Chapter Two: The Structure of Canadian Schooling

2.2 An Overview of Canada’s School System: Who Goes Where?

Since the introduction of the compulsory attendance legislation in Quebec in 1943, young people have been required to go to school everywhere in Canada (although across the country there are different legislative provisions relating to compulsory school ages, definitions of what constitutes a school, and grounds on which one might be exempted from attending). As a consequence, provision has to be made annually in Canada for the schooling, in one form or another, of some 5 million young people.

The predominant vehicle that has been developed for this task is a publicly funded, provincially controlled school system. It is this system, prescribed in the British North America Act, 1867 and detailed in the various Education or Public School Acts and regulations of the provinces, that houses some 91 percent of the country’s student population (see Table 2.1). The remaining student population is to be found in private/independent schools (which are also a part of the provincial design of education inasmuch as they are regulated by provincial legislation) and in federal/First Nations–controlled schools.

The constitutional basis for this current arrangement is to be found primarily in Section 93 of the British North America Act (re-enacted and re-titled the Constitution Act, 1867 by the Constitution Act, 1982).

Table 2.2.1

Elementary and Secondary School Enrolments by School Control and Province, 2016-2017 

Province 

Public Schools 

(% of total) 

Private Schools 

(% of total) 

Home Schooling 

(% of total) 

Federal/First Nations Schools** 

(% of total) 

Total Enrolment 

Newfoundland

66,183

1,005

138

Prince Edward

Island

20,007

276

189

Nova Scotia

118,566

3,603

948

New Brunswick

97,842

1,134

759

ATLANTIC 
CANADA 

302,598 

(96.9%) 

6,018 

(1.9%) 

2,034 

(0.7%) 

1,661 

(0.5%) 

312,311 

(100%) 

Quebec

1,210,698

(89.8%)

128,043

(9.5%)

2,565

(0.2%)

 

6,230

(0.5%)

 

1,347,536

(100%)

Ontario

2,006,703

(92.6%)

138,324

(6.4%)

8,754

(0.4%)

12,884

(0.6%)

2,166,665

(100%)

Manitoba

183,015

(85.0%)

13,815

(6.4%)

3,393

(1.6%)

15,143

(7.0%)

215,366

(100%)

Saskatchewan

180,696

(88.8%)

4,575

(2.3%)

2,379

(1.2%)

15,834

(7.7%)

203,484

(100%)

Alberta

652,272

(92.9%)

27,534

(3.9%)

12,729

(1.8%)

9,752

(1.4%)

702,287

(100%)

British Columbia

557,625

(86.0%)

83,469

(12.9%)

2,316

(0.4%)

4,639

(0.7%)

648,049

(100%)

Yukon

5,343

(97.2)

153

(2.8%)

5,496

(100%)

Northwest

Territories

8,337

(99.0%)

84

(1.0%)

8,421

(100%)

Nunavut

10,041

(100%)

10,041

(100%)

CANADA 

5,117,328 

(91.1%) 

401,778 

(7.1%) 

 

34,407 

(0.6%) 

  

66,143 

(1.2%) 

5,619,656 

(100%) 

** Does not include students under self-government agreements.

Source. Adapted from Statistics Canada. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/181102/dq181102c-eng.htm and Indigenous Services Canada. Kindergarten to Grade 12 operating expenditures 2016-2017 overview. ISC. https://www.sac-isc.gc.ca/eng/1349140116208/1531315346681 

 

The limitations of provincial authority as they relate to separate and dissentient schools (discussed later in this chapter) provide an important element in the structure of Canadian public schooling; these limitations, it should be noted, serve to shape the various provincial systems rather than create an alternative to provincial control of education.

Bedard and Lawton (2000) define governance as “supervising and being responsible for programs and activities that are carried out in the public interest” (p. 257). Embedded in this are two distinct functions: (i) a political/regulative role of policy making, and (ii) a professional/bureaucratic service delivery role. While it is the political dimension that is the vehicle for public participation and what makes public schooling “public”, it is the professional dimension that ensures high quality service delivery. All Canadian provinces have created a shared governance system for public schooling built around three levels of activity: the central, constitutional authority of the provinces; some form of delegated, local education authority traditionally called school boards; and, individual schools that are likely to have associated with them some form of school parent/community council.  Each of these bodies has a unique role to play in relation to both education policy-making and service provision. These roles have changed over time and continue to change, reflecting enduring debates over different models of centralized or decentralized educational decision-making and different models of public/political or professional/bureaucratic jurisdiction. Consistent throughout these changes, however, is the constitutional principle that final authority over most areas of educational decision-making in Canada resides in the political realm at the provincial legislatures.