Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
June 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Elementary School education in Canada


[This article was published in 1948; for the precise citation, see the end of the document.]

Education, Elementary. Since education in Canada is under provincial control, it shows considerable diversity with regard to both present conditions and the process of development. Nevertheless, the history of elementary education may be divided roughly into four periods: up to 1815 it was left to private and religious initiative; from 1815 to 1845 it was under the local control of settlers, who received some financial assistance, but no guidance from the state; from 1845 to 1875 it was brought to a tolerable and uniform standard under central authorities in the provinces; and from 1875 to the present it has expanded and developed into the highly centralized systems that exist to-day. In the western provinces, of course, these developments were sometimes later. In the following article the various aspects of elementary educations are treated topically, but the topics are arranged as nearly as possible in historical sequence in order to give at the same time a history of elementary education as a whole.


Early Schools.

The first schools were founded by priests and missionaries of the Roman Catholic church. In Quebec the "little school" of the Jesuits began the instruction of French and Indian children in 1635. A century later the Sisters of the Congregation opened the first school in Nova Scotia at Louisbourg. As far west as Manitoba we find a missionary teaching reading, writing, and the catechism in 1818. In due course the work of elementary education in the colonies was taken up by religious and philanthropic societies of England. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts sent out a schoolmaster with Governor Cornwallis to Nova Scotia in 1749, at an exceptional salary of £ 15 and with the added inducement of a settling allowance of £ 10, which, they said, was "the greatest sum ever given by the society to any schoolmaster upon any occasion." The scarcity of money available for education led in Canada as elsewhere to the establishment of monitorial schools, in which a large number of children could be instructed by older pupils under the guidance of only one master. In the Maritimes and Quebec such schools were founded by the great English school societies, and in Ontario there was one well-known example of the type, the Central School at Toronto (1823-43). But the monitorial school was of little advantage in a sparsely settled country, and never flourished as it did in England.


Pioneer Schools.

The typical school of the early nineteenth century was the one-room log schoolhouse built and managed by pioneer settlers of the locality. It was poorly equipped even for teaching the modicum of "Readin', Writin', 'Rithmetic, and Religion" which was usually the complete curriculum. Benches without backs, a slanting board along the wall for writing, a scanty miscellany of dog-eared textbooks, quill pens and precious scraps of any sort of paper, a teacher's pulpit, a fire-place, a water-pail, and a supply of birch rods made up the educational paraphernalia. In winter the teacher was often an old or disabled soldier or a man unfit for any other occupation. In summer, when the bigger boys were working in the fields, a young woman might occasionally essay the paramount task of keeping order. Man or woman, the teacher was kept alive by "boarding around" among the parents in order and by some meagre additional emolument in cash or kind. The pupils were instructed individually, not in classes, and after four or five half-years of haphazard attendance they graduated without danger of becoming a challenge to their betters.


Local Authorities.

Such schools were regularly under the control of three elected trustees, who at first had charge not only of equipment and finance but of curriculum, text-books, and other academic matters as well. Although the latter powers have gradually been taken away, the continuance of financial control in local authorities over one school rural sections constitutes a major difficulty in present efforts to give equality of educational opportunity to Canadian children.


State Aid.

Participation by the state in education usually begins with assistance without control. In Canada the earliest grants were generally in the form of land. In New Brunswick, for example, in 1784 a plot of land was reserved in each parish to maintain a schoolmaster. But when land was plentiful and cheap, such assistance was of little value and soon it had to be supplemented by yearly grants of money. These were instituted in New Brunswick in 1802, in Nova Scotia in 1811, in Ontario in 1816, in Prince Edward Island in 1825, and in Quebec in 1829. They were intended to pay part or all of the teacher's salary - in Prince Edward Island the grant was specifically one sixth of the salary - and sometimes, as in Quebec, to defray part of the cost of buildings. They amounted for a few years to as much as £25 per school in Ontario, but generally did not greatly exceed the New Brunswick grant of £10 to each parish. State aid has now increased tremendously in the aggregate, but apart from British Columbia and Prince Edward Island, where the proportions are 39 per cent. and 60 per cent. respectively, the share of the cost of education borne by the provincial treasuries ranges only from 10 per cent. to 25 per cent. Apart again from nonurban sections in the two exceptional provinces, salaries are usually paid from funds raised locally, and state grants are applied rather to encourage higher standards, to effect specific improvements and, less effectively, to offset local inequalities by aid to poorer communities.


Central Authorities.

Inevitably state aid led to state control. Prince Edward Island appointed a provincial superintendent of education in 1837, and other provinces soon followed the example-Quebec and Ontario in 1842, Nova Scotia in 1850, and New Brunswick in 1852. By this time democracy, born of new wealth in free land and expending industry and trade, had made efficient elementary education a necessity, and the superintendents faced tasks of challenging magnitude. Tribute should be paid to men like Sir William Dawson and Alexander Forrester, of Nova Scotia, and especially to Egerton Ryerson of Ontario. Such superintendents, by investigations at home and abroad, by diplomatic legislation, and by indefatigable propaganda in speech and writing effected a revolution to establish the present school systems. Class teaching, something better than mere parrot-like repetitions of lessons, uniform textbooks, and a definite if bare curriculum appeared in the schools about 1850. The superintendents were advised by provincial boards, often called "councils of public instruction", and the two together made up the central provincial authority. Beginning with Ontario in 1876 and last evidenced by British Columbia in 1920, there has been a tendency to convert this central authority into a department of education headed by a responsible minister and advised by a permanent body of experts. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick retain the superintendent as head, and Quebec has a distinctive arrangement which will be described presently. Another tendency with regard to the central authority is to increase still further its powers, which now regularly include complete control over curriculum, textbooks, teachers' qualifications, and teacher training.


Quebec and Separate Schools.

A more distinct cleavage of racial and religious interests in Quebec makes necessary a brief separate account of education in that province. Early attempts at a unified control, such as the establishment of the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning (1818-41), met such determined resistance from the French majority that legislation passed immediately after the Act of Union definitely established the principle of separate schools in both Quebec and Ontario. In Quebec since 1846 the practice with regard to local authorities has been for the majority of voters to elect five school commissioners to manage Catholic or Protestant schools as the case may be, and for the minority to elect three school trustees to manage the other type of school if they so desire. Property taxes are levied separately upon the holdings of Catholic and Protestant school supporters, and corporation taxes are divided according to school enrolment. In 1859 there was created a central authority similarly divided, which in 1875 took virtually its present form. The provincial secretary represents education in the legislature, but his own department actually controls only technical schools, industrial schools, and similar types. The department of education has a nonpolitical head, the superintendent, and two secretaries, one English Protestant and one French Catholic. There is a Council of Education consisting of two distinct committees-one Catholic and one Protestant-which constitute virtually two separate central authorities over the schools. In Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, where separate schools exist under sanction of the B.N.A. Act, there is, of course, only one central authority.


Free Schools.

The most important battle in the history of elementary education was fought in the middle of the nineteenth century to establish the principle of local support by taxation and, consequently, free schools. The idea had been mooted long before. In Quebec, as early as 1787 a Committee of Council made this proposal, but it was inevitably defeated by religious and racial distrust. In New Brunswick an optional law permitted local taxation between 1816 and 1818, but violent resentment secured its withdrawal. Generally. opposition came from propertied men who considered it robbery that t hey should be taxed to "support other men's children" and from religious and private interests who feared a loss of privilege, but the indifference of the masses was no less serious an obstacle to the superintendents and reformers. First legislation was usually permissive, allowing the localities to tax themselves or to continue the rate-bills, or fees, on the parents of children in attendance. In Ontario, after such a law was passed in 1850, the benefits of local taxation were made so apparent that in 1871 an obligatory tax and free school law affected only a very few districts. In New Brunswick, however, with similar legislation at approximately the same dates, a mere handful of districts made the voluntary change. In Nova Scotia the government that established free schools in 1864 suffered annihilation at the next election. In Prince Edward Island local opposition was avoided by the government assuming a large proportion of the cost of education (1852). In Manitoba permissive and obligatory legislation followed in quick succession, in 1871 and 1873. In Saskatchewan and Alberta stormy scenes were enacted between 1875 and 1892 before antagonistic interests became reconciled to state-aided, tax-supported schools. Vancouver island attempted a free school system in 1865, and although the governor of the united colony of British Columbia in 1867 was of the opinion that "any man who respects himself would not desire to have his children instructed without some pecuniary sacrifice on his own part", conditions five years later made the passing of a free school Act a necessity. The reader will observe the coincidence of such legislation in nearly every province with the creation of a national democracy under Confederation. Quebec has had compulsory taxation since 1846, but the schools are not universally free. A corollary of free schools is compulsory attendance. Legislation requiring attendance, usually until the age of four teen, now exists in every province except Quebec. Ontario requires attendance up to the age of sixteen, unless the pupil has attained university matriculation standard.



One important means of increasing the efficiency of the schools was the creation of a regular system of inspection. A brief sketch of the Ontario development will show the general tendency. Prior to 1843 the schools received only occasional and haphazard visits from clergymen and other interested parties. In 1843 local superintendents were appointed; in 1846 their duties were defined; in 1850 they were paid; and in 1871 they were given full­time employment as county inspectors and required to possess the professional qualifications of a teacher of the highest grade. Quite recently their appointment has been added to the powers of the central authority.


Teachers' Certificates.

A second means of improvement has been an increasingly high standard in the requirements for teachers' certificates. In the early part of the century the most that was re­quired was that the teacher be a British subject. Rungs in the ladder of progress were as follows: a perfunctory oral examination by some local authority created for the purpose; the institution of certificates of three grades with the requirements defined generally by the provincial authority but with the examination conducted locally; written examinations set by the provincial authority, but marked locally; the assumption by the provincial authority of the right to grant certificates of higher grades; the abolition of certificates of lower grades. In brief, one may say that the average number of years of further study spent by the elementary school teacher after leaving public school has risen from zero to five in the past eighty years. Economic conditions are now forcing university graduates to seek positions in city public schools.

Teacher Training.

Perhaps the most effective means of improvement in the past eighty-five years has been teacher training. Normal schools were established in New Brunswick and Ontario in 1847, in Nova Scotia in 1855, in Prince Edward Island in 1856, and in Quebec in 1857; but for many years only a small proportion of teachers receiving certificates attended. A compromise scheme, used notably in Ontario between 1877 and 1907, gave a short training course leading to the lower grade certificates at numerous selected schools throughout the province. In the West, normal schools were established in Manitoba in 1882, in Saskatchewan in 1893, British Columbia in 1901, and in Alberta in 1905. The shortage of teachers in these provinces in the early part of the present century necessitated a short training period. This condition has been more than remedied throughout the Dominion; and a surplus of teachers possessing a year's training is the rule. The courses in the normal schools are now of a professional rather than academic character and include practice teaching in model schools. Training for teachers is now generally obligatory; and in Quebec, where not all teachers have been so trained, there are at least 29 Catholic and one Protestant normal schools.


Graded Schools.

The first step towards graded schools was achieved by the authorization of graded readers, which definitely placed the pupils of the one­room schools into "books", or grades. At the same time the length of the public school course began to increase until in the latter part of the nineteenth century it had been fixed at eight years, which is still the standard in most provinces. The second step came about the seventies, when the graded school with separate rooms for the grades became the rule in cities and towns. This improvement, however, has not extended in satisfactory measure to less populous districts. In Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta the one-room rural school is still in the great majority. Manitoba leads in the establishing of consolidated schools, graded rural schools to which children are transported from considerable distances by truck or bus; but although there are some 60 of these in Alberta, 40 in Saskatchewan, and 30 in Ontario, they are increasing very slowly in spite of their acknowledged superiority.



It is evident that only the town or city child can share to the full the more recent benefits of elementary education. Most important of these is the expansion of the curriculum, the additions to which may be listed roughly as follows: geography, 1850; history, 1860; composition, 1870; literature, music, drawing, 1880; kindergarten, 1890; and manual training, household science, nature study, agriculture, health lessons, physical training, since 1900. Committees on curriculum revision have recently been appointed in Nova Scotia and Ontario to give even greater consideration to the need of the pupil, whom progressive thought now accepts as the determining factor in education. Most provinces now have legislation which accepts the physical well-being of the child as a responsibility of the school; but in practice medical and dental inspection is carried on chiefly in the larger cities, notably Toronto and Winnipeg. The extent of the dental work done in the Toronto school clinics shows that such service is no longer being regarded as a charity, a misconception that retarded the advance of dental education a century ago. Nevertheless, it is discouraging to read of curtailments in this work, as for example in the correction of defective vision in the schools of Prince Edward Island, for economic reasons. Schools for the deaf and blind and for other differentiated groups have been established in cities from Nova Scotia to British Columbia . Correspondence courses are employed, especially in the western provinces, for adult education and for those in outlying districts; and at least four provinces have been experimenting with the use of radio, But in spite of these efforts a marked inequality of educational opportunity remains. As a significant conclusion to this brief sketch it may be mentioned that the cost of education per pupil in Canada ranges from $96 in Ontario to $41 in Prince Edward Island.


For the history of education in the various provinces, see the articles on education in Canada and its provinces, edited by A. Shortt and A. G. Doughty (21 vols., Toronto, 1914). For present conditions in each province, there are no more convenient sources than the annual reports issued by the departments of education, and the Annual Survey of Education in Canada procurable from the King's Printer, Ottawa.

Source  : W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. IV, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 411p., pp. 265-270.


© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College