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Canada - History & Background

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceCanada - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education


Canada, the world's second largest country, stretches 4,000 kilometers from north to south and 3,500 miles from east to west. The nation is divided into smaller governing units known as provinces and territories. Located east of the U.S. state of Alaska and north of the northernmost boundaries of the lower 48 U.S. states, Canada has 10 provinces and 2 national territories. One of those latter units, the Northwest Territory, is itself politically broken into two separate territories. The provinces are divided into the Atlantic Provinces (Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia); Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia, and the Prairie Provinces (Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan); and the territories of Yukon, Nunavut and the Northwest Territory. Nunavut (meaning "Our Land" in the Inuit language) became a separate territory from the Northwest Territory in 1999.

Canada's capital city is Ottawa, and each state and territory has a capital. Canada's legislative branch is an elected House of Commons and an appointed Senate. A prime minister serves as the government's leader. Since the Constitutional Act of 1982, Canada's constitution has been under the Canadian Parliament's own management. Previously, from 1867 to 1982, the dominion of Canada's constitution was subject to the control of Great Britain's Parliament (acting upon the request of Canada's bicameral Parliament). The roots of the Canadian educational system are found in the two countries most energetically involved in its colonial settlement and early exploitation: France and Great Britain. Though these influences were great, educators have long looked to the geography and climate of Canada as additional influences on educational development.

Since so many early schools were small—often a cabin or tiny schoolhouse—and isolated, some of the more elitist vestiges of French and British schools vanished. In their place, a school system evolved that was more attuned to life in a frontier society that trumpeted the ideals of equal educational opportunities for all. In that regard, early schoolhouses then housed both the children of poor trappers and rich merchants alike, and some characteristics of that early social democracy still clung to Canadian schools even when the population shifted to urban centers and schools consolidated and grew large (Johnson 1968). Also, Canada's proximity to the United States, particularly since the majority of the population lives so close to the U.S. northern border, has been a factor in the evolution of the nation's educational system—a system that may indeed see additional changes because of an influx of immigrants to Canada's vast land mass.

While Canada has borrowed from the United States, it is in no way a mere U.S. clone since individual sections of the nation show strong adherence to British or French traditions. Canada's native Indian peoples have developed an educational tradition drawing from American, British, and/or French education, but also with their own cultural distinctions differing from these three. However, due to immigration, the uniting features of the Internet, and modern media outlets, even sprawling Canada has acquired in many areas the so-called "melting pot" characteristics that occurred in the United States when diverse populations underwent a process of integration.

According to 2000 figures, Canada's ethnic groups are broken down into British (28 percent); French (23 percent); miscellaneous European (15 percent); Asian, Arab, or African (six percent); aboriginal Indian and Eskimo (two percent); and mixed background (26 percent). The population of people of British and French origin in Canada has dropped since 1985 when 40 percent of the total population was British and 27 percent were French.

As early as A.D. 1000, explorers from Norway landed on the shores of what would become the eastern seaboard of Canada. Unheralded Basque and Norman sailors may have arrived in the fifteenth century. Great Britain's exploration of Canada began in 1497 when John Cabot, a Venetian representing and financed by British merchants, visited the eastern coast of (the land that would become) Canada in search of riches or a shorter route to the Indies. Cabot mistakenly thought he had located an unsettled section of Asia. His explorer son, Sebastian, also mistakenly boasted that he had located the Northwest Passage through the Americas. It is likely that he sailed instead to massive Hudson Bay. Because the Cabots found neither a passage to India nor the gold the Spaniards had looted from the Incas in the southern hemisphere, English backers in time lost whatever excitement they possessed for the exploration of the New World's far north. England's former interest, however, was taken over by France until the Hudson's Bay Company generated wealth from fur trading after 1670, and the English vied for this colonial land prize. Although disappointed no waterway linked the great Atlantic and Pacific oceans, French excitement was stirred by the founding of a settlement in 1605. In 1524, France had sent the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano on a mission, and his ship traveled as far to the north as Newfoundland and as far south as North Carolina. The King of France claimed the land he explored in Canada.

The adventurer and explorer Jacques Cartier in 1524 went inland and explored the St. Lawrence River. Cartier and his men brought back furs and stories about the native aborigines they met in Kanata, a native term for "village." (Other theories as to how Canada got its name abound, but none are definitive.) The furs brought back to Europe raised hopes that other treasures might be found. The Indian tribes also inspired droves of black-robed missionaries to voyage to the New World in quest of religious conversions. Cartier's explorations brought him to sites that later would become the province of Quebec and the city of Montreal, which sprung up from an island village on the St. Lawrence River.

Since England and France saw Canada as a nation of conquest, hostilities in the late seventeenth and much of the eighteenth century erupted into numerous battles and all-out war. Hostilities ceased in 1632 when England and France signed a treaty that returned Acadia and Quebec to the French, but peace was short-lived. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, an intermittent series of battles occurred between the two great empires, England and France, for control of the northern empire. These frontier squabbles, massacres, and political wrangling culminated in the French and Indian War between 1754 and 1763. Some intellectuals in France questioned Canada's importance; the philosopher Voltaire, for example, dismissed the importance of "acres of snow."

Each nation put its generals to the test as France and Great Britain struggled for supremacy in Canada. In 1759, Quebec was wrested away from French control. Great Britain was ultimately the victor of the French and Indian War. The Treaty of Paris in 1763, among other things, ended France's claim to Canada and established Britain's supremacy. Jesuit lands and the schools on them were taken over by the British. Nonetheless, from the eighteenth through the twenty-first century, nationalistic fervor in Quebec has remained high as that province continued to embrace the customs and language of France.

In 1774, Britain passed the Quebec Act of 1774, which established Britain's Parliament as law in Canada, a political display of power much despised by the American colonies and cited as one of the causes of the American Revolution. Canada became a place of refuge for American colonists who remained loyal to King George, and these Loyalists continued to settle many years after the Revolution because they found themselves despised in America.

In an attempt to keep the peace in Canada after the successful American Revolution that drove Loyalists in great numbers to settle in Canada, the British created, out of Quebec, British-speaking Ontario (formerly Upper Canada) and French-speaking Quebec (formerly Lower Canada) in 1791. The two areas were reunited in 1841 as Canada Province, but in 1867 the British divided the newly named Dominion of Canada into the provinces of New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, and Nova Scotia. In 1869, following their purchase from the Hudson's Bay Company, the Northwest Territories were established (with Yukon splintering off as a territory in 1898). In time, separate provinces were founded as Manitoba (1870), British Columbia (1871), Price Edward Island (1873), Alberta (1905), Saskatchewan (1905), and Newfoundland (1949). Nunavut became a separate territory from the Northwest Territory in 1999, and some 85 percent of the population was located in a single city, Iqaluit.

Latter-day Canada is a land of geographic contrasts. It has great hot and frigid temperature extremes and an uneven distribution of natural resources and lands suitable for settlement or farming. A great disparity exists in wealth generated by some sections of the country as opposed to others, allowing the wealthier sections such as Ontario to provide educational services, up-to-date technology, and higher teacher salaries more readily. In July of 2000, Canada's population was 30,750,087. With fewer people in all Canada than residing in the single U.S. state of California, the nation ranks as one of the world's more sparsely settled countries. Its unemployment rate was 7 percent in April 2001.

Unlike the United States, Canada conducts a census twice a decade, sending questionnaires to citizens in years ending in a "1" or "6." Thus, unless otherwise specified, data contained here refers to information obtained in the 1996 census. The 1996 census provided a comprehensive look at the aggregate educational attainments of Canada's citizenry by highest degree. Of 22,628,925 citizens 15 years of age or older, 8,331,615 had neither degree nor diploma, 5,217,20 had a secondary school diploma, 525,560 had a community college degree or other certificate below bachelor level, 1,979,460 had a bachelor degree, 501,505 had a master's degree, and 103,855 had an earned doctorate in 1996. These numbers represented a significant gain in one decade. In 1986, of the 19,634,100 people 15 and older, 9,384,100 had neither degree nor diploma, 3,985,820 had a secondary school diploma, 381,580 had a community college degree or other certificate below bachelor level, 1,254,250 had a bachelor degree, 293,335 had a master's degree, and 66,955 had an earned doctorate degree.

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