2 Nova Scotia’s Families, Communities, and Cultures

Family, community, and culture

Children’s lives are shaped by their families, communities, and culture. Their earliest development and learning takes place through these relationships, particularly within families, who are children’s most influential teachers. As children participate in daily life, they develop interests, construct their own identities, and make meaning of the world they live in.

Families are composed of individuals who are competent and capable, curious, and rich in experience. They love their children and want the best for them; they are experts on their children. Families are the first and most powerful influence on children’s learning, development, health, and well-being. Families bring diverse social, cultural, and linguistic perspectives to the learning situation. Families belong, are valuable contributors to their children’s learning, and are engaged in a meaningful way.[1]

A sense of belonging is integral to human existence. Children belong first to a family, then a cultural group, then a neighbourhood, and then their wider community. The framework acknowledges children’s interdependence with others and the basis of relationships in defining identities. In early childhood and throughout life, relationships are crucial to a child’s developing sense of self—they shape who children are and who they become.

Nova Scotia’s people and cultures

Nova Scotia’s people reflect diverse cultures, many which are language-based. In relation to child development and learning, culture influences the way that children engage in and form relationships, and how they provide information to and communicate with others. Culture is the understandings, patterns of behaviour, practices, and values shared by a group of people. Collectively, these shared understandings help people make sense of the world and communicate with one another. Culture represents a group’s accepted values, traditions, and lifestyles that guide the way people lead their day-to-day lives. Children and families may identify as belonging to more than one culture. Today, more than 100 cultures are represented across the province, providing educators with a wealth of creative opportunities to celebrate the province’s peoples and cultures, as well as the responsibility to be inclusive and responsive to children in their programs.

Nova Scotia’s Indigenous people, Acadian/Francophone population, African Nova Scotian, and the Gaels communities have greatly underpinned the uniqueness of the province’s population. An awareness of the history of Nova Scotia’s founding cultures is necessary to developing relationships with children’s parents, families, and communities, and to creating environments that reflect the cultures and traditions of all Nova Scotians.

Respecting cultural and linguistic differences is more than celebrating different holidays—it involves a deep understanding of the culture’s values, the experiences of its members, and their ways of knowing. Cultural identity comes from having access to your own culture—its institutions, land, language, knowledge, social resources, economic resources; the institutions of the community (lifestyle) and its codes for living related to social, environmental, and physical respect such as nutrition, safety, protection of physical, spiritual and emotional integrity of children and families; as well as cultural expression and cultural endorsement.[2]

It is generally accepted that children’s cultural backgrounds influence their learning. In early infancy, children do not consciously make sense of and analyze their surroundings—but they very quickly begin to understand patterns of activities, different ways of responding, and the sounds and tones of their first language.

Nova Scotia’s founding cultures: A brief history

This section was developed by contributors from the early childhood education field and EECD. It provides brief histories and contexts of four major cultural groups in Nova Scotia: the Mi’kmaq, Acadians, African Nova Scotians, and the Gaels.

Mi’kmaq people

The Mi’kmaq are the original people of Nova Scotia and remain the predominant Indigenous group within the province. Nova Scotia is within the traditional, ancestral territory of the Mi’kmaq, who, for time immemorial, have lived and prospered on this land. The traditional territory is divided into seven smaller territories across what is known as Mi’kma’ki. The territory stretches from the southern portion of the Gaspé Penninsula eastward to Newfoundland and encompasses New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island.

Nova Scotia has 13 Mi’kmaw First Nation communities. The culture, language, and Indigenous knowledge of the Mi’kmaq has been passed down orally through hundreds of generations, and still guides Mi’kmaw way of life.

The Mi’kmaw language is an ancient language that has developed over the centuries in Mi’kma’ki. It is a sacred language, given to the people by Kisu’lkw. The Mi’kmaw language is the way in which Mi’kmaw values, customs, beliefs, and attitudes are passed on from generation to generation. To learn the language, therefore, is to deepen one’s understanding of Mi’kmaw consciousness and identity.

Mi’kmaw language is a verb-oriented language. This means that all words in a clause are based around the verb and not, as in English, around the subject. Unlike French, there is no gender in the Mi’kmaw language, but there is a clear distinction between animate and inanimate objects. Mi’kmaw language has free word order; there is no predetermined syntax. When the language is written in Nova Scotia, the Smith-Francis orthography is the recognized writing system.

Mi’kmaw language education is holistic in nature and unifies language, knowledge, and culture. Consciousness and identity are at the heart of the Mi’kmaw language. There is no disconnect between language and culture; the culture is embedded in the language. Promoting the understanding and expressions of Mi’kmaw worldview through the use of the Mi’kmaw language is crucial.

Recently, there has been a tremendous increase in the development of technology that supports language development, especially apps, digital books, videos, and web resources. This increase in technologies that reinforce language development will help teachers to support students of all learning modalities. Community support is integral to Mi’kmaw Education. The community has an obligation to support language revitalization, enhancement, promotion, and development. Educators should find ways to involve the community in the school through events and activities in order to enhance language development. Educators should also provide opportunities for Elders to be present in the classroom as a resource, because Elders are the keepers of knowledge and language.

All Mi’kmaw communities in Nova Scotia have Kindergarten–4 (K–4) programs for children the year before they enter primary. These programs are either stand-alone programs or combined with Aboriginal Head Start Programs on Reserve or child care programs.

Early childhood programs in Mi’kmaw communities do not fall under provincial regulations and do not receive provincial funding. However, educators are educated in provincial programs and follow as closely as possible guidelines for provincially regulated care. They also follow guidelines for programs that are specific to First Nation programs. There is a great deal of consistency between provincial programs and those offered in Mi’kmaw communities.

Acadian Nova Scotians

The Acadian population of Nova Scotia has a unique place in this province’s history. They are descendants of one of the first permanent French settlers in North America, having arrived with Samuel de Champlain in Port Royal in 1605. In July 1755, approximately 6,000 Acadians were deported from mainland Nova Scotia, mainly for refusing to take an oath of allegiance to the British Crown. Most were captured and sent by ship to colonies along the Atlantic Coast. However, some were imprisoned in Halifax, others sent to France and a small number went into hiding or spent many years wandering. By 1764, Acadians were given permission to return to what was then Acadia, but had to settle on lands that were not taken by the British settlers. Today’s Acadian communities are dispersed throughout Nova Scotia and located mainly in Digby, Yarmouth, Inverness, Richmond, Antigonish, and Halifax counties.

In the mid 1800s, the Government of Nova Scotia condoned bilingual Acadian schools until after 1969, when the federal government proclaimed the Official Languages Act. The Act gave French-language minorities in Canada official rights to services in their language. In 1982, Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms became a major stepping-stone in the advancement of French-language minority education in Canada. It clearly defined the rights of all Canadians to have their children educated in their own official language.

After a Canadian Charter challenge based on the interpretation of Section 23 in 1996, the Government of Nova Scotia created a single school board to manage all Acadian and French schools for the entire province—the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial (CSAP). It took yet another court challenge that ended in October 1999 to replace the existing bilingual school system with homogeneous French first language schools. In 2004, the Province of Nova Scotia enacted the French-language Services Act, giving official status to the delivery of French-language services by the public service.

Since the 1970s, Acadian and Francophone early childhood education programs have been developed in various French minority language communities across Nova Scotia. They have played an important role in valuing the Acadian language and culture in all aspects of the child’s life at home, in society, and at school. The integration of these French early childhood centres or centres de la petite enfance within French schools has become a fundamental catalyst to redress past injustices and provide the official language minority with equitable access to high-quality education. The French Early Years Centre and the CSAP’s allocation of space for many early childhood education programs, including their own 4-year-old language acquisition program Grandir en français, are positive indicators of restorative progress.

Due to a bilingual population, there are many challenges facing the Acadian and Francophone community with regard to the early years including assimilation, reclaiming lost language, access to French early years services, training for educators, and exogamous or mixed language (English and French) families. Statistics bring to light an urgent need to support mixed language families in order to ensure the survival and future of the Francophone community of Canada.

In 2006, of the nearly 64,000 right-holder’s children from birth to age 4 living in Francophone minority provinces, 61per cent are part of French exogamous families; and only 38 out of every 100 speak French at least regularly at home. In Nova Scotia, 3.8 per cent of the population possess French as their first language and, for children –from birth to age 4, this falls to a mere 1.9 per cent. In addition, 71.9 per cent of Nova Scotia children are part of exogamous families and French is transmitted to these children less than 20 per cent of the time. For the 2011–2012 school year, Nova Scotia’s French schools were faced with nearly 68 per cent of new children who speak little to no French, a direct consequence of these factors.[3]

French being one of Canada’s two official languages, it is important that all children and their families have access to equitable services in their language of choice. High-quality French first language early learning programs and environments build strong cultural identities for not only today’s children but for future generations as well. By understanding that the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values, beliefs, and habits begins at birth, Acadian and Francophone educators are in a unique and ideal position to counteract the linguistic and cultural assimilation of the Acadian and Francophone population. By effectively addressing the specific cultural and linguistic needs of Nova Scotia’s Acadians and Francophones, they can become the instrument of change for the historically downward trajectory of the AcadianFrancophone culture and language.

African Nova Scotians

People of African ancestry have deep roots in the history of Nova Scotia. They were part of the earliest non-indigenous settlement of our province and, as a founding culture, African Nova Scotians continue to contribute to the diversity and infrastructure that defines Nova Scotia today. Their history is woven into the very fabric of Nova Scotian culture. They represent a myriad of ethnicities, cultural experiences, and knowledge.

The first recorded African believed to have visited Nova Scotia was Mathieu de Costa. He was hired to serve as an interpreter between the French and Mi’kmaq when the first settlement in Nova Scotia was established at Port-Royal.

By 1769, almost 8,000 New England Planters had settled in Nova Scotia. It is estimated that approximately 200 Africans accompanied the New England Planters. Among them was Barbara Cuffy and her family, the only known free Black settlers to arrive with the Planters. Barbara Cuffy is a compelling figure as she was a Black woman landholder in Nova Scotia during the 1760s, fifty years before slavery was extinguished in the province and more than one hundred and fifty years before women got the vote.

The end of the American Revolution prompted the first large wave of immigration to Nova Scotia. Between April and November of 1783, approximately 50,000 Loyalists arrived in Nova Scotia. About 10 per cent of them were of African ancestry. Among them were approximately 3,500 free Black Loyalists and 1,500 enslaved Africans. These Black Loyalists had risked their lives to reclaim their freedom. They were people with remarkable determination and survival skills. These brave men and women settled in every Township of the province and they established the first of the more than 50 African Nova Scotian communities in the province including at Guysborough, Granville, Birchtown, Brindley Town (Digby), Little Tracadie, Halifax, and others.

In 1796, 600 exiled Jamaican Maroons settled in the Preston area. Less than four years after their arrival, most of the Maroons set sail for Sierra Leone. Only a few families chose to stay behind. However, their legacy endures, they helped build new fortifications at the Halifax Citadel and they worked at the Government House and the Governor’s Farm.

The War of 1812 between the United States and Britain provided more enslaved Africans the opportunity to reclaim their freedom. By 1816, approximately 1,800 Black Refugees had come to Nova Scotia. Most were settled at Preston and Hammonds Plains. Others settled in Halifax and smaller communities around the province including at Cobequid Road, Five Mile Plains, Porter’s Lake, Fletcher’s Lake, Beechville, and Prospect Road.

Despite almost insurmountable hardships, by the 1830s, Black immigrants to the province had started to create a unique African Nova Scotian identity. Black churches and schools were established in most African Nova Scotian communities. As their communities organized, African Nova Scotians started to become a political force in the province. Led by Richard Preston, African Nova Scotians began an era of activism. They honoured the memory of their motherland Africa and they remembered her in the names of their organizations such as the African Baptist Association and the African Friendly Society.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Nova Scotia’s landscape was further enhanced by the immigration of almost 500 men and women from the Caribbean (formerly known as the West Indies). As citizens of the British Commonwealth, these individuals were intentionally recruited for employment within the steel mill and coal mining industries of Cape Breton. Immigrating by choice, they fully expected to receive the same rights and privileges afforded all Commonwealth citizens and Canadians. They included expert tradespeople, entrepreneurs, professionals, and students who hoped to attend university. Most were settled in the Whitney Pier area of Sydney. Others settled in Glace Bay, New Waterford and Sydney Mines. These newcomers to Nova Scotia were educated, resourceful, politically engaged, and trailblazers. Their accomplishments and those of their ancestors positively impacted various facets of the Nova Scotian landscape towards a more equitable society.

People of African ancestry continue to immigrate to Nova Scotia. They come from Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States and, just like the earliest Black immigrants to our province, dream of building a better life for themselves and their families in Nova Scotia. These newcomers continue to strengthen Nova Scotia’s vibrancy and actively contribute to its economic viability and identity.

African Nova Scotians have made and continue to make important contributions to the political, social and cultural life of our province and our country. They have served with distinction in various military conflicts and they have captivated audiences with their poetry, singing, acting and writing. They have been leaders and pioneers in every profession and they have served as the vanguard for equal rights in Nova Scotia. With a legacy that spans more than 400 years, African Nova Scotians continue to represent our province with honour and their achievements endure as a great source of pride for all Nova Scotians and all Canadians.

Gaels in Nova Scotia

From 1773 up to the 1850s an estimated 50,000 Gaels from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland arrived in Nova Scotia. Gaels settled along family and religious lines in Nova Scotia—this phenomenon of uprooting whole communities and relocating in the New World context became referred to as chain migration. Settlement occurred in Colchester, Pictou, Antigonish, Guysborough, Inverness, Richmond, Victoria, and Cape Breton counties. For the majority, Gaelic would have been their only language.

Gaelic language and its cultural expression, family, relatives, the broader community, and the Christian faith are what Gaels valued most and it is these aspects that sustained immigrant Gaels through many challenges in the Nova Scotia context. The Gaels’ presence as a people through language, culture, and identity underpinned the social and economic fabric of communities in the province’s eastern districts and throughout Cape Breton Island. It is estimated that by the later 1800s there may have been as many as 100,000 Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia.

It is estimated that over two dozen Gaelic dialects were introduced into Nova Scotia; 1,000s of fiddle and pipe tunes were composed; regional step dance styles, such as Mabou, Iona, and Glendale, thrived; thousands of songs—some brought over from Scotland and others composed here—were shared; over 300 place names; thousands of personal nicknames; and between 1791—1902; there were one dozen different Gaelic publications initiated.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Gaels experienced marginalization and exclusion as their language was not supported in official institutions, like the government, churches, universities, and public school programs in the province. This resulted in significant loss of Gaelic language and cultural expression, and severely eroded the collective Gaelic identity. While the reasons for language, cultural expression, and identity loss are complex, evidence reveals how low status for Gaelic language directly impacted the loss of cultural expression and identity across Gaelic settlement districts in the province.

UNESCO’s position on language loss reflects, in large measure, the experience of Gaels in Nova Scotia:

Cultural/political/economic marginalization/hegemony. This happens when political and economical power is closely tied to a particular language and culture so that there is a strong incentive for individuals to abandon their language (on behalf of themselves and their children) in favor of another more prestigious one. This frequently happens when indigenous populations, in order to achieve a higher social status, have better chance to get employment, or are forced to it in school, adopt the cultural and linguistic traits of a people who have come to dominate them through colonisation, conquest, or invasion.[4]

During the 20th century, efforts by the Gaelic community and changes in societal attitudes allowed for greater appreciation, acceptance and inclusion of Gaels’ language and cultural expression in community, institutions, and government. These efforts and changes led to the creation of Comhairle na Gàidhlig (the Gaelic Council of Nova Scotia) in 1990 and the Office of Gaelic Affairs in 2006. By October 2015, over 4,000 Nova Scotians were engaged in Gaelic language programming and 288,180 Nova Scotians or 31.9 per cent indicated Scottish ethnic origins (2006 Canada Census). Over time, social and economic reasons caused some Gaels to migrate, so today there are Nova Scotians who claim Gaelic background in almost all regions of the province.

Nova Scotia’s Office of Gaelic Affairs’ Gaelic language and cultural programs assist with language acquisition and use, cultural mentorships aimed at reclaiming a Gaelic group identity in the province, and raising greater awareness, appreciation, and understanding of Gaels.

Today, Nova Scotia is the only jurisdiction outside of Europe where a Gaelic language, culture, and identity have been passed down from generation-to-generation in community.


Nova Scotia has a rich history of immigration. Halifax is the home of the national immigration museum, Pier 21. In 2016, 5,483 immigrants arrived in Nova Scotia, the highest number of immigrants since the end of the Second World War. The top five sources countries respectively included Syria, India, China, Philippines and Nigeria, with the top five mother languages being Arabic, English, Chinese, Talalog and Arabic–Syria. Of those that arrived in Nova Scotia in 2016, 1,445 were refugees and 670 were between the ages 0 to 4. These statistics are reflective of an evolving population, one that is changing the face of Nova Scotia as we know it and understand it.

A more diverse population certainly will have an impact on communities across Nova Scotia and therefore on early childhood education programs. These programs provide essential supports and resources for all Nova Scotians, including newcomer families. For example, these programs may see an increase in the number of newcomer children attending while their parents attend language training and other types of programs designed to ease their transition to Nova Scotia. Educators will need to find ways to welcome and support newcomer families, and try out new approaches, resources, and strategies necessary to engage and work with newcomer families. Building healthy relationships and establishing safe, inclusive early childhood education programs and practices is essential.

Working and supporting newcomer families brings with it many exciting opportunities for educators with respect to expanding their knowledge and learning. Families will have varying ideas and understanding about how children learn and develop based on their cultural and lived experiences. It is important, therefore, to be respectful of this uniqueness and talk with families about how to integrate these cultural experiences into the early childhood education program. There is an opportunity for educators to create learning environments that reflect the many cultures of the children and families they work with.


Content copied from pages 15-22 in Capable, Confident, and Curious: Nova Scotia’s Early Learning Curriculum Framework

Province of Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. (2018). Capable, Confident, and Curious: Nova Scotia’s Early Learning Curriculum Framework. https://www.ednet.ns.ca/docs/nselcurriculumframework.pdf

  1. Ontario Ministry of Education. (2014). How does Learning Happen? Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years (p.7). Toronto, ON: Government of Ontario. www.edu.gov.on.ca/childcare/ HowLearningHappens.pdf
  2. Durie 2003
  3. Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. (2016). Early Childhood: Fostering the
    Vitality of Francophone Minority Communities. Gatineau, QC: Minister of Public Services and
    Procurement. www.officiallanguages.gc.ca/en/publications/other/2016/early-childhood-
    report .
  4. Austin, P.  & Sallabank, J. (2011). The Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


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