Chapter Two: The Structure of Canadian Schooling

2.3 The Development of Provincial Control Over Schooling

The development across Canada of a system of school administration in which legislative and regulative power is concentrated within a centralized provincial bureaucracy ‒ responsible to a minister of education working in Cabinet and answerable through the provincial legislature to the electorate ‒ has many of its roots in the well-documented political struggles of Upper Canada/Canada West in the first half of the nineteenth century, and in the work of Egerton Ryerson, Superintendent of Schools in Canada West/Ontario from 1846 until 1876. During this period, heated debates over the organization of elementary education were at the heart of a broader discussion concerning the role of the state in Canadian society. Attention to this historical context is important not only for an appreciation of how contemporary arrangements came into being, but also in order to understand the grounds on which alternative versions of how state schooling should be organized were advanced and justified by different interests.

According to educational historians Gidney and Lawr (1979), there was general agreement in Upper Canada in the early nineteenth century that the state should play a major role in the provision of education. However, there was no agreement either on the form that support should take or on the degree of supervision and control that was to accompany it. Instead, fundamental issues in the organization of an emerging school system (e.g., the role of the church; the place of elected versus appointed officials in the system; the location of taxation powers; authority over the curriculum and textbooks; and responsibility for the training, certification, and inspection of teachers) underwent a prolonged educational debate in both the press and the legislature.

At the heart of much of this debate was a political struggle over what was to constitute “responsible government,” which contrasted American models of republican democracy with British models of a monarchical system of colonial administration. Responsible government to members of what was then called the Reform Party implied electoral responsibility, the championing of local electoral democracy (in the narrow and patriarchal sense of local property), and a decentralized school system. For Upper-Canadian Conservatives, such a vision of local democracy was seen as being far from responsible; rather, they predicted, this form of representative government would be “imperilled by local ignorance” and seriously undermine the social fabric of the colony. Instead, responsible government to them meant government by men deemed “responsible” on the basis of “technical competence and worth” (Curtis, 1988, p. 52).

The ebb and flow of these struggles is evidenced in the series of Education Acts introduced into the legislature between 1836 and 1850. Some of these bills were defeated, while others were vetoed by the Executive Council; but those passed into law by 1850 detailed a provincial system of schools that in many important ways foreshadowed the contemporary structure in most Canadian provinces.

Prior to the 1840s, state involvement in education was prescribed primarily by the School Act of 1816, which allowed local property owners to meet, select three trustees from among themselves, and hire a teacher who, if approved by the appointed District Board of Education, was eligible for a grant-in-aid from the state. However, in the aftermath of the 1837 rebellions in the Canadas, the victorious Conservatives in Upper Canada came to view this localized autonomy as a contributing factor to the insurrection. From this perspective, republican sentiment had been allowed to spread throughout Upper Canada, in part because the central authorities had permitted communities to hire American teachers and to use American textbooks ‒ a combination that served only to alienate the population from the British monarchical form of government (Wilson, 1970). In the interests of ensuring that these destabilizing influences were contained, many believed that a central authority was needed to monitor and provide direction to local schools.

In Lower Canada, the 1837 uprising had greater intensity, was of longer duration, and was perceived to pose a more obdurate threat to the British connection than the hostilities in Upper Canada. Lord Durham wrote in his famous Report that he was perplexed to find there are “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state … a struggle not of principles, but of races” (Craig, 1990, p. 315). It was his conclusion that French Canadians should be assimilated, and to do this he recommended, among other things, that the two colonies be joined in a single political entity. This was done through the Act of Union in 1841.

Given that colonial officials in both sections (Canada East and Canada West) of the newly united colony were anxious to undertake the task of remaking the political and cultural character of the respective populations, it is not surprising that educational legislation should have been among the earliest considerations of the freshly constituted Canadian government. The Common School Act of 1841 created, for the first time, a central administrative authority, establishing the post of the chief superintendent of education, an officer appointed by the governor to oversee the operation of elementary education in both sections of the colony. This position was abolished two years later when it became apparent that the historical development of school systems in the Canadas made a single bureaucracy inoperable. French-Canadian politicians were not about to submit to a policy of forced assimilation in any case, and so an assistant superintendent was appointed for each section. The 1843 Education Act gave these officers responsibility for allocating the common school fund, collecting and reporting information on local educational organization, and instructing other education officers in matters relating to “the better Organization and Governance of Common Schools.”

The 1841 legislation also stipulated that local property assessments should match the contributions of the colonial government; the responsibility for raising these funds was removed from locally elected trustees and given to the more broadly based elected township Board of Commissioners. The absence of well-developed government at the municipal level led to the repeal of the 1841 School Act in 1843 and the reinstatement of the local elected trustees. These boards resumed responsibility for maintaining the schoolhouse, calculating and collecting the school rate, hiring teachers, selecting textbooks, and overseeing the courses of study. They did not act alone, however, positions of county and district superintendents were created. The county superintendents were assigned the task of examining and certifying all prospective teachers and re-examining practising teachers at their discretion. In addition, they were required to visit all schools at least once a year, to advise trustees and teachers on the operation of their schools, and to submit annual reports to the colonial superintendent.

Neither the 1841 nor the 1843 legislation radically altered the practical powers of local educational self-management, which remained substantially located with local property. What the legislation did do was contribute significantly to the development of a modern education bureaucracy by establishing what Houston and Prentice (1988) refer to as “the paperwork principle”; written reports on forms provided by the provincial authorities were now required as essential to the working of the system (p. 110). The significance of this new development in terms of the relationship between local and provincial jurisdiction and between lay and professional authority is noted by Curtis (1988):

The administration of the 1843 Act produced a marked shift in the relations of knowledge/power between the central authority and the local schools.… The central office increasingly had a corps of paid and respectable educational investigators in the field. While many teachers and other local educational participants continued to correspond with the central office, their conceptions for and interests in educational organization could, from 1843, be counterposed by central administrators to those of respectable men of character. (p. 32)

If the 1841 and 1843 legislation left intact a largely decentralized school system in Upper Canada in the hands of local property, the School Act of 1846, introduced by a Tory-dominated legislature and revised by Reformers in 1850, served to promote a shift of much of this local power to centralized administrative structures. Under the provisions of the 1846 Act, the chief superintendent of education, advised by the newly created General Board of Education, was made answerable not to the legislature but to the governor-general-in-council. This meant that Egerton Ryerson, although not himself an elected official, was, as chief superintendent, accountable to the Cabinet alone and was thus only indirectly accountable to the popularly elected legislature. In addition to the responsibility of gathering and disseminating information, the superintendent was given authority to prepare whatever regulations were deemed necessary for the improvement of schooling, and the power to withhold grants if these regulations were ignored or broken. In the area of teacher training, the Act called for the establishment of a provincial “normal school” and placed the responsibility for its operation with the superintendent and the General Board of Education.

The chief superintendent’s powers were exercised energetically by Ryerson in the years following the passage of the 1846 legislation as he struggled to establish an orderly and uniform school system. As Houston and Prentice (1988) note,

The new chief superintendent of schools was determined not only that there would be adequate school law in the province; he wished also, as his title suggests, to superintend: to instruct, advise, and regulate, down to the finest detail, the schools and schooling of Upper Canadians. (p. 119)

Effective central authority was dependent on an effective inspectorate. Ryerson sought, unsuccessfully, to establish this at the central level, and the 1846 Act continued the existing arrangements of local superintendents appointed solely by district councils. However, the Act added to this arrangement the requirement that the local superintendents follow the instructions of the chief superintendent, establishing an important supervisory link between the central authority and local trustees. These superintendents, in addition to their task of certifying teachers, were empowered to give advice to local authorities and to begin the work of actually regulating life in schools.

The revisions introduced in the 1850 Schools Act modified some of the centralizing powers of the 1846 legislation and, in line with Reform philosophy, re-asserted the principle of electoral self-government, spelling out the powers of local trustees and adding a degree of political control to the centralized bureaucracy that Ryerson had built. The powers of the chief superintendent and the General Board of Education (re-named the Council of Public Instruction) remained largely unaltered, but they were made explicitly responsible to the ministry, which had not been the case in 1846. However, despite these concessions to local electoral autonomy, the division of power between central and local authorities had shifted significantly in favour of the former.

This system of governance has not remained unaltered in Ontario, nor was it faithfully copied in all other provinces across the country. Nevertheless, the struggles to define what would constitute an appropriate structure for the governance of public education involving competing versions of democratic participation, professional authority, and efficiency continue to resonate into the twenty-first century. In this debate the divisions of power and institutional forms developed in Ontario during the middle of the nineteenth century continue to provide an important backdrop for public school systems across Canada.


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