History of Education in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


History of Education in Canada

The Canadian insistence on the collective concerns of peace, order and good government has meant that state projects such as schooling are seen in terms of their overall impact on society.
Prairie Classroom, 1915
Prairie classroom at Bruderheim, Alberta. Prairie schools were to be the vehicles by which immigrants would be assimilated (courtesy Glenbow Archives).
<em>School At Canoe Cove, P.E.I.</em>
Painting by Robert Harris, oil on canvas. This scene illustrates a Prince Edward Island one-room schoolhouse in the early 1900s, where children of various ages sat together and were instructed by one teacher (courtesy Confederation Centre Art Gallery/CAGH-72).\r\n
Prairie School
Coldridge School, circa 1905 (courtesy Saskatchewan Archives Board).

The Canadian insistence on the collective concerns of peace, order and good government has meant that state projects such as schooling are seen in terms of their overall impact on society. In order to understand the growth of schooling in Canada, special attention must be paid both to official policies and the changing nature of children's lives.

Education in New France

During the French regime in Canada, the process of learning was integrated into everyday life. While the French government supported the responsibility of the Catholic Church for teaching religion, mathematics, history, natural science, and French, the family was the basic unit of social organization and the main context within which almost all learning took place. In the labour-intensive economy of the 17th and 18th centuries, families relied on the economic contributions of their children, who were actively engaged in productive activity. Children learned skills such as gardening, spinning and land clearing from other family members. Young males were trained for various trades through an apprenticeship system.

Schooling in Rural New France

Similarly, because the population was small and dispersed, it was usually the family that provided religious instruction and, in some cases, instruction in reading and writing. In certain areas, parish priests established petites écoles in which they taught catechism and other subjects. However, the majority of the population in New France, particularly in the rural areas, could not read and write. In the early 17th century, about one-quarter of the settlers were literate, but by the turn of the 18th century, the preoccupation of survival had taken its toll on the literacy rate and only one person in seven could sign his or her name.

Schooling in the 17th Century

In the towns of New France, formal education was more important for a variety of purposes. The Jesuits, Récollets, Ursulines, the Congregation of Notre Dame, and other religious orders provided elementary instruction in catechism, reading, writing, and arithmetic. More advanced instruction was available for young men who might become priests or enter the professions. By the mid-17th century, a course in classical studies, grammar and theology was available at the Collège des Jésuites, founded in 1635. In the 1660s Bishop Laval founded the Séminaire de Québec, which later became Université Laval.

Formal instruction for females was quite limited and usually did not extend beyond religious instruction and skills such as needlework. However, girls who lived in the countryside may have been better educated than boys as a result of the efforts of the sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame, who established schools in rural areas as well as in towns, and travelled as itinerant teachers.

Education as Mission

While only a minority of colonists in New France received instruction in an institutional setting, Catholic missionaries played an important role in formal education. The Récollets hoped to undermine the traditional culture and belief systems of the aboriginal people by educating the young boys and girls in the Catholic religion and in French customs. The Jesuits, who also embarked on an ambitious program to assimilate aboriginal people into French culture, compiled translations of the aboriginal tongues and established various schools.

Other groups, such as the Ursulines, focused their educational efforts on aboriginal girls. However, the Catholic Church's missionary efforts met with minimal success and the educational programs had little impact on the society of aboriginal people, in which learning continued to be viewed as an ongoing part of everyday activity (see Education of Aboriginal People).

Schooling after the British Conquest of 1759-60

During the 18th and early 19th centuries, the family remained the unrivalled setting for education; few children in what was then British North America received formal instruction either from tutors or in schools. The pattern began to change during this period, however, as the British government looked to education as a way of promoting cultural identification with Protestantism, the English language, and British customs.

In the years after the Conquest of 1759-60, the British authorities were exceedingly concerned about the strong French Canadian presence in the colony, and they tried repeatedly to assist in the establishment of schools that were outside the control of religious authorities. These efforts were undermined by the Catholic Church and, more importantly, by the disinterest of local communities, in which education was associated more with households than classrooms.

However, the concept of schooling became more widespread among social leaders during the early 19th century. In these years, politicians, churchmen and educators debated questions of educational financing, control and participation, and by the 1840s the structure of the modern school systems can clearly be discerned in an emerging official consensus.

The establishment of school systems across Canada during the 19th century followed a strikingly similar form and chronology due to the complex and often competing ambitions of both official educators and parents. Within this similarity, however, were some notable differences related to important social, cultural and political distinctions.

The general similarity among school systems in Canada emerged from the ambitions of educational leaders (appropriately described by historians as "school promoters") throughout the mid-19th century, and the willingness of many parents (though certainly not all) to send their children to school whenever material conditions made it possible.

The fact that leading educators were so consistent in their ambitions is not surprising since they not only read each other's writings, but also were often in touch with each other. The leading figure in Ontario, Egerton Ryerson, worked in collaboration with Jean-Baptiste Meilleur in Québec, as well as John Jessop in British Columbia. In turn, these school promoters operated in an international context. For example, Egerton Ryerson visited more than 20 countries during 1844 and 1845 when he was developing his proposals for a public school system.

Leading educators, or school promoters, argued that mass schooling could instill appropriate modes of thought and behaviour into children. In their minds, the purpose of mass schooling did not primarily involve the acquisition of academic knowledge. School systems were designed to solve a wide variety of problems ranging from crime to poverty, and from idleness to vagrancy.

Educators related these potential and actual problems to 3 main causes: the impact of constant and substantial immigration; the transition from agricultural to industrial capitalism; and the process of state formation in which citizens came to exercise political power. While all 3 of these causes played key roles in the minds of school promoters across Canada, the relative importance that each educator attributed to them depended on the regional and cultural context in which the school promoter functioned.

The Mid-19th Century

In mid-19th century Ontario, the predominantly rural population (with only smaller commercial cities) meant that fears about the impact of massive economic change were based on developments elsewhere rather than immediate experience. However, massive immigration and the importance of state formation were very visible at the local level.

During the Rebellions of 1837, rural and village leaders in a variety of communities in central British North America took up arms in pursuit of political change. To many community leaders, the various uprisings supported the argument that school systems were needed to form the rising generation of citizens.

School promoters in Ontario often opposed the employment of teachers or textbooks from the United States. Instead, they imported certain components of Irish schools; most notably, the Irish readers which had been written to accommodate a Protestant and Catholic population. This strategy also made sense in that Irish immigrants formed the majority in mid-19th century Ontario.

In Québec, the Rebellions were even more important than they were in Ontario, and political concerns loomed especially large in the minds of educational leaders. Given the leadership role of the Catholic Church, however, the construction of an educational state lagged behind while secular and religious leaders debated the division of power and responsibility. Québec set up its first Ministry of Public Instruction in 1868, but abolished it in 1875 under pressure from the Catholic Church, which deemed it was alone capable of dispensing education. Thereafter, Québec was the only province without a Minister of Education.

Certainly, immigrants were very visible all along the St Lawrence River extending from the port of Québec City, but many were passing through the province on their way to more western parts of the continent. Similarly, Québec's economy was undergoing significant change, but only in Montréal could educators argue realistically that schools were needed to offset the negative consequences of processes such as industrialization.

Education on the West Coast

On the West Coast, for example, immigration was the primary factor in shaping the mass schooling movement, but it did so in ways quite different from those on the East Coast of the continent.

In the case of British Columbia, the key distinction was the arrival of substantial numbers of Asians, beginning with Chinese men who worked in the mines of the Cariboo and then as labourers for railway building. In the early 20th century, Japanese immigrants became a significant group in the fishing industry and to a lesser extent in other forms of commerce and farming.

In the context of a predominantly British-origin population, significant Asian immigration fuelled fears about the future of British Columbia as a "white province" and about immediate economic competition. Anti-Asian riots and pressure by groups such as the Asiatic Exclusion League resulted by 1923 in legislation to curtail Asian immigration (including a closed door to the Chinese). During the Second World War continued racism led to the uprooting from coastal villages of those considered to be "Japanese," including Canadian-born residents of Japanese ancestry, and their forced relocation to internment camps.

Religion and Minority-Language Education

A great deal of educational conflict and controversy has involved religion and language. The establishment of schools brought local practice under official scrutiny and forced communities to conform to prescribed standards of formal instruction which did not accord with the reality of a diverse society.

For example, religious groups did not always agree on the desirability of nondenominational Christian curricula, and their protests led to the growth of parallel Catholic and Protestant school systems in Québec, the provision for separate schools in provinces such as Ontario, and a completely denominationally based school system in Newfoundland. These developments were legally guaranteed by the Constitution Act, 1867, which not only assigned education to the provinces but also enshrined the continued legitimacy of denominational schools that were in place in the provinces at the time that they joined Confederation.

In the context of higher levels of Asian immigration and rising prejudice, schooling developed somewhat differently on the West Coast than in the rest of Canada. One noteworthy difference was the emergence of a trend for examinations, especially the first standardized "intelligence tests" during the early 20th century. Somewhat more than provinces such as Ontario, and considerably more than Québec, educators in British Columbia seized upon "scientific" testing as an appropriate way to classify students.

The British Columbian leaders focused considerable attention on Asian students and were careful to examine test results in light of each student's ancestry. The consistent finding that Asian-origin students scored very well astounded educational officials and inspired them not only to concoct explanations based on the selective nature of immigration, but also to continue testing in the pursuit of educational "progress" for the British-origin population of the province.

Growing acceptance of public education

Changing parental strategies help explain why children were sent to school in increasing numbers and for longer periods during the course of the 19th century. The development of agrarian, merchant and industrial capitalism heightened perceptions of economic insecurity. Everyone became aware that while great fortunes could be made, they could also be lost just as quickly. The obvious insecurity of even well-paying jobs or successful businesses came to loom increasingly large in the minds of parents planning for their children. One response was to have fewer children and to invest more in their education. By the mid-19th century, many parents across English Canada were practising contraception in an attempt to raise a smaller number of children with a better quality of life. By the time compulsory attendance legislation was passed in the Canadian provinces (except Québec) during the later 19th century, only a minority of parents were not already enrolling their children in class.

Some resistance to schooling did develop, particularly from those reluctant to pay extra taxes, from those who did not approve of the local teacher, and from those who wished to maintain the connection between formal religious instruction and mass schooling. In cities, truant officers rounded up children (particularly from working-class and immigrant backgrounds) and sent them to residential "industrial" schools. However, this resistance was generally focused on the form and cost rather than the need for mass schooling; thus, compromises such as the acceptance of parochial schools (those funded by religious bodies) resolved some of the conflicts. For the most part, the attendance requirements of the compulsory laws were met well before the actual legislation was introduced.

Motivation and patterns of use

Why many parents believed that schooling would improve the prospects of their children was primarily connected to the value attributed to academic training. Unlike the emphasis of school promoters on character formation, the shaping of values, the inculcation of political and social attitudes, and proper behaviour, many parents supported schooling because they wanted their children to learn to read, write and do arithmetic.

Interestingly, the perceived value of this academic training was not necessarily dependent on finishing any particular level. While some parents sent their children to school to obtain credentials, many simply sent them whenever other priorities permitted. For example, the attendance of male teenagers declined in communities where industrial jobs were plentiful.

Similarly, children's attendance varied seasonally, particularly in rural areas, where family labour demands were the first priority. There was no neat transition from school to work at any point in growing up. Rather, many children worked and attended school with changing frequencies during the year and from year to year; and, in most cases, their final departure from school was not strongly related to the acquisition of a diploma.

The French Canadian Exception

However, French Canadians (both in Québec and other provinces) developed a generally weaker attachment to the importance of schooling. Although francophones did begin practising contraception by the mid-19th century, they did so with much less intensity than any other group. In the same way, francophone children increasingly attended school, but to a considerably lesser extent than the average elsewhere. Literacy rates among francophones remained far below the Canadian standard through the early 20th century. Overall, most francophones did not seek to raise a smaller number of children in the same way as most other groups after 1850 and before the mid-20th century.

The distinct family reproduction strategies of francophones was a result of many factors, but one important element was the continuing importance of child labour to familial economic activities. To a somewhat greater degree than other groups, francophones continued to seek material survival and security by combining the labour of family members. This strategy was not only apparent in expanding rural areas (both in Québec and Ontario), but also in wage labour settings in villages and cities. Only in the period following the Second World War would a new relationship between school and society take hold among francophones.

The Quiet Revolution

By the beginning of the 1960s, the Department of Public Instruction in Québec managed over 1,500 school boards, each with its own programs, textbooks and criteria for graduation. In many rural areas, children of different grade levels shared a single one-room schoolhouse. The Liberal government of Jean Lesage saw the need for change and appointed a major commission of inquiry of inquiry on education, which was chaired by Msgr.Alphonse-Marie Parent, at the start of what came to be called the Quiet Revolution. In response to the resulting report's recommendations the Québec government revamped the school system in an attempt to enhance the francophone population's general educational level and to produce a better-qualified labour force. Catholic Church leadership was rejected in favour of government administration and vastly increased budgets were given to school boards across the province.

The major changes to schooling in Québec were at the heart of the Quiet Revolution. Despite the reluctance of Catholic Church authorities, the Québec government portrayed educational progress as a key strategy for becoming "maîtres chez nous" ("masters in our own house"). More academically focused schooling was promoted as a "national" project; this better education would lead to economic and cultural renewal, and Québec francophones would become part of a fully modern society.

In keeping with the aspirations of the Quiet Revolution, the value of schooling for the Québécois was described in two ways. First, leaders emphasized that a legacy of high illiteracy and low attendance rates had to be rejected in order to achieve an appropriate societal level of modernity. Education was promoted as an inherently valuable possession required in contemporary civilization.

Secondly, the revamped school system was designed to produce a modern Québec society by ensuring economic competitiveness. Better skills in mathematics and science were particularly seen as an important strategy for overcoming British-origin oppression dating from the Conquest of 1763. The long-established emphasis on religion and the humanities in the francophone schools was not immediately abandoned, but their importance steadily eroded after the early 1960s.

The most controversial specific strategy was the language legislation of the 1970s, Bill 101, that insisted on French-language schooling for the children of immigrants to the province. This legislation was designed to reverse the traditional pattern in which immigrants integrated more into the anglophone than the francophone population of the province.

The promotion of educational restructuring as a national project in Québec attracted widespread support. Indeed, since the 1960s, officials and parents in Québec have supported higher-quality education with considerable enthusiasm despite massive tax increases to finance the changes.

Parents also began embracing the ambition to raise a smaller number of children in whom greater educational investment could be made. During the course of the 1950s and early 1960s, the birth rate in Québec dropped sharply, moving the provincial average from its traditional place at the highest level in Canada and the United States to a position at the lowest level. Interestingly, both religious and secular leaders in Québec opposed this trend — it threatened to decrease the relative importance of the francophone population. Despite this opposition, parents continued to limit family size to an unprecedented extent as part of their changing strategies of family reproduction.

Changing Approaches to Education Across Canada

The development of public school systems in the 19th century was marked by the standardization of textbooks, teacher training, classroom organization, and curriculum. Children were viewed as clay to be molded in desired forms, but over time a view of children as inherently distinct with varying levels of potential (that is, as seedlings that had to be cultivated according to their individual natures) came to prevail.

The changing view of children contributed to the growth of new educational programs (especially at the secondary level) designed to accommodate the differing abilities and potential of different students. Most importantly, technical and vocational courses were developed for students who were deemed unsuitable for further academic study. Not surprisingly, the criteria used for assigning children to various courses reflected cultural and social prejudices more than intellectual assessments. Measures such as IQ tests, developed by the 1920s, revealed unintentionally more about the school administrators than the students, but they were nevertheless used to place different students in different courses of study after the elementary years.

This approach has been constantly revised during the 20th century, especially after the Second World War, when the expansion of post-secondary institutions provided a new way of sorting different students into different programs. In these years, educational debate focused on the content of the appropriate curriculum for various age groups.

Religion and Language

A great deal of educational conflict and controversy has involved religion and language. The establishment of schools brought local practice under official scrutiny and forced communities to conform to prescribed standards of formal instruction which did not accord with the reality of a diverse society.

For example, religious groups did not always agree on the desirability of nondenominational Christian curricula, and their protests led to the growth of parallel Catholic and Protestant school systems in Québec, the provision for separate schools in provinces such as Ontario, and a completely denominationally based school system in Newfoundland. These developments were legally guaranteed by the Constitution Act, 1867, which not only assigned education to the provinces but also enshrined the continued legitimacy of denominational schools that were in place in the provinces at the time that they joined Confederation.

Culture and Discrimination in Education

Canada's educational history has been marked by constant conflict over minority-language education. Most controversies have involved francophones outside Québec, but recently the language question has affected Québec anglophones as well as heritage language instruction to children of immigrant groups (see Second-Language Instruction). These conflicts reflect the fact that within the general expansion of standardized public schooling, there have been competing educational visions among policymakers and parents.

Similarly, within the concept of a standard education, there has been a sharp distinction between males and females. The ideal public schoolhouse of the mid-19th century included separate entrances, classrooms and recess areas for boys and for girls. In addition, the redefinition of the family as less of an economic unit of production than an association based on emotional attachment was accompanied by the idea that girls should be educated for household responsibility while boys should be trained as breadwinners.

By the late 19th century, girls attended home economics programs to learn cooking and cleaning skills while boys, especially from working-class families, learned manual skills related to factory production. The idealization of women as wives and mothers, as well as the relative lack of other employment opportunities for women, contributed to the feminization of the elementary-school teaching force.

While the proper sphere for women was considered the home, young single women came to be viewed as ideal teachers for younger children who could benefit from their supposedly inherent nurturing qualities. Women teachers were poorly paid and were supervised by male officials who saw themselves as the real educators. Even in the later 20th century, many of the earlier patterns remained unchanged. The history of education has therefore been quite different for men and women.

Formal education also had different implications for Canadians of non-European ancestry. The ambitions of educators to encourage the assimilation of aboriginal peoples continued unchanged after the time of New France. In the 19th and 20th centuries, boarding schools were a major strategy for separating aboriginal children from their own people, but this approach only served to confuse the children culturally and damage them psychologically. (see Residential Schools)

Recently, official educators have made efforts to collaborate with aboriginal peoples in developing educational programs that respect cultural identity.

The history of Canadian education also includes the establishment in the 19th century of separate schools for blacks in Ontario and Nova Scotia and special regulations for Asians in BC. Such discrimination is no longer official policy in Canada, but more subtle and informal racism is still apparent in some educational programs and textbooks.


The history of education in Canada, as in other Western countries, has involved the growth of formal instruction funded by taxes and supervised by the state. This growth resulted from concern about cultural, moral and political behaviour, the emergence of a wage-labour economy, changing concepts of childhood and the family, and the general reorganization of society into institutions.

By the late 20th century, schooling had become part of an institutional network which included hospitals, businesses, prisons, and welfare agencies. Various groups experienced this development in different ways, sometimes by official design and sometimes by their own choice. As a result, there are many histories of Canadian education and important distinctions within the general trends.

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