Foundations of Education


Article #1 on the history of Ontario education.

History of Ontario Education: Article #1

Author: Xiaobin Li, Professor, Faculty of Education, Brock University (2015)

Before the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) between France and England, most European settlers in today’s Canada were French and British, but the French controlled a larger area and called this area New France (Conrad & Finkel, 2006, p. 141). In the Seven Years’ War the British defeated the French. As a result, New France became part of British colonies in North America. Today the largest Canadian ethnic group is of British origin and the second largest group is of French origin (Statistics Canada, April 7, 2011). Article 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is part of Canada’s Constitution, guarantees French Canadians’ right to have their own schools in each province, where instruction is provided in French (the Constitution Act, 1982). In addition to the 12 French district school boards in Ontario, to promote mutual understanding between English Ontarians and French Ontarians, core French is an obligatory component of the provincial curriculum in all English district school boards. French immersion programs have been established in English school boards in response to local parents’ demand where instruction is provided in French to English speaking children.

Before 1867 two publicly funded school systems had been established in Ontario: one for the majority Protestants and the other for the minority Catholics. The men who struck the compromise that created the Confederation of Canada recognized that there would be no Canada unless Quebec Protestants and Ontario Catholics were guaranteed their own minority schools (Borst, 2007). Canada started as a country with only four provinces: Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick (Conrad & Finkel, 2009). In 1867 most non-aboriginal residents in these four provinces were practicing Christians and they were mainly of two denominations: Protestants and Catholics. In Ontario, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, Protestants were the majority, but in Quebec Catholics were the majority. Most schools provided religious instruction. Protestants in Quebec and Catholics in Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick wanted their own schools so that their children would not be subject to instruction by teachers of the majority denomination. This right of having denominational minority schools was protected by section 93 of the Canadian Constitution (The Parliament of the United Kingdom, 1867). The Protestant school system in Ontario later became the public school system the majority of children go to.

The first Ontario school, a private one, was opened in 1798 in Toronto. In 1807 the Public Schools Act was passed at the provincial legislature, establishing eight public schools in the province (Ross, 1896). For each of the school a teacher was appointed, to whom $400 was paid as his annual salary by the provincial government. The Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario appointed five trustees for each school, who were responsible for making rules for the good government of the school (Ross, 1896).

In 1816, the Common Schools Act was passed, dividing the province into eight districts each with a board of education, which depended on locally elected trustees for all their information. One principal provision of the Act was that the inhabitants of a town, or place were authorized to meet in public assembly, and as soon as they had built a suitable school house and were able to show that 20 children were likely to attend the school, they were to elect three persons to act as trustees of the school, with authority to appoint a teacher. The trustees were authorized to select textbooks and to make rules and regulations for the good government of their schools. No provision was made for levying rates upon property for the maintenance of the school. All sums required over and above the government grant had to be raised by voluntary contributions. The Common Schools Act of 1816 was the first attempt to provide for the education of all children (Ross, 1896).

In 1823 a general board of education was created for the province to direct and manage all schools and lands for education (Walker, 1971). The 1841 Union Act, of which the Education Act was a part, stated that Ontario would have a chief superintendent of education and all education was to be in his hands. Municipalities were to collect their own taxes to run schools (Walker, 1971). The Education Act provided more grant for education, but municipal councils were empowered to raise money by assessment for school purposes to match the government amount and municipal councils for districts were constituted boards of education. Every pupil was to pay a monthly fee of 25 cents, but in each district 10 or fewer pupils from poor families were provided free education. The religious minority, whether Catholic or Protestant, had the right to establish their own school and to receive from the municipal treasurer the due appropriation according to the number of pupils. The legislature declared that locally elected school trustees were authorized to tax the inhabitants for the maintenance of schools and these trustees were entrusted all matters affecting schools. Although a monthly fee was chargeable upon pupils, a great advance was made toward free education (Ross, 1896).

After Egerton Ryerson became the superintendent of education in 1844, he promoted education for all. He believed that people should collect their own taxes, build their own schools, hire teachers and provide for their salary. Government aid should be given only when necessary and where it would benefit most. The state should be responsible for educating all children, and education should be made compulsory (Walker, 1971). Ryerson aimed at establishing a free, universal, and compulsory education system for all Ontario children (Guillet, 1960).

In 1846 a new Education Act was passed. One important provision was that the superintendent of education was to see that the school appropriation was properly distributed (Walker, 1971). The Act was amended in 1850, giving permission to any school section to determine whether the school should be maintained by a monthly fee from the pupils in addition to a tax upon the ratable property of the section, or whether all bills should be abolished and the schools declared free. The effect of this permission was to lead to the gradual adoption of free schools. In 1871 the School Act was passed, declaring free schools by statute (Ross, 1896).

The School Act was amended in 1876 to establish an Education Department. By the end of the 19th century every school in rural areas had a board of trustees with three elected trustees and for urban schools each ward had two trustees (Ross, 1896). Education was mainly funded by local tax payers. In 1940 the Minister of Education objected to the suggestion by the Ontario Education Association to pay 50 percent of educational costs (Guillet, 1960).

Before the 1960s there were over 3,000 school boards in Ontario, which were governed by trustees elected in municipal elections. The number of school boards was reduced to about 170 in the late 1960s (Anderson & Ben Jaafar, 2003). School boards exist to operate schools and to act as intermediaries between the provincial government and local needs and concerns. Although they are corporations, their powers and duties are conferred on them by the provincial legislature and the government.

Before the current funding formula was introduced in 1998, Ontario’s education funding model was a guaranteed tax-base grant plan in which local municipalities and the provincial government determined revenues for school boards (Lawton, 1996). Under that plan the grants from the provincial government had an equalizing effect; but there were significant differences in funding per pupil among different school boards because of the variation in wealth among municipalities. Historically, school boards had exclusive authority for levying education property taxes (Garcea & Munroe, 2014) and they had the power to decide how to pay their teachers. When the funding was not enough, they could approach their corresponding municipal councils to increase education tax. In 1997 local support to education was greater than that from the province (Gidney, 1999).


Anderson, S., & Ben Jaafar, S. (2007). Policy trends and tensions in accountability for educational management and services in Canada. Alberta Journal of Educational Research. v.53.2, pp. 207-227.

Conrad, M., & Finkel, A. (2006). History of the Canadian Peoples, Volume I. (4th edition). Toronto: Pearson Longman.

Conrad, M., & Finkel, A. (2009). History of the Canadian peoples, Volume II. (5th edition). Toronto: Pearson Longman.

Garcea, J., & Munroe, D. (2014). Reforms to funding education in four Canadian provinces. Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy. v.159.

Gidney, R. (1999). From Hope to Harris: The Reshaping of Ontario’s Schools. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Guillet, E. (1960). In the Cause of Education. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Lawton, S. (1996). Financing Canadian Education. Toronto: Canadian Education Association.

The Parliament of the United Kingdom. (1867). The Constitution Act, 1867. (The British North America Act, 1867).

Ross, G. (1896). The School System of Ontario. New York: D. Appleton and Company.

Statistics Canada. (2014). Ethnic Origin (247). July 14.

Walker, A. (1971). History of Education in Ontario, 1791 – 1841. (Master’s thesis). Available at University of Toronto Library.

CREDIT: Excerpted from: Li, Xiaobin. (2015). Ontario education governance 1995 to the Present: More accountability, more regulation, more centralization? Journal of International Education and Leadership. Volume 5.1. License: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 4.0 Unported License. URL: