Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Politics and Education in Quebec


Education in Quebec is getting worldwide attention these days, and many would say 'negative' attention, although not all. Line Beauchamp, the Education Minister resigned yesterday over the issue and the Charest government is struggling with how to deal with the politically charged protests.

But I'm living in the past, 100 years ago, when it cost money to go to school, elementary and high school, let alone college and when the issue in education in the Protestant sector was "the Jewish Question."

I am writing Biology and Ambition, about Marion Nicholson a teacher in Montreal in 1909-1913, the follow up the Threshold Girl (about her younger sister Flora in 1911/12 when she attended Macdonald Teachers College) and available on free ebook, and Diary of a Confirmed Spinster, about her older sister Edith, who was a teacher at French Methodist in Westmount in the same era.

The ebooks are based on real letters, but I am weaving into them political issues. Marion's political issue is this Jewish Question and I have been reading up.

In 1909, an MLA, Mr. Finnie, introduced a bill in the Provincial Legislature, allowing for the Directors of the Protestant Board of Education to be elected rather than appointed.

In those days most of the Board Members were clergyman. (It is always said the Catholic Church had too much power in Quebec in the old days(keeping the people down) but so did the Protestant Clergy. The difference being the Protestant Clergy promoted education, as their constituency was more elite.)

There is a heated debate and a Commissioner, Dr. Barclay slurs the Jews and has to backtrack a bit. Also P Mackenzie, the member for Richmond ( and a 'friend' of the Nicholsons) seems to argue against the bill.  Finnie and his supporters say that the Board has to have more businessmen. Most Board Members are Clergymen. He brings up to recent fires in Montreal Schools (one in Marion's Royal Arthur in 1909 and one other one where a teacher and some students died.)

It is a private members bill and is quashed early on. Those for the bill, Finnie and others, claim that the clergyman are just trying to save their good jobs.

But during that period, apparently, a lot of fear mongering happens, saying that Jews will take over the Board and change the Christian character (at least two schools in Montreal are overwhelmingly filled with Jewish students.) And that Jewish teachers will be allowed to teach and they too will start preaching their religion in the schools. (The Canadian Jewish News reminds people that Jews don't proselytize like the Protestants do.)

Anyway, by 1913, Jewish Teachers are allowed to teach. The Board has consulted its lawyers (Greenshields!) and they said it is legal as long as Jewish Teachers don't teach Bible Class.
The New Royal Arthur, Canning and Workman in Ste. Cunegonde or Little Burgundy. The school was built in in the 1860's, but partially burnt in 1909, when Marion was a teacher, but in January when empty. Her mother remarks, " I read about the fire. Is that your school? It is so lucky school was out."

A Dr. Scrimger is all for it. He is a preacher very familiar to the Nicholsons. He preaches at Macdonald when Flora is there and she remarks upon it to her father.

I see by reading the papers that the Jewish Question of Representation on the Board was still going strong in 1965 when I was at school.

Anyway, this story will be edited into Marion's actual letters. She doesn't mention it. Oddly, none of the 1909 letters I have mention the typhoid epidemic either. It killed people in Westmount and Ste. Cuengonde, so both Edith and Marion must have been aware. I'll have to add something about that. My play Milk and Water (taking place in Montreal in 1927) covers that issue well.

Another thing Marion didn't talk about directly in letters was about the classroom. I guess that was confidential. Too bad, I'd like to know what went on.

The only time in a letter she remarks on students is in 1906, her first job, as a summer teacher in a town in the ET. She says she has two new students, the dirtiest people she ever saw and both dunces. She names them and asks her Dad if he knows the family. Beginner's mistake, I guess.

I will put the letter in the book, changing the names and place. It speaks to why teachers didn't want to work in rural schools.

In the same letter she mentions she is bored to death because there is nothing to do and she asks Mom to send some needlework, 'fancywork.'

When she starts work in a city school, there's no  time for such things. 50 children. And plenty of outside distractions, like Dominion Park and the Nickelodeon!