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Families Without Schools: Rurality, Correspondence Education, and the Promise of Schooling in Interwar Western Canada


Using a collection of settler family letters to the Elementary Correspondence School (ECS) in British Columbia, the first provincial government–supported “schooling by mail” arrangement of its kind in Canada, I highlight the efforts of rural families to secure an education for their children in the period between the First and Second World Wars. The settler families who took advantage of correspondence schooling did so without the benefit of a professional teacher or a dedicated schoolhouse. This arrangement proved onerous for many settler families. In their letters to the ECS, adults and young people articulated the belief that the provincial government needed to do more to provide educational services for them. Families were acutely aware of their contributions to the prosperity of the province and, in return, they demanded schools for their children. Given the unique perspectives reflected through this collection of letters, my examination is situated in the interstices between rural schooling and correspondence schooling.

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1 The historiography on urban schooling internationally is voluminous and it is impossible to capture the length and breadth of scholarship on urban schooling here. Some of the major works in the contexts of North America and Western Europe include Tyack David, The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974); Reeder D., ed., Urban Education in the Nineteenth Century (London: Taylor and Francis, 1977); Goodenow R. K. and Marsden W. E., eds., The City and Education in Four Nations (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Davin Anna, Growing up Poor: Home, School and Street in London, 1870–1914 (London: Rivers Oram Press, 1996); and Gidney R. D. and Millar Wynn, How Schools Worked: Public Education in English Canada, 1900–1940 (Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2012).

2 Note that in the context of Canada, as I explain in greater detail in the proceeding text, education is under the jurisdiction of provincial governments. The designation of “settler” is important in this paper since it was white families who were able to take advantage of the offer of correspondence schooling. After 1920, Aboriginal children, their families “managed” by the Canadian government, were mandated to attend school. See Titley Brian, A Narrow Vision: Duncan Campbell Scott and the Administration of Indian Affairs in Canada (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1986). While many historians have focused on the development of residential schools on the part of the Canadian government and a number of religious orders as a response to the “Indian problem,” other historians have provided much needed attention to the experience of Aboriginal children in provincial day schools. See Eve Chapple, “A Curious Case of ‘Integrating’ the ‘Integrated’: Government Education Policy and the School at Telegraph Creek, British Columbia, 1906 to 1951” (master's thesis, University of Victoria, 2012). For important work on later attempts at integration, see Raptis Helen, “Implementing Integrated Education Policy for On-Reserve Aboriginal Children in British Columbia, 1951–1981,” Historical Studies in Education/Revue d'histoire de l’éducation 20, no. 1 (Spring 2008), 118–46; Raptis Helen, “Exploring the Factors Prompting British Columbia's First Integration Initiative: The Case of Port Essington Indian Day School,” History of Education Quarterly 51, no. 4 (Nov. 2011), 519–43; Raptis Helen, “Blurring the Boundaries of Policy and Legislation in the Schooling of Indigenous Children in British Columbia, 1901–1951,” Historical Studies in Education/Revue d'histoire de l’éducation 27, no. 2 (Fall 2015), 6577 ; and Raptis Helen (with members of the Tsimshian Nation), What We Learned: Two Generations Reflect on Tsimshian Education and the Day Schools (Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2016).

3 The Elementary Correspondence School operated between 1919 and 1969 under the auspices of the then named Department of Education in British Columbia. Elementary Correspondence School Collection, British Columbia Department of Education, British Columbia Archives, GR-0470 (hereafter BCA). On a history of the ECS that focuses primarily on the administrative relationship with the provincial Department of Education, see Tara Suzanne Toutant, “Equality by Mail: Correspondence Education in British Columbia, 1919 to 1969” (master's thesis, University of Victoria, 2004).

4 On the complexities of letters as historical sources, see Bland Caroline and Cross Máire, eds., Gender and Politics in the Age of Letter Writing, 1750–2000 (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2003); Earle Rebecca, “Introduction: Letters, Writers and the Historian,” in Epistolary Selves: Letters and Letter Writers, 1600–1945 (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1999); How James S., Epistolary Spaces: English Letter-Writing from the Foundation of the Post Office to Richardson's Clarissa (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2003); and MacDonald Charlotte J., introduction to Women Writing Home, 1700–1920: Female Correspondence Across the British Empire, ed. MacDonald Charlotte J. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2006). On children and letter writing in the Canadian West, including insights into children's experiences in private academies and schools, or under private tutelage, see Kathryn Bridge “Being Young in the Country: Settler Children and Childhood in British Columbia and Alberta, 1860–1925,” (PhD diss., University of Victoria, 2012), particularly 38–41, 61–76.

5 Historical work on the history of residential schooling in Canada is extensive. Useful overviews in the context of British Columbia include Barman Jean, “Schooled for Inequality: The Education of British Columbia Aboriginal Children,” in Children, Teachers and Schools: In the History of British Columbia, 2nd ed., ed. Barman Jean and Gleason Mona (Edmonton, AB: Brush Education, 2003), 5580 ; De Leeuw Sarah, “‘If anything is to be done with the Indian, we must catch him very young’: Colonial Constructions of Aboriginal Children and the Geographies of Indian Residential Schooling in British Columbia, Canada,” Children's Geographies 7, no. 2 (May 2009), 123–40; and Neegan Erin, “Excuse Me: Who Are the First Peoples of Canada? A Historical Analysis of Aboriginal Education in Canada Then and Now,” International Journal of Inclusive Education 9, no. 1 (Jan. 2005), 315 .

6 Beadie Nancy, Williamson-Lott Joy, Bowman Michael, Frizell Teresa, Guzman Gonzalo, Hyun Jisoo, Johnson Joanna, Nicholas Kathyrn, Phillips Lani, Wellington Rebecca, and Yoshida La'akea, “Gateways to the West, Part 1: Education in Shaping the West,” History of Education Quarterly 56, no. 3 (Aug. 2016), 424–47.

7 Barbara Pini, Suzanne Carrington, and Lenore Adie, “Schooling Elsewhere: Rurality, Inclusion and Education,” International Journal of Inclusive Education (Oct. 2014), 1–8.

8 Collins Damien and Coleman Tara, “School Geographies of Education: Looking Within, and Beyond, School Boundaries,” Geography Compass 2, no. 1 (Jan. 2008), 283 .

9 On the importance of paying attention to rural areas of Canada in histories of education in general, see the special issue of Historical Studies in Education/Revue d'histoire de l’éducation (Spring 2012). Sandwell R. W., “Introduction to Special Issue on the History of Rural Education in Canada,” Historical Studies in Education/Revue d'histoire de l’éducation 24, no. 1 (Spring 2012), 4346 . Geographers, in particular, have used the concept of “rurality” as a conceptual framework in work such as Pratt Andy C., “Discourse of Rurality: Loose Talk or Social Struggle?Journal of Rural Studies 12, no. 1 (Jan. 1996), 6978 .

10 Curtis Bruce, “Patterns of Resistance to Public Education: England, Ireland, and Canada West, 1930–1890,” Comparative Education Review 32, no. 3 (Aug. 1988), 318–33.

11 Jo Maynes Mary, Schooling for the People: Comparative Local Studies of Schooling History in France and Germany, 1750–1850 (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985).

12 Beadie Nancy, “Education, Social Capital and State Formation in Comparative Historical Perspective: Preliminary Investigations,” Paedagogica Historica 46, no. 1–2 (Feb.–April 2010), 1532 .

13 Eklof Ben, “Peasant Sloth Reconsidered: Strategies of Education and Learning in Rural Russia Before the Revolution,” Journal of Social History 14, no. 3 (Spring 1981), 355–85; see also Eklof Ben, Russian Peasant Schools: Officialdom, Village Culture, and Popular Pedagogy, 1861–1914 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

14 Chad Gaffield and Gérard Bouchard have written about the role of schooling and education, particularly in securing literacy, among rural families in Ontario and Quebec as part of broader strategies of social reproduction. See Gaffield Chad and Bouchard Gérard, “Literacy, Schooling and Family Reproduction in Rural Ontario and Quebec,” Historical Studies in Education/Revue d'histoire de l’éducation 1, no. 2 (Fall 1989), 201–18. See also the early scholarship of Lewis Solomon on the role of “opportunity costs,” particularly the foregone earnings or labor support of children in family decision-making regarding school attendance. Solomon Lewis C., “Opportunity Costs and Models of Schooling in the Nineteenth Century,” Southern Economic Journal 37, no. 1 (July 1970), 6683 .

15 Sandwell R. W., “Notes toward a History of Rural Canada, 1870–1940,” in Social Transformation in Rural Canada: Community, Cultures, and Collective Action, ed. Parkins John R. and Reed Maureen G. (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013), 2142 .

16 Steffes Tracy L., “Solving the ‘Rural School Problem’: New State Aid, Standards, and the Supervision of Local Schools, 1900 to 1933,” History of Education Quarterly 48, no. 2 (May 2008), 181220 . Johannes Westberg's research demonstrates that rural school building in the Swedish region of Sundsvall increased in cost over the nineteenth century, becoming a serious social and economic consideration in educational financing. Far from marginalized projects on shoestring budgets, rural schools in that context increasingly marked a burdensome investment for many Swedish communities. Westberg Johannes, “How Much Did a Swedish Schoolhouse Cost to Build? Rewriting the History of 19th-Century Rural Schoolhouses,” Scandinavian Journal of History 39, no. 4 (Sept. 2014), 448–71.

17 Corbett Michael, “A Protracted Struggle: Rural Resistance and Normalization in Canadian Educational History,” Historical Studies in Education/Revue d'histoire de l’éducation 13, no. 1 (Spring 2001), 1948 ; and Corbett Michael, “We Have Never Been Urban: Modernization, Small Schools, and Resilient Rurality in Atlantic Canada,” Journal of Rural and Community Development 9, no. 3 (2014), 186202 . Other Canadian studies include Bennett Paul W., Vanishing Schools, Threatened Communities: The Contested Schoolhouse in Maritime Canada, 1850–2010 (Halifax, NS: Fernwood Publishing, 2011); and Gidney and Millar, How Schools Worked. See also Weber Eugen, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870–1914 (Stanford: University of California Press, 1976); and Fuller Wayne E., The Old Country School: The Story of Rural Education in the Middle West (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

18 Steffes, “Solving the ‘Rural School Problem,’” 181.

19 For studies examining intrusions into teachers’ lives, see Meyers Peter V., “Professionalization and Social Change: Rural Teachers in Nineteenth Century France,” Journal of Social History 9, no. 4 (Summer 1976), 542–58; Altenbaugh Richard J., “Oral History, American Teachers, and a Social History of Schooling: An Emerging Agenda,” Cambridge Journal of Education 27, no. 3 (Nov. 1997), 313–30; Poutanen Mary Anne, “‘Unless she gives better satisfaction’: Teachers, Protestant Education, and Community in Rural Quebec, Lochaber and Gore District, 1863–1945,” Historical Studies in Education/Revue d'histoire de l’éducation 15, no. 2 (Fall 2003), 237–72; and Anttila Erkko and Väänänen Ari, “Rural Schoolteachers and the Pressures of Community Life: Local and Cosmopolitan Coping Strategies in Mid-Twentieth-Century Finland,” History of Education 42, no. 2 (March 2013), 182203 .

20 Wilson J. D. and Stortz Paul J., “‘May the Lord have mercy on you’: The Rural School Problem in British Columbia in the 1920s,” BC Studies 79 (Autumn, 1988), 5758 .

21 School Inspector Leslie Bruce reported in 1920, for example, that many rural and assisted schools remained simply not satisfactory … very badly planned … hardly one has a library … salaries too low to attract capable and experienced teachers … students are far below that of pupils in other schools….,” in Johnson F. Henry, A History of Public Education in British Columbia (Vancouver: Publications Centre, University of British Columbia, 1954), 97 ; see also Shirley Cuthbertson, A Highlight History of British Columbia Schools, Royal BC Museum, Online Exhibits, Thunderbird Park, Schoolhouse Display, March 25, 2008, 4,

22 Peresuh Munhuweyi and Ndawi Obert Paradzai, “Education for All—The Challenges for a Developing Country: The Zimbabwe Experience,” International Journal of Inclusive Education 2, no. 3 (July 1998), 209–24; Nage-Sibande Bogadi, “The Development of Distance Education in Botswana,” Quarterly Review of Distance Education 6, no. 3 (Fall 2005), 243–53; and Perkins Ross A., Gwayi Simeon M., Zozie Paxton A., and Lockee Barbara B., “Distance Education in Malawi,” Educational Technology Research and Development 53, no. 4 (Dec. 2005), 101108 .

23 Castañeda Manuel Moreno, “A History of Distance Education in Mexico,” Quarterly Review of Distance Education 6, no. 3 (Fall 2005), 227–32.

24 Moiseeva Marina, “Distance Education in Russia: Between the Past and the Future,” Quarterly Review of Distance Education 6, no. 3 (Fall 2005), 217–25.

25 Nilsson Anders, “The Unknown Story: Vocational Education for Adults in Sweden, 1918–1968,” History of Education 43, no. 5 (Sept. 2014), 615–34.

26 Bricknell Chris, “Soldier to Civilian: Army Education and Postwar New Zealand Citizenship,” History of Education 39, no. 3 (May 2010), 363–82.

27 Hampel Robert L., “The National Home Study Council, 1926–1942,” American Journal of Distance Education 23, no. 1 (Feb. 2009), 419 .

28 Ibid., 6–8. See also the role that radio technology played in encouraging “schools of air” in the United States and Canada. Lamb Tina R., “The Emergence of Educational Radio: Schools of Air,” TechTrends 56, no. 2 (March 2012), 911 ; and Fleming Thomas and Toutant Tara, “‘A Modern Box of Magic’: School Radio in British Columbia,” Journal of Distance Education 10, no. 1 (Spring 1995), 5373 .

29 Symes Colin, “Remote control: a spatial history of correspondence schooling in New South Wales, Australia,” International Journal of Inclusive Education 16, no. 5–6 (June 2012), 503–17.

30 Gidney and Millar, How Schools Worked.

31 Osborne Ken, “‘If I'm Going to Be a Cop, Why Do I Have to Learn Religion and History?’: Schools, Citizenship, and the Teaching of Canadian History,” in Settling and Unsettling Memories: Essays in Canadian Public History, ed. Neatby Nicole and Hodgins Peter (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 135–87; see also Tyack David, “Ways of Seeing: An Essay on the History of Compulsory Schooling,” Harvard Educational Review 46, no. 3 (Sept. 1976), 355–89; and Sutherland Neil, Children in English-Canadian Society: Framing the Twentieth Century Consensus (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1976).

32 Stanley Timothy J., “White Supremacy and the Rhetoric of Educational Indoctrination: A Canadian Case Study,” in Children, Teachers and Schools in the History of British Columbia, ed. Gleason Mona and Barman Jean (Edmonton, AB: Brush Education, 2003), 113–32.

33 See, for example, some recent work in the history of education in Canada that explores how those judged outside the boundaries of hegemonic social norms struggled for schooling equity. Wood Alexandra L., “Challenging History: Public Education and Reluctance to Remember the Japanese Experience in British Columbia,” Historical Studies in Education/Revue d'histoire de l’éducation 25, no. 2 (Fall, 2013), 6585 ; and Ellis Jason, “‘Inequalities of Children in Original Endowment’: How Intelligence Testing Transformed Early Special Education in a North American City School System,” History of Education Quarterly 53, no. 4 (Nov. 2013), 401–49.

34 Cuthbertson, A Highlight History of British Columbia Schools, 2. See also Jean Barman, “The Emergence of Educational Structures in Nineteenth Century British Columbia,” in Gleason and Barman, Children, Teachers and Schools in the History of British Columbia, 13–37.

35 Ibid.

36 “Rural and Assisted Schools,” in The Homeroom: British Columbia's History of Education Web Site,

37 T. Fleming and B. Hutton, “School Boards, District Consolidation, and Educational Governance in British Columbia, 1872–1995,” Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, 10 (Jan. 14, 1997),

38 All proper names have been changed to provide anonymity to the letter writers.

39 Elementary Correspondence School, file 18, box 22, BCA.

40 Ibid., file 35, box 22, BCA.

41 More recently, scholars of Northern Canada in particular have questioned how the discourse of “remote” and “remoteness” is marshaled to support colonial attitudes toward the availability of land and its resources. See, for example, Roger Epp, “The Trouble with Remoteness,” Northern Public Affairs (June 29, 2016), I am indebted to Heather E. McGregor for this reference.

42 Elementary Correspondence School, file 13, box 16, BCA.

43 Helen's books included Dominion School Geography, Canadian History, Symes and Wrong's English History, Milne's Progressive Third Arithmetic, Universal Spelling Book, Fourth Reader, Lady of the Lake, How to Be Healthy, Elementary Agriculture and Nature Study, B.C. Public School Grammar, and Elementary English Composition, Elementary Correspondence School, file 11, box 15, BCA.

44 Ibid.

45 Ibid., file 18, box 20, BCA.

46 Ibid., file 9, box 19, BCA.

47 Ibid., file 12, box 15, BCA.

48 Ibid., file 20, box, 17, BCA.

49 “Triple Islands, BC,” Lighthouse,

50 Elementary Correspondence School, file 33, box 23, BCA.

51 Strong-Boag Veronica, The New Day Recalled: Lives of Girls and Women in English Canada 1919–1939 (Toronto: Copp, Clark, Pitman, 1988).

52 Elementary Correspondence School, file 18, box 22, BCA.

53 Ibid., file 12, box 22, BCA.

54 Ibid., file 18, box 22, BCA.

55 Ibid., file 51, box 23, BCA.

56 Ibid., file 6, box 16, BCA.

57 Ibid., file 14, box 25, BCA.

58 Barman Jean, The West Beyond the West: A History of British Columbia, 3rd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), see especially Chapter 11, “The Best and Worst of Times, 1929–1945,” 252–86.

59 Elementary Correspondence School, file 7, box 24, BCA.

60 Ibid.

61 Ibid., file 2, box 6, BCA.

62 Ibid.

63 Ibid., file 51, box 24, BCA.

64 Ibid.

65 Ibid.

66 Ibid.

67 Ibid., file 44, box 25, BCA.

68 Ibid.

69 Ibid., file 3, box 26, BCA.

70 Ibid., file 2, box 2, BCA.

71 Ibid.

72 Fleming and Toutant, “‘A Modern Box of Magic.’”

73 “Correspondence Education”, The Homeroom,

74 Elementary Correspondence, file 3, box 26, BCA.

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