Gaelic Education in Nova Scotia Schools

by May 27, 2016

This post offers a look at the current state of Gaelic education in the province of Nova Scotia. It also lets Nova Scotia parents know what they can do to try to get Gaelic taught in their child’s own school, if it isn’t currently offered there.

For several years I’ve felt a need to write this blog post, because good things are happening, but most people outside Nova Scotia – and many people in the province for that matter! – have no idea what’s going on with Gaelic in our schools. Some folks in Scotland assume that we have Gaelic-medium education in Nova Scotia, just like in Scotland. We don’t (yet!), but great progress has been made fairly recently in getting Gaelic taught as a subject in schools in more areas of the province, and we need the help of parents and other community members to get even more.


History of Gaelic Education in Nova Scotia

The best source for the history of Gaelic education in the province is Gaelic Nova Scotia: An Economic, Cultural, and Social Impact Study, Michael Kennedy’s comprehensive 2002 report for the Nova Scotia Museum which is available as a free download, and still highly relevant. I strongly encourage anyone who is interested in Gaelic in Nova Scotia to read the report; it is like a history book in its extensive scope and high quality.

I’ll just offer brief highlights from Kennedy so we can better understand the significance of the Gaelic education we have available now. As described by Kennedy, in Scotland starting in the 16th century and increasing through the 17th and 18th centuries, Gaelic suffered a long-term forced split from formal education through deliberate British government efforts. In other words, once Gaelic political power structures were weakened in Scotland, Gaelic language and culture was deliberately excluded from the sphere of formal education and confined to “folk” or informal education. This situation continued in the British colony of Nova Scotia.

Gaelic has been spoken by Scottish immigrants, their descendants, and other community members from the 18th century right through to the present day in Nova Scotia. In the 1901 Canadian census, Gaelic was the fourth most commonly-spoken language in all of Canada behind English, French, and German. In Nova Scotia there were at least 50,000 Gaelic speakers, who made up at least 11% of the province’s population (Dembling, 2006). At this time, as Kennedy notes, Gaelic speakers were achieving positions of political power in the province, but their language and culture were still excluded from education:

“In spite of numbering 50,000 speakers at the turn of the century and in spite of the prominent institutional positions held by Gaelic speakers, their language was excluded from virtually all domains of social power and denied any meaningful role in the institutional infrastructure of the province, even within communities where it was the only commonly spoken language. At a time when Gaels held such offices as lieutenant governor or premier, not a single public school in Nova Scotia was noted to have been teaching through the medium of Gaelic. The school system does not appear to have offered so much as a single course on Gaelic language, literature, history, culture, or music anywhere in the province. While prominent Gaels of the period may have had a command of the Gaelic language and an understanding of Gaelic culture that would be the envy of scholars today, that was thanks entirely to the informal folk process of cultural transmission and was almost entirely irrelevant to the success they achieved or the status they enjoyed in wider Nova Scotian society. Their success and their prominence rested almost solely on the strength of their English education.” (Kennedy, pp. 63-4).


In 1920 a petition was submitted to the Nova Scotia legislature with over 5,400 signatures calling for Gaelic to be included in the Nova Scotia curriculum. The following year, the Nova Scotia Legislature “approved Gaelic as an optional subject in the curriculum of Nova Scotia. For the first time since the free public school system was instituted in the 1860s, Gaelic could be offered as a subject of study in Nova Scotian schools – provided a qualified teacher could be found” (Kennedy, pp. 79-80).

Pages of the 1920 petition for Gaelic in Nova Scotia schools, Nova Scotia Archives

Pages of the 1920 petition for Gaelic in Nova Scotia schools, Nova Scotia Archives

Despite the change on paper, however, Gaelic was not offered in schools because there were no qualified teachers to be found in Nova Scotia, and no textbooks, grammars, or dictionaries (Kennedy, p. 80). On the contrary, teachers still discouraged children from using Gaelic, and its use in the classroom was forbidden and punished (Kennedy, p. 81).

In 1939, some teachers were given a bit of Gaelic language training at a Provincial Summer School for Teachers at Dalhousie University, but World War II seems to have put a stop to these activities (Kennedy, p. 86).

In 1950, C. I. N. MacLeod was hired as a Gaelic advisor to the Department of Education, and he organized programs such as short Gaelic courses for teacher training each summer at Dalhousie University (1950-1955). A one hour per week Gaelic program was also offered in some Nova Scotian schools at this time. However, the Dept of Ed position was discontinued in 1958, and “Gaelic was once again dropped from the Nova Scotia curriculum” in 1964 (Kennedy, pp. 88-9).


Gaelic Education 1970-2000

In 1969 Comunn Ghàidhlig Ceap Breatuinn (The Gaelic Society of Cape Breton) was formed in Sydney. They successfully lobbied for Gaelic as a subject to have credit status once again in Nova Scotia schools, but identified teacher training and recruitment as key problems. They sent member Linden MacIntyre on a mission to Scotland recruit Gaelic teachers. John A. MacDonald of Jordanhill College of Education was brought over to train Gaelic teachers in Cape Breton, and eventually three of MacDonald’s native Gaelic-speaking students from Jordanhill were brought over to teach Gaelic. Allan J. MacEachen (secretary of state and later deputy prime minister) helped them obtain a temporary federal grant to pay for the teaching positions (Kennedy, pp. 94-5).

From 1972-77 on the federal grant, a Gaelic pilot project ran successfully in six schools Inverness County (Victoria County declined to participate). The teachers were on one-year contracts which had to be renewed every year. Once the federal grant ended, the program limped along by special appeals, but ultimately the provincial Department of Education and the local school board did not “integrate the Gaelic program into the regular school system” (Kennedy, p. 95).

In 1982 Gaelic was discontinued in schools everywhere in Cape Breton but Mabou. In 1991 the Gaelic program was dropped in Mabou. From 1993-98, Gaelic was offered in after school hours on volunteer basis by Margie Beaton, one of the two original teachers from Scotland (Kennedy, p. 96-7).

In 1998, the after school Gaelic language class, which was quite large, “was reincorporated into the reglular curriculum, and for the first time in more than twenty years money was provided for the procurement of texts. At the same time, work was begun on the development of a Gaelic cultural studies program “to match similar programs already developed for Acadian, African, and Mi’kmaw [sic] culture.” Gaelic Cultural Studies started to be offered in four high schools in 1999, but the curriculum development was ended before completion due to budget cuts. Teachers remain responsible for developing their own curriculum materials for the cultural studies course (Kennedy, p. 98-9).

Kennedy summarizes the situation as it still applies:

“The opportunity to receive Gaelic language instruction in Nova Scotia’s schools has existed continuously on the Public Schools’ Program since the completion of the Gaelic pilot program which ran from 1972-77 in seven schools in Inverness County. At the end of the piloting period, Gaelic was granted the same status as all other subjects on the Nova Scotia School curriculum. In effect, this meant that any school in Nova Scotia could opt to offer Gaelic courses. There were no restrictions and today that is still the case” (Kennedy, p. 96).


Present Situation: A Provincial Gaelic Curriculum

In 2000, a provincial ministerial order set a new requirement for every student to take a Canadian history course in grade 11 or 12. Kennedy noted in 2002 that Gaelic was not automatically included:

“when a new compulsory Canadian history course was added to the provincial curriculum… Acadian, African, and Mi’kmaq history were all designated as acceptable Canadian content for the course, but Gaelic history was not. Once again, Gaels were forced to justify the legitimacy of their presence in Nova Scotia to have their culture acknowledged in their own schools. After another round of battling, Nova Scotia’s Gaelic culture has been deemed sufficiently ‘Canadian’ to be included as an acceptable Canadian content for the compulsory history course.”


Provincial Department of Education curriculum development projects were undertaken for Canadian History, Canadian History in French, Acadian Studies, Mi’kmaq Studies, African Canadian studies, and Gaelic Studies to fulfill the Canadian History requirement.

After the creation of the new Gaelic Studies history course, it was decided to update and refresh the high school Gaelic language curriculum and convert it from a local curriculum to a provincial-level one. Both of these curricula, history and language, went through a standard curriculum development process: a draft version was created and piloted, feedback was collected and addressed, and revisions were made. The curricula were required to meet provincial standards developed by teachers and outside experts.

The development of provincial-level curricula for Gaelic is a significant positive change, allowing standardized Gaelic courses to be offered by any school board anywhere in the province for the first time.

The latest high school Gaelic curriculum documents for the Gaelic language courses Gaelic 10, Gaelic 11, and Gaelic 12, created in 2008, are available free online. The latest high school Gaelic curriculum document for Gaelic Studies (the history course) is called Gaelic Studies 11 (with the implementation draft dated 2002). It is available here.

Note that high school in Nova Scotia includes grades 10, 11, and 12 which correspond to an average student age of 15, 16, and 17 respectively. Junior high includes grades 7, 8, and 9. However, Cape Breton just changed over to a middle school system with grades 6-8 in middle school and 9-12 in high school.

The Gaelic language curriculum is a 3-year course at grade levels 10, 11, and 12. In each school year, the course lasts one term with 100 total hours of instruction, like every high school course. This curriculum is like other high school language courses in educating for basic grammar and use.  The language classes offer a foundation for university-level study and are comparable to high school French classes in effectiveness.

The Gaelic history curriculum is a one-year course at grade level 11. In each school year, the course lasts one term with 110 total hours of instruction.

There is also a provincial curriculum for Gaelic 3-9 (Gaelic language instruction in grades 3-9), but it seems it is made available only to teachers rather than to the general public. The Learning Outcomes Framework for Grades Primary to 6 of October 2015 is available online. It states that founding cultures of Nova Scotia have been taken into account in developing learning indicators and outcomes:

“The curricula for grades primary to three have been reconfigured to align across grades and disciplines to support an integrated approach to learning. The renewed outcomes have been developed with indicators that align with the Essential Graduation Competencies and are inclusive of Acadian, African Nova Scotian, Gaelic, and Mi’kmaw cultures, and Treaty Education.” (p. 1)


The document notes that Gaelic as a second language and Mi’kmaq as a second language may be introduced at grade 3 in schools where they are offered. Core French in English schools is offered beginning at grade 4 (p. 1).

The document also contains an identical curriculum outcome statement for Gaelic language instruction repeated four times, once for each year from grade 3 through 6 (e.g., pp. 91-94). It contains specific outcomes for three areas: Speaking and Listening, Reading and Writing, and Cultural Awareness.

In August 2015, Comhairle na Gàidhlig (the Gaelic Council of Nova Scotia) sent out an email stating that the Department of Education (DoE) requested their assistance with updating Gaelic Studies curriculum for Primary to Grade 3 (P-3) levels in the public schools. Members of the Gaelic community were asked to apply in writing, indicating their interest in assisting with this work on a voluntary basis. The process is ongoing at the time of writing.


Nova Scotia Gaelic Curriculum Enrolment Statistics

I obtained data from the Nova Scotia Department of Education about the numbers of pupils, teachers, and public schools involved in Gaelic education in Nova Scotia in the academic year 2014-2015.

In 2014-15, a total of 555 pupils in Nova Scotia schools participated in Gaelic education, taught by a total of 13 teachers in 10 different schools located in 4 different school board areas. (Most of these 13 teachers do not teach Gaelic subjects exclusively.)


Gaelic Enrolments in Nova Scotia Schools, 2014-15

Enrolments in the Gaelic [language] 10, 11, 12 and Gaelic Studies 11 courses in the 2014-15 academic year


Gaelic Education: Awareness and Support

These significant changes have made Gaelic cultural history and language potentially accessible to many more Nova Scotian students as subjects. But as has been the case since the 1980s when Gaelic in the schools was almost lost, these subjects are not automatically offered in every school. They are simply available for any school board to adopt at its own discretion. This is where the concepts of “Gaelic awareness” and “community support” come in.

Gaelic sign at H.M. MacDonald Elementary School, Maryvale, Antigonish County, Nova Scotia

Gaelic sign at H.M. MacDonald Elementary School, Maryvale, Antigonish County, Nova Scotia

First, in order for people to be interested in their children receiving Gaelic language and culture education in public schools, there needs to be positive Gaelic awareness. People need to be aware that Gaelic exists and have a little bit of knowledge as to what it is, the long history of Gaelic in the province, and what their ancestral connection to the language is, if they have one. Although many people in Nova Scotia do know what Gaelic is, this background knowledge cannot be taken for granted these days since it was deliberately erased in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Second, there needs to be community support for offering Gaelic language and history as subjects in the schools. In some areas, such as St. Andrews (Antigonish) and the school districts of Cape Breton, this community support is already there, though it still must be nurtured and not taken for granted. Gaelic is offered at the elementary school level in Cape Breton schools, and this also naturally feeds into a high-school level interest in taking the Gaelic courses, because awareness is well-established among students and parents, and backed up by availability.

In areas on the Nova Scotia mainland where Gaelic disappeared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, more effort is sometimes needed to rebuild parental and community awareness and interest. In some mainland areas of the province there may be no interest in offering Gaelic, for example in strongly Acadian, Mi’kmaq, African Nova Scotian, or German areas which have their own cultural heritage. There are multiple different elective courses in the Nova Scotia curriculum, and Gaelic is only one of them.

The important question about community support is… who exactly is the community? If you are reading this and you live in a mainland area of Nova Scotia where Gaelic is not taught in the schools, and you want to see Gaelic in the schools – then it’s you!

Students taking Gaelic language and culture courses at Citadel High, Halifax. Source: Gaelic Affairs 2012 Gaelic Calendar

Students taking Gaelic language and culture courses at Citadel High, Halifax. Source: Gaelic Affairs 2012 Gaelic Calendar

If you want to see Gaelic offered in the schools, then you would need to write or call your local school board to ask for Gaelic in the schools. You would probably have to do it more than once, and try to talk other people into doing it too. If people don’t ask for it, then it will probably not happen. You would probably also have to engage in basic Gaelic awareness activities – talking about the fact that Gaelic is still spoken in the province and that there is Gaelic cultural heritage in the province. For example, you can talk about the fact that if someone has a “Mac” name in Nova Scotia, most likely their ancestors were Gaelic speakers. If they have an ancestor who came across on the Ship Hector, then they have Gaelic ancestry.

Another important question about “community support” is what exactly does “support” mean? It can’t remain in people’s heads or in private conversations. The support or interest in Gaelic has to be verbalized to the people who make curriculum decisions in a school district. If you’re interested in having Gaelic taught at your child’s school (or future school), then be sure to make that clear to your School Advisory Council. Each school in Nova Scotia has its own SAC and contact information can be found on the school website. You could request an agenda item about Gaelic curriculum for the next SAC meeting, and speak to the meeting about why it’s important to offer Gaelic and encourage other parents to contact the school board to request it.

A Gaelic student in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Photo by Len Wagg, Communications Nova Scotia.

A Gaelic student in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Photo by Len Wagg, Communications Nova Scotia.

Parents could also talk with their representative member on the school board, and make presentations to the school board about why they want Gaelic in their school. Also, a parent in the school district can email or telephone the school board directly (contact info is on every school board’s website). A parent can ask for the email or direct line of the school district’s Program Coordinator or Program Director, and express their interest directly that way as well. The Program Coordinator is responsible for curriculum and will be aware of the province’s Gaelic offerings as well as other elective courses.

Third, there needs to be resources available in the school. There needs to be a .5 FTE (full-time equivalent) staff member available to teach (that staff member, if full time, may teacher another subject for the other .5 FTE). For the Gaelic Studies course, a teacher needs to be available who is willing to undertake the professional development training in the subject area. For the language course, that staff member needs to have enough Gaelic language ability to teach Gaelic. As with Gaelic Medium Education in Scotland, a lack of teacher availability can hold back the growth of Gaelic language and history provision in Nova Scotia schools.
The Department of Education currently has a grant program to school boards to offset the cost of hiring a teacher to teach Gaelic. The school board can apply to the Department of Education for funding based on programming decisions. Requests need to be submitted by the end of May each year.


Spread the word about Gaelic Education in Nova Scotia

Gaelic is taught as a language and history subject in the Nova Scotia education system by dedicated teachers in multiple areas of the province. There is potential for even more students to access Gaelic education, and for more of our Gaelic-speaking instructors to be employed, if parents and fellow community members make their wishes known. If you live in Nova Scotia and want to see Gaelic programming offered in your local school, contact your SAC today and start the ball rolling!

*Statistics courtesy of the Nova Scotia Department of Education. Photos courtesy of Communications Nova Scotia. Feature photo by Kelly Clark, Communications Nova Scotia. Final photo by Lenn Wagg, Communications Nova Scotia. The views expressed in this post are solely my own.

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