Canadian schools and indentureship


Jerome Teelucksingh

THE PRESENCE of the Canadian mission in the Caribbean is often viewed as controversial and debatable. Narrow-minded and fanatical people condemn the missionaries and deliberately overlook their worthwhile contributions.

The Rev John Morton, a missionary from Canada, sympathetically understood the plight of the Indians and their lack of interest in colonial education at the ward schools in Trinidad.

In January 1869, Morton envisioned a large-scale outreach and formulated “a scheme for the education of Indian children at the expense of the government,” which was presented to Governor Sir Arthur Gordon of Trinidad.

Subsequently, after a cordial agreement with the government, the Presbyterian Church in Canada began financially assisting the construction of primary schools for Indians.

These simple schools and other Presbyterian institutions were not exclusive. The Canadian missionaries had an open-door policy. This meant there were no restrictions as to who could enrol in their schools and who could attend their churches and Sunday school.

One of the most outstanding and enduring characteristics of the mission was its educational outreach. Schools were established in such outlying villages as Barrackpore, Fyzabad, Rousillac, Santa Cruz, Cumuto, Biche, Plum Road, Cunaripo, Cumuto and Lengua.

One distinct feature of these mission schools was their emergence in rural areas. These schools were often one-room wooden buildings and served an important function, as it was reported that up to 1880, only 590 Indian children were enrolled in estate schools.

Apart from assistance from the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the planters and government in Trinidad supplemented the resources necessary to continue the educational mission.

On November 22, 1870, the Rev Kenneth Grant (from Nova Scotia, Canada) and his wife Catherine Copeland (of Canada) and the Mortons arrived in San Fernando. In 1883, Grant held the first school classes, under a samaan tree on Carib Street. Among those children attending classes were his son George, Charles Pasea, and children of the mission. On this site today are the Susamachar Presbyterian Church and Grant Memorial Presbyterian School.

The neglect of education of large segments of the population was an inherent flaw of the Crown Colony system among the British West Indian colonies. The 1891 census estimated that half of the West Indian population over five years of age was deemed illiterate.

The Education Ordinance of 1899 sought to assist the lower class by including a clause which exempted those families who were unable to afford the cost of education and children of indentured immigrants.

During the 1890s, Grant spearheaded the movement for free education. He believed that the government should assist those schools with an attendance of at least 150 pupils and that education to the third standard should be free.

His concerns did not fall on deaf ears, because in 1902 fees were abolished. By 1900, there were 60 CMI schools serving 7,557 East Indian children, from an East Indian population of 85,000. During this period, the mission could boast of having 70 pupil teachers, 52 certified teachers and 16 graduates of its training classes.

One of the subtle objectives of education provided by these Canadian mission schools was providing a desired stability for the volatile plantation society. Indeed, the conversion from one religion to another, from one culture to another within the education system made the Presbyterian schools appear to be agents of deculturalisaton, westernisation and socialisation.

However, their provision of an English education was compatible with the desired social advancement which some East Indians were seeking. The Canadian mission had laid a solid foundation among its primary schools and this would later be successfully duplicated among its secondary educational institutions.

The colonial era unleashed socio-economic forces contributing to a fractured and dysfunctional society. The traumatic immigration process and being uprooting from their homeland affected the Indians.

The missionaries, Bible women, catechists, monitors, head teachers and pupil teachers often informally served as counsellors, psychologists, social workers, mediators and medical personnel. They were not professionally trained in these fields but provided insight, advice and wisdom for those who were depressed, hungry, poor, suicidal and victims of abuse.

During indentureship, education was the antidote for the poison of colonialism. More importantly, the Presbyterian legacy was one of uplifting and empowering the neglected and downtrodden during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Undoubtedly, the Presbyterian mission sheltered these vulnerable minds and acted as a buffer against the harsh socio-economic conditions.

Indeed, the Presbyterian Church played a crucial role in education of citizens and especially the acculturation and assimilation of Indian immigrants and their children.


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