Jewels Scattered Across an Immense Country
(from: Waldorf Education Worldwide, pp. 186-187, Note the Copyright!)
The Waldorf movement in Canada, though still very tiny, is nonetheless diverse, reflecting the geographical and cultural diversity of this immense country. A scant 2,500 pupils and 250 teachers, spread from coast to coast, are evidence of the pioneering work of communities which are isolated from one another by vast distances. During the 1950s and 1960s, in various parts of Canada, study groups were formed and small kindergartens sprang up and disappeared, leaving behind a growing interest. The name of Francis Edmunds, from England, frequently comes up; his lectures in Montréal in the Province of Quebec, at the University of Toronto in Ontario, and in Vancouver on the West Coast were seminal experiences for a number of key figures.
Beginnings in Ontario Province
In Toronto, Ontario, Graham Jackson formed a Waldorf Education Committee. In 1965, the Waldorf School Association of Ontario was formed, and the group began operating a nursery school. Unusual about this group was the fact that it included many who were neither parents nor educators, and who strongly combined pragmatism with vision.1 The Toronto Waldorf School opened in September 1968 with two classes. Originally located in an Anglican church, it moved in 1972 into a striking purpose-built structure, one of the jewels of Waldorf Education in North America, on a natural site just north of Toronto. It now has a full twelve-grade school with three kindergarten groups.
Inspired and sometimes intimidated by the mighty example of the Toronto Waldorf School, interest groups formed in other parts of the province. During the 1980s and 1990s six more schools and several new initiative groups came into being in Ontario. To help solve the acute problem of finding Waldorf-trained teachers who are allowed to work in Canada a teacher training centre was founded in 1984 which shares quarters within the Toronto Waldorf School with the Waldorf School Association of Ontario. There are curative education establishments for children and youngsters with learning difficulties in both Ontario and Quebec provinces.
Coming and going in Quebec Province
Here German- and English-speaking anthroposophists initially carried the impulse of Waldorf Education, and were then joined by French-Canadians. Madeleine Simons established a kindergarten in Montréal for a few years during the 1950s. The kindergarten L’Eau Vive opened there in 1978. L’Ecole Rudolf Steiner de Montréal followed in 1980 and has now grown to include an upper school.
A second Quebec school was founded in 1989 as a farm school but then had to leave the farm setting and has become part of the mainstream school system. There are in addition some experiments within the state school system which draw on Waldorf Education and on the teacher training offered at L’Institut Rudolf Steiner au Québec founded in 1990.
Other foundations followed in Nova Scotia, British Columbia, West Coast and Alberta provinces some of which are home-schooling groups while others are integrated in state schools; some had to close and a few grew into established Waldorf Schools.
Education the responsibility of the provinces
The issues which meet Waldorf Education today are some-what differently experienced in different parts of Canada, though everywhere the shortage of teachers is a grave concern. Education is a provincial responsibility, and relations with the government vary from province to province. In Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia government funding is available to private schools and provides between one third and one half of the required tuition fee income. In exchange, teachers must obtain provincial certification, which make finding teachers even more difficult. Alberta and Quebec in addition offer opportunities for Waldorf Schools to be a part of the state school system, but this comes with many strings attached. Waldorf Schools are not supported in the other provinces.
A very troubling development is the increasing expense of operating an independent school. In the effort to remunerate long-suffering teachers more adequately, schools are forced to raise tuition fees, which have become prohibitive for many families. Extensive fundraising is necessary to supplement fees.
Concern about declining educational standards
Whether or not funding is offered, the various provinces, worried about declining educational standards, are imposing ever more standardization on both state and private schools. Schools must now show that their curriculum meets the provincial goals, and standardized tests are required, sometimes as early as Grade 3. Most Waldorf Schools administer the tests, while minimizing their impact on the lessons. The Toronto Waldorf School, however, has taken a stand against testing (required by the Province of Ontario in Grade 10 for a high school diploma), and is working on finding a solution.
A well-kept secret
Though usually well-respected by government officials and by other educators, Waldorf Schools in Canada do not have a high profile. The general public, when aware of them, may connect them with the New Age movement or with outworn 1960s ideas. Initially the schools may be seen as “soft” and remote from real life. An important challenge for the Waldorf movement is to bring the work of the schools - often described as a well-kept secret - to public awareness. The geographical isolation of the schools from one another complicates this process.
Gaining an ear
Waldorf Schools throughout Canada are discovering the importance of meeting the needs of families. In Thunder Bay on the north shore of Lake Superior, 1,370 km from Ontario, for example the Little Lions Day Care Centre is meeting the needs of many working parents. In the different regions, the teaching is influenced by the profoundly varied and often dramatic geography, and the pool of story-material is enriched by local indigenous and multi-cultural traditions. Appreciative parents of the new generation, skilled and energetic, seem determined, despite their very busy lives, to participate fully in the life of the schools and to raise the Waldorf Schools to a prominent position in the national educational landscape.
1 The initiative circle of early Waldorf Education in Ontario included John and Pat Kettle, Douglas and Else Andress, Bob and Shirley Routledge, Helmut and Renate Krause, and Helga and Gerhard Rudolph.
Chairwoman of the Federation of Independent Waldorf Schools in Canada. Adviser to newly-established Canadian Waldorf Schools.