Foundations of Education


Article #2 on the history of Ontario education.

History of Ontario Education: Article #2

Author: Julie Mathien, Graduate Student, OISE/UT (2001)

The last half of the 19th century saw the industrialization and urbanization of Canada. Throughout this period, people shifted from the countryside to towns and cities and changed occupation from (usually) self-employed agricultural work to employment in service or industry. By 1891, just over half of Canada's population was engaged in non-agricultural pursuits (Census of Canada, 1890-1891).

Furthermore, the new work was no more stable than the old pursuits. In describing the period, James Struthers writes, "in hindsight, we know that the steam revolution in transportation and industrialization fractured local labour markets, accelerated the dependency of the population on wage labour and provoked a vast upsurge in labour mobility and cyclical fluctuations in labour demand, a phenomenon that we now call 'unemployment’" (Struthers, 1996, p. 2). Despite overall economic growth, recessions were a feature of each of the last three decades of the century and a full recession started in the early [18]90's and continued until 1900.

The cities were the crucible of social change. They were the growth areas, the sites of the new services and industries and the places where social critics perceived the effects, positive and negative, of the new economic order. Moreover, Michael Piva cites Toronto's economic preeminence among all of the nation's cities when he states that it stood at "the centre of Canada's industrial economy." Toronto's growth in both capital and gross and net value of production between 1900 and 1921 was both impressive and steady (Piva, 1979, p. 5).

Many citizens, including those influential in areas like education and religion, had decidedly mixed feelings about the rapid growth and change taking place around them. They were exhilarated by the vitality and prosperity that expansion provided. However, the rapid pace of the progress and the changes that it generated left them with the sense that they were losing control over the ability to direct the course of society.

The changes that industrialization brought to the lives of working people were accompanied by changes in family occupations, education and schools, English Canadian Protestantism and, finally, early in the 190û's ethnic demographics due to an upsurge in immigration. All of these shifting strands of influence changed the ways in which society, families and institutions approached childhood and child rearing. While it is always dangerous to attribute cause and effect in complex situations that persist overtime, the strands are interrelated. As well, they shift within themselves and relative to each other. All are part of a multi-layered social reform process that gained momentum in Canada after 1850 and was in full swing by 1900.

In this period, the Canadian family changed from a unit where most members were involved in production (mainly farming) from an early age to a group organized around wages earned outside the home. The public utterances regarding the treatment of children both in and outside the home became more frequent and promoted an ordered, gentle approach rather than harsh discipline.

Education in Ontario, and particularly in urban areas like Toronto, moved from a service that had all of the indicators of underdevelopment (e.g., lack of universal coverage, inadequate physical infrastructure, haphazard staffing) to a system with public funding, purpose-built facilities, prescribed curricula and textbooks, an emphasis on learning through discovery and provincially-mandated teacher training and qualifications. By 1871, every child had to attend for at least part of the year until age 12.

Concern about the effects of industrialism had given rise to social reform movements on a number of fronts, including Protestantism in prominent English-speaking societies like Canada. New science, especially Darwinism with its emphasis on change and orderly progress, influenced philosophy and religion by introducing the notion of perfectibility.

One of the points of convergence for all of these strands was the increased attention paid to children and childhood. The fear that the new economic and social order might destroy the perceived social unity of the past heightened and the new idea that perfectibility was possible gave momentum to the desire[d] evident in religious and educational reform efforts to influence (and, at times, control) socialization during childhood. Alison Prentice writes, "the movement to send all children to school was, above all, a movement to bring sanctity and order to human affairs” (Prentice, 1977, p. 25). Reform efforts focussing on children were also preventative in nature in that they were often an attempt to provide guidance before the corrosive influences of the (mainly urban) environment could reach them.

By the end of the century, the betterment of childhood had become a societal preoccupation. Manifestations of this preoccupation, such as the articulation of new approaches to child rearing, school systems, child labour laws and recreation and playground programs, regulated childhood, making it public and organized in ways that it had never been. Neil Sutherland identifies Toronto as the major location for childhood reform. Although working class families participated in reforms, especially through the labour movement which was gaining strength in urban workplaces, Sutherland maintains that, "a host of middle class city dwellers, with Toronto in the lead, first expressed the new ideas on childhood and family life and organized the many associations, campaigns and the like which tried to put the theory into practice" (Sutherland, 1976, p. 16).


Census of Canada. (1890-1891). Volume 4.

Piva, Michael J. (1979). The Condition of the Working Class in Toronto - 1900-1921. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.

Prentice, Alison. (1977). The School Promoters: Education and Social Change in Mid-nineteenth Century Upper Canada. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

Struthers, James. (1996). Can Workfare Work? Reflections from History. Ottawa: Caledon Institute of Social Policy.

Sutherland, Neil. (1976). Children in English-Canadian Society: Framing Twentieth Century Consensus. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

CREDIT: Excerpted from: Mathien, Julie (2001). Children, Families, and Institutions in Late 19th and Early 20th Century Ontario. Toronto: OISE/UT. Masters Thesis. URL: