Chapter Two: The Structure of Canadian Schooling

2.1 Prologue

Trustee Norman Wright sat reviewing the materials sent by the superintendent in preparation for the evening’s special meeting of the school board called to discuss the establishment of an Indigenous high school in the division. It was nearly two years since the first formal approach had been made to establish such a school. Since then, discussions among trustees, senior administration, and the board’s Indigenous advisory committee seemed to have progressed slowly, always surrounded by controversy. Now, as a new school year was about to begin, the school was going to open its doors ‒ the building was ready, the principal and her staff had been hired, and approximately 100 students had registered at the school.

Yet much remained to be done if the school was to flourish, and there seemed to be little agreement among the different parties on several of the outstanding issues. One goal of tonight’s meeting was to try to hammer out an agreement on the governance structure for the school that would define explicitly the powers and responsibilities of the school board, the Indigenous community, the school principal, and the parents in setting policy directions for the school and for its day-to-day operation. Far from being a technical detail, this question seemed to go to the heart of the purpose of the school.

In the initial proposal prepared for the school board, the Indigenous advisory committee had documented the lack of success experienced in the district’s schools by many Indigenous students (both the children of Indigenous families living in the city and students from First Nations communities across the province who came to the city to attend high school). A school controlled by the Indigenous community, embodying Indigenous values in all aspects of school life, and drawing on community members for instruction related to cultural practices was seen as one vital element in reversing this pattern of failure. On the principle of control, the proposal was explicit: equal partnership was to occur between the school division and the Indigenous community in all aspects of running the school.

In the months since the submission of the original proposal, the advisory committee had devoted a lot of time to the development of a joint management model that would balance the school district’s legal responsibility for education and the Indigenous community’s desire to have direct input into the education of its children. The model to be voted on at this evening’s meeting called for a contract to be drawn up between the school district and a legally constituted Indigenous community society, open to all Indigenous people over 16 years and living in the province, which would delegate authority over the school to a joint management committee consisting of the school’s principal, a teacher, one non-teaching member of the school’s staff, two students, and two community-group members.

When this proposal was first presented to the school board, the reaction was mixed. Some trustees questioned the merits of a school that they saw as segregated along racial lines and therefore running against their commitment to a public school system based on the ideal of a common school for all. Some argued that as duly elected trustees, they represented the legitimate vehicle for expressing parental and community interests, and that other creations were not only unnecessary but would subvert that legitimate authority. Furthermore, they questioned whether the Indigenous community group would in fact represent the interests of the entire Indigenous community, including the Métis population and multiple linguistic groups. Probably the majority, Norman estimated, were generally supportive of the proposal, yet there were concerns even among the supporters as to whether the proposed delegation of authority could be legally made by the board without contravening their responsibilities as laid out in provincial legislation. After some lengthy discussion, the proposal had been referred to the superintendent for evaluation.

Now, as Norman read over the superintendent’s evaluation, he let out an audible groan. It was the district’s legal opinion that the school board could not delegate such sweeping powers over the running of one of its schools to the sort of management committee suggested in the proposal. The responsibilities of any school board were clearly laid out in the province’s Public Schools Act, and while the legislation did allow school boards to delegate their powers in certain circumstances, these circumstances were clearly specified and related to the delegation of authority to an existing legal entity operating a school facility, such as a neighbouring school district offering special programs. Furthermore, making the school principal accountable to such a management committee would appear to contradict the regulations under the province’s Educational Administration Act, which stated that “the principal is in charge of the school in respect to all matters of organization, management, discipline and instruction.”

Norman wondered about a system that established public accountability through the trustee system and then so bureaucratized the operation of the system that trustees were often left dependent on the advice and instructions of the professional administration. He had spent his whole career as a teacher, senior administrator, and university professor, and he still found himself in this dependent position ‒ and he didn’t like it! Nevertheless, as he ploughed on through the documentation and struggled to plan for the meeting, he maintained a deep-seated conviction that it mattered, that these painful debates over governance and administration were central to the kind of school that was being created, and to the quality of the lives of the children who would go there.



This chapter presents an outline of some of the main structural forms that characterize Canada’s provincial school systems and examines some of the ways in which they were developed and continue to evolve, as well as the purposes and interests they serve. No attempt is made to provide either a comprehensive survey of each of the different school systems across the country or a chronological history of their development. Instead, the chapter highlights a number of issues related to the organization of public schooling and places them within a particular social and historical context.

A central concern in performing this task is to explore issues of power and authority in Canadian schooling ‒ who is allowed to participate in educational decision-making processes and whose experiences have been legitimized within the school system. Throughout the chapter, attention will be given to:

  1. contradictory pressures for centralized authority and local control in education;
  2. the ongoing debate between advocates of professional versus public authority across a range of educational decision-making situations;
  3. the conflicting expectations that public schools should provide common experiences for all students while accommodating diversity; and, as a part of this,
  4. the place of religious, linguistic and cultural interests in a public education system.

Wrapped up in these interconnected tensions are unavoidable questions of purpose, quality, and costs that relate to the goals of education ‒ as well as issues of bias and equality of educational opportunity, national unity, religion, and linguistic diversity ‒ and the role of technical and professional expertise in the improvement of schooling. Such issues have long been the subject of much controversy across Canada and lie close to the heart of the democratic traditions of public education (Coulter & Wiens, 2008; Manzer, 2010; Portelli & Konecny, 2013). These matters have very pragmatic implications for teachers’ careers. More profoundly, they inform a teacher’s evolving professional identity. Being an effective teacher means understanding the nature of the networks that make up one’s professional context, and the values and interests they represent, so that one can make critical choices about how to work within that context.