Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
June 2005

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


High Schools in Canada


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

Education, Secondary. A clear picture of the development of secondary education in Canada may be had by keeping in mind four periods of history. First, up to about 1850, before wealth had become sufficiently fluid to destroy the fixity of the social classes and to necessitate a political and educational democracy, there was a period in which secondary schools were distinct from common schools as being for gentlemen's sons and for future leaders in society, notably in the church. Secondary schools of the time included church schools, grammar schools, and academies. Second, from 1850 to 1875, when trade and democracy had come into power, secondary education appeared as an extension of elementary education, usually given in the same school and even in the same schoolroom, but still a servile and rather pitiful imitation of the old grammar school type. The typical school of this period was the union school; but we shall see later that the make-shift of one building is still necessary because of Canada's scattered population. Third, from 1875 to 1900, where wealth and numbers permitted, the regular type of secondary institution became the academic high school, separately housed, but receiving as pupils graduates from the elementary schools, and offering a course primarily suited to preparation for the professions. Fourth, in recent years, since world trade has brought keen competition between nations, vocational and technical high schools have appeared and multiplied in response to national encouragement. In the article that follows, we shall first deal briefly with each type of school mentioned, except the last two, which are given separate treatment under appropriate headings elsewhere.


Church Schools.

The earliest secondary schools in Canada were those founded by the Roman Catholic church for the education of a priesthood. For example, at the beginning of the British régime, the Petit Séminaire at Quebec was offering an organized course in the classics and a variety of other subjects remarkable for the time. In the west, too, the Roman Catholic college at St. Boniface, founded in 1823, was first in the field, but the Church of England and Presbyterian missionaries founded similar institutions as soon as opportunity offered. In Quebec, foundations of this kind continued and increased in number; and the present classical colleges, chiefly for boys, under church control and offering secondary and higher education up to the bachelor's degree in arts, are the most important distinctly secondary institutions of the Catholic system in that province.


Grammar Schools.

In Upper Canada, Protestant Quebec, and the Maritimes, early schools were modelled after the classical grammar schools of England. Although often founded upon the initiative of a Church of England clergyman, such as the famous Dr. Strachan who opened his first school in Cornwall fn 1804, they were soon given state aid. Indeed, land grants and monetary support came to such schools before any provision was made for elementary education, because the training of a loyal Anglican clergy was considered by the governing classes to be the most pressing need for the stability of society. As early as 1780, when taxes were even less popular than now, a lottery was sanctioned by the Nova Scotia government to raise £1,500 for a grammar school in Halifax. Fourteen years later the school was given annual support from a tax on spirits; and in 1811 yearly grants were extended to grammar schools throughout the colony. New Brunswick made grants for a grammar school in St. John in 1805 and for schools in every county in 1816. Upper Canada in 1807 provided £ 100 yearly per school for a grammar school in each of eight districts-nine years before common schools were given support. At Quebec an English classical school was opened in 1804; and in 1816 Royal Grammar Schools were founded in Quebec and Montreal and assisted by the British government with grants from the Jesuit estates. By intention, such schools were for boys only and were meant to teach the classics and some mathematics; but actually girls had often to be tolerated, and the master spent the greater part of his time in teaching elementary subjects to pupils who had had no previous instruction. Fees and charges for board augmented the master's income. Although provision was made both in Upper Canada and the Maritimes to give free instruction to a limited number of poor children, the schools were in popular disfavour as being socially exclusive and dominated by the Church of England. It seems fair to regard the private boarding school of to-day as the successor of the grammar school. Upper Canada College, for illustration, was originally founded as a superior school of this type. Private schools, apart from Quebec, are now attended by upwards of ten thousand pupils doing secondary work.



Academies were schools founded by groups of individuals to provide a broader type of secondary education to sons and daughters of the new well-to-do middle class in the early nineteenth century. They were much more common in the United States than in Canada ; and not all the schools grouped here for convenience fit the definition in all respects. In Protestant Quebec secondary schools were founded by private initiative of this kind, especially about the middle of the century, although in course of time they came under the control of local educational authorities, as did nearly all academies everywhere. In Upper Canada such institutions as the Ernestown Academy at Bath and the Grantham Academy at St. Catharines offered not only the classics, but such new subjects as history and text-book science. The name "academy" was adopted also by the Methodists in 1841 for their school at Cobourg, which later became Victoria College, and by the Presbyterians for the Toronto Academy, which flourished about 1850. At a time when coeducation had few advocates, girls received advanced instruction in such schools as the Burlington Ladies' Academy, founded about 1845. In Manitoba in 1828 the Hudson's Bay Company sponsored a school for the daughters of gentlemen in their employ, which may be regarded as secondary by this social distinction. The company made similar attempts in Vancouver island and elsewhere.


Union Schools.

Democratic secondary education first appeared when elementary schools were permitted to offer advanced instruction and so qualify for grants formerly offered only to grammar schools. The most striking development of this movement occurred in Ontario, where in 1850 grammar school boards and common school boards were permitted to unite and form union schools. The advantage gained was that secondary education was made available in sparsely, settled districts. which could not afford to maintain separate institutions. The disadvantage was that the quality of instruction was lamentably bad, especially because the schools were forced into a futile attempt to ape democratically the traditional aristocratic, classical curriculum. Schools multiplied in response to the grants, but with teachers poorly qualified and with no definite standard for entrance into the higher grades, the instruction given was secondary only in name and by virtue of a smattering of bad Latin. The condition of the grammar schools, both in Upper Canada and New Brunswick, was equally unsatisfactory, and ambitious efforts to demand a rich curriculum from penurious schools met flat failure. This period has a particular significance because, although union schools, socalled, were abandoned in Ontario in the seventies, a somewhat similar expedient was again adopted when the great expansion of secondary education began towards the end of the century. Moreover, in practically all the rest of Canada, secondary schools are still predominantly of the union type.


" Union" Schools To-day.

Apart from Ontario, perhaps four-fifths of pupils of secondary grade are enrolled in classes attached to elementary schools. In the great majority of cases separate classrooms are provided - as in the smaller county academies, grammar schools, and high schools of the Maritimes; in most Protestant high schools of Quebec ; in the collegiate and high school departments of Manitoba ; in the continuation schools of Saskatchewan ; and in the smaller high schools of Alberta and British Columbia. A considerable number are taught in one classroom with senior elementary pupils-as in the various types of superior and intermediate schools found in all provinces.


A smaller number are enrolled in one-room rural schools. In Ontario the number of pupils in attached or continuation classes is only one-seventh of the academic secondary school enrollment. In Catholic Quebec secondary education is given chiefly in complementary schools offering two years' instruction of a vocational nature in addition to the elementary course, and in superior schools offering three further years of instruction in mathematics, science, and other subjects. The superior schools enroll far more girls than boys; for boys who intend to proceed to higher education usually enter the classical colleges upon completing their elementary education.


High Schools.

Since 1870 the type of secondary school that has come in most provinces to be regarded as desirable is the public high school - a separate institution, but an integral part of the educational ladder rising from the kindergarten to the university. It appeared in Ontario in 1871 as a democratic institution under public control, co­educational, with low fees and later free, and offering either a classical course in preparation for the university or an English course for those intending to enter some immediate vocation. Although there are differences of terminology and type in the different provinces, a few dates will mark the appearance from coast to coast of at least certain features of this type of school. In Prince Edward Island, in 1860, there was founded Prince of Wales College, which up to the present is the only separate secondary institution in that province; in Nova Scotia in 1864, county academies were made free; in New Brunswick, in 1884, grammar schools were brought under democratic local con­trol; in Quebec, in 1870, the Protestant board of Montreal took over for a time the existing high school for boys, and five years later established a high school for girls; in Manitoba, in 1882, there began to be established collegiate departments which later became separate institutions; in Saskatchewan, union schools appeared in 1889 and high schools in 1907; and in British Columbia a free high school was established in Victoria in 1876. The paragraphs that follow are descriptive of secondary education in high schools, and in high school departments, continuation schools and classes, and other types of "union" institutions previously referred to.


Centralized Control.

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of secondary edu­cation in Canada is the extreme rigidity imposed by all-powerful provincial authorities. That such centralization of control was once necessary to secure some reasonable standard of efficiency and uniformity, cannot be disputed. Provincial educational authorities assumed jurisdiction over secondary education during what has been called the union school period - in Upper Canada in 1853, and in New Brunswick in 1861. Close inspection, detailed prescriptions of curriculum, insistence upon one authorized text-book, and finally an iron-clad system of frequent examinations were found necessary to effect improvement in inferior schools. But now that most provinces are able to insist upon teachers with a university degree and professional training for their better secondary schools, it is felt that some leeway should be given to initiative in the teacher and local board.



One way in which greater flexibility is being permitted is by a reduction or relaxation of departmental examinations. Up to a few years ago there were obligatory examinations for entrance into high schools in every province, and in nearly every province departmental examinations at the end of each year of the high school course. But "entrance", except in New Brunswick and Protestant Quebec, may now be secured by the teacher's recom­mendation. Since 1920 the recommendation system has been generally extended to the lower forms of the high school, and in Ontario it is now used to exempt better students from both .pass and honour matriculation examinations. The result should be that teachers will find means to broaden the work of superior pupils.



The curriculum of Canadian high schools has been determined by university requirements for matriculation. This has been true especially since 1890, when in both Canada and the United States there was a move to unify high school courses in a mould presumably satisfactory for all pupils but really designed for university preparation. In Canada, and in Ontario particularly, the fetish among employers that the matriculation examination is the one true test of a secondary education has forced thousands of pupils to study subjects which for them have practically no value,and - what is worse - to disregard others that are really needed. Accordingly, while it is generally stated in this connection that the curriculum has broadened in the past fifty years, the truth is - if we leave vocational education out of account - that subjects of study became pretty well fixed after the acceptance of science and modern languages about 1880. There are many new optional subjects, but few pupils have the time or opportunity to study them. For example, one would expect agriculture to be a most popular subject in rural districts; yet in Ontario continuation schools it is studied by only one-fifth as many. pupils as either Latin or French, which are generally needed for matriculation. If we consider the number of pupils engaged in various studies and the time they spend on each, the chief subjects of the secondary curriculum in Canada are, in order, mathematics, foreign languages, English, science, and - as one unit - history and geography. Revision of the secondary school curriculum has, however, recently been undertaken in Nova Scotia and Ontario, and there are signs that the autocracy of matriculation will be weakened. Alberta is attempting to avoid the rigidity of a one-track course by a variety of courses and promotion by subject rather than by grade.


Other Adjustments.

The number of years in secondary school required to secure pass matriculation standard has increased in Ontario since 1870 from two to four, and a further year to secure honour matriculation or its equivalent is now necessary for entrance to the normal schools and most university courses. In most other provinces the high schools give four years' instruction in all. Thus the eight-year elementary and four-year secondary system, established in Nova Scotia in the eighties, obtains generally throughout the Dominion. As in the United States, many educationists here contend that the transition at this point makes a violent break for the pupil, who is suddenly confronted with entirely different subject matter taught, in larger schools at least, on a different plan. In British Columbia and Manitoba a new type of school, the junior high school, has been introduced to bridge the gap and to permit the pupil to find his natural bent. Where such schools exist, the elementary course is six years, the junior high school course three years, and the senior high school course three years. In justice to Quebec, which has in some respects been marked as reactionary, it must be admitted that the curriculum and established arrangement of secondary instruction obviate this problem. It may be mentioned here that entrance to secondary institutions generally is far easier of achievement than fifty years ago. At that time nearly 50 per cent. of the candidates failed in examinations, whereas now over 80 per cent. are successful. This is due in part to improved elementary instruction and in part to the belief that secondary education should be available to all. This belief in Ontario has led to an attendance law which makes two years in the high school virtually obligatory.



Between 1890 and the Great War the number of pupils enrolled in secondary schools showed an increase twice as great as the increase in population, and since then the growth has been equally remarkable. Consequently, Canada shows a proportion of pupils engaged in secondary work much higher than that in any European country and second only to the United States. Conditions are, however, by no means uniform throughout the Dominion, for Quebec and New Brunswick fall far short of the other provinces, while British Columbia and Ontario are distinctly in advance. If quality is considered, the discrepancy even within the provinces is more marked, because in rural districts it is impossible for local boards to provide either the equipment or highly qualified teachers that are found in cities and towns.


There is no general history of secondary education in Canada ; but W. N. Bell, The development of the Ontario high school (Toronto, 1918) covers one typical province.

Source  : W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. IV, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 411p., pp. 274-279.

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College