Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
June 2005

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


Higher Education in Canada


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

Education, Higher. The present intellectual status of Canada, dependent as it has been so largely upon the universities, is the result, in the English-speaking eastern provinces, of several long-continued streams of influence; and in the Dominion as a whole of two confluent currents, English and French, which, like a main river and a great tributary, are easily discernible side by side, and will not intermingle within any visible reach of national life.


In the days of Bishop Laval, who founded the Quebec Seminary in 1668, the clergy adopted the educational system of the Jesuits as it was in France in the seventeenth century. From small beginnings as a Latin school organized by a priest for his own parish, has grown each of more than thirty classical colleges now affiliated with Laval and Montreal universities, under the direction of the diocesan clergy or of a religious community. All these colleges are boarding-schools and are designed primarily to recruit the ranks of the clergy, but also to educate boys for liberal and professional careers. As compared with the high schools of English-speaking Canada, they devote more attention to literary subjects and less to scientific. In the two universities professional and advanced arts studies are provided, and for post-graduate work an increasing number of their students have been going to Paris, while not a few distinguished professors from France have lectured in Montreal and in Quebec.


The history of the higher education of English-speaking Canada may be divided, for the purpose of emphasizing its leading characteristics, into three periods: (1) from the coming of the Loyalists until Confederation in 1867, (2) from Confederation until 1906, and (3) from 1906 until the present time. The first period was one in which the influences of the English, Scottish, and Irish universities were not only dominant but direct. For more than half a century nearly all the professors, except in two or three colleges, came from Great Britain, and they maintained the academic ideals and, as far as possible, the standards in which they themselves had been educated.


The first institution of higher learning was King's College, established at Wind­sor , Nova Scotia, in 1789, where it remained until 1923, when it was transferred to Halifax and associated there with Dalhousie University. If the rise of Canadian universities and the struggles that some of them barely survived are to be understood, it is necessary to keep in mind the changes which passed over higher education in Great Britain in the nineteenth century. It was the mind of the Oxford and Cambridge of pre-reform days that fashioned the earliest colleges, especially the three King's Colleges at Windsor, at Fredericton (1800), and at Toronto (1827). Scottish influence expressed itself in revolt against these, and gave birth to rival institutions for all comers irrespective of creed, Dalhousie University having been founded in Halifax in 1818, and Queen's in Kingston, Ontario, in 1841.


Such bitterness was carried over from those early days and such memories of strife, denominational and political; that it was not possible, until within the last generation, to estimate dispassionately the factors of the situation. Now these are becoming better understood, as are also the motives of the men who were at variance with one another. Two conditions must be kept in mind: (a) the earliest ruling class was loyalist, and its leaders were afraid of the republican ideas which they saw thriving on their border like a green bay-tree, (b) the only type of higher education which they believed would perpetuate their ideals was that of England. It was confined to the class which they admired, and from it dissenters were rigorously excluded. If a strong growth of this culture could be promoted, it would choke off, they were convinced, the republicanism which might spring up so easily in a pioneer country polluted with pernicious seed. What they did not take into their account was the great numerical superiority of dissent and the Scottish origin of much of the opposition. Nor did they realize the spirit of independence, unknown among similar classes in England or if known repressed, which had been created throughout the frontier settlements, or the ambition that possessed many of the people to obtain educational privileges for their families.


For several decades the process of detaching state-aided higher education from ecclesiastical control proceeded slowly, attended by political rumblings; but secularization was inevitable in the long run. Fortunately for the people of Ontario, in time financial stringency brought opponents together in the hope of getting government support.


During this period of conflict the two protagonists were John Strachan and Egerton Ryerson. The former, while he was in eastern Upper Canada, induced his brother­in-law, James McGill, to leave a large portion of his estate for the founding of a university in Montreal ; as a result, McGill University was created in 1821. In 1827 Strachan secured a royal charter for King's College in Toronto as a provincial institution under Anglican control, and when it was secularized and became the University of Toronto in 1850, he founded Trinity University without state support. Egerton. Ryerson was the outstanding figure in the much-divided opposition to Strachan in Upper Canada, and was the father of Victoria University, which, belonging to the Methodist Church, began in 1842.


During the period from Confederation until 1906, the Canadian people entered upon and developed their new heritage. Educationally, they benefited from the changes in university life in Great Britain, which were shown in an unprecedented flowering of science and learning. The University of London became a model for university reformers in Ontario, as also did in some measure the developing university and college system of Oxford and Cambridge. After long deliberations, a system of federation was worked out, first between the University of Toronto and Victoria, and later Trinity University and St. Michael's College, whereby each has become federated with the state university, but retains its own independence and atmosphere. The University of Toronto, supported by the province, provides instruction in all subjects, except the collegiate, in all faculties; it equips the library, laboratories, and professional schools; it conducts all examinations and grants degrees except in divinity. The colleges, including University College, which is under the University board of governors, are confined to arts; they teach the languages with ethics and it may be philosophy, and they receive most of the student's fee for tuition; he is under the discipline of hiss college, but is a member of the University of Toronto, from which also he holds his degree. The chief differences between the Toronto colleges and those of Oxford and Cambridge lie in the denominational control of all but the state college, in their being confined to students in the faculty of arts, and in the smaller numbers in residence. During the last generation, federation has been very successful, and has been taken as a model to some extent by the universities of Manitoba and the other western provinces.


As has been said, the cultural tradition of the older English-speaking universities of Canada comes in the main from a rich infusion of some of the best life from the universities of Great Britain ; and it is to be hoped that this contribution to the spiritual and intellectual standards of the Dominion will be maintained. In the second period, as the growth of the national spirit found expression also in education, occasionally the complaint was heard that the sons of the soil were not given an open field. But venturesome young Canadians, having returned after advanced study abroad, professed to be able to take their places alongside their former teachers, and broke the tradition. This, however, was the easier to do because they had been preceded by a few outstanding compatriots. Sir John William Dawson was principal of McGill University from 1855 until 1893. Of Scottish origin, he was born and received his earlier education in Nova Scotia , but went to Edinburgh for further study. George Munro Grant, like Dawson a Nova Scotian of Scottish origin, completed his training in Glasgow, and as principal of Queen's University from 1877 until 1903 guided it through weakness into strength. Sir William Osler, born of English parents in Ontario , received his Arts education in Trinity College, Toronto, graduated in medicine from McGill, spent some time afterwards in London, and returned to Montreal to begin his brilliant professional career in his alma mate.


Throughout the latter part of this second period, the United States became an important factor in the higher education of the Dominion. Acadia University in Nova Scotia had always been in close touch with New England; Victoria University and McMaster, in Ontario, were also influenced not a little by the neighbouring institutions; and individual American professor's were found from time to time in most colleges. But the chief influence was felt through Canadians themselves, who had gone for post-graduate study, especially to Johns Hopkins, which, opened in 1876 under the remarkable presidency of Dr. Gilman, gave American scholarship and science a. new start. Very generously the fellowships, with which Johns Hopkins and other American universities were liberally provided, were thrown open to Canadians on the same terms as to Americans, and were won by some of the best students of their time. Most of these have abundantly fulfilled their early promise by the work which they have done for their homeland. Unfortunately, however, the available positions at home were too few, and at one time there were as many as six hundred graduates of Canadian colleges holding teaching positions of a high grade in the United States .


The third period opens with the year 1906. Its leading features have been consolidation and rapid expansion. In this year, the Ontario legislature, under the premiership of Sir James Whitney passed an Act dealing with the constitution and support of the University of Toronto, which made possible the remarkable advancement of the past quarter of a century. About the same time the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta, and a little later British Columbia, established universities, modelled somewhat on the new constitution of Toronto, but with individual features taken partly from American state universities to suit local conditions. On spacious, even commanding sites, with admirable buildings and equipment, manned by professoriates of high quality, they have made astonishing progress. It is to be hoped that, after the present depression is over, they, with their older sister in Manitoba, will receive renewed generous support from their legislatures. During this period also the privately endowed universities such as McGill and Dalhousie, others with some state support such as Queen's and Western Ontario, those under denominational control, and even the provincial University of Toronto have benefited largely from gifts in the form of buildings, endowments for teaching and research, and scholarships.


The Canadian undergraduate degree in Arts has won respect at home and abroad. This has been due in no small measure to the honours system which has been derived from Great Britain, and which has hitherto differentiated the Canadian Arts course from that of the United States . In accordance with this, those students who in their latest years at school had shown aptitude for special work are allowed intensive study and receive special direction in small groups. But the general or pass student is also under oversight, and is required to make his choice of subjects from groups which are arranged so as to provide a well-balanced training.


Professional education developed similarly to that of Arts, though later, except in the case of medicine. Medicine is the oldest faculty in McGill. Its reputation is world-wide, but to-day that of Toronto stands beside it, and close followers are found in other universities both east and west. The laboratories of these faculties are finely equipped, and the leading hospitals challenge comparison with the best anywhere. The undergraduate subjects, somewhat differently arranged in different institutions, cover six years. In ail provinces but Ontario there is a professional faculty of law connected with a university, but here such legal education is still in the hands of the Benchers of the Law Society. Engineering, together with forestry, ceramics, and aeronautics, is well provided for both as regards buildings and apparatus. Agriculture is excellently cared for either in faculties or in provincial colleges. Dentistry is on a par with that of the best American schools. Colleges for the education of ministers of religion are maintained by the churches, as a rule in affiliation with the larger universities; a few denominational universities have faculties of theology. Faculties of education offer training for the higher grades of teachers. Music and the fine arts, of university quality, are in incipient but hopeful phases. Extension work is also being carried on from several centres.


One of the most marked features of the last period has been the development of research; and the solutions of some problems in medicine and in pure science have been of universal significance. Other investigations, such as those in agriculture and forestry, have been stimulated by Canadian needs. Canadian scholars have been making outstanding contributions to the historical, political and economic sciences, especially as they concern this country. Museums, the greatest of which is the Royal Ontario Museum, have received large and intelligent support.


There are now in Canada (according to the returns of 1932-3) twenty-one universities, six of them state-controlled, thirty-one classical colleges affiliated with the French-Canadian universities of Laval and Montreal, and about thirty other professional and technical colleges. In these institutions there were enrolled, in round numbers, 56,800 full-time, and 28,300 part-time students. There were 5,000 persons on the teaching-staffs; and the annual expenditure amounted to more than $18,550,000. Nearly every large city is the seat of a university, which, in the midst of the commerce and industry of a rapidly growing centre, bears witness to the things of the spirit, and is an active agency in the proclamation of idealism.


See The universities of Canada, their history and organization (Toronto, 1896), The universities of Canada, published by the Anglo-Canadian Education Committee (London, n.d.), Sir R. Falconer, Scottish influence in the higher education of Canada (Trans. Roy. Soc. Can., 1927), English influence in the higher education of Canada (Trans. Roy. Soc. Can., 1928), American influence in the higher education of Canada (Trans. Roy. Soc. Can., 1930), and Irish influence in the higher education of Canada (Trans. Roy. Soc. Can., 1935). Current statistics and information will be found in the Universities Yeas Book and in the Annual Survey of Education in Canada, published by the Dominion Bureau of Statistics.

Source  : W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. IV, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 411p., pp. 270-274.


© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College