Grade 8 students at Wellesley Public School have finished as runners-up in a national competition aimed at raising awareness about Canada’s first prime minister. The first annual Sir John A Day – named after Sir John A. Macdonald – was held on Jan. 12 at the school and the 53 students dressed in traditional gowns and suits worn during the mid-19th century, transformed the classroom into a ballroom, and students played live music and danced the minuet for the last two periods of the day.
They had another teacher, John Settle, come in and portray Sir John A to the class, served apple cider in plastic wine cups, and the class also enjoyed Sir John A’s favourite treat – homemade shortbread. The 197th birthday celebration was organized by the Historica Dominion Institute, a non-profit group aimed at increasing public knowledge, understanding and appreciation of Canadian history. “Initially, it’s Grade 8 and they think they should be first in everything,” said history teacher Joanne Aitken of the students’ response to finishing second. “They were a little disappointed, but when they saw the prize they received and understood the extent of this and how many schools entered, they knew they did very well.”
More than 200 schools across Canada were entered in the contest, and the winner – a Catholic elementary school in Richmond Hill – received an iPad for the classroom. The runners-up, however, received a two-volume history of Canada’s first prime minister written by Richard Gwyn, as well as a commemorative button and a certificate.
“We received a great prize, whereas the winner just got an iPad for the classroom,” laughed Aitken. “So we thought we did pretty well.”
Prizes aside, Aitken also said that the contest did a fantastic job of achieving what it set out to do, and that was to teach the public more about the life and times of Sir John A, and Wellesley students were immersed in the 19th century throughout the day, which provided a big boost to their understanding of the time period in which he lived.
“We created that atmosphere and that era,” she said. “Instead of just memorizing it for a test, they were there. And they’ll never forget that Jan. 11 was his birthday.”
The project also drew on students’ talents and passions that Aitken may not have otherwise gotten a chance to see; one student drew a sketch of Sir John A that was posted in the classroom, another built a wooden bar to serve the apple cider from, while a third played background music on the piano.
“It really engaged them,” Aitken said.
John Alexander Macdonald was born in Scotland on Jan. 11, 1815 and immigrated with his family to Kingston, Ontario at the age of five. He mastered Latin and French by the age of 12 and by 1836 he was a licensed lawyer.
On July 1, 1867 the British North America Act came into effect, giving birth to the country of Canada.
That same day he was knighted by Queen Victoria in recognition of his efforts and on Aug. 7 he became the nation’s first prime minister.
For more information on the Historica Dominion Institute or Sir John A Day, visit www.sirjohnaday.ca or www.historica-dominion.ca.