New school, new country, new challenges

Imagine going to a school in a new country where you don’t speak the language. Where the teaching methods and curriculum are different. Where you don’t know anybody.

The Museum’s collection features lots of stories of people starting school in Canada. Some are funny, some are sad, and all show the resilience required by newcomers. Here are a few interesting ones:

Twice as hard

Black and white photo of a boy at a school desk.
John Vandenburg, just before his departure for Canada.

John Vandenberg, Netherlands, arrived 1951. (DI2016.260.1)

“I did not like attending school in Montreal and learning two languages at the same time - French and English. I found it very hard to learn. The teachers did not know what grade to put me in as they had no School Report Card. They decided to put me back one year in Grade 5. I was expected to read the all-French text book with the French pupils at the French Immersion School.”


Sex ed?

Cathy Bos Halman, Netherlands, arrived 1953

“The priest entered the classroom. He asked me something but I did not know what he said. I could say ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ and I could count to ten. That was the extent of my English vocabulary. The priest put up his fingers so I assumed he wanted to know what grade I was in. So I said ‘sex’… This was my first attempt at English.”


Love at first sight

A man in a police uniform, smiling, backgrounded by a city street.
Screenshot, Interview with Kevin Yip. (R2015.71.16)

Kevin Yip, Hong Kong, arrived 1999

I begged my parents to let me go to school ... I have established my life here, my first time going to an English high school, finding my first love, enrolling to my first University and receiving my first Bachelor Degree.”


Grade one again… and again

Hans Leppik, Estonia, arrived 1948

“I went to public school up to grade three in Estonia. And then in Sweden, there again, because I didn’t know the language, I started from grade one, and as the language progressed, then they moved me to higher grades... The same thing happened again in Canada. I was fourteen years old and I started off in the school… And myself and my brother and my sister, we all started again in grade one because we couldn’t speak the language… I was in grade one three times in my life and I never failed a grade.


Postwar hostilities

Katherine Madsen, Germany, arrived 1954

“There was still a great deal of animosity towards the Germans in 1954. Many Canadians had lost a relative in the Second World War. I went home with one of my classmates after school and her father asked me to leave his house and his daughter was not allowed to be friends with me. At that time, I was not aware of the atrocities the Germans had committed. The Second World War was never discussed either at school in Germany or by my parents.”


Teaching and learning

A man teaches class of young students.
Om Sharma teaches a class of elementary school students, circa 2005. (DI2016.145.24)

Om Sharma, India, arrived 1967

“In 1966, I stumbled upon the news that Canada was desperately seeking trained teachers. I mailed my credentials to each province to acquire a teaching license and, within a few months, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Ontario each mailed me a license and the list of school boards to which I could apply…I landed at the Halifax Airport, via Montreal, on August 2, 1967… After staying at Pier 21 for two weeks, the immigration officer arranged my interview for a teaching job and I was on my way to teach at Duncan Macmillan High School in Sheet Harbour. We were six teachers staying at Lind Haven Hotel for $21 per week. It took time to adjust to a new place. The local people who were not exposed to new cultures, the harsh weather, Canadian teenagers, and a lack of the ethnic food I was used to all made me feel lonesome. But, as they say, ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ … The next year I changed location and got a job at the Chester Municipal High School in Chester, Nova Scotia. Now things started looking better.”