Nova Scotia Overview


What is the history of the education system in Nova Scotia?


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Early History

The history of education in Nova Scotia has been affected by both geography and culture. Children and youth have always been educated informally in order to survive the challenging environment of Canada.  The earliest formal schools were developed by European arrivals and in Nova Scotia, educational institutions were very much based on the traditions of Scotland. When the Free School Act was passed in 1864, schools throughout Nova Scotia became free and open to all children.

Today's Classroom

The classroom of today is very different from the one room schoolhouses of the past. Teaching methods and learning have changed, and so has the student body. Diversity is now the cornerstone of the contemporary classroom. Publicly funded schools in Nova Scotia welcome students from every culture, ethnicity, race, religion, language, socio-economic background and gender, as well as those with physical or learning disabilities or other challenges.

The educational system of today aims to address the needs of students from a variety of backgrounds. Unique approaches have been developed to meet the needs of students from the historical communities of Mi’kmaq, Acadians and African Nova Scotians.

(adapted from A Brief Historical Perspective: European Contributions to the Education System in Nova Scotia, David Young PhD, St Francis Xavier University)

Brief History of Mi’kmaq

One of the most fascinating histories of settlement in Nova Scotia is that of its original inhabitants, the Mi’kmaq. Going back 13,000 years, to the end of the last ice age that covered most of Eastern North America, there is archaeological evidence in central Nova Scotia that shows that a group of hunter gatherers followed the caribou to that area at that time. Mi’kmaw Elders today maintain that these early settlers were their forefathers. There are over 800 sites of early Mi'kmaw occupation scattered across Nova Scotia. The Mi’kmaq occupied and enjoyed all of today’s Atlantic Provinces - Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland - as well as portions of the Gaspé Peninsula, for thousands of years. This territory was known to them as Mi’kma’ki. Before the arrival of the Europeans in the 1500s, Mi’kma’ki was divided into seven districts, each named for the geographical characteristics of that area, and each led by a District Chief. Together, they made up the Mi’kmaw Grand Council, which governed by consensus over the entire territory and its people. The Mi’kmaq Nation was orderly, well-governed, strong, knowledgeable and successful. The Mi’kmaw language is part of the Algonquin language group. Many Nova Scotia place-names used today have their roots in the Mi’kmaw language. The natural environment provided everything they needed, and they depended on their knowledge of the seasons, weather, animals, plants, and hunting and preparation skills for survival.

They used their resources sparingly and wisely, with great respect, and learning was passed from generation to generation. Mi’kmaw education included teaching traditional survival skills, as well as knowledge of other tribes within Eastern North America. Early colonists relied on the knowledge and resourcefulness of the Mi’kmaq for their own survival, but the rapid European settlement of Nova Scotia brought many changes to the lives of the Mi’kmaq. Foreign governments soon became the law-makers, followed by the creation of Canada and its provincial boundaries. At one time the entire population of Nova Scotia was Mi’kmaq. They now number 25,070 individuals -- 2% of the total population. Once travelling freely throughout the province, Mi’kmaq now occupy only 26,000 acres, set aside for them as reserve land owned by the Government of Canada. There are approximately 35 reserves scattered across Nova Scotia today, all allotted to and administered by 13 First Nation Mi’kmaw communities established since 1958-59. With their undeniable connection to the land dating back 13,000 years, today’s Mi’kmaq continue to share their rich history and culture with their neighbors and are an important component of the cultural mosaic which makes up Nova Scotia as we know it today. 

On October 1st every year, Mi’kmaq from around Nova Scotia join the provincial government in hosting Treaty Day – a celebration commemorating the signing of the 1752 Treaty. All Mi’kmaq are proud of their place in history as the earliest inhabitants of the province, and work today toward better cross-cultural understanding among all Nova Scotians (see source 1).

Brief History of Acadians

Today’s Acadians are descended from the first European settlers in Nova Scotia. Second only to the Mi’kmaq, they have the deepest roots of any founding culture in the province. Beginning in 1632, and continuing for 75 years, a small but steady stream of immigrants arrived from France, arriving mostly from the western provinces of Aunis, Saintonge and Poitou. The French brought skills in land reclamation, and instead of clearing the forests for agriculture, they built dikes and aboiteaux (sluices that controlled water flow) to create extensive fertile marshlands for livestock and crops. From their base in Port-Royal (Annapolis Royal), the Acadians gradually scattered south along the coast in tiny fishing settlements and north in farming communities stretching from Grand-Pré on the Minas Basin, up to Chipoudie (Shepody River, New Brunswick) and Beaubassin (Amherst).

By the early 1700s, they had developed a strong and distinct identity, marked by a special relationship with the Mi’kmaq. Over the years, their colony was repeatedly handed back and forth between England and France, and as a result they prized peace and being left undisturbed. This distinct identity was reinforced when mainland Acadia became British in 1713. The Acadians refused to pledge full allegiance to the King of England and chose instead to claim neutrality, both in peacetime and in any new war which might erupt. In 1744 war broke out again. Heavily outnumbered by the Roman Catholic Acadians in their midst, the British decided to round up and deport the entire French population.

This event, known as the Expulsion of the Acadians began in 1755 and continued intermittently for several years. More than 6,000 men, women and children were carried away in British vessels and dispersed among various American colonies. After the war ended in 1763, a trickle of Acadian families slowly returned from the American colonies and France to Nova Scotia, where they joined families that had escaped deportation and remained in the colony. By the early 1770s, they numbered about 1,600.

Today, Acadians live in every corner of Nova Scotia. The Government of Nova Scotia supports and encourages survival and growth of the French language and Acadian culture. French schools, cultural organizations and radio stations are found in all the larger Acadian communities, and a weekly newspaper, Le Courrier, ensures that people from different Acadian regions can all share information in the language of their ancestors (see source 2).

Brief History of African Nova Scotians

The earliest definite evidence of people of African descent living in Nova Scotia comes from surviving records from the Fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. Nearly 200 enslaved Africans can be identified among the general population living there during the French régime (1713-1758). The early inhabitants of Halifax also included numerous enslaved Africans and free Blacks, the latter working mostly as tradesmen and labourers.

The first large group of people of African descent arrived as Loyalists. Loyalists were people living in the American colonies, who supported the British cause during the American Revolution (1775 – 1783). After the Revolution, tens of thousands migrated to what was then British North America (Canada did not become independent until 1867). Over 30,000 Loyalists of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, arrived as political refugees to the colony of Nova Scotia (which included present day New Brunswick). This included Black Loyalists, many of whom had gained freedom from the British through their contributions during the war, others who became emancipated once they were behind British lines, and yet others who were still enslaved by white Loyalists and others. Slavery was not abolished in the British North American colonies until 1834.

Many Black Loyalists came in a group with thousands of others evacuated from New York City in 1783. A written record known as “The Book of Negroes” was compiled at their departure, listing by name approximately 3,000 black and bi-racial men, women and children, all free, who sailed north to begin new lives. Their arrival marked the first time that the notion of ‘community’ was a meaningful concept and a real possibility for people of African descent in Nova Scotia.

The British government scattered Black Loyalists throughout the colony - some in Halifax, Annapolis Royal, Clements and Granville, others in new communities, including Birchtown (near Shelburne), Brindleytown (outside Digby), Preston (near Halifax), Little Tracadie and Chedabucto (Guysborough). Hopes were high, but the Black Loyalists received indifferent and inferior treatment compared to white Loyalists when it came to granting land, provisions and other resources to begin their new lives. Not only was the government slow to survey the land of Black Loyalists, but they were granted smaller, poorer and more remote lands than those of the white settlers. These significant challenges, together with the serious discrimination they faced, resulted in some 1,200 Black Loyalists leaving Nova Scotia in 1792 to establish Freetown in Sierra Leone, West Africa.

The next major immigration was in 1796, when nearly 600 Jamaican Maroons were brought to Halifax and settled as a group in Preston Township. They played a major role in building Government House, worked on new fortifications at the Citadel, and served in the local militia. A few years later, a substantial group of Refugee Blacks arrived during and following the War of 1812, a military conflict between Britain and the United States. Another sizeable group arrived in the early 1900s when black immigrants, chiefly from Barbados, came to industrial Cape Breton to work in the steel mills and coal mines.

Today, African Nova Scotians continue to live in historical places of settlement, although many have moved to larger urban areas. Proud of their ancestry, their history and their cultural traditions, they have built strong communities which continue to the present (see source 3).

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    Source 1: The Mi'kmaq

    Nova Scotia Archives 

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    Source 2: Acadians

    Nova Scotia Archives 

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    Source 3: African Nova Scotians

    Nova Scotia Archives 

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    Source 4: Mi'kmaw Kina'matnewey

    Mi'kmaw Kina'matnewey Website

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    Source 5: Long-Range Outlook

    Long-Range Outlook Document