Saskatchewan Schools: Early History

Wood stove, Latham School, built in 1906.
Saskatchewan Archives Board R-A12518-2

When we think of the one-room school, the countryside usually comes to mind: most towns and villages began with a one- or two-room schools that often had more rooms added as the population grew. A new school district was established when enough settlers with children had come to a district to warrant the construction of a school. A petition was circulated asking the Department of Education to allow the citizens to build a school and to hire a teacher; the petitioners usually had to outline the anticipated costs and to explain how they proposed to fund the school. In the original land survey, certain quarter sections of land had been designated as the school quarters; when the land was sold, the proceeds helped to fund a school (see Legal Land Survey). There were no teacher training schools in the North-West Territories during the 1850s: all the teachers came from Ontario.

Ready to go to school by horse and buggy, ca. 1948.
Ninita Hautz

The first school classes were held in town halls or community centres. Soon the school trustees saw the need to build a regular wooden school building; these were usually two- and four-room schools in villages and towns. As the towns grew in size, there was a need for more permanent, larger schools. In 1890, Regina built its first brick five-room school, called the White School because it was made of white brick. Some of the larger schools were made of stones and brick; the latter came from the towns of Claybank or Estevan. In 1895, another brick school in Regina was built of red brick and naturally called the Red School. It had high school grades up to Grade 12; the first high school graduation class was in 1898–99. This school was later renamed the Alexander School; a section of it was used for teacher training and was called the Normal School.

In 1905, when part of the Territories became the province of Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan government set up its own Department of Education. At that time, both the provincial and federal governments wanted to develop the prairie provinces: the Homestead Act gave settlers a free one-quarter section of land (160 acres or 65 ha) on the condition that they develop the land for agriculture. This notice was sent to all European countries, and also to the United States and Asia. In a matter of several years, the southern part of Saskatchewan was populated with families whose homesteads dotted the prairies nearly every half mile; most of the families had four to five children of school age. The province and the communities were faced with the urgent task of giving these children an education. Little one-room wooden schools were built nearly every seven to eight miles, as parents felt that the children should not walk more than four miles to a school. Most areas had as many as six to eight small, one-room country schools, in which teachers single-handedly taught all the subjects up to Grade 8. The Department of Education set up correspondence courses in these schools for the Grade 9 and 10 students. Each of these schools had enrolment of 35 to 40 students; in some, a teacherage was built for the teacher’s lodging in exchange for doing the janitorial work for the school.

The teacher had to start the fire in the school’s wood stove at about 6:00 a.m. in order to get the school warm enough by 8:30 a.m. The teacher also had to keep the school clean and wash the floors every other week. The school also became the entertainment centre for the community: bingos and whist drives took place nearly every weekend during the winter season; and twice a year the school would put on special programs for the parents. The Christmas concert and track-and-field events were highlights that drew large crowds. Some of the schools had 4-H Clubs, which were organized by the Department of Agriculture and where students received training in showmanship as well as in the care of farm animals. Some of the one-room schools were closed during the months of January and February due to very cold weather and poor roads; to make up the required 200 teaching days a year, the school year would start in August.

The students used many different means of transportation to and from their schools. In summer, they would walk, ride horseback, or drive a horse and buggy or a two-wheel cart; during the winter months, they used a cutter or a box sled. The farming community often found it difficult to pay the teachers’ salaries, and many of them would have to work for their board and room. Farmers would take turns boarding the teacher for a month. During the 1930s, since many rodents destroyed the farmers’ crops, municipalities paid the students 1¢ for gopher tails and 2¢ for a pair of crow’s legs; the teacher’s job was to collect these tails and legs and pay the students the money on behalf of the municipalities.

The Department of Education then started to amalgamate many of the village and one-room schools into school units in order to reduce the cost and also to give the students a better education with more qualified teachers and better equipment. A drop in the enrolment of the one-room school had also caused problems in keeping them open. The school units built larger four- to six-room schools in the towns. The students now had to be transported to these schools. In summer, the school units used busses and wagons that held about ten students; during the winter most of the roads were blocked, so the students were transported by bombardiers and snow planes. High school students were transported to larger towns, which were about 20 miles (30 km) apart: changes in society had created changes in education that required more technical equipment, better science labs, and more qualified teachers.

Regina’s first high school, Regina Collegiate Institute, was built in 1908 on College Avenue. It had five science labs, and a large auditorium for the fine arts and for school functions. When the school opened in 1908, it had 204 students and a teaching staff of five; by the 1920s there were over 1,000 students; and in 1935, it had 3,020 students and a staff of 75 teachers in its 32 classrooms. The school used a shift system to take care of the large enrolment.

Alex Youck, Jim Slough