In Search of Velma Brown [Moore]’s Education: The Big Picture

After discovering that I needed to understand the Canadian system of education at the time my  grandmother Velma Jane Moore attended school (c. 1902 – 1918), I decided to approach my review of the relevant sources I’d found in HathiTrust systematically, from national to provincial to county to local. I will share the relevant national, provincial, and county information in this post and the local information in the next installment.

National: The Canada Yearbook 1916/1917, is a government report published under the auspices of the Minister of Trade and Commerce. The Imperial Yearbook for the Dominion of Canada 1917/1918, which at the time was in its third year of publication, appears to be a reference book with information and statistical data compiled from government reports. Both sources provide  description and analysis of the Canadian public education system, including an overview of its history.

Provincial: The 1902-1918 editions of the Annual Report of the Superintendent of Education on the Public Schools of Nova Scotia include discussion and analysis of topics such as, “School Libraries,” “the Three R’s,” “Examination Week Difficulties,” and “Defectives, Truants, and Criminal Youths.”1 Statistical data tables, including attendance, teacher salaries, government expenditures, and the classification of schools, provide a clear picture of the education system at the time.2

County: Each of the provincial reports includes a report of the division school inspector,  who was responsible for overseeing administration of the local schools, evaluating their effectiveness, and reporting their status to the provincial department of education.3 Economy Point was in Division No. 10 (West Colchester County and Cumberland County) up until 1907, when Colchester South and Colchester West became one division, No. 12.4 These reports tend to focus on the educational environment (condition of the school building, availability of outdoor space for exercise and play), teacher qualifications (primarily lack thereof), and instructional methods.

Setting Education Policy in the Province

The Free School Act of 1864 established the framework for the public education system in Nova Scotia,5 and it is frequently referenced in the sources I consulted. In 1867, the British North American Act gave the provincial legislatures in Canada exclusive control to legislate education policy.6 Of particular note for Velma’s story is that the system of public education had been in place in Nova Scotia for only thirty years when she was born in 1897, and the provincial compulsory school attendance statute of 1895 was not enforced in the country schools of unincorporated towns such as Economy.7

Religious Observances

The Free School Act allowed for each province to determine the extent of nondenominational religious instruction and observances, subject to a conscience clause allowing parents to exempt their children from participation:  “In Nova Scotia the question of devotional exercises is left to the local board of trustees, subject to the conscience clause, but in fact such exercises are generally held.”8

Velma’s religious faith was a very important part of her life, so the fact that her education would have included religious observances isn’t surprising. What did surprise me was my own memory of starting the school day with the Lord’s Prayer–until one day the teacher announced that we would not be doing it anymore. I remember not understanding why we could no longer recite the Lord’s Prayer in school. Everyone recited the Lord’s Prayer in church; what was the problem? I was also upset because the Lord’s Prayer was the first thing I ever memorized, and I was very proud of this accomplishment. So what’s this memory all about? A quick Google search confirms that I started second grade the school year immediately following the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 1962 ruling that prayer in the public schools was unconstitutional.9

Common School and High School

Similar to the United States, elementary and secondary education in Nova Scotia comprised grades I-XII, with grades I-VII referred to as “common school” (i.e., basic knowledge which should be common to all citizens) and Grades IX-XII referred to as “high school.”10 Under the system of education at that time, in the rural areas in particular, multiple grade levels were frequently taught by one teacher in a single classroom, known as a “school.”11 The intent was for grades I through VIII to be taught in this manner, with the pupils then attending a separate high school  for grades IX through XII. However, high school instruction could be provided in the common schools and frequently was, particularly in the rural areas.12 In his annual reports to the Superintendent of Education, the  inspector for West Colchester County, the division where Economy was located, consistently expressed concern that this practice was detrimental to both the pupils who received high school instruction from teachers who weren’t qualified to provide it and the younger pupils who needed the full attention of the teacher.13

The Importance of Education

The information I found about the common school education children in the rural areas of Nova Scotia would have received, particularly the concerns raised by the West Colchester inspector, shed additional light on the decision of Velma’s parents, George Baxter Moore and Martha Faulkner Moore, to send their only daughter away to high school in Truro, ninety miles away from their farm in Economy Point. At the same time, the information raises additional questions. Both George and Martha were born in Economy, George in 1866 and Martha in 1872, only a few short years after the Free Education Act. Why was education so important to them? What education would they have had? Did Economy even have a common school when they were growing up?

Of the research I’ve done so far, a small table of enrollment statistics in Monograph on the Curricula of the Nova Scotia Public Schools has made the greatest impression on me. For the school year ending July 1913, a total of 105,269 pupils were enrolled in the Nova Scotia public schools. Of those 105,269 children, 206 were enrolled in grade XII.14 That’s only 0.2%!

The importance of a college education was taken for granted in my family by the time I reached high school age in 1969, so the fact that my grandmother had a university degree–as did my grandfather Ronald Dalrymple Brown [1899 -1985]–didn’t register with me as anything out of the ordinary. I see now just how remarkable a woman Velma was to have successfully completed a university education in that place and time. I wish I’d known that when she was alive.


1Nova Scotia, Annual report of the Superintendent of Education for Nova Scotia, for the year ended July 31st, 1904, 1903-04 ed. (Halifax, Nova Scotia: McAlpine Publishing Co., 1904).

2Nova Scotia, Annual report, 1904, 3-56.

3George E. Foster, Minister of Trade and Commerce, K.C.M.G., M.P., comp., The Canada Yearbook: 1916/1917 (Ottawa, Ontario: J. de L. Tache, Printer to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, 1917), 128.

4Nova Scotia, Annual report of the Superintendent of Education for Nova Scotia, for the year ended July 31st, 1907, 1906-07 ed. (Halifax, Nova Scotia: McAlpine Publishing Co., 1907), 134.

5Nova Scotia, Annual report of the Superintendent of Education for Nova Scotia, for the year ended July 31st, 1900, 1899-1900 ed. (Halifax, Nova Scotia: McAlpine Publishing Co., 1901), 227.

6Foster, Minister of Trade and Commerce, The Canada Yearbook 1916/1917 , 118.

7Nova Scotia, Annual report of the Superintendent of Education for Nova Scotia, for the year ended July 31st, 1903, 1902-03 ed. (Halifax, Nova Scotia: McAlpine Publishing Co., 1903), 125.

8Foster, Minister of Trade and Commerce, The Canada Yearbook 1916/1917 , 120.

9Encyclopædia Britannica, ed., “Engel v. Vitale law case,” Encyclopædia Britannica, last modified April 10, 2017, accessed September 10, 2017, https://www.britannica.com/event/Engel-v-Vitale.

10Foster, Minister of Trade and Commerce, The Canada Yearbook 1916/1917 , 125.

11Foster, Minister of Trade and Commerce, The Canada Yearbook 1916/1917 , 148.

12Foster, Minister of Trade and Commerce, The Canada Yearbook 1916/1917 , 118.

13Nova Scotia, Annual report, 1907, 134.

14 A. H. MacKay, Mongraph on the Curricula of the Public Schools of Nova Scotia (Halifax, N.S.: King’s Printer, 1914), 4.

2 thoughts on “In Search of Velma Brown [Moore]’s Education: The Big Picture

  1. I like the collage. I’m impressed with how thoroughly you dug down into the educational system. Obviously higher education was not a high priority for the majority of families in Nova Scotia. I imagine economic conditions and the need for older children to help out on the farms was a big factor. Life was simpler then, but the trade-off was fewer choices and opportunities.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your comments, Jon! The agricultural economy did have a big impact on children’s education. Accompanying one of the data tables for attendance was a cautionary note that the concentration of high numbers of children enrolled in the lower grades didn’t necessarily mean that most children were dropping out of school altogether after the first three grades. While some did, a number of others were held back from advancing to the next grade because they missed so much school due to working on their families’ farms.

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