On Schools

by Elizabeth Campbell

I’m just back from this year’s Annual Reunion. I think it was one of the best we’ve had in a long time! I think I’ll spend this week writing about it, because a number of interesting issues were raised.

One of them concerned education at the RRS. A discussion arose about the demolition of the Centennial School, which was established in 1912 and named to commemorate the Centenary of the establishment of the Red River Colony. The story is convoluted, but ultimately Centennial School was sort of ‘replaced’ by West Kildonan Collegiate (now at 1874 Main Street, Winnipeg), which was, according to the discussion, rebuilt opposite the site of the first school. At the time this discussion was going on, I assumed that ‘first school’ meant The First School of the settlement. Now it occurs to me that it could have meant Manitoba’s first school, or Centennial School.

In any case, I began thinking about the site of ‘the first school’, and wondering if anyone really did know where it was located… exactly. To my thinking, West Kildonan seems a bit off the mark. To make things clear, by ‘first school’ I mean The First School at Red River. The distinction is important – Manitoba wasn’t founded until 1870. And the concept of public schools as an institution in the region came into being some time after the RRS was founded in 1812.

The first teacher was Francis Swords, an Irishman who came to the colony as schoolmaster in 1812. I don’t know if he taught in a designated school building, though. I suspect not, that he rather taught in one of the HBC buildings, or perhaps his home. Certainly his successor, John Matheson, Junior (of Aultbreakachy) did.

The first actual mention of a dedicated school building I’ve found is in January of 1815, when Miles Macdonell notes, “Engaged John Matheson Jun’r for Schoolmaster the School to be for the present Kept at the Old Huts which are to be put immediately in repair.” Archibald McDonald also writes, on 14 January 1815 “John Matheson & his family have taken possession of the School House this Evening.”

So, it seems reasonable to assume that The First School was a simple building, which may also have acted as the schoolmaster’s home, and certainly did by Matheson’s time, probably close to or on the grounds of Fort Douglas.

Which begs the question, then, which ‘first school’ does West Kildonan Collegiate face? And doesn’t this illustrate well the importance of semantics!

[references: Miles Macdonell Journals. Manitoba Archives Selkirk Papers M186 p. 16946. Macdonell's letter to Lord Selkirk dated 18 September 1815 M186 pp. 17116-7. Archibald McDonald Journal 1814 Manitoba Archives SP M187 p. 18247.]

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