Railway School Cars

Vehicles of Progress or Propaganda?

In August 1926 two railway cars were displayed at the Canadian National Exhibition – they were billed as the innovation that would bring education to Northern Ontario. The cars contained living quarters for a teacher and their family, and a classroom with its regular fixings – desks, chalkboards, maps and books. That September the cars were towed north, commencing an educational project that would last 40 years and touch thousands of lives.

The development of Canada’s transcontinental railway system is integral to the history of immigration and development of the nation. The railway school car represents just one of these stories – a complicated one that highlights the Ontario Government’s attempt at progressive education whilst driving an Anglo-conformist agenda.[1]

Railway workers and children at Kakatush, an outpost on the Canadian National Railway. Source: Train Cart Schools in Northern Ontario, OISE Library, University of Toronto.

In Northern Ontario, the 4,500 miles of tracks were overseen by workers posted every 6-7 miles. Many of these employees, and their families were recent immigrants from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. These unstable, isolated communities had little access to services, such as schools and hospitals. The railway companies and the Ontario Department of Education recognized their duty to educate the workers’ children, and a unique scheme was suggested: put the school on wheels. Every month a school car, towed by passing freight trains, would visit several outposts stopping at each for a few days while the teacher would conduct lessons and assign work before moving on to the next stop.

The schools were perceived as a modernizing force, yet were inseparably connected to an Anglo-centric narrative, “welding new Canadians into the fabric of Canadian citizenship” through a directed curriculum teaching reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as civics, religion and democracy.[2] The program was deemed an immediate success and it grew quickly to seven cars by 1941.

This education was not just aimed at children; teachers and their wives took on an unofficial role, conducting adult evening lessons in English, accounting and citizenship. In 1927, Gillies, an inspector for the Ontario Department of Education reported “the School Cars are converting potential Bolshevists and Socialists into loyal, law-abiding Canadians”.[3]

1943: Teacher W. H. McNally and his students on C.P.R. School No. 1 at Ramsey, an outpost on the Canadian Pacific Railway. Source: Train Cart Schools in Northern Ontario, OISE Library, University of Toronto.

Motives behind the program may have been sincere, however, one cannot overlook the nationalistic tone of the project. The schools were described as “a blessing in every way”, “carrying education and social betterment”.[4] A government report from 1940 used troubling language when describing the children the schools serviced: “with its Union Jack flying from the flag-pole … this unique type of school answers the inarticulate call of the wilderness child for help”.[5]

The Railway School Car Program leaves a complicated legacy. It reflects the political and cultural attitude toward immigrants at the time and the social and cultural integration that was perceived as necessary to be Canadian.  Today, new immigrants are thrust into an education system with its own goals and motives, just as the students of the railway school cars were. While thankfully notions of what it is to be Canadian have expanded, we must continue to work towards an unbiased system that respects the diversity of our population.


Charlotte Gagnier is a student and photographer based in Toronto. She holds a BAH in Human Geography from Queen’s University and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Museum Studies at the University of Toronto. Her research interests include the role of photographs in the construction of personal and collective identities. Charlotte has a strong connection to both her French Canadian and British heritage.

[1] Knowles, 1992.

[2] Ontario Department of Education, 1931, p.10.

[3] MacDougall, 1927, p.4.

[4] MacDougall, 1927, p.3; Ontario Department of Education, 1950, p.47.

[5] Ontario Department of Education, 1940, p.13

“The School Cars are converting potential Bolshevists and Socialists into loyal, law-abiding Canadians.” – Inspector Gillies, 1927