The Train Cart Schools of Northern Ontario

Building a Community for Young Immigrants

The Train Cart Schools

The Train Cart Schools of Northern Ontario traveled through rural areas between 1926-1967 providing thousands of people with educational opportunities that would have otherwise been utterly inaccessible to them due to the circumstances in which they lived[1]. Of the thousands of students who attended the train schools, about 95% were non-English speakers who immigrated to Northern Ontario with their families after the First World War, many of which were young children having left their native country just shy of entering the education system[2]. The train schools were thus designed to provide these children with access to education, mainly focusing on English literacy and Canadian citizenship in hopes of easing the students’ transitions into their new lives as Canadians[3].

Train Schools as Social Centres

Photograph depicts an image of train school teacher of 40 years Fred Sloman and students decorating his classroom for the Christmas season. Seen behind them is the sentence “Merry Christmas” written on the chalkboard in Dutch, German, Russian, and various other languages. Source: Photograph of Fred Sloman and students, the Train Cart Schools in Northern Ontario Box, OISE Library, University of Toronto.

In addition to their focus on bringing education to these young immigrants, the train schools also served as social centres. As immigration is known to be an incredibly stressful and often isolating time it is possible to imagine the difficulties these young children would have faced as they travelled across the world knowing only their family members. As the sons and daughters of Finnish, Norwegian, French, Dutch, and British farmers and labourers, these children settled in rural, isolated areas without the ability to speak the language and, until the train schools, without access to education[4]. The train schools are described as a space in which cultures could be shared, stories could be told and immigrant children had the opportunity to not only earn an education, but to also explore, develop and shape their identities as new Canadians and as individuals coming to terms with their migrant experiences. As Inspector Gillies, an employee from the Ontario Department of Education claimed, “The advent of the School Car has made these people contented and hopeful”[5], and for the children they were a “blessing in every way”[6]. Children whose lives had been completely uprooted found comfort in their lessons and the train schools quickly became a home away from home as past students claim that teachers and fellow students began to feel like family[7], even celebrating holidays together on the train.

Making and Preserving New Memories

This photograph, and the many others taken on the school cars, serves as a representation of the power and value of community in the lives of young migrants as they work to assimilate themselves within their new culture and develop their unique identities. The photograph is a physical representation of the desire to create and preserve new memories for these children in their new home – Canada.

Welcoming Immigrant Children to Canada

As we know today, the identity formation of immigrant children is known to be heavily influenced by both the home and school cultures[8] and providing immigrant children with a safe and welcoming space in which they can learn, explore, develop and shape their identities as new Canadians is incredibly important[9]. Just as it was in 1926, Canada is an incredibly multicultural country and young immigrants must have access to safe, educational communities in which they can explore, and come to terms with their migrant experience and their multicultural identities.


Alice Norton-Bell is a CRO student currently working towards obtaining both a Master of Information and a Master of Museum Studies from the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto. She is from Toronto, having grown up in the city, and graduating from the University of Toronto with an Honours BA majoring in English and Book and Media Studies. Upon completing her schooling she plans to begin her own migration journey.

[1] Clewley, 1975, p. 6.

[2] Christou, 2014, p. 29.

[3] Christou, 2014, p. 29.

[4] Ontario Department of Education, 1927, p. 1.

[5] Ontario Department of Education, 1927, p. 4.

[6] Ontario Department of Education, 1927, p. 3.

[7] Schuessler & Schuessler, 1986, p.54.

[8] Adams & Kirova, 2007, p. 8.

[9] Nguyen & Stritikus, 2012, p. 58.

“The train schools are described as a space in which cultures could be shared, stories could be told and immigrant children had the opportunity to […] shape their identities as new Canadians.”