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Education: the Early Years (1784-1871)

When New Brunswick was founded in 1784, there was very little in the way of organized education, especially among the Francophone population. After the Deportation of the Acadians, Francophones who had settled in the province quietly started to set up a system, encountering some difficulties along the way. The exiles' primary concern was survival, which meant that an education system was not really a priority. However, parents and the clergy tried their best to teach children how to read and write in French. At the time, a few travelling schoolmasters would go to far-flung villages in the northeast of the province to teach the children.

In the late 1810s, the first few schools appeared in northwestern New Brunswick. In 1817, Father André Lagarde set up a first school in Saint-Basile where children could receive a suitable education. About ten years later, four more similar schools were set up in other parts of the region. Father Lagarde trained the teachers to provide instruction in both French and English.

In 1802, the provincial government began to play a role in education by giving teachers financial assistance. Three years later, the government began to build elementary and high schools, and in 1816, school management boards were elected. In 1847, the government had parish schools constructed; in 1858, additional funding was allocated to build new high schools. However, government funding was frequently not sufficient to pay the teacher's salary and administrative expenses for the school. To fill the funding gap, parents whose children attended the school were expected to pay a contribution proportionate to the number of children enrolled. Many children from poor families were not able to go to school as their parents could not afford the school fees.

In addition to the public schools, there were a certain number of private schools in New Brunswick run by various groups, notably religious orders. While the government acknowledged the existence of these schools, they had no legal status. Nonetheless, the government funded these schools on several occasions. Catholic schools appeared in the provincial budget prior to 1871.

The public schools of New Brunswick were officially English-language institutions. Although French was spoken and taught in some Acadian schools, people generally looked the other way. Most of the textbooks used in the school system were in English, but teachers sometimes managed to obtain French textbooks. A few French syllabaries and readers, geography and mathematics books appeared in the schools in the 1860s.

However, private schools in the province still encountered various problems, mainly due to funding sources. The buildings where classes were held were frequently ramshackle, and school supplies such as blackboards and textbooks were hard to come by. In addition, the schools had to deal with spotty attendance, as some pupils were expected to help their families with farming and fishing during the season.

The Common Schools Act of 1871

To solve the problems that plagued private schools in New Brunswick, the government passed a bill regarding the development of a public school system. This type of system, which already existed in Ontario, Nova Scotia and the United States, appeared to meet the needs of the province. The Common Schools Act of 1871 meant a number of benefits for the citizens of New Brunswick: education was provided free of charge, new school districts were established, new schools were built and the system for issuing teachers' certificates was improved. The new schools were open to all children, regardless of their mother tongue, religion, gender and - most important of all - their family's economic situation.

However, the Act prohibited any religious presence in the public schools. Schools could no longer teach children their catechism. For the first time, members of religious orders who wanted to become teachers had to obtain a teacher's certificate and were prohibited from wearing religious habits. Religious pictures and emblems were banned from the classroom. Catholic parents who wanted to send their children to a confessional school were subject to double taxation: they had to pay the government-imposed tax on the public schools and also pay school fees for the institution their children actually attended. It is worth noting that the Common Schools Act of 1871 makes no reference to the teaching of French - an omission that certainly played a role in Acadians' distrust of the Act.

For four years, New Brunswick Catholics demonstrated their dislike of the new law. The Catholic clergy made its disagreement known to the government on several occasions, but received no response to their protests. Generally, pressure was applied on the provincial and federal governments, but the protests took various forms. The Colonial Office in London and the courts were also consulted on the matter. Catholics stopped paying their school taxes, arguing that they should not be subject to double taxation for sending their children to confessional schools.

In 1875, the situation took a tragic turn. On January 27, a quarrel erupted in Caraquet, with the public and "neutral" schools at the heart of the debate. At the school board's annual meeting, the Acadians, who had lost the right to vote for refusing to pay their taxes, disagreed with the newly elected committee. They marched to the residence of Robert Young, a member of the provincial executive council, to mount a noisy protest. Young's wife, troubled by recent events, warned her husband, who was in Fredericton at the time, and he informed the sheriff of Bathurst, who dispatched a troop of militiamen from Miramichi to Caraquet to appease the "rioters." A group of men had gathered at the home of André Albert to discuss events. Seeing the militia, some Acadians took refuge in the attic of the house. The militia stormed the house and fired shots through the ceiling. A young man called Louis Mailloux and a militiaman called John Gilford died during the Caraquet "riot."

Fearing reprisals from opponents of the Common Schools Act or special coverage by the national press, Premier George King made a major compromise to the Catholics, allowing school premises to be used for the teaching of catechism outside school hours. In addition, members of religious orders who taught in the public schools now had the right to wear their habits if they wished and were no longer obliged to obtain a teacher's certificate from the Training School. Finally, teachers had the right to communicate in their own language and to teach French in the primary schools.

School reform

Although many improvements were made to the New Brunswick education system during the 19th century, the situation in the schools at the turn of the 20th century still left a great deal to be desired. Most of the schools in the province were one-room schoolhouses, with pupils at all levels sharing a single teacher. This situation led to certain problems, such as students' lack of motivation due to overcrowding and gaps between the levels being taught. The illiteracy rate in the province was very high at the time. Most children left school before the end of Grade 9. The situation was just as alarming on the French side: only 7% of pupils made it to Grade 6 and only 3% to Grade 9. No wonder that the government felt the need to make major changes over the years.

The first wave of school reforms took place in the 1940s. In 1932, the report of the MacFarlane Commission urged that counties be merged for taxation and administrative purposes, and that grants be made to support the consolidation of school districts and the transportation of schoolchildren. The commission further recommended that primary education be given exclusively in the child's mother tongue, and that bilingual textbooks not be introduced until the intermediate level. However, these recommendations would not be applied until the early 1940s, after pressure was brought to bear by the Orange Order and in the wake of the stock market crash in 1929.

New high schools were built in rural areas and school districts were consolidated during this period. The new schools served larger regions than the former districts had, and offered a wider variety of courses. These rural regional schools were found throughout the province, nearly one-third of them in French-speaking areas. Known as "bilingual" schools, they were actually French-language parish schools in which French prevailed.

This reform had several advantages for the education system and for centralization of services. However, since tax collection was a county responsibility, residents of the poorest counties were forced to hand over a larger proportion of their income to fund the schools. In general, schools in the poorest counties had smaller budgets and schools in wealthier counties were better equipped. It was obvious that not all inhabitants of the province had access to the same services, and the poorest were in reality the most heavily taxed.

To remedy the situation, Premier Louis-J. Robichaud brought in new reforms in the 1960s. The premier appointed a commission to study the funding of schools in New Brunswick. Following the publication of the Byrne Report, which denounced the injustices suffered by provincial residents, the government changed the education system so that funding was now the responsibility of the central power rather than the counties.

Starting in 1967, taxes and salaries were standardized throughout the province, and several departments, including the schools, became the financial responsibility of the provincial government. In addition, the construction of new comprehensive schools meant that every student who wished to do so could receive academic or vocational training. These schools offered general education courses and vocational training, as well as commercial and domestic science courses. Pupils could choose to take courses that would prepare them to enter the workforce or continue their education at a college, technical institute or university. During this period, enrolment in New Brunswick schools nearly doubled.

The last school reform took place in 1985. During this period, high school education underwent some changes. First of all, a semester system was set up, similar to the system used by universities and community colleges. Since then, obtaining a high school diploma has involved earning a certain number of credits for compulsory and elective courses. Students are required to pass provincial examinations in various subjects in order to graduate. The specialized training formerly offered by comprehensive schools has been replaced by basic general education courses. At the elementary and high-school levels, special-needs students are now integrated into regular classes. During the same period, a public kindergarten system was also organized. In the 1990s, the Department of Education reorganized the school map to reduce the number of districts.

In the second half of the 20th century, the education system saw many changes designed to teach students in both French and English. In 1964, the Department of Education was divided into two parts, one for each language group - a division that led to the current structure of the Department. Each section is responsible for overseeing and evaluating programs in the schools run by its respective language group. In 1971, the so-called "bilingual" districts became Francophone districts, and in 1978, Francophone schools in mainly Anglophone regions were merged to create Francophone districts.