3 A Historical Overview of Education in Canada

Source: “Raleigh Hills School 1912” by Beaverton Historical Society is licensed CC BY-ND 2.0

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you will be able to:

  1. Identify major education-related historical events in Quebec and Ontario.
  2. Explain how tensions between the French/Catholics and English/Protestants influenced the development of education in Quebec and Ontario.
  3. Explain how the British North America Act and Section 93 are important parts of education-related legislation.
  4. Identify major events in post-Confederation education in Quebec and Ontario.
  5. Explain the structure of school governance in Canada.
  6. Identify major events in the development of education in the rest of Canada.
  7. Define the four educational regime types.
  8. Summarize the history of residential schooling in Canada.
  9. Identify three different types of school segregation practices in Canada’s history.
  10. Explain three major socio-historical functions of mass schooling.
  11. Explain what is meant by the feminization of the teaching corps.


The history of education in Canada is a long and complex one that varies according to region. In any social history, there are various interpretations of the facts, and the social history of education in Canada is no exception. This chapter begins by examining the formation of education systems in what is now Quebec and Ontario, as this is where settlement patterns were heavily concentrated until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The education systems of Quebec and Ontario are shaped by complex historical and cultural specificities that cannot be examined in any detail here. In brief, between 1791 and 1841, these two regions were called Lower Canada and Upper Canada, corresponding to the southern parts of the provinces we know today. In the 1840 Act of Union, the Canadas were united into the United Province of Canada, with two parts, Canada East (Quebec) and Canada West (Ontario). The provinces took on the names we know now with Confederation in 1867.

Many important political events shaped the systems of education in the two areas. French Canada (New France) had been settled for hundred of years before the British colonialists arrived. Wars between the English and the French eventually led to French defeat and an ongoing political battle by the French not to become assimilated into British culture, which extended—in no small part—into the systems of education that became dominant in each region.

New France and Lower Canada 1600s–1830s

With over 400 years of history, summarizing the development of education in French Canada in this textbook can only partially cover the many events that led to the system of education that now exists in Quebec. More complete discussions are available by noted educational historians of Quebec, such as Louis-Phillip Audet (1971).

Stark differences between French and English Canada meant that education developed rather differently in Quebec compared to the rest of the country. Settling Canada by the 1600s, a system of “petites écoles” had been established by the French regime early in the century, offering basic education mainly to boys, within a strict Catholic framework. Later, in 1639, Ursuline nuns (the first Catholic nuns to arrive in the New World) established schools for girls that stressed domestic skills like needlework as well as religious studies. In the towns of New France, religious orders provided educational instruction in the three “Rs” (i.e., reading, writing, and arithmetic) and religious studies, while more advanced educational pursuits were available to males who wanted to enter the clergy or train in a profession. The Collège des Jésuites was established in 1635, which offered a classical education and theological training to males. Later, in 1660, the Séminaire de Québec was founded by Bishop Laval, which is now known as Université Laval.

Catholic missionaries also played a large role in the education of colonists in New France. Many of their ambitions (orders such as the Récollets and Uruslines) were oriented toward assimilating the Aboriginal people to the ways of the French, but with little success. A series of wars between the French and British led to the conquering of New France in 1763. The increase of settlers in the British Empire resulted in the Constitutional Act of 1791, which created an Upper and Lower Canada, which were where southern Ontario and southern Quebec currently exist.

Political concerns in Quebec were distinct from those in the rest of Canada, due to major cultural, linguistic, and religious differences. Rebellions occurred in the late 1830s by Patriotes who attempted to invade Upper and Lower Canada. The Patriotes were opposed to British control over what had been originally French territory, as well as colonial control over the government of Lower Canada. Such political concerns acted to supersede the perceived importance of establishing a school system.

Upper Canada 1790s–1850s

The first government effort toward publicly funding schools dates to the late 1790s, when the Legislative Council and House of the Assembly of Upper Canada requested from the King of England that land and funds be given to the establishment of schools and a university (Di Mascio 2010)—a request that was honoured. In 1799, acts were passed that guaranteed technical education to orphaned children and also required that teachers be certified (Di Mascio 2010). It should be noted that Lower Canada was now part of the British colony, having ceded defeat to the British. Thus, the legislation passed in Upper Canada was applicable to Lower Canada as well, but as discussed below, the acceptance of these imposed education laws was met by much resistance in Lower Canada.

In 1807, the District School Act signalled the first official action in government-aided schooling. The act allocated one school to each district; however, it also required the payment of tuition (Di Mascio 2010). Tuition meant that education would not be available to all children due to lack of financial means. Critics argued that this arrangement was reserved for the rich and that these schools resembled the elite grammar schools found in England. Critics called for a true system of common schooling that would be available to all.

While the district schools did in fact serve the elite who could afford the tuition, there is evidence that the desire for common schooling accessible to all was being favoured on a more widespread basis. The Kingston Gazette, a conservative newspaper of the time, also expressed such sentiment in 1810, writing that:

[o]ur population is composed of persons born in different states and nations, under various governments and laws, and speaking several languages. To assimilate them, or rather their descendents, into one congenial people, by all practicable means, is an object of true policy. And the establishment of common schools is one of those means. (Di Mascio 2010:47, citing the Kingston Gazette, 25 September 1810)

The War of 1812 between Canada and the United States sidetracked discussions of education until 1815. In 1816, however, the Common School Act was passed, which was the first major step in providing mass schooling for the “common” people in Upper Canada. This act provided a grant to each of the 10 districts and also created boards of education within each district, which were to be responsible for textbooks, courses, and establishing school rules. As well, within the district, any community that had 20 or more students could establish a school that would have three trustees who would be responsible for hiring and firing teachers. There was great uptake in requests for government-aided schools—so much so that the government requests outweighed the financial resources available from the government (Di Mascio 2010), resulting in a bill that was passed in order to slow the growth of these schools.

In 1840, the two Canadas (Upper and Lower) were combined into the United Province of Canada. The School Act for the United Province of Canada of 1841 was passed shortly thereafter, which created non-denominational public schools for Upper Canada that were not oriented toward any particular religion. Publicly funded Protestant and Catholic schools were created for residents of Lower Canada. A compulsory taxation system was also introduced to levy school taxes.

In addition to the common school, there also existed voluntary schools, which were mostly located in large urban centres and financed by private tuition fees (Gidney and Millar 1985). Prior to the 1840s, these types of schools were varied in their offerings—some were select academic schools serving the elite, while others were day schools offering education to anyone who could afford the modest fees. After 1840, however, voluntary schools became almost exclusively associated with boarding schools attended exclusively by members of the upper social classes. Others went to “common schools.”

The difference between the common school and the voluntary school was also associated with the idea of “respectability” (Gidney and Millar 1985). Many viewed education as the responsibility of parents, although the grant-aided common schools were tainted with the stigma of being “charity” schools suitable only for those students whose parents were not able to properly provide for their children. “Mixing” with such children also carried the reputation of being inherently risky as common schools were catering to the lower classes, who might somehow sully the children of the middle and upper classes with their lack of “proper” upbringing. As documented by Gidney and Millar (1985), the voluntary sector’s private venture schools (i.e., schools being run as businesses by one or more individuals) became extremely unstable due to the reliance on fees and the teacher’s need to earn a living as well as provide the physical resources and space for the school to take place. If a family needed to withdraw their children from a school due to financial hardship, this could have the unintended consequence of putting a school at risk of closure. In addition to private venture schools, joint stock or proprietorial voluntary schools also existed. These schools were run by trustees, usually on the behalf of a denomination, and were funded through donations or shares. These types of voluntary schools also suffered from financial instability.

Egerton Ryerson became chief superintendent of education in Upper Canada in 1844—a position he held for 32 years. Ryerson is widely regarded as the most influential person behind creating the public school system that we know in Canada. He was a minister, educator, and political figure in Canada, who studied educational systems around the Western world in order to design one that he thought most appropriate for Canada. In 1846, Ryerson drafted a bill that became the Common School Act—the first major piece of education-related legislation in the history of Upper Canada. This act was particularly important because it detailed the organization of the school system as it had never been described before. The act designated schools for teacher training and designated a superintendent for each school district who would be responsible for examining schools on an annual basis and ensuring that they met the standards for the federal grants they would be receiving. The way in which school trustees were to be elected was also detailed. It also levied a rate bill or a school tax on the parents of all children of school age. Ryerson also recommended a series of approved textbooks, adding that schools that used alternative textbooks not approved by the new provincial board of education would not receive financial aid. Also, the Common School Act included a clause that assured “protection of children” from being required to participate in lesson or exercise of a religious orientation that the parents found objectionable (Hodgins 1894).

Lower Canada 1830s–1850s

Much resistance to the School Acts imposed by Upper Canadian politicians is evident in the history of education in Quebec. Political discourse of the time demonstrates the attempts of the British to spread their ideas of culture—including their ideas of how an educational system should be organized—to Lower Canada. In the years immediately following the Rebellions of 1837, John Lambton (Lord Durham), member of the British elite, was asked by the British prime minister to accept a mission to the Canadas (giving him extensive powers as governor-in-chief of the Canadian colonies) in order to understand the conflicts within and between Upper and Lower Canada and to offer possible solutions. Durham was required to complete a full report within a few short months (indeed, he spent only a little over three months in the Canadas). He also hired several assistants—among them Sir Arthur William Buller, who also arrived with Durham from England at the same time. Noting the “deplorable” state of education in Lower Canada, Buller was responsible for conducting an inquiry into it (Audet 2000).

Buller prepared a survey for central figures or priests within parishes so that he could gather information about the school system of Lower Canada. However, his efforts were not met with co-operation; most school officials would not comply. The Buller recommendations were presented in British Parliament in 1839 along with Durham’s report. An important feature from the report was his belief that a reform of Lower Canadian education required the Anglicization of the French Canadians. While he praised the clergy-run seminaries and the admirable qualities of the “peasants” of Lower Canada, he was critical of major aspects of French Canadian life, including (his perception of) their ambitions and social arrangements. He commented that they did not strive to better themselves and was critical of what he saw as better education for girls in the nunneries:

The difference in the character of the two sexes is remarkable. The women are really the men of Lower Canada. They are the active, bustling, business portion of the habitants, and this results from the much better education which they get, gratuitously, or at a very cheap rate, at the nunneries which are dispersed over the province. (Curtis 1997, citing Lord Durham’s Report)

The Durham Report (incorporating Buller’s recommendations) was presented in 1839 and contained two major recommendations: the union of both Canadas and the introduction of responsible government (in which the government is responsible to the elected representatives of the people), two recommendations that were eventually realized. However, his report was also a scathing analysis of what he regarded as a race-based crisis between the French and the English. Durham was critical of the virtual absence of the middle class in Lower Canada, characterizing the habitants as peasants. His report was so divisive on the issue of “race”-based differences that he concluded that no laws or institutions could be amended until the divisions between the French and English were ameliorated. His solution to this amelioration was to assimilate the French Canadians into the British culture, which he unabashedly regarded as superior in all ways (Ouellet 2000). Obviously, such a report would not be received well by the habitants of Lower Canada.

In addition to Anglicizing the French, his recommendations also included the introduction of a new mandatory school tax, official school inspections, and religious instruction that would be agreed upon by both major denominations. His vision also included the creation of primary schools, teacher’s schools, and institutions of higher learning (Ouellet 2000). Teachers engaging in political activity would be dismissed immediately. New schools would be inspected and supervised by individuals not connected to the Catholic clergy. As noted by Audet (2000), Buller’s model of the new school system was closely associated with tight control, Anglicization, and de-Catholicization. Schools were seen as an instrument of nation building, which required everyone to adopt a British nationality (Curtis 2003).

Following the recommendations of Durham, the Canadas were united. The creation of a specific number of district councils was imposed on Lower Canada (which had no formal governmental organization in many parts of the province). A School Act was passed in 1841 and brought with it many new reforms. District councils would serve as district boards of education that would decide of courses of study, license teachers, and decide on school rules and regulations. And possibly more significant was the act’s new levying of school taxes, which was met with much resistance in Lower Canada. Upper Canada responded in 1846 (with the Common School Act) by imposing much tighter restrictions on the collection of school taxes.

While the acts drafted by Ryerson served to expand public schooling in Upper Canada, they were met with much resistance in Lower Canada. The reforms in the 1846 act were met with more opposition than the initial changes in 1841. Petitions were signed, elected school officials failed to perform their roles, and there was widespread refusal to pay taxes. Various amendments that attempted to appease the opposition failed, including the suspension of property tax in 1845, which resulted in the closure of several schools. This was again reversed in the following year, and taxes were levied on all families with school-aged children, whether they attended school or not (Curtis 1997).

Violent opposition to local government representatives and tax-supported schools was frequent in the 1840s in Canada East. Attacks on school supporters were reported and continued into the 1860s, with the most violent attacks occurring in the District of Trois-Rivières. Such incidents involved the burning of schoolhouses and school records and even the maiming of horses belonging to local officials. This widespread anti–school reform violence became known as the “guerre des éteignoirs” (candle snuffers’ war). The metaphor is used to suggest that the revolters were “snuffing out” the light of knowledge and that this battle was one that was between “darkness” (ignorance) and “light” (enlightenment) (Nelson 1985).

The label guerre des éteignoirs is laden with a particular view of events, however. This particular view—that French Canadians were opposed to becoming enlightened—was a fairly common interpretation of social history until over 100 years later (Curtis 1997; Nelson 1985). Nelson (1985) argues that the events of school reform further exacerbated political hostilities that were present prior to the rebellions of 1837. Upper Canadians had imposed new political structures, forced taxation from unelected officials, and were trying to oust the clergy from key roles in the schools—all of which ran counter to the desires of many habitants.

While Egerton Ryerson is known the major school promoter of English Canada, his counterpart in French Canada was Jean-Baptiste Meilleur. After the rebellions of 1837, Meilleur served in a variety of political roles but had a keen interest in matters related to education in Lower Canada, as evidenced by his contribution to the Durham and Buller enquiries. He was made superintendent of schools for Lower Canada in 1842 and served for 13 years in this role, having to apply seven versions of the Schools Act during his tenure. Meilleur himself was opposed to forced taxation due to the poverty experienced by the rural habitants (Lortie 2000).

Upper Canada 1850

In 1850, Ryerson passed a second Common School Act, which allowed school tax to be levied on all property. Prior to this, tax was collected only from families with children. This act also provided for the free admission of all children to schools. A series of acts passed in the 1850s created the foundation of the public provincial education system we see today in Ontario (Young and Bezeau 2003). Another act passed in 1871 made school attendance compulsory for children between the ages of 8 and 14, and “common schools” were renamed as “public schools.” Another major event of the 1850s was the creation of the University of Toronto as a non-denominational university. Prior to this, Kings College had been granted its royal charter by King George in 1827 and was run by the Church of England. In 1850, the school was secularized, which included the removal of religious exams.

Grammar schools existed along with common schools and functioned as a type of secondary education, where classics (i.e., Greek and Latin) were taught along with more advanced English (Gidney and Lawr 1979). Girls were also attending grammar schools in increasing numbers (although the schools had been originally created only for boys). Legislation passed in 1853 (the Grammar School Act) specified the subjects (e.g., English, Latin, arithmetic, history) that were required to be taught, and grammar school was considered to be a “preparatory” school for the university-bound and a “finishing school” for the much larger group of non-university-bound pupils (Gidney and Lawr 1979). Grammar schools also received government funding, although the fees associated with grammar schools compared to common schools would have been notably higher. People of all classes—upper, middle, and lower (when possible)—attended the grammar school. The grammar school, teaching much the same content as the common school, had much more status because it gave a classical education. Therefore,

the grammar school—even the most lowly country school with only a few pupils learning the rudiments of Latin while all the rest studied nothing but English and commercial subjects—had an ambience and bestowed a status that no common school could aspire to. The grammar school, by virtue of its identification with classical teaching, shared in an educational enterprise that conferred a liberal education and gave access not simply to “jobs” or ordinary occupations but to “professions.” (Gidney and Millar 1985:34)

In the mid-1850s, separate schools (Catholic) also gained status as permanent school boards in Upper Canada, after years of struggle by the Catholic minority in the province.

Lower Canada 1850s

School inspectors, although discussed extensively in the many acts, were not established in Lower Canada until 1852. Meilleur and other officials regarded centralized school inspection as a major step in creating a sound education system (Curtis 1997; Little 1972). In 1853, the Legislative Assembly appointed a special committee to examine education in Lower Canada, headed by Louis-Victor Sicotte. The Sicotte Report revealed much about the wanting educational conditions of Lower Canada, including the illiteracy of half of the school commissioners and the unqualified teaching staff.

After Meilleur retired in 1855, he was replaced by Pierre Joseph Olivier Chauveau, a man with a lengthy history of involvement in the politics of Lower Canada. In 1856, Chauveau presented his first report his new role as superintendent of public education in Lower Canada, outlining his various suggestions for improvements to the school system. The reforms he recommended were not particularly innovative, and were mostly a reiteration of what Meilleur and Sicotte had previously demanded. The concerns outlined by Chauveau, however, were more readily addressed by politicians in the successive years, which has been attributed to Chauveau’s being more “connected” and having friends in important government positions and also having a reputation as being a “man of letters” (i.e., an intellectual). During his tenure as superintendent (1855–1867), three teachers’ colleges were established in Lower Canada, and two academic journals on education were launched (one in French, the other in English). His tenure as superintendent also included dealing with the concerns of Protestants, who were the minority in Lower Canada, and the majority Catholic population, which were dealt with in a new administrative body called the Council of Public Instruction.

Confederation in 1867 and Section 93

Confederation occurred in 1867, creating a country comprising the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. The British North America Act became the constitution of the new country and contained an important section pertaining to matters of education. Section 93 of the British North America Act reads:

In and for each Province the Legislature may exclusively make Laws in relation to Education, subject and according to the following Provisions:

  1. Nothing in any such Law shall prejudicially affect any Right or Privilege with respect to Denominational Schools which any Class of Persons have by Law in the Province at the Union:
  2. All the Powers, Privileges and Duties at the Union by Law conferred and imposed in Upper Canada on the Separate Schools and School Trustees of the Queen’s Roman Catholic Subjects shall be and the same are hereby extended to the Dissentient Schools of the Queen’s Protestant and Roman Catholic Subjects in Quebec:
  3. Where in any Province a System of Separate or Dissentient Schools exists by Law at the Union or is thereafter established by the Legislature of the Province, an Appeal shall lie to the Governor General in Council from any Act or Decision of any Provincial Authority affecting any Right or Privilege of the Protestant or Roman Catholic Minority of the Queen’s Subjects in relation to Education:
  4. In case any such Provincial Law as from Time to Time seems to the Governor General in Council requisite for the Execution of the Provisions of this Section is not made, or in case any Decision of the Governor General in Council on any Appeal under this Section is not duly executed by the proper Provincial Authority in that Behalf, then and in every such Case, and as far as the Circumstances of each Case require, the Parliament of Canada may make remedial Laws for the due Execution of the Provisions of this Section and of any Decision of the Governor General in Council under this Section.

It is in this historic act that matters of education become a provincial, not federal, issue and where the rights of denominational schools—where they existed prior to Confederation—would be protected.

Post-Confederation Ontario

In 1871, the Ontario School Act was passed, which legislated that free, compulsory elementary schooling in government-inspected schools was to be provided for all. This act also transformed grammar schools into two types of high schools—ones that focused on classical instruction (which included English grammar, composition, Greek, Latin, history, literature, trigonometry, algebra, and natural history), called collegiate institutes, and high schools, which offered classical training but also had a track for an “English course” that focused on natural sciences and “practical” topics instead of the classics (Gidney and Lawr 1979). By the mid-1870s, however, school inspectors did not believe that the two streams could be maintained and the two programs became blended into a single one. Changing attitudes toward the importance of a classical education in an age where science knowledge was becoming more important eventually led to the recasting of collegiate institutes into first-class, well-equipped and well-staffed urban high schools by the end of the century.

The Ontario Schools Question became a major political issue in Ontario in the early 1900s. Instead of focusing on denomination, this conflict was language-based, pitting both English Catholics and Protestants against Franco-Catholics. English was made a mandatory subject in 1885, and five years later this was extended to making it the language of instruction, except under specific conditions where this was not possible. In 1910, Franco-Ontarians organized to promote French-language interests, which was met with much hostility. In 1912, Regulation 17 was issued, which limited French instruction to the first two years of elementary schooling, and was further amended in 1913 to allow one hour of French instruction per day. The reaction to these laws escalated into a political crisis and Regulation 17 could not be enforced. It was not until the late 1960s that legislation was passed to permit instruction in French at the elementary and secondary levels (Oliver 1972).

Post-Confederation Quebec

Chauveau continued on as premier of Quebec until 1875. Further important legislative changes occurred during his premiership, including the division of Protestants and Catholics into their own school committees. The Protestant minority in Quebec wanted explicit guarantees for the autonomous organization and control of their own schools (Silver, 1982). The new bill was met with hostility by many, including the French-language press, but was also considered a stepping stone for how they hoped the rights of Catholics in Ontario would be respected (Silver 1982). Critics argued that Section 93 of the British North America Act, which safeguarded the rights of Roman Catholics and Protestants in education, meant that other bills offering such concessions were not necessary and possibly unconstitutional. Ultramontanism, or the belief in the absolute authority of the Catholic Church (and the Pope), characterized Quebec. The belief that Catholic education was the only appropriate manner in which to transmit the necessary values to sustain the French-Canadian community continued to play a strong role in shaping Quebec educational policies and practices (Curtis 2003). The battle between British Liberals and Quebec Ultramontes with regard to the role of church and state was one of fundamentally opposite ideals. British nationalism and French Canadian nationalism carved out the political and cultural landscape and contributed to many clashes between the two groups.

Audet (1971) characterized the education system in Quebec between 1876 and 1959 as stagnant and unmanageable, and in great need of reform. A major reform occurred in the 1960s during the Quiet Revolution. The Quiet Revolution is the name given to a period of rapid social change in Quebec that occurred from 1960–1966. The provincial election of that year saw Jean Lesage take office as premier, changing the ruling party from the Union Nationale to the Liberals. Lesage ran on a platform of strong reform, with campaign slogan “It’s time for a change” (Durocher 2011).

The existing educational system was experiencing extreme stress due to the population increase from the baby boomer generation. Prior to the reforms, the Catholic and Protestant systems ran parallel to one another, with the former servicing mostly the French-speaking population and the latter the English-speaking. Clear differences existed between them. For example, there was no kindergarten in the Catholic system, while it was readily available in the English Protestant sector (Henchey 1972). French Catholic education was typified by a seven-year elementary program after which a transition was made to secondary school—in areas where they existed. The route to post-secondary education was through the classical colleges, which were generally reserved for the elite. In contrast, the English Protestant sector had a system in which public high schools were available to all and whose curriculum was oriented to university admission (Henchey 1972). These major differences between the two systems can be attributed to the greater affluence of the families who attended the English Protestant schools. As noted by Henchey (1972), there were many reasons for francophones to be discontent with their education system. The census of 1961 revealed that only half of 15- to 19-year-olds were in school and that a quarter of this age group had left school prior to completing the elementary level. Both of these figures were the highest in the entire country.

In 1959, a commission was established to inquire into the state of education; it was chaired by Alphonse-Marie Parent, whose official inquiry became known widely as the Parent Commission. The resulting report urged massive reforms, including the creation of an official education department and the removal of the Catholic Church from control of the school. Bill 60 was passed in 1964, which restructured the education system to one that was centralized and reduced the role of the Church in order to lay the framework for further reforms (Henchey 1972). The second phase of reforms was recommended shortly thereafter, including the creation of a network of kindergartens and a standard six-year elementary education. Reforms also called for expansion of the curriculum and more “activist” student-centred teaching approaches (Henchey 1972). Secondary education was to be standardized to five years and offer core subjects and electives. A compromise was also to be reached regarding the trajectory to be taken by students who wished to go on to post-secondary education. Prior to reform, francophones and anglophones had different routes, but the reforms proposed three-year institutes that would prepare students for either university study or technical education (these Collèges dEnseignement Général et Professionnel were formally established in 1967). In addition to these structural reforms, all teacher education was to occur in universities. The dual denomination system of Catholic and Protestant schools boards still remained, but with more governmental control.

In 1977, the Charter of the French Language, or Bill 101, was passed. This bill is historic because it strengthened the role of the French language in Quebec. In terms of education, immigrants and francophones were steered into French schools. Students under the age of 16 could attend English schools only if they had parents who had been educated in English or if they had already received a substantial portion of their education in English in Canada. This new law contributed to the decline of English school enrolments in Quebec (Freeland 1999; Henchey 1999).

The 1980s were characterized by another wave of reforms, which involved “centralization of control and detailed programs” (Henchey 1999:228), while major reforms of the late 1990s focused on curriculum. In 1997, following a constitutional amendment, all denominational school boards (which had been in place since 1875) were eliminated and English and French school boards were replaced. Recall that the British North America Act of 1867 ensured the right to denominational education; Quebec became exempted from this part of the constitution in 1997 (Young and Bezeau 2003). Quebec is not the only province to have constitutional amendments to matters of education. See Box 3.1 for further discussion.

Box 3.1 – Constitutional Questions

While Quebec required a constitutional amendment to remove denominational school boards and replace them along linguistic lines, it is not the only province to make such specialized changes to the British North America Act. Newfoundland had to use such amendments to make changes in its provincial education systems. Section 93 of the British North America Act, as discussed above, secured the rights of denominations that had legal denominational rights prior to Confederation.

Provinces that joined Canada after Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick had Section 93 applied or another special section added, depending on the denominational nature of the province (Zinga 2008). For example, British Columbia entered Confederation using Section 93, but it has never had denominational school boards because they were not seen as “applicable,” and it had a public school system that did not support denominational schooling from its beginnings.

Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada in 1949, but with a special provision pre-empting Section 93 that provided for the constitutional protection of Roman Catholic, Anglican, Salvation Army, and United Church of Canada denominations, which was further amended in 1987 to include the Pentecostal Assemblies (Zinga 2008). In the 1990s, it was determined that the continuation of the school structure under five separate denominations was not tenable, and reforms were suggested that would remove denominational rights and replace the schools with a single unified non-denominational system. After two referendums, the province was successful in achieving a constitutional amendment that permitted the creation of a unified non-denominational system (Constitution Amendment, Newfoundland Act, 1997).

New Brunswick faced a different kind of constitutional question much nearer to the time of Confederation. The province passed a Common Schools Act in 1871, replacing the Parish Schools Act, 1858. In the new act it was stated that all schools would be non-sectarian. This act would have the effect of abolishing denominational schools—something that is guaranteed in Section 93. However, as noted by Zinga (2008), it was unclear whether schools prior to this act had legally existed before Confederation. Catholic schools existed, but on an informal basis since the 1850s. Roman Catholics objected and the issue was taken to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the Catholics had no legal grounds because Catholic denominational schools had not legally existed prior to Confederation. Violent protests in 1875 resulted in what are now known as the Caraquet riots, in which two people were shot and killed. The provincial government compromised by allowing Catholic students to be grouped together in the same schools and exempted Roman Catholic religious orders from having to attend the provincial normal school (although they still had to pass an exam to acquire a teaching licence). This political struggle is referred to as the New Brunswick Schools Question (Little 1972).

The Development of Education in the Rest of Canada

The discussion thus far has focused on Ontario and Quebec’s educational history. What follows are major important highlights from the historical development of education in other parts of Canada. Each province and territory warrants its own complete book on the topic, as the cultural and political issues specific to each geographic region contributed to the shaping of the educational landscape as we see it today.


Manitoba became the first Western province to join Canada in 1870, entering Confederation with a dual denominational system (Catholic and Protestant). The majority of Catholics were francophones, while the majority of Protestants were anglophones. Hence, schools were divided upon linguistic and sectarian grounds. Later trends in immigration meant that the linguistic divide was no longer an accurate portrayal of the makeup of the province. Under Thomas Greenway, the Liberal premier of Manitoba, the Public School Act of 1890 removed tax support for denominational schools and instead created a system of non-sectarian public schools. French was also abolished as an official language of the province. Parents could send their children to French Catholic schools, but they would not be funded. Moreover, they would still have to pay taxes to the public system. French Canadians in Manitoba and in the rest of Canada were angered by these changes, and tensions arose between the linguistic and religious groups.

Various protests and proposed amendments to the acts failed. The matter became a federal one known as the Manitoba Schools Question and Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier used his position on the topic to leverage his federal political campaign, winning the most seats. Laurier amended the act to restore some rights to Catholic instruction, although this had to be done within the public system. Catholic teachers could be employed in schools where 40 or more of the students were Catholic, religious instruction could be given half an hour per day, and the use of French as the language of instruction would be permitted in communities whose numbers warranted it, as long as English was used as well. These acts are widely considered the most famous controversy in the history of Canadian education, as they demonstrate the loss of francophone and Catholic rights outside Ontario.1

British Columbia

John Jessop was British Columbia’s first provincial superintendent of education. He arrived from Ontario after being trained as a teacher in the Ryersonian system in 1853. He headed to British Columbia in 1858, when the discovery of gold in the Fraser Valley became big news. After a failed attempt at seeking gold, Jessop opened a private school in Victoria (Johnson 1971). At the time, there were other private schools on the island, as well as three “colonial schools” that had been established earlier in the decade for the children of new settlers. From that point on, Jessop campaigned for a public school system. The Public School Act of 1872 was modelled on Ryerson’s legislation enacted between 1846 and 1871, although money was given to schools through provincial revenues rather than property taxes (Johnson 1971). Jessop, unlike Ryerson, did not make accommodation for denominational schooling, although this appears to have already been a tradition in the province. Much resemblance existed between Jessop’s schools and Ryersonian reforms, including the emphasis on textbooks, school inspectors, and the duties assigned to teachers (Johnson 1971). In general, Jessop as a school promoter created in British Columbia a system very similar to that in which he was trained in Ontario.

Alberta and Saskatchewan

Alberta and Saskatchewan have similar histories of public schooling development, as they were both originally part of the North-West Territory and became independent provinces in 1905.

The first schools that were opened in Alberta and Saskatchewan were parochial. A Catholic school was established by a missionary (Father Thibault) at Lac Ste. Anne in 1842, while Reverend Rundle formed the first day schools in Fort Edmonton in the 1840s. In 1840, the first school in Saskatchewan opened in Cumberland House, which was run by a Cree Anglican Minister, Henry Budd. In 1875 the North-West Territories Act was passed, which allowed for the local government to operate schools and created provisions for Catholic and Protestant schools. Financial support from the territorial government for schooling was first received in 1880, providing funding for both Protestant and Roman Catholic schools. School districts were established in the early 1880s as well, with Edmonton established as the first district in the current Alberta, and Moose Jaw in the current Saskatchewan.

As settlers began arriving from the east, the demographics of the region shifted. There was no longer a straightforward English Protestant and French Roman Catholic dichotomy, as there had been when the Protestant and Catholic school systems were decided. Two individuals played important roles in creating the system of education found in the North-West Territories: Frederick Haultain and David Goggin. Haultain was elected to the Territorial Assembly in 1888 and appointed Goggin as superintendent of education in 1892. In 1892, Haultain replaced the dual confessional school system with a non-sectarian state system that permitted separate schools for the Protestant and Catholic minorities, which closely resembled the model in Ontario. Like his counterparts across the country, he saw public schooling as an arena for creating nationalism and thereby assimilating minorities. Arrangements for public schooling were created by the civil authorities of the North-West Territories. When Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces in 1905, they adopted many of the policies used in Ontario, including a public and separate school system.

Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island

Like most of Canada, the first schools in the Maritime provinces were run by the Protestant or Catholic Church. The Free School Act of 1864 in Nova Scotia, the Common Schools Act of 1871 in New Brunswick, and the Free Education Act of 1852 in Prince Edward Island were major pieces of legislation that would set the groundwork for public schooling. Across the Maritimes, although at different times, education leaders campaigned for non-sectarian public schooling, passing acts that would fund only non-denominational schools. With the long history of Protestant and Catholic schools in place across most of the country, public reaction to such new legislation was often hostile.

In 1867, the premier of Nova Scotia, Charles Tupper, introduced the Free Schools Act, which created a system of state-subsidized schools. The following year, more legislation was passed to fund these schools through local taxation. These schools were non-denominational but did include some Christian education. Opposition expressed itself through brief outbreaks of violence, which involved the burning of some schools (Xavier 1957). A compromise was eventually reached whereby Catholics were allowed to establish their own publicly funded schools, provided that religious instruction occurred after school hours. In 1871, similar tensions were experienced in New Brunswick, where the Common Schools Act eliminated denominational schools, although in this case the response took a more violent turn resulting in two deaths (see Box 3.1). A similar compromise to the one arrived at in Nova Scotia regarding the funding of Catholic schools was eventually made.

In Prince Edward Island, the Free Education Act was passed in 1852, which was mainly to attract qualified teachers to the area. Reformers were not opposed to religion in schools, but thought it was problematic in schools that had both Catholic and Protestant students (O’Connor 2006). Normal schools for teacher education were created and purposely did not include religious teachings because of the mix of students in attendance. In 1857, a publicized school inspector’s report revealed that Bible readings were on a decline on the Island. Protestants reacted with great indignation, largely blaming the Catholics, whom they felt were being overly accommodated (the Catholics would generally oppose religious teachings offered in the Protestant-dominated school system). Prince Edward Island joined Confederation in 1873, and because denominational schools were not provided beforehand, Section 93 was deemed irrelevant. Prince Edward Island was not isolated from the general anti-Catholic sentiments being expressed in neighbouring provinces, and although unrest had not reached violent proportions there were still denominational tensions on the island. The tensions culminated in the 1877 attack on the Charlottetown Orange Lodge (the Orange Order is an organization affiliated with Conservative Protestants). No one was seriously injured in the attack, but the outbreak revealed the tension that had been building for years due to the Catholics’ increasingly marginalized role in many aspects of provincial politics, including education (O’Connor, 2006). See Box 3.2 for a discussion of how denominational rights have been incorporated into educational practices across Canada.


Church of England missionaries organized the first schools in Newfoundland in the 1720s, opening further schools across the larger outports in the eighteenth century. The Newfoundland School Society organized schools concerned for education of the poor in 1823, and established over 40 non-denominational schools across Newfoundland within the next 10 years.

Box 3.2 – Manzer’s Typology of Educational Regimes

Ronald Manzer (1994) identified four types of “educational regimes” that emerged during the nineteenth century as a result of political struggles around the roles of the state and church in matters of education.

The non-sectarian public school system is the most liberal in that there is a firm separation between the church and the state. As such, clergy and other religious representatives have no control over locally run school boards. In addition to not being permitted to have any authoritative role within the school system, religious instruction does not occur within the school. British Columbia adopted this regime in 1872, while Manitoba changed to this regime in 1890.

The second educational regime type is called non-sectarian public schools with minority denominational districts. This type of regime typified the public education system of Upper Canada. This type of school is characterized by a majority of non-sectarian public schools (often identifying as Protestant), with an allowance made for separate denominational schools (usually Catholic) that are under strict control by the central education department with regard to curriculum, teacher training, and testing. The North-West Territories adopted this type of structure, and it was passed on to Alberta and Saskatchewan when they entered Confederation as new provinces in 1905.

The de jure non-sectarian, de facto reserved public schools represents another compromise between liberalism and religious communities. This regime is present in the three Maritime provinces, which passed legislation forbidding denominational schools but eventually worked out compromises with the Catholic community and reserved some schools for them, given that certain conditions were met. Such organization allows religious groups (Catholics) to have local control over their schools, particularly in geographically isolated areas where such religious minorities may actually be a majority.

The fourth regime is called concurrent endowment of confessional systems. In this role, the state provides funding but the control over education is maintained by religious authorities. This type of regime was found in Quebec, which had a “dual confessional system” (representing Protestant and Catholics) until 1997. Manitoba had this type of arrangement as well until 1890, while Newfoundland’s schools were largely in the hands of the six denominational groups that operated schools until constitutional amendments in 1997.

Government involvement with the funding and organization of schools began with the 1836 Education Act, which established non-denominational boards of education. While the schools themselves clearly had denominational orientations, they were open to children of all denominations (mostly Protestant or Catholic). The Newfoundland Act of 1842, however, responded to rising tides of denominationalism in the region, distributing funds evenly between Roman Catholic and Protestant school boards. Protestants had reacted angrily to non-denominationalism, arguing that it gave too much influence to Roman Catholics (McCann 1998). The perceived threat of the Catholics, even rumours of a Catholic revolution, shaped the denominational system that was enacted in 1842. Further amendments in the 1870s created another denominational grouping—the Methodists.

Economic problems affected the education of children in the region particularly strongly. In 1900, only half of the children between 5 and 15 were in school, and school funding was at the lowest rate since 1861. Economic struggles persisted, though in 1920 an Education Department, Normal School (for teacher training), and Memorial University College were established (McCann 1998). Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949 and retained its denominational system under its Terms of Union. Like Quebec, Newfoundland did not enact compulsory schooling legislation until the 1940s.

The Territories

The North-West Territory was the name originally given to the vast land that contained the territories as we know them now, as well as Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the northern parts of Manitoba and Ontario. The Yukon became its own territory in 1898, and Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces in 1905. Nunavut became a separate territory in 1999. Section 93 of the British North America Act of 1867 does not apply to territories. The right of separate schools to exist has existed since the 1901 Territorial School Ordinance. When established, the law of the territories applied to the Yukon unless otherwise amended. This meant that the provision for separate schools, which had been made in 1875 in the Northwest Territories Act, applied to the Yukon as well. At the time, however, there were only two small schools operating in the territory, although the Gold Rush in 1896 would result in a considerable influx of new settlers, creating demand for an education system. A public school and a Catholic school were in operation in Dawson by 1900, with the Catholic school having a much smaller enrolment than the public school, reflecting the religious makeup of the population.

In the early 1900s, several political discussions emerged about the annexing of the Yukon to British Columbia. The non-sectarian organization of schooling in British Columbia deeply concerned Catholic school advocates in the Yukon, who worried that their schools would be lost if such an annex occurred. Amid a volatile political climate, and still recovering from the Manitoba Schools Question debate, the federal government was not interested in opening up another political controversy on minority rights (Stuart 1993). The issue remained dormant until 1937, when Duff Pattullo, the premier of British Columbia, opened up the question of annexing the Yukon to revive the economy and exploit the natural resources of the area. With the annexation discussions progressing, Catholic representatives in Ottawa began to take up the cause of minority school rights in the soon-to-be annexed Yukon. The federal and provincial governments realized that annexation without conflict was not possible and the issue was quietly dropped (Stuart, 1993).

Nunavut inherited the North-West Territories (NWT) Education Act when it became a territory in 1999. It has since amended changes in the Nunavut Act of 2002, but none of these pertain to denominational schooling. Major revisions to the acts relate to the inclusion of Inuit language and culture in teaching and curriculum, and more control from the district education authority rather than territorial authorities.

The History of Aboriginal Education in Canada

Before colonization, Aboriginal people had their own systems of transferring knowledge to their offspring that were appropriate to their needs (Axelrod 1997). For approximately 100 years (1880–1980), a large proportion of Aboriginal children were removed from their family homes and sent to boarding schools. These schools were known as residential schools or sometimes industrial schools. Regardless of what they were called, they shared the same characteristic in that children spent long periods of time in these total institutions, in which they were separated from their family and community.

Egerton Ryerson also played a significant role in the introduction of the residential schooling system in Canada. After passing the Common School Act of 1846, which prescribed the education system for the majority of the population in Ontario, he was asked by the assistant superintendent general of Indian affairs to make recommendations for the education of Aboriginal children. In an 1847 report to the Legislative Assembly, he recommended a boarding school model that would train students in religion and manual labour. He also recommended agricultural training so that Aboriginal people would move toward a farming lifestyle. While Ryerson himself did not implement any of these recommendations, they did provide the foundation of what was to become the residential schooling system in years to follow.

Canadian politicians and policy-makers in the late 1800s were very clear that the purpose of residential schools was to fully assimilate Aboriginal children. The beginnings of the residential school in 1880 were in much part borrowed from the industrial school model being used in the United States, which was summarized in the landmark Davin Report of 18792 as being based upon the principle of “aggressive civilization.” In order for the Aboriginal people to be fully “civilized,” it was determined that they must be removed from their families so that they could learn not only to read and write, but also to “acquire the habits and tastes of . . . civilized people” (Clae and Clifton 1998, citing Grant 1996). As the Church was heavily involved in the running of residential schools, a considerable component of becoming “civilized” was to adopt the beliefs of Christianity. The Canadian government, until relatively recently, actively supported the assimilation of Aboriginal people into a system of European living that embraced European and Christian values.

Attendance at residential schools became mandatory in 1894, with fines or imprisonment being legally threatened if children failed to attend. Two years later, around 1500 children were in attendance in residential schools across Canada. About half were located a considerable distance from Aboriginal communities and were oriented toward older students, where girls were trained in the domestic arts and boys in farming skills and trades.

As time progressed, the failure of the residential school was becoming apparent. Death and illness arising from the poor health conditions at the schools was noted as early as 1906, after medical inspection by Dr. Peter Bryce, chief medical officer for the Departments of the Interior and Indian Affairs, revealed appalling conditions. In Western residential schools, the death rate of the children was estimated to be around 50 percent due to highly infectious disease such as tuberculosis.3 Two years later, Dr. Bryce revealed additional evidence that suggested that children were purposely being exposed to tuberculosis and being left to die by staff of the residential schools. He received no response to the recommendations of his report to improve the health conditions of the schools, and his reports were not made public until 1922 (Sproule-Jones 1996). He was eventually forced to leave his position in 1921. In 1922, he released a book entitled The Story of a National Crime: Being a Record of the Health Conditions of the Indians of Canada from 1904 to 1921.

Mandatory school attendance laws increased the numbers of students attending residential schools in 1920. In addition to questionable health and sanitary conditions, the education provided at such schools was often poor, as many teachers were not formally trained. Despite high enrolment, the number of children who were functioning at age-appropriate grade levels was very low, and almost no students achieved the Grade 8 level or beyond.

The 1950s saw a political shift toward mainstreaming students, or placing them in regular schools, where possible. Clae and Clifton (1998) note that residential schools began to take on a “child welfare” purpose in this era: children who required institutional care “for social or family reasons” would be admitted to residential schools. More day schools were also opened on reserves. This resulted in a significant increase in the number of Aboriginal children attending provincially run public schools. In 1970, the National Indian Brotherhood called for an end to the federal control of Aboriginal schooling, and residential schools eventually began to close. In many cases, children on reserves were educated in on-reserve schools, which have their own unique set of problems (discussed in Chapter 4). Table 3.1 details major points in history as they relate to the treatment of Aboriginal education.

In total, between the late 1800s and until the abolition of residential schools, about one-third of Aboriginal children were placed in residential schools, often for a large portion of their childhoods (Clae and Clifton 1998). Much of what was taught in residential schools was based upon the assumptions that their own cultures were not worth preserving or knowing. The trauma of being separated from parents and siblings, along with the prison-like conditions of many facilities, had long-lasting effects on many former students (Knockwood and Thomas 1992). Children were also forbidden to speak their mother tongue, which further entrenched the idea that Aboriginal cultures were worthy only of shame. The residential schools were also places where a significant proportion of the students experienced mental, physical, and sexual abuse by school officials. Breaking of rules by students often resulted in severe physical beatings and humiliations.

The damage that residential schools did to children, not only while they were there but also in terms of the long-term psychological damage that occurred and has been passed down through generations due to psychological distress, has only recently been widely acknowledged. It has been suggested that the symptoms many residential school survivors present are similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, and the term residential school syndrome has been used as a term for the shared set of psychological problems that such survivors possess (Brasfield 2001), which can include flashbacks, avoidance of situations that may trigger memories, relationship problems, and drug and alcohol abuse (Sochting et al. 2007).

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It was not until the late 1980s that abuse in residential schools received any formal recognition. The United Church made a formal apology to Aboriginal people in 1986. A 1989 case in Newfoundland involving non-Aboriginal children abused by clergy at an orphanage put the wheels in motion for former residential school abuse victims to pursue litigation.Clae and Clifton (1998) have identified four distinct political attitudes that have shaped official policy toward Aboriginal people in Canada. The first attitude that ran from early colonial settlements to around 1910 was that of assimilation. The settlers saw the Aboriginal people as a problem to be fixed by turning them into European Canadians. By 1910, prior assimilation techniques had failed, and therefore a segregation approach was adopted, whereby Aboriginals were educated for life in their own communities, to which they would be restricted. In 1951, segregation was abandoned in favour of an integration approach, which advocated for Aboriginal “absorption” into mainstream society. The principle of integration was embraced by policy-makers until the early 1970s, when calls for Aboriginal self-determination and control were growing.

In March 1998, the Canadian government issued a Statement of Reconciliation within its Gathering StrengthCanadas Aboriginal Action Plan document. This statement acknowledged the wrongdoing of the federal government’s assimilation policies of previous years and also included an apology to victims of abuse at residential schools. Part of the document is excerpted below:4

The ancestors of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples lived on this continent long before explorers from other continents first came to North America. For thousands of years before this country was founded, they enjoyed their own forms of government. Diverse, vibrant Aboriginal nations had ways of life rooted in fundamental values concerning their relationships to the Creator, the environment, and each other, in the role of Elders as the living memory of their ancestors, and in their responsibilities as custodians of the lands, waters and resources of their homelands.

Sadly, our history with respect to the treatment of Aboriginal people is not something in which we can take pride. Attitudes of racial and cultural superiority led to a suppression of Aboriginal culture and values. As a country, we are burdened by past actions that resulted in weakening the identity of Aboriginal peoples, suppressing their languages and cultures, and outlawing spiritual practices. … We must acknowledge that the result of these actions was the erosion of the political, economic and social systems of Aboriginal people and nations.

The [residential school system] separated many children from their families and communities and prevented them from speaking their own languages and from learning about their heritage and cultures. In the worst cases, it left legacies of personal pain and distress that continue to reverberate in Aboriginal communities to this day. Tragically, some children were the victims of physical and sexual abuse. The government of Canada acknowledges the role it played in the development and administration of these schools. Particularly to those individuals who experienced the tragedy of sexual and physical abuse at residential schools, and who have carried this burden believing that in some way they must be responsible, we wish to emphasize that what you experienced was not your fault and should never have happened. To those of you who suffered this tragedy at residential schools, we are deeply sorry (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. Reproduced with the permission of the Minister of Public Works and Government Services, 2012.)

Aboriginal leader Phil Fontaine has played an important role in bringing public awareness to the suffering that occurred at residential schools and has been instrumental in having various church groups publicly acknowledge their part in the abuse. He has also been at the centre of successfully negotiating settlements for residential school survivors. Fontaine served as grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs from 1991 and national chief of the Assembly of First Nations from 1997–2008. In 2005, the Canadian government negotiated the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which agreed to pay out a sum of $2 billion as a compensation package to former residential school students. Former students are to receive a base payment called the Common Experience Payment of $10 000, plus $3000 for each additional year that they attended. Any monies not formally recovered by previous students are to be put into a fund to assist in Aboriginal program development. Another aspect to the settlement agreement is the Independent Assessment Process, which is a separate class action out-of-court process of resolution for those who suffered serious physical and sexual abuse in residential schools.

In 2008, the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established. Truth commissions are periodically created by governments in order to collect information on historical events that may have been incorrectly documented. The desired outcomes of this truth commission are to properly acknowledge the experiences of former residential school students and to document them as thoroughly and accurately as possible and to create public awareness about the residential school system.5

The Canadian government also established a $350 million Healing Fund. This fund was created to fund and support programs and the healing needs for Aboriginal people who were affected by abuse in the residential school program, as well as intergenerational effects of residential schooling. Although a person may not have personally attended a residential school, his or her parents or grandparents may have, and this may have impacted on these individuals’ parenting and grandparenting skills (Morrissette 1994) or put them at an increased risk of experiencing poverty, for example (Bougie and Senécal 2010). Residential schooling often resulted in disconnection and emotional distance from family members, and alienation from their culture, traditions, community, and language (Stout and Peters 2011). It has been argued that the effects of residential schooling have impacted many generations of Aboriginals.

On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized to former residential school students. After a meeting between Phil Fontaine and the Pope Benedict XVI in April 2009, the Vatican expressed “regret” that Aboriginal people suffered such “deplorable” treatment in the residential schools that were operated by the Roman Catholic Church.6 The reaction of victims and Aboriginal leaders to this “expression of regret” was mixed, as it was not a formal apology.

Black Segregated Schools

While the oppression and slavery of African Americans is well-documented and acknowledged in American history, the segregation of Canadian Blacks is a lesser-known historical fact. African Americans came to Canada in large numbers in the period between 1820 and 1860 through the “Underground Railway”—a series of informal networks that helped enslaved Blacks escape the United States into Canada (as well as into Mexico and other states where slavery was illegal). During this time, tens of thousands of freed slaves settled Canada West.7

While Canadian politicians were quick to argue that the abolitions of slavery in the British Empire demonstrated moral superiority over the United States (McLaren 2004), many White Canadians reacted negatively to the settlement of Blacks in their communities, often refusing them entry to public schools. The School Act of 1850, however, permitted segregated schools for Blacks. Local school officials based their refusal on arguments focusing on the perceived superiority of the “White race” and the potential threat that allowing Black students into the classroom may have on other students, particularly girls. The vehement opposition to allowing Blacks in public schools existed in many communities, despite a legal prohibition on discrimination due to race, religion, or language (McLaren 2004).

While Egerton Ryerson publicly opposed the segregation of Blacks, he argued that there was little he could do to change the minds of large swaths of the population who were determined to keep Blacks out of public schools. The School Act prior to amendments made in 1850 clearly states that it was illegal to deny education to any child resident in the school district. In 1850, the School Act was amended to read that “It shall be the duty of the Municipal Council of any Township, and of the Board of School Trustees of any City, Town or incorporated Village, on the application, in writing, of twelve, or more, resident heads of families, to authorize the establishment of one, or more, Separate schools for Protestants, Roman Catholics, or Coloured people” (Hodgins 1911:213). Segregated schools, like other public schools, were funded by provincial grants to local schools that “matched” the tax contributions paid by local residents (Walker 1999).

It should be noted, however, that the religion-based separate schools were often strongly supported by members of their respective denominations. In contrast, there is rather compelling evidence that Blacks did not choose separate schools; their segregation was chosen for them as a result of overtly racist beliefs and practices (McLaren 2004). Whether or not Blacks supported segregated schools is debatable, and certainly there is evidence that there were advocates on both sides of the issue from the Black community.

Segregated schools never officially existed in Toronto, although critics note that neighbourhood segregation probably acted as a de facto divider in creating unofficial separate schools for Blacks and Whites (McLaren 2004). The last segregated school in Ontario, located in Merlin (near Chatham), was closed in 1965.

Large numbers of African Americans also immigrated into Nova Scotia during the same time as many settled the southern parts of Canada West. Similar to the public attitudes in Canada West, Nova Scotia attitudes were “consistently hostile” toward Blacks (Winks 1969). By the 1830s, several segregated schools existed for Black students, run by an English philanthropist society (Winks 1969). Other charitable organizations funded Black education and some grants were made by the provincial government, although the demand for schools often outweighed the supply (Walker 1999). Black segregated schools also existed in New Brunswick, while Blacks in Prince Edward Island all attended the same schools due to living in the same residential district. While schooling was provided, the quality available in segregated schools was often poor, with inadequately trained teachers and lesser equipment (Walker 1999).

In the 1870s, Black parents in Halifax began protesting about the educational limitations placed upon their children; although they were paying taxes to the public school system, they were able to attend only the inferior segregated schools (Walker 1999). The School Act was amended in 1884 to permit Black students to attend public school in their local area. The result was that in areas of Black concentration Black students would continue to attend the segregated schools, but in integrated areas they would not be barred from the local (White) school (Walker 1999). The last segregated school, in Guysborough, Nova Scotia, was closed in 1983.8 In addition to Ontario and Nova Scotia, the practice of segregating Black students was also found to some extent in Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and British Columbia (Chan 2007).

Chinese Segregated Schools

Chinese immigrants began arriving in Canada in large numbers during the latter half of the nineteenth century as gold prospectors in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley. Chinese immigrants were also instrumental to the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, on which over 15 000 Chinese migrants worked between 1880 and 1885.9 In the early 1900s, school segregation of Chinese students was in effect at various times in Vancouver, Nanaimo, Victoria, and Westminster (Stanley 1990). In Victoria, segregation of Chinese students was first proposed by the school board in 1901 and then enacted between 1904 and 1905 (Stanley 1990). Partial school segregation for Chinese students in younger grades was in place in Victoria between 1908 and 1922. Calls for school segregation were based on the perceived threats that the Chinese presented to White children, both moral and physical. As argued by Stanley (2002), the strategy for racializing the Chinese was to represent them as “inexorable outsiders to the moral community of Canada” (p. 149). The discourse of politicians and school officials characterized the Chinese as dangerously different from White society, often being accused of spreading disease, living in unsanitary conditions, and committing crimes. Resting on the assumption that British Columbia was a “White man’s” country, anything that deviated from the cultural, moral or physical norms associated with “Whiteness” was perceived to be a threat (Stanley 2002). Most of the Chinese in Canada who were affected by the segregation policies were Canadian-born.

In 1909, the Victoria Chinese Public School was opened to educate Chinese students who were refused admittance to the regular public system.10 In 1915, the Rock Bay School was established for Chinese boys who had poor English skills and were two or more years older than the average age of students in their grade placement. These boys were segregated also because they were perceived to be a “sexual menace” and a risk to White girls in public schools (Stanley 2002). In 1922, the Victoria School Board moved to create segregated schools for Chinese students (Stanley 1990). Parents and students, however, resisted the segregation by organizing a strike against the public school system. When the students were brought to their new school, they all ran away upon a pre-arranged signal. To put pressure on the public school system in Victoria, the Chinese community established its own school for the children who were affected by the segregation measures. The tensions between the Chinese community and the school board lasted the duration of the school year. Leaders in the Chinese community voiced outrage at the overtly racist practice that they perceived as solidifying their status as second-class citizens.

Expressing how such segregation would contribute to future prospects of Chinese Canadians, the president of the Chinese Canadian Club, comprised of second-generation Chinese Canadians, wrote to the editor of the Victoria Daily Times in October of 1922:

If we accept this we have no reasons to expect any better results, so the next step will be on the grounds of imperfect knowledge of English we will be prevented from the entrance classes or the High School. You can therefore see, Mr. Editor, how serious the question is for us. It is not the 200 children now affected that we have to think of, but the whole of our future is involved in this question. We cannot afford to take any other attitude that the one we have taken.

We ask ourselves this question: What can be the purpose behind this movement? Can it be to prevent us securing an English education so that our children can be permanently ignorant, so that they must remain labourers to be exploited? Being ignorant of the language we will be unable to take our part by the side of other Canadians, and we will then be pointed out as those who refuse to learn the customs or social life of the country—in fact, refuse to assimilate. It will have been forgotten by then that it was not because we did not want to learn, but because certain narrow-minded autocrats have taken upon themselves the responsibility of preventing our learning.11

In other words, Chinese Canadians saw this segregation as preventing future generations of their children from achieving social mobility. After a year of conflict, the school board dropped its segregation order in the successive school year of 1923–1924.

Japanese Segregation

Japanese settlers were recorded in Canada as early as the late 1870s. By the early 1920s, over 10 000 Japanese immigrants had settled in Canada. After the beginning of the Second World War (after Japan bombed the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii in 1941), the Canadian government began to regard Japanese Canadians as a potential threat to national security. The removal of all persons of Japanese descent from the coastal regions of British Columbia was ordered (around 21 000), and they were moved to interior housing settlements far away from the coastal region. The first stage of removal required Japanese Canadians to report to holding centres, often the Hastings Park Clearing Centre, where they were held for periods ranging from weeks to months until they were “relocated.” A makeshift school was created at Hastings, which mostly consisted of volunteer teachers. In terms of relocation, adult men were taken to internment camps where they were forced to work on construction projects, while wives and children were left in abandoned mining camps. Families wishing to remain together were transported to work on large sugar beet farms on the prairies.12 During this time, the provincial government took no responsibility for educating the children on such settlements (Roy 1992). The British Columbia Security Commission (the federal agency responsible for overseeing the evacuation) helped organize school for Japanese children in the settlements, arguing that it was essential to provide an education for the children in order to keep up morale, reduce juvenile delinquency, and “assure” the fathers who were forced to work in camps that their children were being educated (Roy 1992). The schools were staffed by Japanese women, some of whom had teaching credentials, and the lessons followed the B.C. curriculum at the time. The “Commission schools” had a total population of around 2500 pupils throughout the war and were committed to providing education only up to Grade 8. Church groups volunteered to offer assistance for providing kindergarten and high school instruction. After the end of the war, interned Japanese Canadians were given the choice of settling east of the Rockies (i.e., not returning to British Columbia) or going to war-ravaged Japan.

Why Mass Schooling?

As detailed above, mass public schooling began in Canada in the mid-1850s. In the previous half of the nineteenth century, parents of the middle class were accustomed to paying for their children’s education through private and voluntary sources (Gidney and Millar 1985). But what were the social conditions that led to its creation? Many accounts of the history of the education system in Canada, particularly accounts prior to the 1960s, represent it as the “triumph of great men” (Di Mascio 2010:36) who created an education system in an effort to overcome increasing class inequalities. Such a publicly funded education system would reduce the disadvantages faced by poor children.

Interpretations from the 1960s forward, however, have challenged the traditional readings of educational history (Di Mascio 2010:36). Newer interpretations understand early school advocates as elite “school promoters” who founded the public school system as a means of entrenching a certain type of values on the growing Canadian population: middle class, British, and Christian (usually Protestant). But the social processes behind the eventual acceptance of mass schooling are more complex than the visions of a few prominent men. Along with mass schooling came great political and cultural struggles. The marginalization of Catholics and francophones outside Quebec and attempts to “assimilate” them—as well as all other non-British Protestants—can be argued to be the major underlying project of much controversial school legislation.

Di Mascio (2010) and Prentice and Houston (1975) argue that writings in the first Toronto newspaper, the Upper Canada Gazette in the early 1800s, provide considerable evidence that “education” was largely about training children into the correct values and morals, which were those that supported the monarchy and Christianity. While rearing children was traditionally the role of the family, an increasing discourse found in these early writings presents this as an important task for an expanding education system.

Houston (1972) details how the common social problems of the day were again thought to be cured by mass schooling. Social problems were blamed upon immigrant families from lower social classes (mostly Irish-famine settlers), who were accused by British elites of not raising their children properly. A prominent education reform advocate of the time, Charles Duncombe, commented in 1836:

Every person that frequents the streets of this city [Toronto] must be forcibly struck with the ragged and uncleanly appearance, the vile language, and the idle and miserable habits of numbers of children, most of whom are of an age suitable for schools, or for some useful employment. The parents of these children are, in all probability, too poor, too degenerate to provide them with clothing for them to be seen in at school; and know not where to place them in order that they may find employment, or be better cared for.13

Schooling was touted as a means to reduce juvenile delinquency and adult criminality that was perceived to be inextricably linked to ignorance and poverty. Therefore, the relation of crime reduction to public schooling became increasingly used in debates around mass schooling, particularly when trying to convince the public that any proposed tax levies would be for the good of all, not just the impoverished and immoral (Houston 1972).

In addition to fixing the ills of society, much discourse around public schooling in the 1840s by Ryerson and others relates to how mass schooling would be a “powerful instrument of British Constitution” (Houston 1972:263). To Ryerson, the content of schooling would not have any American or “anti-British” sentiment at all, and this is evidenced in his insistence that American textbooks not be used and his restriction of American teachers in the mid-1840s. Public schooling was seen as a way to maintain and foster a sense of Britishness in Upper Canada that may have been perceived to be under threat given large waves of immigration at the time. According to Houston (1972), the massive influx of famine Irish in 1847 gave much thrust to Ryerson’s claims that if mass public schooling were not provided, the future of the new colony was at grave risk.

There are other social aspects to the general acceptance of the idea of mass schooling, apart from “proper socialization,” that have been considered by historical researchers. Errington (1993), for example, found evidence that many families in Upper Canada were often in search of educational opportunities for their children, but could not afford to send their children due to economic constraints and the workloads associated with life at that time. Gaffield (1991) argues that as land inheritances dwindled for the offspring of Upper Canadian children, families were looking for other ways to ensure a future for their children, and education was seen as a way of substituting for land inheritance.

Teachers in Canada

Teachers clearly play a prominent role in schools. Schools cannot exist without them. As schooling expanded, so too did the number of teachers. The number of teachers in Canada has “marched steadily forward” (Harrigan 1992), from 13 000 in 1870 to over 329 000 in 2006.14

The occupation of teaching was one of the only viable non-manual occupational choices for young, unmarried women in the early to mid portion of the twentieth century, although it did not pay any better than stenography or skilled factory work. Women have represented over half of all teachers in Canada since 1870, with percentages above 80 from 1905–1930. This increase of women in teaching not only in Canada, but in the Western world in general, has been referred to as the feminization of the teaching corps. Harrigan (1992) estimates that between 1910 and 1930, one in six women between the ages of 20 and 40 was or had been a teacher. Similarly, in the period between the two World Wars and for the 20 years following the Second World War, one in six women would become teachers at the age of 20, with higher rates among the middle class. Various reasons for the feminization of the occupation have been offered, including the absence of other opportunities, the expansion of schooling, urbanization, and gender stereotypes (Harrigan 1992).

While women comprised the majority of teachers, they often worked for less pay—less than half in the nineteenth century—than their male counterparts. Women often were allocated to teaching elementary grades due to the perception that they could not control older children and that they were more suited to providing the nurturing required by younger students (Prentice 1977). Male teachers, in contrast, often became school administrators (Prentice 1977). And in the nineteenth century, women who married could no longer remain teachers because being married made them ineligible to be considered “professional.” Prentice (1977) argues that expansion of elementary schooling at the beginnings of Canadian educational history was largely attributable to the “cheap” labour of female teachers. The pay gap between male and female teachers has closed in recent decades, however, in no small part due to the role of teachers’ unions and federations.

Teacher Training in Canada

As mass schooling has expanded across Canada, so too has the schooling of teachers. Prior to the mid-1840s, there were no formal establishments for teacher training. In 1846, Egerton Ryerson opened the first normal school in Ontario in order to facilitate the better training of teachers. A normal school is the name that was given to the first teacher training institutions. The name comes from the école normales originally established in France to train teachers. The name derives from a learning approach that would provide “model classrooms” for student teachers to learn model teaching practices. These model schools were to set the “norms” or standards for student teachers; hence the name.

The first normal school opened in British Columbia in 1901, although such schools accounted for the training of only a small proportion of teachers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century (Harrigan 1992). The ongoing creation of normal schools across the country, however, did signal the growing concern for the development of a supervised and regulated certification scheme for teachers serving in the expanding public school system. Harrigan notes that as time went on, the governments required more qualifications of teachers and linked the qualifications to teachers’ salaries. Normal schools eventually gained prestige and became known as teachers’ colleges, and soon were the only path for entering the teaching occupation (Harrigan 1992).

Between 1900 and 1940, a full two years of training were added to the average teacher’s length of study. The next biggest increase in training came in the late 1960s and 1970s, when university degrees became required for admission to teachers’ colleges. Harrigan (1992) points out that in the 1960s, about 25 percent of teachers had university credentials. By 1980, however, over 75 percent had them. Figure 3.1 shows the substantial increase in the percentage of teachers holding degrees in nine provinces between 1952 and 1973.15 This increase in teachers’ schooling, however, corresponds with the expansion of schooling in society in general.

Figure 3.1

Province % with Uni Degree in 1952 % with Uni Degree in 1973
British Columbia 36 67
Alberta 35 73
Saskatchewan 14 52
Manitoba 19 59
Ontario 24 52
New Brunswick 12 52
Nova Scotia 19 50
Prince Edward Island 5 38
Newfoundland 4 52

Not all jurisdictions approached teacher training in the same way, however. In 1945, Alberta became the first province to shift all teacher preparation from normal schools to Faculties of Education within the university system. By the mid-1970s, all provinces had changed their minimum teacher qualification to university training.

Chapter Summary

This chapter began by discussing how education developed in New France, and how this changed when Lower Canada was conquered by the British in 1791. The various pieces of legislation that contributed to the development of free public schools were described. In Upper Canada, much of the development of the education system is attributed to Egerton Ryerson, who served as Superintendent of Schools from 1844–1876. In Lower Canada, there was much resistance to legislation that was passed in Upper Canada regarding schools, particularly because Lower Canadian schooling was traditionally seen as the purview of the Catholic Church.

Confederation occurred in 1867, which introduced the British North America Act. This Constitution contained an important clause, Section 93, which made matters of education a jurisdictional (rather than federal) matter. It also allowed for the protection of denominational schools where they legally existed beforehand. As other provinces and territories joined Confederation, the adaptation of Section 93 determined if and how separate schools would be accommodated. Provincial “schools questions” arose, often transforming into significant divisive federal political issues when the rights of francophone and Catholic minorities in the provinces were eroded by the prevailing wishes of the Protestant and English-speaking majorities.

Public schooling developed at different times and at different paces in various parts of the country, depending upon the settlement patterns of the area. In addition to the creation of mass public schooling, many Aboriginal children were subjected to the residential schooling system in Canada, which began in 1880 and carried on for nearly 100 years. Other forms of racial segregation also occurred within the public schooling system in various parts of the country. Black students attended segregated schools in many parts of Ontario and Nova Scotia, while Japanese and Chinese students faced segregation in British Columbia.

Teachers have always been at the centre of the school, and in addition to an increase in mass schooling, an increase in the number of teachers as well as the educational requirements of teachers occurred from the late nineteenth century to the 1970s. Teachers became predominantly female, although earlier in the history of Canadian education were restricted to elementary teaching and were paid much lower wages than their male counterparts. Increased standardized teacher training at universities and the later formation of teachers’ unions and federations has resulted in the narrowing of the wage gap between male and female teachers in more recent decades.

Review Questions

1. Identify three major events in the history of education in Ontario and Quebec.

2. Explain how the British North America Act and Section 93 influenced denominational schooling in Canada.

3. Explain what the Manitoba Schools Question was and why it was a major political crisis.

4. Explain why the British Columbia development of schools was fundamentally different from the rest of the country.

5. Define the four types of educational regimes identified by Manzer.

6. Identify three “school promoters” and explain three major contributions each made to the development of education in his region.

7. Define what is meant by residential schooling and the “intergenerational effects” of residential schooling.

8. Identify the three different racial groups that were forced into segregated schooling and the social conditions that led to these segregated schools.

9. Identify four major reasons that social historians have given for the rise of mass schooling.

10. Explain what is meant by the “feminization of the teaching corps.”


  • Use the internet to look up the Northwest Territories Schools Question. How does it fit into the political landscape of the other “schools questions” discussed in this chapter?
  • Use the internet to look up the residential school that was closest to where you currently live. What was it called? In what years did it function? Who ran it? How many students attended the school?
  • Using archival sources, look up the history of a normal school in your area. When did it open? What was it called? What was the enrolment? How long did it stay open?
  • Create a timeline of major events that occurred in Canadian educational history, by province/territory.

Film Recommendations

  • The Little Black School House, 2007, Directed by Sylvia Hamilton
  • The Fallen Feather, 2007, Directed by Randy N. Bezeau
  • Where the Spirit Lives, 1989, Directed by Bruce Pittman
  • The Mission School Syndrome, 1988, Northern Native Broadcasting

Key Terms

common schooling

feminization of the teaching corps

intergenerational effects of residential schooling

non-denominational public schools

normal school


voluntary schools



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Sociology of Education in Canada Copyright © 2019 by Dr. Karen L. Robson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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