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Canada - Educational System—overview

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


Canadians historically have believed that formal education should turn out not scholars so much as educated citizens capable of achieving and sustaining useful, self-sufficient lives (Johnson 1968). The educated citizen is therefore ideally equipped to use his knowledge to benefit his community and nation.

The ideal of a unified school system is one that evolved over time, since originally the French and British cultures generally founded schools unlike each other's.

In what would become the province of Quebec, the growth of towns was very slow in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The missionaries who served the children of the merchants, traders, and farmers first began their work in 1616. In the next 15 years, Jesuit missionaries also turned their talents to the education of native Indian children. The Jesuit order also founded a small college in colonial Quebec, creating a campus on lands designated for that purpose by the French crown.

Perhaps the low-water mark in the education of Canada's citizenry occurred in the areas once known as New France after the French defeat by Britain in 1763. The driving out of the French governors ended years of financial support for church schools in the form of grants. Worse, many of the teaching clergy and French missionaries elected to return to Europe or take assignments outside Canada following the defeat. In Quebec, accounts of the day by travelers report an astounding number of Canadians unable to read or write well into the nineteenth century.

The alarming number of illiterate children and adults in Canada during the nineteenth century spurred reform attempts among educators that recommended the creation of nondenominational elementary and secondary schools open to the young of all religious sects. Around the fourth decade of the nineteenth century, many provinces arranged the construction of public, tax-supported schools to be overseen by government-connected boards or education departments. Decade after decade, province by province, these nondenominational schools became the primary institutions designated for public moneys. Some remnants of the past continue to be changed. In 1998, for example, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador revamped some existing Pentecostal schools into a school system regulated by nondenominational guidelines.

Canada's prime minister and ruling government are involved tangentially in the running of schools. The government budgets grant moneys for postsecondary education, vocational training for the adult populace, and second language training to meet the goals of a nation committed to bilingualism. Government moneys assist with student loans, as well as meeting the needs of Indians pursuing an education, the education of those serving in the armed forces, and schooling and vocational training for those undergoing rehabilitation in federal prisons.

In May of 2001, in spite of strong objections from officials in the Ontario Department of Education, the provincial government recommended a measure that would give financial relief to parents of private school children in the form of a hefty tax credit (similar to vouchers in the United States) with a cap of $3,500. By June of 2001, public meetings between government officials and parents of public and private school children had deteriorated into name-calling sessions, making the educational issue one of the most controversial in Ontario's history of education.

The country of Canada also traditionally has differed province to province in the administration of rural schools, many single-room schoolhouses harboring several grade levels. A 1998 oral history report by education faculty member Barbara Mulcahy of Memorial University of Newfoundland reported that two-thirds of all Newfoundland and Labrador schools were classified as single-room schoolhouses. She cites the Report of the Royal Commission on Education and Youth in 1967 that found this percentage reduced to less than one-third. By 1998, there were but three such schools in existence, according to Mulcahy's research.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, educators recognized a wide disparity in the greater amount of moneys that the United States was spending on its educational system as compared to what Canada spent. This was remedied in the late 1960s when Canada expenditures by the government surpassed even the amounts spent by the governments of the United States and Sweden. As occurred in the United States, Canadian provinces began to consolidate smaller schools into larger school districts. However, as Canada faced hard economic times in the 1970s through 1990s, many school districts struggled to meet expectations of the highest educational standards while facing budget cuts and the need for costly educational equipment such as computers.

Nonetheless, according to a 1999 United Nations survey, in spite of Canada's struggling economy, the nation devoted 7 percent of its gross national product (GNP) to education, which was second only to Norway with 7.5 percent of its GNP devoted to education. The United States trailed Canada at 5.4 percent of its GNP devoted to education. In the late 1990s, wide public attention was directed toward Canada's Fraser Institute as it collected data on Alberta and British Columbia kindergarten through twelfth grade private, public, and separate school systems, providing statistics that showed where schools are exceeding expectations and where they are failing. In 2000, Quebec schools were also given report cards, followed by Ontario in 2001. By 2001, the system also offered comparisons over a five year period to indicate where schools have made improvements or where conditions have deteriorated. Provincial ministries of education provided information. The report cards have received wide praise from the public and some condemnation from educators and government leaders, particularly in Ontario, that claim some data analyzed was flawed, leading to lower rankings by some schools. In general, however, school critics have insisted that test scores by Canadian students ought to be higher, a complaint frequently heard in other industrialized nations such as the United States.

Enrollment: Enrollment in elementary and secondary schools combined rose from 5,141,003 in 1990 to 1991 to 5,386,301 in 1997 to 1998. During the 1990s, the year of greatest enrollment was 1995 to 1996 when 5,430,836 children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools across Canada. By 1998-1999, the number had dropped to 5,369,716.

Of the 22,628,925 persons that are 15 years of age or older living in Canada, 2,801,280 attended school at one level or another full time, according to the 1996 census. Another 1,167,820 attended part time. This represented only a slight change from 1991 census figures. Of the 21,304,740 persons at least age 15 living in Canada, 2,537,715 attended school full time and 1,243,450 part time.

Technology in the Schools: Canadian politicians have long said that the Internet seemed made for Canada as an important way to link its outer provinces and territories. In 2001, a spokesperson for the Canadian government claimed that Canada boasted the highest percentage of population using the Internet in the world. Quickly putting emphasis on wiring the schools, Canada as a nation succeeded in linking every school and library to the Internet in the 1990s. Even in remote provinces, Canada's schools have vowed to have one computer for every five students by 2005. It has more computers in households than any other country. Canada's universities, though few in number, are the envy of most industrialized countries in quality of computer technology programs.

Compulsory Education: Canada's primary and secondary public school system is co-educational and paid for by the Canadian government. Canada is one of the many nations signing a United Nations resolution guaranteeing children the right to an education. Compulsory education laws, by province or territory, generally decree that children attend school from 6 or 7 years old until they are 15 or 16 years old.

About one-half of all Canadians have a high school graduation certificate. Individual provinces can also require certain classes to be taught. In Ontario, compulsory classes include Grade 7: History and Geography; Grade 8: Geography; and Grade 10: Canadian History in the Twentieth Century. In all provinces, physical education is mandatory from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Following lobbying attempts by Canadian war veterans who expressed shock at student ignorance about their country's participation in World War Two, the province of Nova Scotia made Canadian history mandatory in grade 11.

In 1871, Canada's first compulsory attendance statute was passed in Ontario. By 1890, nearly all provinces and territories followed Ontario's lead as many legislators were upset by an alarming increase in child labor in factories.

Because so much of Canada consists of remote outposts and homesteads, particularly in the nineteenth century, territories and provinces have recognized the right of parents to home school their children as an alternative to school-based classes. Generally, the parent applies to a provincial Department of Education officer to seek permission to home school and for an exemption from compulsory schooling in a classroom.

Minority Education: After the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which allowed or even required police officers and citizen trackers to return escaped slaves to their "owners" after capture, many slaves and their children crossed the northern border to begin anew in Canada. Religious organizations, most prominently the Colonial Church and School Society, welcomed children—black or white—into its schools.

Canada took a little longer to provide for the educational needs of Indians and mixed culture peoples known as métis who were at loose ends in the nineteenth century with the reduction in buffalo herds and fur-bearing animals. Acting on the recommendation of Catholic religious leaders in the territories, the government began to establish residential schools in the 1880s.

In the twentieth century, Indian schools in the Northwest Territories came under the management of the Federal Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development's Education Division under a superintendent. The Canadian government maintained these schools, open to other races under different budgetary line items.

As of 2001, the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND) funnels educational grant moneys to First Nation education authorities. Moneys pay for the expenses needed to operate First Nation reserve schools run either by the federal government or First Nation tribal authorities. The government also pays for the tuition and many incidental costs of on-reserve students that choose to attend provincial schools.

In 1997, founding members of the First Nations Adult and Higher Education Consortium (FNAHEC) created a charter. Numerous Indian schools of higher learning were represented, among them Blue Quills First Nations College, Maskwachees Cultural College, Nakoda Nation Post-Secondary Education Center, Red Crow Community College, and Old Sun Community College. According to a FNAHEC position paper on the Internet, FNAHEC exists "to provide quality adult and higher education, controlled entirely by people of the First Nations"' tribes. FNAHEC was modeled after the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), but it contains its own distinguishing characteristics.

As the mission statement of the University of Saskatchewan Native Studies Department states, today's academic research involving aboriginal peoples strives to end a long-standing parasitical exploitation system between non-Indian researchers and their subjects. Instead of past "intellectual colonialism, today's researchers attempt to carry out studies and uncover data in a way that is both intellectually and ethically sound."

To meet the demand for more professionals in under-represented professions such as law, University of Victoria offered a cooperative law school program in 2001 that would allow up to 20 Inuit students to enter Akitsiraq Law School in Iqualuit to earn their professional degrees in law. The program was offered on a one-time basis and would not be repeated.

In 2000, after Canadian legislators received test scores demonstrating that minority student scores trailed drastically behind those of non-minority students, parents and legislators nationwide demanded reforms and an infusion of public moneys into the lower grades of the poorest performing schools to raise scores. However, the wide debate showed that the Canadian public differed widely as to what should be done to help raise minority test scores.

By 2001, the new government was debating plans for a new school in Iqaluit that would have classes taught only in Inuit. There also was adopted a cooperative program with the law school at the University of Victoria that would allow up to 20 Inuit students to enter Akitsiraq Law School in Iqualuit and earn their professional degrees in law.

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