The 1960s brought dramatic changes to public elementary education in Ontario. In February 1964 Minister of Education William G. Davis (later Premier), in the words of one historian, “turned to the century-old problem of the rural elementary schools.” Although a lot of amalgamation had already taken place to unite the old one- or two-room schools into larger centralized schools, 1500 rural school boards still operated in 1964. These included areas with large populations of Old Order Mennonites and Old Order Amish. These groups were comfortable with the traditional one-room school and willingly sat on the local boards that ran these schools. They could maintain a level of control that ensured that the school’s culture remained largely in harmony with the church’s teachings. However, the government thought the education in these schools did not compare to that available in larger schools because of inadequate buildings and limited teaching tools. Some teachers also felt limited in their personal freedom by being under the microscope of the local community. Thus the legislation made geographic townships the basis for the school areas and mandated centralized schools.
The Old Order Mennonites were quick to raise questions about the legislation. Already in April 1964 Old Order minister Ervin Shantz wrote to Minister Davis, asking if the small schools could remain open and whether fourteen-year-old children were required by law to stay in school until age sixteen and thus have to attend high school. In June Davis replied saying the small schools could remain open if the new township school board agreed. He also confirmed that “a child will still be excused from attendance at school if he has attained the age of fourteen years and his parent or guardian requires his services on the farm operated by the parent or guardian.”
By September 1966 nine parochial schools in Waterloo and Wellington Counties were serving Old Order Amish, Old Order Mennonites (including the Markham-Waterloo Mennonite Conference), Orthodox Mennonites, and Beachy Amish. The David Martin Mennonites did not participate in these schools. By 2001–02 there were 61 such schools in Waterloo, Wellington and Perth counties.
The provincial rules changed in 1968 by requiring students to attend school until age sixteen. The Old Orders continued to leave school at age fourteen with the Ministry of Education’s permission. For ages fourteen and fifteen the children were regarded as apprentices on their home or neighboring farm. They could not earn wages during this period, but that requirement was not a hardship in the Old Order culture.
The creation of these private elementary schools, with teachers from within the Old Order communities, have increased the retention rates of the young people in Old Order communities. This only makes sense since children were more completely nurtured within the Old Order culture with fewer distractions than they would have encountered in the public system.
So it can genuinely be said that Bill Davis and the Ontario Ministry of Education played a vital role in the ongoing health and growth of the Old Order Mennonite and Old Order Amish communities in Ontario.
To learn more about Ontario’s Old Order Mennonites and education read In Search of Promised Lands.
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