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This is Why The Canadian Education System Remains a Mystery

Feng kept all the silly notes I put with Mark’s lunch

“You do know that the school year ends soon, right?”


“Well, yes. Summer holidays are coming up. The school is closed in July and August. Then, in September, it starts again. And next year, you’ll be…”


“Not even close, sorry. This year, you were in Junior Kindergarten, so after you’ll be…”


“That’s right, in Senior Kindergarten.”

“But I want to be in Grade 3…! No, no … I want to be 34! Can I be 34?”

I’ve crossed over to the dark side. I’m no longer a student looking forward to two months of freedom, but an overwhelmed parent dreading the summer holidays. I suck at planning. Until this week, it was “somebody’s else problem”—how very mature of me. Last year, Mark was still at daycare and the centre was open year-round, and unfortunately, I can’t tell a four-year-old to go get a job. Merde.

I wish I knew what other parents and other kids are doing in July and August—Canadians don’t have much vacation time and certainly don’t take two months off. But I have no idea what was planned for Lucas, Callum, Eileen or Lucy because even though I know all of Mark’s friends, I have zero contact with their parents.

But beyond logistics remains a sense of unfulfillment. This first school year left me feeling somewhat frustrated. Back in September, I had many questions, practical and cultural, and I never got answers. The Canadian education system remains a complete mystery.

Each milestone feels confusing and scary for new parents. It’s normal, I guess when you’re confronted to unprecedented situations and a world you knew existed but never explored. For instance, I had no idea that you do get better at peeing in urine sample bottles when you’re pregnant. Before Mark, I didn’t know that installing a car seat was harder than building a house, and I wouldn’t have suspected it was perfectly normal to pay up to $1500/month for a spot in daycare. But you do learn. I managed to collect ultrasound pictures, give birth, and give Mark legal documents like a birth certificate, SIN card, health card and passport. Through trials and errors, we finally cracked the daycare world. Sometimes, I even buy clothes that fit Mark (hint: the number on the tag never matches his actual age).

So naturally, I thought we would soon master the school system. It was just a matter of weeks, I stated in September.

Overall, it was a very uneventful year. In a way, it’s good, I guess. Mark seems to have friends, he learned stuff, and no one pointed out major parenting flaws (although I was recently told that Nutella sandwiches were banned).

I can’t find the right word to describe this first year. “Meh,” maybe? The best way to illustrate it would be with a Gallic shrug. I shrugged a lot this year. There was the “oh, that’s how they do it?” shrug, the “come on, you can’t be serious” shrug, the “oh well, I ain’t going to homeschool him or run for the school board” shrug. Mark’s experience is so far from my own French “maternelle” and Feng’s communist China school that we just have to assume the district school board knows what it’s doing.

Oh. There. I did it again—I shrugged after I typed this last sentence.

So, what’s so puzzling to me? First, the fact school ends at 3 p.m. Note that hours are not consistent from one institution to another, they are set according to … the yellow bus schedule. So X school, first on the bus route, may start at 8 a.m. and finish at 2 p.m., while Y school may start at 8:30 and finish at 2:30, etc. This is just weird to me and, of course, most working parents need to sign up for an after-school program because few jobs accommodate the early afternoon pickup. On the other hand, Canadian kids have very few breaks—one at Christmas and one week in March—while French kids have a week or two of holidays every six weeks. Days are short, the year is long.

I don’t really understand the school’s daily schedule either. It … lacks structure and yes, this is the part where, once again, I complain that kids don’t get a lunch break. Mark is completely lost. To the usual question, “why didn’t you eat today?” common replies are “the teacher said it was time to go home” or “I didn’t have the time.” Basically, the education system trains kids to 1) not take time off 2) work through the day without breaks. Sigh. Late capitalism.

Our experience this year was very impersonal—and I don’t really blame the teachers, who deal with a class of 30 four- and five-year-old kids. We had one meeting with one of Mark’s teachers—he has two, an English teacher in the morning and a French teacher in the afternoon—in October and that was it. Both teachers sent a weekly recap of stuff we could discuss with kids on Sundays but these were both oddly specific and very general. Most of the time, they were a series of questions:

What have you been observing outside in the quiet garden? (A mother duck)

Did you play with the Moon Dough? What did it feel like?

It’s a bit hard to quiz Mark without context. It doesn’t help that JK and SK are mixed, so some of the activities were more for older kids.

We did get many emails blast from the school office. It never fucking ends. Volunteer, donate, volunteer, donate, bake sale, lockdown drill, walk-a-thon and puzzling messages like:

Dear Parents,
We had a medical emergency this morning and “Secure School” protocol was invoked to deal with the situation at hand.
The person in distress is now in the care of doctors.
Staff and students responded well to the unexpected circumstances.
Thank you.

And then, there is the school’s terminology. My two personal pet peeves are the “zones of regulation” (“being in a blue zone” = being sad, “being in a red zone” = being angry, etc.) and systematically calling children “friends” instead of “students” or “kids.” It annoys me when Mark reports that “a friend did this or that” when he doesn’t even know the kid’s name. It devalues the notion of friendship, I find.

“Lucas broke my heart,” Mark stated tonight. A long discussion later, I learned that Lucas didn’t want to be his friend, hit him with a yogurt container, threw sand at him, said a bad word (yes, it was “fuck,” and Mark wouldn’t even utter it) and generally was a pretty shitty friend.

I remember Lucas, from daycare. Their friendship has always been a bit one-sided.

“Sometime, some friends are just bad friends,” I advise. “Maybe Lucas is jealous of you. Maybe he’s just being silly all the time.” I sighed. “Maybe we all need a break. Three more days of school and then…”

And then, we’ll see.

Self-portrait sorting out the notes, Ottawa, June 28, 2017
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French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

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