that the public mind was not prepared for so radical a measure.

The question of Free Schools was first brought emphatically before the Government and Legislature of the Province by Mr. John William Dawson—better known as the distinguished scientist Sir William Dawson, a native of Pictou County. He was the first Superintendent of Education, an office which he held for about two years (1850-2). By his lectures and institutes in various parts of the province he contributed much to the awakening of an interest in education and to developing public sentiment in favor of free schools. He failed, however, to persuade the Government that the time had come for the proposed measure. And so the first Superintendent of Education in Nova Scotia resigned his office, leaving the pioneer work to be completed by others.

The most tangible outcome of Mr. Dawson's efforts was the Normal School for the training of teachers. This institution was opened in November, 1855, with an enrollment of about sixty students, under Dr. Alexander Forrester, who was Superintendent of Education as well as Principal of the Normal School.

In the early years of its history the Normal School held two sessions in the year, each session four and a half months, there being an interval of six weeks between the sessions. But this gave no holiday to Dr. Forrester—only a change of work. During one interval he journeyed through the Province, visiting the eastern counties including Cape Breton Island; then, in turn, his route lay in the western counties and around the south coast from Yarmouth to Halifax. This was no holiday for Dr. Forrester. Whether he went east or west one thing he did—he pleaded for free schools and trained teachers. In carrying out his mission he attended meetings of the School Commissioners and lectured in every town and hamlet in the province.

Dr. Forrester's work was supplemented by the students who came under his influence in the Normal School. Having gained higher ideals of their calling, greater practical skill for the doing of their work and much of that glowing enthusiasm for which Dr. Forrester was distinguished, on the completion of their course they were scattered over the Province as teachers in the public schools. In such fashion were the people awakened and in some degree prepared for Free Schools.

In 1864 a Bill, the main features of which were drawn up by Dr. Forrester, providing for Free Schools supported by assessment, was brought before the Nova Scotia Legislature by Dr. Charles Tupper —later Sir Charles Tupper, Baronet—the leader of the Conservative party which had recently come into power. The supporters of the Government were not a unit as regards the School Bill, and those of them who were opposed to the measure gave the Premier to understand that they would vote against the Bill. But Mr. Adams G. Archibald—afterwards Sir Adams—the leader of the Liberal party was too true a patriot to take advantage of a political rival by helping to defeat a measure which he believed the interests of the country demanded. Accordingly, he and several of his party supporters voted with the Government, and the Free School Bill became law.

There was one feature in the action of the Government which one regrets to record. Dr. Forrester had given many years of untiring labor and heart-felt devotion to the cause which had now realized fulfillment—but bitter disappointment was mingled with his joy. In planning for the new regime under the Free School Law, Dr. Forrester had assumed that he would be Superintendent of Education, and that Dr. Rand, who was then associated with him on the Normal School Staff, would be Principal of that Institution. To please some of their supporters, however, the Government gave the position of Superintendent to Dr. Rand and the subordinate place to Dr. Forrester. Meanwhile Dr. Forrester had not the least inkling of the disappointment that awaited him—the first intimation of the appointment coming to him through the morning papers.

It may be well to state here that the incident just noted did not disturb the friendly relations that existed between Dr. Forrester and Dr. Rand. They worked together with the greatest harmony, each entering on the duties assigned him with a single aim for the betterment of the educational interests of the country. And on the death of Dr. Forrester, which occurred some five years later, it was found that one of the two friends to whom, by his will, he had entrusted the settlement of his business was Theodore H. Rand.

The school law provided that the public schools should be free to all children over five years of age, and that they should be maintained by taxes levied on the ratepayers of the section, supplemented by Government grants varying in amount according to the class of license held by the teacher. It was soon found, however, that this plan imposed heavy burdens on the poorer sections. Accordingly, at the next meeting of the Legislature an act was passed providing for a county tax, to be used in such a way as to give special aid to these sections.

The machinery by which the school law was carried out consisted of a Council of Public Instruction composed of the Executive Council, a Superintendent of Education who was ex-officio Secretary of the Council, Boards of School Commissioners in the various counties or districts, an Inspector of Schools in each county and a Normal School for the training of teachers.

As teacher's licenses throughout the province were not on any uniform standard, they were all cancelled and new licenses, based on thorough examination, were required.

The school year was divided into two terms, one beginning on the first of November, the other on the first of May. For the appointment of trustees, voting money for the support of the school and other business, the law provided an annual meeting of the rate-payers to be held on a specified day in September of each year. There was no provision made for the election of Trustees except at the annual meeting, so that, in case of neglect at this meeting no means were available for this purpose until the next annual meeting.

The element of assessment made the school law very unpopular in many parts of the country. In some sections no funds were voted at the annual meeting; in others trustees were not elected; in others no meeting was held. These sections were thus left without schools, or they were provided by the old method of voluntary subscriptions. The law was denounced as tyrannical and unjust. Dr. Tupper's government lost popular favor and there is little doubt that this hostility to the tax was transferred to the measure for Confederation of the Provinces which shortly afterwards came to the front.

It was thought advisable to give the recalcitrant sections a chance for amending their ways. Accordingly the Legislature passed an Act authorizing the Inspectors in the various counties to call a special meeting in those sections during the month of April—where necessary—to make provision for a school during the second term. The Inspector was instructed to appoint these meetings at such dates as would enable him to be present. It was no holiday time—this month of April. Certainly not for some of them. In one of the western counties, out of about one hundred sections only twelve had fully organized under the law. Two or even three meetings a day failed to complete the work. The results? Well, they varied—some failures, some successes, now and then conspicuously so. Take an example.

It was fifty years ago—long enough to be historic. The scene was in the famous fruit-growing district known as the Cornwallis Valley and often called the Annapolis Valley, including "The Land of Evangeline" in its eastern section. The meeting was held in a private house, the home of a member of the board of School Commissioners for the county, the school-house being in disrepair. The Inspector had already attended two meetings on that day, and this one was in the evening.

A goodly number of rate-payers were assembled. For some time they sat silent, with threatening aspect—as the heavens before a thunder storm. Finally a motion was made that the School Commissioner take the chair. It was voted down. Whereupon the Inspector dryly remarked that he was surprised to find his friend so unpopular. Another nomination followed with no better success. After a short pause the Inspector rose and said that he now saw but one explanation for the attitude of the meeting. The ratepayers present were adopting this method of showing their opinion of the school law. Possibly they did not rightly understand it, and their objections were based on some supposed features which did not really exist. He had arranged to be present for the purpose of explaining the provisions of the Act, but he would not allow himself to address an unorganized meeting. They were numerically strong enough to refuse him a hearing; but he trusted they were not so lacking in moral courage but that they would listen to the truth with open mind. Whereupon he sat down.

After a short pause the School Commissioner was unanimously chosen as chairman of the meeting, and after a few remarks he called on the Inspector to address the meeting. His remarks were substantially as follows:

"It affords me great pleasure to meet you here this evening in this one of the most delightful sections of our county. And I want to tell you that I am fairly well acquainted with every part of it. It was my good fortune last summer, in company with the Chairman of the Board of School Commissioners and the County Surveyor, who with myself were commissioned by the Government to revise the bounds of the school sections of the county—over a hundred of them there were. Every settlement of the county from the borders of Hants to those of Annapolis, and from the Bay of Fundy to the borders of Lunenburg was visited. And I may say to you that no part of this fine county appealed to us with more charm than did this northern side of the valley lying at the foot of the North Mountain from Blomidon down to Digby Strait. It is not alone its scenic beauty as seen from the little-travelled mountain heights that lends it interest. It has, too, an economic interest which I know must command your appreciation. In this regard the mountain ridge which rises so abruptly from the lowlands, giving, as it does, shelter from northern winds, claims consideration; then the moderate elevation of your farm-lands protects them from the killing frosts of spring and autumn, thus lengthening the season for the growth and ripening of their products. Another advantage you have is the deep rich soil of your farm-lands with its mixture of clay and sand and other elements derived from the trap rock of the mountain-side, making loam adapted to the retention of fertilizer and moisture, forming one of the choicest agricultural districts in Nova Scotia and especially suited to the production of apples.

"But, Mr. Chairman, I am here to speak to you of other matters. I know that some of you believe that this new school law, with its offensive taxes, is little short of robbery. But I want to ask you for a moment to lay aside all prejudices and look at this question dispassionately.

"Some three hundred and fifty years ago this splendid district was one vast forest inhabited by wild animals and Indians almost as untamed as the brute beasts. What think you was then the value of these farm lands which you prize so highly? And what think you has caused the change? It is simply the difference between savage and civilized man. Close your public schools and a few generations will bring back those primitive days with their conditions. Nor would I have you suppose that you have reached the summit of civilization—that you have attained that skill and success which mark the full distinction between civilization and savagedom. Let me tell you that you who are living at the close of this nineteenth century will find things wondrously changed and your children will think of the conditions of 1865 much as we do of those that prevailed in the days of our fathers. If you do not live to see this day your children will have taken your place. Surely you are not taking thought for yourselves alone.

"But, again, suppose you refuse to join in the onward march and no more have a public school. Will that not affect the well-being of every man in this section. You form a community. It is not every man for himself alone. Civilization means that the people are bound together in one great bundle of life. What affects the community affects every individual, and what affects one affects all.

One word more, and I have done. I know that you would all like to feel that you have done something for the betterment of your country—that you have made some sacrifice for the permanent good of the place in which you live. It would add to your happiness if you felt that you could leave the world better than you found it, by reason of something you had done. `No man liveth to himself'; and `there is that withholdeth more than is meet and it tended to poverty."'

The Inspector had said enough. He had won the day. The Chairman followed with a few appropriate remarks. Thereupon a trustee was elected by a small majority; then another with a few nays, a third by unanimous vote. Other business called for was duly transacted and the meeting was adjourned.

SEQUEL.— And now, after the lapse of fifty years, the Inspector for the county tells us in his annual report that this section, which bears the name of a beautiful district under the shadow of the Alpine mountains in Italy, is one of the most flourishing rural schools in the county with two separate departments.


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