Foundations of Education


Chronicles the development of public schooling in Ontario from the 1790s to Post-Confederation.

Graded Tasks

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Focus #2: Education in Upper Canada I

CREDIT: The text below is excerpted from: Robson, Karen L. (2019). Sociology of Education in Canada. Toronto: Open Library Press Books, pp. 57 - 63. License: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. URL:

1790s - 1850s

The first government effort toward publicly funding schools dates to the late 1790s, when the Legislative Council and House of the Assembly of Upper Canada requested from the King of England that land and funds be given to the establishment of schools and a university (Di Mascio, 2010) - a request that was honoured. In 1799, acts were passed that guaranteed technical education to orphaned children and also required that teachers be certified (Di Mascio, 2010)…

…In 1807, the District School Act signalled the first official action in government-aided schooling. The act allocated one school to each district; however, it also required the payment of tuition (Di Mascio, 2010). Tuition meant that education would not be available to all children due to lack of financial means. Critics argued that this arrangement was reserved for the rich and that these schools resembled the elite grammar schools found in England. Critics called for a true system of common schooling that would be available to all…

…The War of 1812 between Canada and the United States sidetracked discussions of education until 1815. In 1816, however, the Common School Act was passed, which was the first major step in providing mass schooling for the “common” people in Upper Canada. This act provided a grant to each of the 10 districts and also created boards of education within each district, which were to be responsible for textbooks, courses, and establishing school rules. As well, within the district, any community that had 20 or more students could establish a school that would have three trustees who would be responsible for hiring and firing teachers. There was great uptake in requests for government-aided schools - so much so that the government requests outweighed the financial resources available from the government (Di Mascio, 2010), resulting in a bill that was passed in order to slow the growth of these schools.

In 1840, the two Canadas (Upper and Lower) were combined into the United Province of Canada. The School Act for the United Province of Canada of 1841 was passed shortly thereafter, which created non-denominational public schools for Upper Canada that were not oriented toward any particular religion. Publicly funded Protestant and Catholic schools were created for [the] residents of Lower Canada. A compulsory taxation system was also introduced to levy school taxes.

In addition to the common school, there also existed voluntary schools, which were mostly located in large urban centres and financed by private tuition fees (Gidney and Millar, 1985). Prior to the 1840s, these types of schools were varied in their offerings - some were select academic schools serving the elite, while others were day schools offering education to anyone who could afford the modest fees. After 1840, however, voluntary schools became almost exclusively associated with boarding schools attended exclusively by members of the upper social classes. Others went to “common schools.”

The difference between the common school and the voluntary school was also associated with the idea of “respectability” (Gidney and Millar, 1985). Many viewed education as the responsibility of parents, although the grant-aided common schools were tainted with the stigma of being “charity” schools suitable only for those students whose parents were not able to properly provide for their children. “Mixing” with such children also carried the reputation of being inherently risky as common schools were catering to the lower classes, who might somehow sully the children of the middle and upper classes with their lack of “proper” upbringing. As documented by Gidney and Millar (1985), the voluntary sector’s private venture schools (i.e., schools being run as businesses by one or more individuals) became extremely unstable due to the reliance on fees and the teacher’s need to earn a living as well as provide the physical resources and space for the school to take place. If a family needed to withdraw their children from a school due to financial hardship, this could have the unintended consequence of putting a school at risk of closure. In addition to private venture schools, joint stock or proprietorial voluntary schools also existed. These schools were run by trustees, usually on the behalf of a denomination, and were funded through donations or shares. These types of voluntary schools also suffered from financial instability.

Egerton Ryerson became chief superintendent of education in Upper Canada in 1844 - a position he held for 32 years. Ryerson is widely regarded as the most influential person behind creating the public school system that we know in Canada. He was a minister, educator, and political figure in Canada, who studied educational systems around the Western world in order to design one that he thought most appropriate for Canada. In 1846, Ryerson drafted a bill that became the Common School Act - the first major piece of education-related legislation in the history of Upper Canada. This act was particularly important because it detailed the organization of the school system as it had never been described before. The act designated schools for teacher training and designated a superintendent for each school district who would be responsible for examining schools on an annual basis and ensuring that they met the standards for the federal grants they would be receiving. The way in which school trustees were to be elected was also detailed. It also levied a rate bill or a school tax on the parents of all children of school age. Ryerson also recommended a series of approved textbooks, adding that schools that used alternative textbooks not approved by the new provincial board of education would not receive financial aid. Also, the Common School Act included a clause that assured “protection of children” from being required to participate in [any] lesson or exercise of a religious orientation that the parents found objectionable (Hodgins 1894).


In 1850, Ryerson passed a second Common School Act, which allowed school tax to be levied on all property. Prior to this, tax was collected only from families with children. This act also provided for the free admission of all children to schools. A series of acts passed in the 1850s created the foundation of the public provincial education system we see today in Ontario (Young and Bezeau, 2003). Another act passed in 1871 made school attendance compulsory for children between the ages of 8 and 14, and “common schools” were renamed as “public schools.”…

…Grammar schools existed along with common schools and functioned as a type of secondary education, where classics (i.e., Greek and Latin) were taught along with more advanced English (Gidney and Lawr, 1979). Girls were also attending grammar schools in increasing numbers (although the schools had been originally created only for boys). Legislation passed in 1853 (the Grammar School Act) specified the subjects (e.g., English, Latin, arithmetic, history) that were required to be taught, and grammar school was considered to be a “preparatory” school for the university-bound and a “finishing school” for the much larger group of non-university-bound pupils (Gidney and Lawr, 1979). Grammar schools also received government funding, although the fees associated with grammar schools compared to common schools would have been notably higher. People of all classes - upper, middle, and lower (when possible) - attended the grammar school. The grammar school, teaching much the same content as the common school, had much more status because it gave a classical education…

…In the mid-1850s, separate schools (Catholic) also gained status as permanent school boards in Upper Canada, after years of struggle by the Catholic minority in the province.

Confederation in 1867 and Section 93

Confederation occurred in 1867, creating a country comprising the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. The British North America Act became the constitution of the new country and contained an important section pertaining to matters of education…It is in this historic act that matters of education become a provincial, not federal, issue and where the rights of denominational schools - where they existed prior to Confederation - would be protected.

Section 93 of the British North America Act

In and for each Province the Legislature may exclusively make Laws in relation to Education, subject and according to the following Provisions:

1. Nothing in any such Law shall prejudicially affect any Right or Privilege with respect to Denominational Schools which any Class of Persons have by Law in the Province at the Union;

2. All the Powers, Privileges and Duties at the Union by Law conferred and imposed in Upper Canada on the Separate Schools and School Trustees of the Queen’s Roman Catholic Subjects shall be and the same are hereby extended to the Dissentient Schools of the Queen’s Protestant and Roman Catholic Subjects in Quebec;

3. Where in any Province a System of Separate or Dissentient Schools exists by Law at the Union or is thereafter established by the Legislature of the Province, an Appeal shall lie to the Governor General in Council from any Act or Decision of any Provincial Authority affecting any Right or Privilege of the Protestant or Roman Catholic Minority of the Queen’s Subjects in relation to Education;

4. In case any such Provincial Law as from Time to Time seems to the Governor General in Council requisite for the Execution of the Provisions of this Section is not made, or in case any Decision of the Governor General in Council on any Appeal under this Section is not duly executed by the proper Provincial Authority in that Behalf, then and in every such Case, and as far as the Circumstances of each Case require, the Parliament of Canada may make remedial Laws for the due Execution of the Provisions of this Section and of any Decision of the Governor General in Council under this Section.

Post-Confederation Ontario

In 1871, the Ontario School Act was passed, which legislated that free, compulsory elementary schooling in government-inspected schools was to be provided for all. This act also transformed grammar schools into two types of high schools - ones that focused on classical instruction (which included English grammar, composition, Greek, Latin, history, literature, trigonometry, algebra, and natural history), called collegiate institutes, and high schools, which offered classical training but also had a track for an “English course” that focused on natural sciences and “practical” topics instead of the classics (Gidney and Lawr, 1979). By the mid-1870s, however, school inspectors did not believe that the two streams could be maintained and the two programs became blended into a single one. Changing attitudes toward the importance of a classical education in an age where science knowledge was becoming more important eventually led to the recasting of collegiate institutes into first-class, well-equipped and well-staffed urban high schools by the end of the century.

The Ontario Schools Question became a major political issue in Ontario in the early 1900s. Instead of focusing on denomination, this conflict was language-based, pitting both English Catholics and Protestants against Franco-Catholics. English was made a mandatory subject in 1885, and five years later this was extended to making it the language of instruction, except under specific conditions where this was not possible. In 1910, Franco-Ontarians organized to promote French-language interests, which was met with much hostility. In 1912, Regulation 17 was issued, which limited French instruction to the first two years of elementary schooling, and was further amended in 1913 to allow one hour of French instruction per day. The reaction to these laws escalated into a political crisis and Regulation 17 could not be enforced. It was not until the late 1960s that legislation was passed to permit instruction in French at the elementary and secondary levels (Oliver, 1972).


DiMascio, Anthony. (2010). Educational discourse and the making of educational legislation in early Upper Canada. History of Education Quarterly. 50(1), pp. 34–54.

Gidney, R. D. and Lawr, D. A. (1979). Egerton Ryerson and the origins of Ontario secondary school. Canadian Historical Review. 60(4), pp. 442–465.

Gidney, R. D. and Millar, W. P. J. (1985). From voluntarism to state schooling: The creation of the public school system in Ontario. Canadian Historical Review. 66(4), pp. 443–473.

Hodgins, J. George. (1894–1910). Documentary History of Education in Upper Canada. (28 Volumes). Toronto: L.K. Cameron.

Oliver, Peter. (1972). The Ontario bilingual schools crisis, 1919–29. Journal of Canadian Studies. 2(1).

Young, David and Bezeau, Lawrence. (2003). Moving from denominational to linguistic education in Quebec. Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy. 24.

Provincial vs. Federal Control Over Education

In preparation for your seminar this week, write out an answer to the following question. Your TA may call on you to share your answer in the seminar:
Q6.3: K-12 education is exclusively a provincial responsibiity in Canada. The federal government has virtually no role. Would it be better if Canada had a national system of K-12 education that was country-wide? Why or why not? (Answer Length: 100 - 150 words | Format: Sentences)
Potential Seminar Question