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The Selkirk Settlers in Real Life
Chapter IX - Educational Facilities


FROM the days of John Knox and his parish school, Scottish people have been noted for their interest in education and their intense desire to secure for themselves and their children the priceless boon of mental training. The colony on the Red River would naturally be unable for some years, amid the struggle for existence, to give much scope to this phase of their national character, but from an early date they availed themselves of the school established by the Anglican Church at St. John’s.

It was not until 1849 that the Scottish settlers had means sufficient to organize a school district of their own. The first teacher was John Inkster, brother of the present sheriff at Winnipeg, and the school was begun in the dwelling-house of John Flett, one of the settlers. The school, of course, was supported by voluntary contributions, varying according to the means of the people. The amount paid for the teacher’s salary averaged about $150 a year, and the caretaking of the school was done by the pupils, who took turns at sweeping and lighting the fires. Text-books were not numerous.

After the elementary reading books were mastered, reading and spelling exercises from the Bible were prescribed, together with the systematic study of the Shorter Catcehism In the writing exercise copy lines were set by the teacher in home-made copy-books, and a care was bestowed upon this part of the work which makes the writing of men of the "old school" look like "copperplate" beside much of our present day scribbling. In arithmetic the one text-book was in the hands of the teacher, who "set" the questions for the pupils on slates (thick as a board and without frames) or on the primitive wooden blackboard, where the writing was done with ungainly lumps of chalk. The children sat on long wooden benches without backs, and the classes always stood for recitation of the lesson.

The practice of "going up" was followed, and as it was a great honor to be "head" and much disgrace to be "tail," solid work was done. Spelling was especially a field of conflict, and in the rivalry for first place the class must have revolved before the teacher with the bewildering changeableness of a kaleidoscope. In the matter of arithmetic, as we have said, the teacher "set" the problem, or read it out to be taken down, and the first pupil done had to show the slate with the completed work. Then followed the clattering of pencils like the sound of runaway horses on a pavement, and we have seen the face of the teacher in imminent danger of disfigurement from the rush of frameless slates to catch his eye.

The matter of selecting a teacher was sometimes done at a public meeting, but generally by trustees chosen at such meeting from amongst the settlers. Certificated teachers were, of course, unheard of, and besides oral examinations attended by the whole district, the matter of the success or failure of a teacher was decided by the inspection and report of the trustees aforesaid. As these trustees were for the most part "plain, blunt men," whose own advantages had been limited and whose "dialect" was more or less affected by Gaelic, Salteaux, Cree and French influences, the lot of the teacher was not always a happy one. When Irikster was teaching in ‘49, the trustees came in to inspect, and one of them gave to the leading class in the school the word "pekilar" to spell. It had never been heard of up to that time, and so proved a "poser" for the whole class from head to foot, whereupon the trustee grew somewhat indignant and threatened to dismiss the teacher whose leading class could not spell "pekilar." The teacher, however, asked to see the word, and saved his official head by pointing out that it was pronounced "peculiar," which latter word was triumphantly spelled by the class, who thus vindicated the scholarly attainments of their teacher.

Shortly after the school was begun in ‘49, a log building was erected on the Frog Plain (property granted by Lord Selkirk for church and. school purposes), which continued to do duty till some fifteen years afterwards, when a new stone building was erected under the supervision of the Rev. Jatnes Nisbet. The old log building I can remember with the shadowy vagueness of a boy who was taken to church from infancy past its door—way. I can see in a dim way its walls of long logs plastered in the chinks and whitewashed, and overhead the thatched and mortar-crowned roof. I have a dim recollection of being within the precincts and of seeing the long benches down the sides of the room, with the famous "cupboard" in which the meagre school supplies were kept, as well as the wonderful globe for the geography class. I have also an idea that I recall (perhaps I only heard of it) a meeting of the settlers called to discuss the advisability of building a new school, and how one of them, a powerful man, gave ocular demonstration of the unsoundness of the old one by driving his axe to the handle in one of its best remaining logs. Not long after came the opening of the new school, a religious exercise, during which the children marched in twos from the old building to the new, singing as they went some psalm of degrees.

The new building was divided into two rooms, and it was in the "back room" that Manitoba College took shape in 1871 under Dr. Bryee. Up to this era of the college the honor roll of teachers—strong men who battled with difficulties and from whose pupils came many who have made their impress on the history of the country—is as follows: John Inkster, Alexander Matheson, Adam MacBeth, Hector MacBeth, Alexander Ross, James Harper, Alexander Polson and D. B. Whimster, some of whom remain to the present time, but the most of whom have fallen asleep. Verily "they rest from their labors and their works do follow them." During all these years many of the pupils of these men went to eastern institutions of higher learning and took high rank, while the general result of their labors was such that the intelligence and culture of the isolated colony was a constant surprise to visitors from the outside world.

From the time of the Rev. Mr. Black’s coming in 1851 (with which we shall deal in another chapter), he gathered out from the school the most capable and ambitious of the boys, giving them instruction in classics, mathematics and theology, and thus laid the foundations of Manitoba College, which is simply the outgrowth of that parish school and the efforts of Dr. Black. On in the sixties the number of young men who seemed anxious to go on to a higher education than the common schools could give them, became so large that the matter of a college pressed itself more and more upon the settlers. In 1869 Mr. D. B. Whimster, a gentleman of wide experience as a teacher in Ontario, was sent for, and his arrival, marking a new era in the history of the parish school, finally led to the establishment of the Manitoba College at Kildonan, though it was moved to Winnipeg when that place began to assume the lead in the West as its principal town.

Besides the school, there existed amongst the settlers from an early date literary societies for the discussion of all manner of subjects and for social enjoyment. These societies were primitive enough and not without their humorous side. The old question of the comparative usefulness of the horse and the ox was the one on which the younger members generally cut their debating teeth. We remember, too, how one of them in a discussion as to the comparative destructiveness of fire and water, enthusiastically asserted the injurious superiority of the latter, and clinched his argument by instancing how the flood on the Red River had carried their barn down to Lake Winnipeg and that the fire had never touched it! Recitations in prose and poetry were much in vogue, and special meetings were held sometimes in the schools and sometimes in private houses for their renlition. The old "stand-bys" were well to the fore, and as books were scarce some had to content themselves with one selection, which they gave again and again. The staginess and the mannerisms of the imitative elocutionist were all wanting, but a rugged and forceful eloquence was often developed in these miniature lyceums.

Not long ago there appeared before the Presbytery of Winnipeg six members of the Kildonan congregation in the matter of a call to their minister. All these had been trained in those prhnitive schools and homely platforms, with whatever additional they could learn by further observation and experience. As they presented their views in a simple, manly and straightforward way there was distinctly noticeable a rich flavoring of scriptural phrases, a splendid conception of the oneness of the Church, composed though it be of many congregations, a fine ideal of duty, a loyalty to the minister, which caused you to feel that they were sure that he would obey the high dictates of his own conscience as to his course—and all this with a natural eloquence most pleasing to hear. Veterans in the court said afterwards that they had never heard such power and ability evidenced in men of their class—truly a noble tribute to their native industry, to their indomitable perseverance, as well as to those who had been their teachers in the Church and school of the early days.


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