The notion of public schools in Canada is relatively novel. By the turn of the 19th century, there were only 40 schools serving 160 000 French Canadians and a handful of schools designed by the Anglican Church to serve the English population through the British colonies (Axelrod, 1997, pp. 5-7). And most of the schools were in no way or form created to serve large swaths of the population. In fact since the substantive arrival of Europeans to this continent in the early 17th century, school had been a means to offer moral instruction to a handful of privileged young boys. Schooling was soulcrafting for a select and lucky few
But prior to the calculated rollout of the Indian Residential school system, schools in Canada, particularly in Upper and Lower Canada following the Constitutional Act of 1791, merely sought to educate young men to become priests, be they Anglican or Catholic. At the beginning of the 19th century, survival, not schooling, was on the minds of settlers who were coming up from the United States or from Europe. Life in rural Upper or Lower Canada was harsh and farm work demanded the whole family unit. There was an intense vulnerability to this life — a simple accident with an axe could lead to a painful and drawn out death.
But by 1840, with the political merger of French and English through Lafontaine and Baldwin’s reform movement, there was a greater demand for some form of public schooling. The rebellions a few years earlier, led by Mackenzie and Papineau, also called into question the need for a more just and democratic society that needed educated citizens — or at least fewer rebellions (Axelrod, 1997, p. 25).
And as today, the purposes for schooling differed. Historian and educator Ken Osborne argues that by mid century, “Conservatives saw schools as a force for social stability, a way of accepting their place in the world,” and Liberals envisioned school “as a basic human right, a way of preparing people for peaceful change and progress.” (1999, p. 7).
Not much has changed in current discourse. We can often get trapped in the polarizing debate between the conception of education as a pipeline into industry or as citizenship education, or as a nation-building project. The continuity of this historical exchange informs us that everyone has a stake in education, that we care deeply about it, and that we want the best for kids.
But what did change by Confederation in 1867 and the responsibility of public schools being handed to the provinces, was that through “industrialism, nationalism, and democracy,” Canada began to develop a public education system that slowly began to include more and more people (Osborne, 1999, p. 7.)
As more girls and boys were being schooled in basic literacy and religious instruction, Canada also began its genocidal practice of tearing indigenous children away from families — ushering in decades of oppression and marginalization that is still ever present in 2019. While the second article in this series will focus exclusively on the design and impact of the Indian Residential School system, it is problematic to separate it from a discussion on public schooling in this country. As indigenous leader Kevin Lamoureux argues, education was used as a weapon against the original nations of our country (2019).
But for settlers and newcomers to Canada, Confederation marked a specific time in our shared human experience where schooling and education moved from something only enjoyed by the aristocracy. Sections 92 and 93 of the British North American Act designated public education as purely provincial matter, enshrining ignoring language rights. Canadian public schooling was and is one of the only western countries that does not have a nationally regulated system — and yet somehow all provinces seem to teach very similar curricula.
Back in 1867, however, schooling was a haphazard experiment, even following the superintendency of Egerton Ryerson, who sought to develop a cohesive system of education through Canada West following the Act of Union in 1841. No two schools taught the same, teachers were ill prepared, deprofessionalized and poorly paid, and the students were subjected to religious teachings, rote memorization, and forms of direct instruction that would today seem oppressive. (Baldwin, 2008, p.77).
But what was clear was that schools, schooling, and education were no longer tightly controlled by the various churches. Ryerson and other advocates managed to snatch control and place it within the provinces and locally elected school boards. This ensured, according to political scientist Jennifer Wallner, that school systems were more responsive to the local community, that they were democratically run, and that far off administrations were not trying to manage schooling from afar (2014, p. 128).
And as the 19th century came to an end, more and more young people were included in schools. In 1867, for example, Canada had a public school enrolment of 682 000 learners; by 1915, this jumped to over 1.5 million. (Wisenthal, 2014).
As schools were becoming an option for more learners, so too did the debate over its purpose grow in intensity. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the coming of the First World War, the debate about the purposes of education began to take shape; arguments linking it to the pipeline into factories, arguments suggesting for citizenship making, and others around nation building, assimilation, and insidious systems of apartheid and genocide.
Schooling by the first decade of the 20th century was responding to the urbanization and industrialization of the country. For boys, the curriculum focused heavily on manual training and for girls it’s purpose was to imbue skills related to the home (Axelrod, 1997, p. 108). But, schools “were obliged to teach more students than ever…,” and “they were expected to enrich students’ minds, perfect their bodies, and attend to their health.” (p. 126).
Over a century later, we can celebrate that more students than ever attend our schools, that we have incredibly diverse classrooms where all are or should be included, and where the schools assume a community and societal role greater than in 1914. Schools in Manitoba and Canada have become places where educators work with families to mitigate the effects of poverty and colonialism and where outcomes, within the curriculum and beyond, are met to ensure everyone has the basic means for a decent life.
Axelrod, P. (1997). The promise of schooling: Education in Canada, 1800-1914. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Baldwin, D. (2008). Teachers, students, and pedagogy: Selected readings and documents in the History of Canadian education. Markham, Ontario: Fitzhenry and Whiteside.
Lamoureux, K. (2019, October). The Circle of Courage. Talk presented at the Seven Oaks School Division Admistrator’s Conference, Hecla Island, Manitona
Manitoba Education and Training (2019). A comprehensive review of Manitoba’s Kindergarten to Grade 12 education system. Retrieved September 26th, 2019 from https://www.edu.gov.mb.ca/educationreview/docs/public-discussion-paper.pdf
Manitoba students a year behind other provinces, finds OECD | CBC News. (2016, December 6). Retrieved September 27, 2019, from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/student-assessment-pisa-oecd-manitoba-1.3883344.
Osborne, K. (1999). Education: A guide to the Canadian school debate — Or, who wants what’s done why? Montreal: McGill Institute Books.
Wallner, J. (2014). Learning to school: Federalism and public schooling in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Wisenthal, M. (2015, July 2). Historical Statistics of Canada, Statistics Canada. Retrieved September 30, 2019, from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-516-x/sectionw/4147445-eng.htm.