Dr. Dawn C. Wallin

August 20, 2014 8:06 PM














































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































CHAPTER TWO: The Structure of Canadian Schooling (5th Edition)



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 Aboriginal 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 Aboriginal 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 Aboriginal 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 Aboriginal advisory committee had documented the lack of success experienced in the district’s schools by many Aboriginal students (both the children of Aboriginal families living in the city and students from reserve communities across the province who came to the city to attend high school). A school controlled by the Aboriginal community, embodying Aboriginal 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: Aboriginal control meant equal partnership between the school division and the Aboriginal 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 Aboriginal 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 Aboriginal community society, open to all Aboriginal people over 16 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 Aboriginal community group would in fact represent the interests of the entire Aboriginal community, including the Métis population. 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 Canadian 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 key part of this,
4.   the place of religious 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 were the subject of much controversy across Canada in the 1990s and lie close to the heart of the democratic traditions of public education (Coulter & Wiens, 2008; Portelli & Solomon, 2001). 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.



Since the introduction of 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 92 percent of the country’s student population (see Table 2.1). The remaining student population is to be found in private schools (which are also a part of the provincial design of education inasmuch as they are regulated by provincial legislation) and in federally or 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), which, it is important to note, incorporated an already well-established distribution of authority in education rather than creating a new one.


Table 2.1 Elementary and Secondary School Enrollments by School Control and Province, 2010-2011


Public Schools (% of total)

Private Schools (% of total) *

Federal Schools/First Nations Schools (% of total)

Total Enrollment

Newfoundland & Labrador

66 288 (98.6)

944 (1.4)

67 232 (100)**

Prince Edward Island

24 162 (98.7)

268 (1.3)


21 430(100)

Nova Scotia

128 131 (96.9)

4 158 (3.1)


132 289(100)

New Brunswick

104 421 (98.8)

1226 (1.2)


105 647(100)


320 002 (96.8)

6 596 (2.0)

3814 (1.2)

330 412 (100)


979 563 (87.5)

133 450 (11.9)

6 896 (0.6)

1 119 909(100)


1 953 624 (94.3)

104 827 (4.1)***

12 832 (0.6)

2 071 283(100)


171 654 (84.8)

14 602 (7.2)

16 222 (8.0)

202 478 (100)


161 672 (89.4)

3 731 (2.1)

15 365 (8.5)

180 768 (100)


550 059 (92.6)

34 925 (5.9)

9 080 (1.5)

594 064 (100)

British Columbia

550 038 (89.0)

63 480 (10.3)

4 771 (0.8)

618 289 (100)


4 847 (100)

4 847 (100)

Northwest Territories

8 576 (100)

56 (0.6)

8 632 (100)


8 515


8 515 (100)


4 708 549 (91.6)

361 726 (7.0)

68 958 (1.4)

5 139 233 (100)

Source: Adapted from Brocklinton (2011), Summary Elementary and Secondary School Indicators of Canada, the Provinces, and Territories, 2006/2007 to 2010/2011. Accessed April 25, 2-14 at http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/81-595-m/81-595-m2013099-eng.pdf and Aboriginal and Northern Development Canada data Federal Funding Levels for First Nations K-12 Education (2010-2011) accessed April 25, 2014 at https://web.archive.org/web/20130418200240/http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1349140116208/1349140158945

* Includes home schooling.

** The Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) reports only composite enrollment data for the Atlantic Provinces. Provincial totals and percentages for each individual Atlantic province included here include only public and private school enrollments.

*** For 2010/2011 there is no data for Private School Enrollments for Ontario. The most recent data from Statistics Canada showed 104 827 students enrolled in Private Schools in Ontario in 2008/2009. That is the number used here.

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.

In exercising their constitutional authority in education, all provinces have created some form of local educational body, usually called school boards or school districts, with legally defined powers delegated to them by the province. These bodies, however, exist only at the discretion of the provincial government, and final authority over most areas of educational decision making remains at the provincial level, with a minister of education.



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 rebellion 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 “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.



From the earliest days of state involvement in Canadian education, schools have been recognized as powerful agencies of socialization and social control, introducing the youth of the country to a particular view of citizenship and the knowledge, skills, and values needed to fulfill this role properly. In a country characterized by diversity, defining whose views of citizenship were to be promoted and legitimated in the public schools has been a continuous source of controversy and debate.

Today, forces such as increased interprovincial and international mobility and the development of a global economy, coupled with efforts to equalize educational opportunities and to see schools play a role in promoting and sustaining a sense of Canadian identity, have produced pressures for increased standardization of schools and curricula across the country (Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, 1999). Yet, at the same time, countervailing pressures require schools to acknowledge the linguistic, regional, and cultural diversity of the country, and to give individuals and communities more control over the school experiences of their children (Bruno-Jofre & Henley, 2000).

These tensions are not new in Canadian schooling. It is important to recognize that for a large part of Canada’s history since Confederation, public schools have served to suppress diversity rather than sustain it—to assimilate the poor, the immigrant population, and Canada’s First Nations. However, Canadian schools have, at different points in their history, been required to acknowledge and accommodate differences. This recognition is to be found most concretely in the entrenchment of educational rights across the country among its most numerous populations, the English and the French. These rights originally focused on religion, but today are increasingly concentrated on language.

In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the British government became convinced that among the causes that led to the breakup of the first British Empire, the absence of a state church in the American colonies was the most significant. Consequently, subsequent colonial policy gave emphasis to elevating the Church of England to the status of a state religion in the various colonies of British North America. The initiative was ultimately doomed by the imprecise wording of legislation (e.g., using the term “Protestant” rather than naming the particular denomination), and by the inability of the Church of England to gain a majority of adherents among the thousands of immigrants who entered the colonies around the turn of the nineteenth century. Anglicans were, however, able to dominate colonial state offices as a common church affiliation became a distinguishing feature among elites like the Family Compact in Upper Canada. Efforts to extend the Church of England’s influence into the realm of state schooling were led by Bishop John Strachan of Toronto; he continued to claim that his church had special status in the colony, even after the 1830s when funds from Britain designated for the support of Anglican educational work were finally halted. Indeed, it was Anglican and not Roman Catholic lobbying that first established the principle of religious immunity (the right to establish publicly funded separate or dissentient schools) in the 1841 Common School Act (Wilson, 1970, pp. 210–11).
Between 1841 and 1863, a series of acts created the “separate schools” of Canada West and the “dissentient schools” of Canada East, allowing Protestant and Catholic parents to establish their own schools and, subject to provincial controls over the curriculum and teachers, to receive public funding. Section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867 entrenched these rights in the Canadian Constitution for the four original provinces, and the subsequent establishment provisions of new provinces generally implemented similar arrangements. Thus, separate schools and school boards in Canada are not usually outside the public school system or beyond the control of the minister of education. They are subject to the authority of the provincial government, but that authority is constrained by the provisions of Section 93 (listed below) and by the many interpretations of the Section’s intent that have been made by the courts.

Section 93: In and for each province, the Legislature may exclusively make laws in relation to education subject to the following provisions:

(1)       Nothing in any such Law shall prejudicially affect any right or privilege with respect to denominational schools which any class of persons have by law in the province at Union;
(2)       All of the powers, privileges, and duties at Union by law conferred and imposed in Upper Canada on the separate schools and school trustees of the Queen’s Roman Catholic subjects shall be and the same are hereby extended to the dissentient schools of the Queen’s Protestant and Roman Catholic subjects in Quebec;
(3)       Where in any province a system of separate or dissentient schools exists by law at the Union or is thereafter established by the Legislature of the province, an appeal shall lie to the Governor-General-in-Council from any act or decision of any provincial authority affecting any right or privilege of the Protestant or Roman Catholic minority of the Queen’s subjects in relation to education;
(4)       In case any such provincial law as from time to time seems to the Governor-General-in-Council requisite for the due execution of the provisions of this section is not made, or in case any decision of the Governor-General-in-Council on any appeal authority in that behalf, then and in every such case, and as far only as the circumstances of each case require, the Parliament of Canada may make remedial laws for the due execution of the provisions of this Section and of any decision of the Governor-General-in-Council under this Section.

Section 93A: Paragraphs (1) to (4) of section 93 do not apply to Quebec.

Catholic and Protestant separate schools and school boards exist in a variety of different forms across the country, reflecting in part the existing status of denominational schools in the provinces prior to entry into Confederation, and in part the outcome of legal and political challenges since then. The most serious early constitutional confrontation between Catholics and Protestants concerning Section 93 occurred in Manitoba after provincial legislation in 1890 abolished the dual confessional (meaning organized on the basis of religious belief) school system that had been in place since Manitoba entered Confederation in 1870. Provincial Catholics believed that the right to operate their own system of schools had been guaranteed in the Manitoba Act, which became an amendment to the BNA Act on terms negotiated by Louis Riel’s provisional government. A series of court cases and one attempt by the federal government to introduce remedial legislation all failed to move the province to overturn its school legislation during the 1890s, and no appeal to the courts has since been launched

In documenting the development of denominationalism in Canadian public schools, Pennings, R., Van Pelt,  D., Van Brummelen, H., & von Heyking (2012) classify Manitoba and British Columbia as provinces in which the public school system is non-denominational. Parents seeking a Catholic or Protestant education for their children in these provinces have to look to private schools, which today are eligible to receive some provincial funding. In Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario, public and dissentient separate schools exist and are protected in law. The school systems in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island are ones that historically have seen some Roman Catholic schools operating within non-sectarian public school districts. A series of important court challenges in New Brunswick between 1873 and 1896 denied Roman Catholics the right to separate schools, but did support the informal accommodations that had been established in the province. Today, recognizably denominational schools, owned by the Roman Catholic Church and leased to the local school board, continue to exist without legal status in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

In Quebec and Newfoundland, previously existing denominational school systems became non-denominational during the 1990s, with both requiring constitutional amendments to bring about these changes. In Quebec an attempt by the provincial government to reorganize school boards on the basis of language instead of religion in 1983 was ruled a violation of Section 93 of the Constitution. It was not until more than a decade later that the provincial government was able to achieve its goal by first securing, in 1997, an amendment to Section 93 of the Constitution with the addition of the new Section 93A (see above). Quebec now has a nondenominational dual school system structured along linguistic lines. Unlike any other province, Newfoundland prior to the 1990s had developed a multi-denominational series of school systems. These included a Roman Catholic system, a Pentecostal system, a Seventh Day Adventist system, and an Integrated system that combined four official systems: Anglican, Salvation Army, United Church, and Presbyterian. However, in the 1990s, against a backdrop of declining enrolments and economic difficulties, the province sought to replace this system with a unitary non-sectarian system. This required a constitutional amendment to Term 17 of the Terms of Union of Newfoundland with Canada. Because these changes were deemed to be a bilateral amendment applying only to the Province of Newfoundland, the necessary procedures laid out in Section 43 of the Constitution Act, 1982 required authorizing resolutions from the Newfoundland provincial legislature and from the Canadian Senate and the House of Commons. This was finally accomplished in 1997, and a new provincial Schools Act passed in that year changed what had previously been the most denominational school system in Canada to one of the least denominational (Galway & Dibbon, 2012; Fagan, 2004). (See Box 2.1.)

All constitutional powers in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut reside with the federal government but territorial governments have delegated authority for education subject to certain denominational rights. Under these provisions a Roman Catholic or Protestant denominational minority has the right to establish separate schools for their children and to be exempt from school taxes levied to support majority schools.



Religion was the vehicle in the BNA Act for protecting English and French minority rights in education. Because they are enshrined in the Constitution, the religious provisions of Section 93 continue to be important determinants of the organization of schooling in many parts of Canada, even though religion itself is generally a less important part of Canadian life than was the case a century ago. Meanwhile, in the second half of the twentieth century and in the beginning of the twenty-first, this continued struggle has been recast largely in terms of language, which now has wider significance in Canada than religion.

BOX 2.1 Newfoundland and Labrador—The Transition from a Denominational School System to an Interdenominational System

1949: Newfoundland joins Canada. The Terms of Union of Newfoundland with Canada preserve the existing denominational school system. Term 17 states: “In lieu of section ninety-three of the Constitution Act, 1867, the following term shall apply with respect to the Province of Newfoundland:

In and for the Province of Newfoundland the Legislature shall have exclusive authority to make laws in relation to education, but the Legislature will not have authority to make any laws prejudicially affecting any right or privilege with respect to denominational schools, common (amalgamated) schools, or denominational colleges, that any class of persons have by law in Newfoundland at the date of Union ….

Under Term 17, six denominations had the right to operate their own publicly funded schools.

1987: Term 17 amended to extend denominational school rights to the Pentecostal Assemblies. Four separate school systems operating: the Integrated School System (Anglican, Presbyterian, Salvation Army, and United Church); the Pentecostal School System; the Roman Catholic School System; and the Seventh Day Adventist School System.

1992: Royal Commission on Educational Reform (The Williams’ Commission) recommends the creation of a single “interdenominational” system initiating several years of discussion and negotiations about restructuring.

1995: Provincial referendum supports a proposal to amend Term 17.

1996/7: Provincial legislature and federal Parliament approve amendment to Term 17, but attempts to implement the amendment are successfully challenged in the courts.

1997: Premier Tobin calls a second referendum on a new amendment that would allow for the creation of a single, publicly funded and administered school system. The proposed amendment is supported by the referendum and passed by the provincial and federal legislatures. It states: “1. In lieu of section ninety-three of the Constitution Act, 1867, this section shall apply in respect of the province of Newfoundland. 2. In and for the Province of Newfoundland, the Legislature shall have exclusive authority to make laws in relation to education, but shall provide courses in religion that are not specific to a religious denomination. 3. Religious observances shall be permitted in a school where requested by parents.”

1998: The first nondenominational school boards are elected. The province has 11 boards including a provincial francophone school board.

2004: Minister announces school board consolidation with the creation of three new boards—Eastern, Central, and Western—along with the existing Conseil Scolaire (francophone). The existing board structure in Labrador remains unchanged.

2013: The province moves to having only two school boards--the Newfoundland and Labrador English School Board and the Counseil Scholaire.

Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, entitled “Minority Language Educational Rights,” provides parents who speak the minority official language in their province with specific rights to public schooling for their children. According to the language provisions in Section 23(1):

Citizens of Canada: a) whose first language learned and still understood is that of the English or French linguistic minority population of the province in which they reside, or b) who have received their primary school instruction in Canada in English or French and reside in a province where the language in which they received that instruction is the language of the English or French linguistic minority … have the right to have their children receive primary and secondary school instruction in that language in that province.

(2) Citizens of Canada of whom any child has received or is receiving primary or secondary school instruction in English or French in Canada, have the right to have all their children receive primary and secondary instruction in the same language.

(3) The right of citizens of Canada under subsections (1) and (2) … a) applies wherever in the province the number of children of citizens who have such a right is sufficient to warrant the provision to them out of public funds of minority language instruction; and b) includes, where the numbers of those children so warrants, the right to have them receive that instruction in minority language educational facilities provided out of public funds.

The above provisions establish the requirement for provincial governments to provide instruction in the official minority language. Since 1982, there has been considerable political and judicial activity across Canada to interpret these provisions and to bring existing practice into line with constitutional requirements (Clarke, 2009; Manley-Casimir & Manley-Casimir, 2009). Provincial governments have used various strategies to defuse the political controversies surrounding issues of language. Several provinces have chosen to place the issue of how they are required to comply with Section 23 before the courts rather than risk initiatives of their own that might be unpopular with voters. Even when the courts have made rulings, in several provinces governments have appointed third-party commissions to develop implementation plans. The implementation of provisions for francophone governance of minority language education in English-speaking provinces has been very slow, even when court decisions and commission reports established a path.

One question the courts have been asked to interpret is the meaning in Section 23(3) of the phrase “where numbers warrant.” Tardif (1990) notes that in Quebec this number has generally been defined as 1 student, but a Nova Scotia judge deemed that 50 students were insufficient to justify a French school, and a request in Alberta from parents of 188 children was also refused. In Prince Edward Island, francophone parents successfully petitioned the Supreme Court of Canada to have a French-language primary school established in the town of Summerside (Clarke, 2009). The Minister of Education had previously denied approval of the school on the grounds that a minimum enrollment of 100 students was, in his view, necessary for a viable school (Arsenault-Cameron v. Prince Edward Island, 1999/2000). These differences, Tardif suggests, are rooted in the distinction between “entitlement” and “demand”; that is, whether parents under Section 23 have only to show that they are entitled to minority language education, or whether they are required to demonstrate sufficient demand. Because it fails to take local circumstances into account, the courts have rejected any fixed minimum number of students as defining “where numbers warrant,” and have denied the use of existing school district boundaries to define minimum numbers. However, Tardif notes that the Court of Appeal judgment in Alberta in the case of Mahé et al. v. Her Majesty the Queen (1987) appears to place the burden of proof of demand on the parents.

A second critical set of issues on which the courts have been asked to rule includes the homogeneity of schools and questions of management and control over minority language education. Section 23(3) refers to “minority language educational facilities.” Originally, some jurisdictions interpreted this requirement to be satisfied by the provision of distinct programs for francophone students in existing educational facilities. However over time, all provinces have recognized the argument that only separate francophone schools can satisfy the spirit of the Charter and avoid the damaging effects of linguistic interference and assimilation that could occur in mixed facilities.

In the area of governance, the courts have interpreted Section 23 as conferring on minority language parents a right to be involved in the management and control over their children’s schooling, although the courts have not specified what form that management right must take.  Clarke (2009, p. 226) documenting the evolution of minority language governance across Canada notes that all provinces now provide first language minorities, be they French or English, with their own school boards. In some provinces such as British Columbia, Prince Edwards Island, and Saskatchewan, where the linguistic minority population is small and geographically dispersed there is a single board for the whole province. Other provinces have multiple boards, and in Alberta and Ontario French-language boards are further split along denominational lines (See Table 2.2.)

These developments give recognition to the critical role that schools play in either the promotion or erosion of languages and culture, and to the struggle required to have a language and culture other than that of the official majority properly accommodated within the public school system. For languages and cultures that lack the constitutional force of the English and French, this struggle is more difficult. However, where the legitimacy of linguistic and cultural diversity is recognized, new organizational arrangements are likely to be required that may add to the complexity of both existing provisions and single, geographically coherent school boards.

Because of Canada’s history and its population dynamics, religion and language will continue to play an important role in Canadian education, and will constitute one of the major political issues with which provincial governments must cope. Specific provisions are likely to continue to evolve, but the issues will not disappear whatever arrangements may be made.

Table 2.2: Diversity and Choice in Canadian Provincial School Systems

Province Public Francophone Separate Catholic Separate Francophone Separate Protestant Charter Independent Home Schooling
BC Yes        


(30-50% funded)

AB Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

Yes (60-70% funded)

SK Yes Yes   Yes  

Yes (50-80% funded)

MB Yes        

Yes (50% funded)

ON Yes Yes Yes Yes   Yes Yes
QC Yes        

Yes (Up to 60% funded)

NB Yes         Yes Yes
NS Yes         Yes Yes
PEI Yes         Yes Yes
ND Yes         Yes Yes

Source: Adapted from Clemens, J., Palacios, M., Loyers, J., & Fathers, F. (2014). Measuring Choice and Competition in Canadian Education. Available at http://www.fraserinstitute.org and Robson, K. (2013). The sociology of education in Canada. Toronto: Pearson.



In each province, the Department or Ministry of Education, headed by the minister of education, is the central educational authority. In some provinces postsecondary education and training is assigned to a separate minister and department, while in others both portfolios are included under one minister. The minister of education, an elected member of the provincial legislature, is appointed to the education portfolio by the premier; he or she is also a member of Cabinet. In the Canadian parliamentary system, the Cabinet responsible to the legislature and is the key planning and directing agency of government. It approves all legislation brought forward by the government, and formulates policy in education and all other areas of provincial jurisdiction. Although the drafting and passing of new laws often receives the greatest attention, it is only one of the ways in which government affects education. Since most provinces have only a few basic laws governing education, and these are not revised significantly very often, most government work in education lies outside the area of legislation. The distinctions among these various avenues of government activity are explained more fully in Chapters 3 and 4.

The role played by a minister of education at any particular period of time depends on the overall priorities of the premier and the government, and on the ability of the minister to influence these priorities. Some ministers are important and powerful people in the provincial government as a whole, while others are much less so, and consequently less able to make education an important issue. Nonetheless, because ultimate legal authority over education rests with provincial governments, ministers do play a critical role in determining how a province sets long-term educational policy and in influencing the level of funding provided to schools (see Chapter 5). They make or approve decisions about all sorts of educational issues, from new curricula to be introduced, to rules governing the certification of teachers, to the number of credits required for high-school graduation. The minister must defend before the public the government’s policies on education, even if he or she was opposed to the policy. And when parties to a local dispute at the school board or district level cannot come to an agreement, they will often call on the minister to intervene and settle the matter.

Being a government minister is an extremely demanding job. Leading a large and complex department is in itself a complicated task. But ministers must also participate in the work of the Cabinet as a whole, which means making decisions about all policy issues facing the province. Ministers are under constant pressure from various individuals and groups who wish to meet with them in order to influence what the government does. Ministers receive hundreds of such requests each year, just as they are asked to speak or appear at hundreds of public events. As politicians, ministers also have a responsibility to be in their constituency and available to the voters who elected them. Nor should we forget that ministers have personal lives and may reasonably want to spend time with family and friends.
Given all of this, no minister can possibly know all the details or activities under her or his authority. Most of the work of the department of education is done by civil servants within the broad guidelines set by the minister, or within agreements established by past practice. A great deal of this work is fairly routine or formalized. For example, the development of most new policies and procedures for schools normally proceeds through the work of committees, with the minister being involved, if at all, only at the end of the process in approving the final result. The issuing of certificates to new teachers (or teachers new to the province), the ongoing provision of money to school divisions, the approval of plans for new schools, the operation of distance education courses—all of these activities are usually performed under the supervision of Department of Education staff. The direct involvement of ministers is usually reserved for items of great long-term importance or for those having to do with important policy directions, politically sensitive issues, or crises.

The department’s civil service is headed by the deputy minister, who is a civil servant appointed by the Cabinet. At one time, provincial deputy ministers were almost always career educators, many of whom had previously been teachers, principals, and school superintendents. In recent years, however, many provincial governments have brought deputy ministers into education from other areas of government. Unlike most other civil servants, deputy ministers serve at the pleasure of the Cabinet, which means that they can be dismissed by a government at any time. It is common in Canada when a new political party takes office after an election for the new government to replace some deputy ministers with people who are more sympathetic to its changed policy directions.

The deputy minister coordinates the work of the department in all its multiple functions. A typical department of education will have units dealing with areas such as planning, school finance, curriculum development and assessment, special education, language programs, and renovation or construction of school buildings. All of these tasks require full-time attention and some technical expertise; thus, departments of education today tend to be large organizations (although smaller than they were a decade ago) employing hundreds of people, many of whom are professional educators (see Figure 2.1). The enormous range of issues dealt with in a department of education includes highly complex financial, legal, and technical questions, as well as issues typically thought of as educational, such as curriculum or school regulations.

Figure 2.1 British Columbia Ministry of Education Organization Chart

The Department of Education is a mix of political and professional authority, embodying the tension between professional and lay control mentioned earlier in the chapter. The civil servants are generally guided by their professional training and background. Their views of the needs of education are influenced by their own background and training. They may be quite resistant to what they see as a partisan political direction taken by a government that wants public schooling to move in a certain way. The minister, on the other hand, is primarily oriented toward the political agenda of the government and to his or her own personal views and interests. The deputy minister and senior officials are caught in the middle; they are guided by professional values, but their job is to serve the duly elected minister and government. Under these circumstances, a sort of tug-of-war may occur in which ministers try to push their departments to move in particular directions, and civil servants try to convince ministers to see issues in the same ways that the civil service does. Usually, neither party feels entirely satisfied. Ministers feel that though they are elected to bring in certain policies, their will is often frustrated by unelected civil servants. Civil servants, on the other hand, feel that ministers do not always understand the subtleties of education, and may be guided by short-term political considerations at the expense of long-term educational needs. These tensions are part of the process of government, and can contribute toward developing policies that are sensitive to both professional skills and public wants (Levin, 2005).



School boards across Canada currently find themselves in a politically difficult situation. They are caught between strong centralizing pressures from provincial governments and the contrary decentralizing pressures of parent councils and site-based management. Furthermore, they are faced with responsibility for setting school budgets at a time when public expectations are very high yet provincial governments increasingly determine not only how much money is available but also how it can be used (Sheppard, Galway, Brown & Wiens, 2013).In New Brunswick these sorts of pressures led to the abolition of school boards completely for a period of time (see Box 2.2), and in the past two decades some school board consolidation has taken place in every province. Nonetheless, local school boards remain an important element in the Canadian public school system, acting as the agents of provincial authority and a focal point for local input into the school system.

Working within the constraints laid down by provincial legislation and regulations, school boards are responsible for much of the day-to-day administration of schools. It is generally the boards that hire and pay school personnel, develop transportation systems and own the schools (although the costs of new schools are normally carried by the provinces). Boards build or close schools, set budgets, deal with local issues, and, in line with the discretionary powers delegated to them, adapt and modify the provincial curriculum.  School boards decide which programs will be offered in which schools and set the overall tone and direction for the district.

BOX 2.2 School Boards and District Education Councils in New Brunswick

The past decade has seen a great deal of upheaval in school governance in New Brunswick and dramatic shifts in the relationships between provincial and local decision-making in education.

The number of local school boards reduced from 42 to 18. Funding, collective bargaining, and control of the curriculum all provincial responsibilities.

School boards abolished in New Brunswick and all education employees became employees of the province. New system includes 2 Provincial Boards (one French, one English), 18 District Parent Advisory Councils, and local School Parent Advisory Committees. Participation on these bodies was limited to parents of school-aged children.

Provincial elections. New government committed to returning to locally elected governance structures.

Report of the Select Committee on Education, May 18, 2000, recommends a structure that provides for publicly and locally elected bodies at the district level with a continued role for local school committees.

As of July 1, 2001, District Parent Advisory Councils and Provincial Boards of Education were dissolved and replaced by 14 District Education Councils (nine Anglophone and five Francophone) each made up of between 11 and 13 elected members elected on a sub-district or ward basis. At the local school level School Parent Advisory Committees (SPACs) were replaced with Parent School Support Committees with expanded opportunities for participation and added roles.


As of July 1, 2012, the nine previous Anglophone districts were reduced to four: Anglophone School District North, Anglophone School District West, Anglophone School District South, and Anglophone School District East. The five previous Francophone districts were reduced to three: District scolaire francophone Nord-Est, District scolaire francophone Nord-Ouest, and District scolaire francophone Sud. Each of these newly amalgamated districts continued to be governed by new District Education Councils elected in May 2012. School level Parent School Support Committees (PSSCs) continued as before. Within the amalgamated districts, the organizational structure was amended to include senior education officers in charge of Education Centres in each district, often the site of the former district office.

Source: New Brunswick Department of Education website: <www.gov.nb.ca/education>.



Today, the local school board in a rural area is likely to be responsible for the administration of many elementary and secondary schools, spread out over a large geographical area and enrolling thousands of students. Urban school boards may have much larger enrolments. The Toronto District School Board in Ontario, formed in 1998 by the amalgamation of seven existing boards of education, has some 232,000 students attending close to 600 schools, making it the largest school board in Canada and one of the largest in North America.

This pattern of large local school districts is a recent phenomenon in Canada, the product of both the consolidation during the twentieth century of a patchwork of thousands of small, usually single school districts that provided an earlier structure for local educational authority, and a more recent period of provincially mandated amalgamations over the last two decades. In the section that follows, the early process of consolidation in Alberta is briefly outlined. Alberta was one of the first provinces to begin to create larger administrative units in earnest, and this development had considerable influence across Western Canada. While consolidation has since occurred in all provinces, it has not always taken exactly similar forms or at the same time, nor should any particular current consolidated arrangement be considered a “once-and-for-all” administrative arrangement.

Consolidation in Alberta

By the time Alberta entered Confederation in 1905, an educational system based on small local administrative districts, sometimes referred to as “four-by-fours”—four miles long and four miles wide—was well established. Some 600 such districts existed when Alberta was incorporated as a province, and with continued settlement and development in the early twentieth century, this number eventually surged to over 5 000.

While these small administrative units were in many ways well suited to the existing educational needs, economic conditions, available transportation systems, and political preferences, they also gave rise to administrative and educational problems. Their size, while facilitating student access and community input, was often perceived as an obstacle to the improvement of rural schooling. Small districts, it was argued, made it difficult to provide for education beyond the elementary grades; resulted in large discrepancies among districts in terms of their financial strength and the quality of education they provided; made it difficult to create stable working conditions and career options that could improve the professional status of teachers; and led to duplication and a related lack of economies of scale in the buying of school materials. Such concerns gave rise in the early decades of the twentieth century to a number of experiments in which local districts cooperated to create larger consolidated school districts covering up to 207 square kilometres, with students being transported to a central village or town school. This development began in Alberta with the formation of the Consolidated School District of Warner in 1913, and by 1919 there were 63 consolidated school districts in Alberta. However, this approach to consolidation lost its momentum, and after 1922 a number of consolidated districts were disbanded.

The limitations that small school districts posed to the development of secondary schooling resulted in several provinces moving to larger administrative units in two stages—the first involving only secondary schools, and the second bringing elementary schools into the secondary units to form a unified school system. In Alberta, the Consolidated School Act of 1921 made possible the creation of a number of rural high-school districts in which four to eight local districts combined for the purposes of providing secondary education (while maintaining their individual responsibility for elementary schools).

While a number of such districts were created in the 1920s, it was in 1936 that the largest step was taken in consolidating Alberta’s school districts, when by ministerial order all rural districts were absorbed into greatly enlarged administrative units referred to as school divisions. These divisions initially consisted only of rural districts and hamlets, but they were soon joined by most towns and villages, so that by 1939 there were some 44 divisions in operation across the province, and by 1959 there were 55 covering almost all of the rural settlement in Alberta. The divisions comprised between 70 and 80 school districts and covered from 3 885 to 5 180 square kilometres in area. Local districts remained in existence, but school divisions, governed by an elected board of trustees and supported by a full-time central office staff and a provincially appointed superintendent, assumed virtually all of their administrative responsibilities, leaving the district board with a very minor advisory role in matters related to religious instruction and the use of French in schools.

The 1950 County Act allowed for the establishment of counties in Alberta. These were to be a unified form of government that, instead of keeping separate municipal and educational responsibilities, combined them in a single administrative unit. Established in many parts of rural Alberta, they provided an alternative structure to the separately administered school divisions and municipal districts.

In the 1990s, Alberta, like virtually all other provinces, initiated a further consolidation and regionalization of its school boards. By a process of both voluntary and mandated amalgamation during 1994, the number of operating school boards in the province was reduced from some 141 to less than 70. Currently there are 62 public, separate and francophone school boards in Alberta (http://education.alberta.ca/admin/role.aspx).



As has already been noted, local school boards are required to act within the parameters laid down in provincial legislation and regulations, and are held accountable to the provincial government through the minister of education. However, school boards are also, in most cases, subject to local election every few years, which obliges them to reflect the educational aspirations of their local voters.

When school boards were responsible for very small jurisdictions, the most common number of board members, called trustees, was either three or five. Today, school boards generally consist of seven to fifteen trustees, although there are some boards that exceed this size. It is normal in most provinces for trustees to be elected, either by the electorate of the school district as a whole or in individual wards; under the latter system, the district is subdivided into wards, each of which elects one or more trustees to represent its interests on the board. In recent years, an important modification to this process has been the institution of legal provisions by some provinces and territories to ensure the representation of specific minority populations on their school boards. This has generally involved Francophone and Aboriginal populations, and in Nova Scotia, since 2000, African-Canadian representation. In Ontario, since 1998, school boards that operate secondary schools have been required under the Education Act to appoint at least one pupil representative (or “student trustee”) to provide advice to the elected trustees. These pupil representatives do not vote on board decisions or attend in-camera meetings. Nonetheless, they do represent a new and significant attempt to provide for a student voice in school board deliberations (Lindeman, 2004).

There are few restrictions on who can run for election to a school board. The Manitoba Public Schools Act, for example, states that anyone who is (1) a resident elector of the division, (2) at least 18 years old, and (3) a Canadian citizen can run for election to the school board. Once elected, it is the trustees collectively who constitute the board as a corporate body with a legally defined range of duties. This collective constitution is important because it means that the board exercises its authority only as a single corporate entity and not through the actions of individual members.
As with their counterparts at the provincial level, the elected school board members are generally assisted by a professional administration headed by a CEO, variously referred to as superintendent or director of education. The size of the board office administration is usually related to the size of the district. Many of the same tensions that exist between provincial politicians and professionals can also be found between school boards and their superintendents.
Superintendents may feel that trustees are uninformed about education, and have agendas that are short term and much too heavily influenced by re-election considerations. Trustees may feel that their professional staff are insufficiently concerned with what the public thinks, and too unwilling to accept any criticism. As at the provincial level, this tension can be positive or negative, depending on how well the parties are able to work together to take best advantage of their different viewpoints. Trustees have the last word in that the school board hires and can fire the superintendent. While firings of superintendents do occur in Canadian school districts, it is also common for superintendents to serve many years or to leave voluntarily for another position, usually in a larger district.

School boards are mandated both to ensure local compliance with provincial laws and to be responsive to community interests (which may themselves be multiple and contradictory). Their situation can fluctuate quite rapidly from public disinterest reflected in low voter turnout at elections, acclamations, and empty board meetings to passionate, and even violent, involvement characterized by packed board meetings and electoral defeat for trustees. Action can come as a consequence of either competing local interests or as conflicts between local and provincial agendas. The following examples describe only some of the controversial issues that school boards are likely to address.

1.   Setting budgets. Deciding issues such as cutting or increasing budgets, hiring and laying off teachers, and reducing services.
2.   Personnel. In some provinces, negotiating collective agreements for professional and support staff. Defining working conditions in areas such as class size, preparation time, maternity/paternity leaves, and pensions.  Assigning principals to particular schools.
3.   Facilities. Deciding on school closures and school openings, as well as reorganization; selecting which schools will offer which programs; and determining how transportation will be provided.
4.   Programming. Deciding on the provision of programs other than those mandated by the province (e.g., international baccalaureate programs, AIDS and family life education, and minority language programs).



The processes of consolidation outlined earlier in this chapter substantially altered the balance of authority in most provincial school systems. The trend of shifting power away from the school neighbourhood or community, and away from direct public involvement, continued as the larger school divisions came to depend increasingly on the professional expertise of their superintendents and staffs. A couple of decades ago, attempts began in most provinces to strengthen the role of local voices—particularly those of parents—in the education system. This has been done by giving legal status to a variety of parent advisory committees, school councils, and orientation committees at the school level, together with an elected membership and an expanded role in influencing the ongoing life of the school (Brien & Stelmach, 2009; Rideout, 1995).

While such initiatives have seen the inclusion of different “stakeholders” and the delegation of different degrees of authority over various elements of school life, most have sought to include a greater advisory or consultative role for parents in a broad range of school-related issues (see Table 2.3). The phrase “partners in learning” characterizes the idealized relationship between parent and teacher, family, community, and school. Justifications for such initiatives have come from at least three directions: (1) the growing research literature that indicates that parental participation has positive effects on student learning; (2) social and political arguments that support parental rights to advocate on their children’s behalf over matters of education; and (3) a pragmatic argument that suggests that the availability of the resources necessary for public schooling in the future will depend increasingly on the political support of parents in the face of increased competition from other sources.


Table 2.3: Parental Participation in School Governance in Canada

Province and Council Name Date Legislation and Background Documents Composition
British Columbia School Planning Councils 2002 Bill 34 School Board Flexibility Bill 3 parents, 1 teacher, school principal.
Alberta School Councils 1995 School Act; revised Policy 1.8.3 (2003) 1 principal, 1 or more teachers, 1 student, parents of students in the school, another parent or community member.
Saskatchewan School Community Councils



Education Act Sec. 140 5-9 elected parents, guardians or community members. Members may be appointed by a board of education.
Manitoba Advisory Councils for School Leadership



Educational Administration Act 7 members with 2/3 parents and 1/3 non-parents including community members. Teachers and staff may be elected but may not number more than the community members.
Ontario School Councils 1995 Policy/Program Memorandum No. 122 Principal, 1 teacher, parents representatives, non-parent community members.
Quebec School Councils 1998 Bill 180 (1997) Students, parents, teachers, staff and community representatives. Principal ex-officio.
New Brunswick 2001 Amendment to the Education Act Parents. District education councils.
Nova Scotia School Advisory Councils 1996   Students, parents, teachers, staff and community representatives.
Prince Edward Island School Councils 1995 The School Act, Sec. 66 Parents, teachers and principal. Students may also be represented.
Newfoundland and Labrador School Councils 1996 Royal Commission (1996); Bill 48, Sec. 26 of the Education Act Parents, teachers, and principal have an advisory role.
Yukon School Councils 1990 Education Act Parent and community members. First Nations representation guaranteed.

Source: Adapted from Chan et al., 2007.

The Yukon, with the passing of the 1990 Education Act, provides an interesting example of a significant attempt to decentralize and democratize its educational system, and to establish a broad base for local participation in, and control over, schools. Under the provisions of the act, existing school committees, which prior to the act had only a limited advisory role, are encouraged to evolve into school councils or school boards with substantial authority over the operations of the local school. School councils of three to seven members (which may include guaranteed representation for Yukon First Nations populations) have substantial powers, subject to ministerial approval, over such matters as the selection of the school principal, approval of school rules, development of local curriculum, and evaluation and dismissal of teachers. After at least one year, the parents in the educational area served by the council may vote to become a school board and to assume increased powers over all areas of their school’s operations.
As another example, in Quebec parental participation and public accountability on the part of schools were  along with the already mentioned reorganization of school boards, a central part of the province’s educational reform agenda a decade or so ago. To achieve this objective, provision was made for the creation of elected school governing bodies. These school governing bodies, required under the Education Act, offer a forum for community input and public accessibility, involvement, and accountability. Comprising parents, teachers, non-teaching and support staff, and, at the secondary level, students, the governing body is expected to play an important role in creating a school whose whole ethos is responsive to the community it serves (see Box 2.3).
After twenty years of such efforts and legislation, however, the overall impact can only be called modest.  There are more structures to involve parents, and schools are more sensitive than they used to be to the wishes and demands of local communities, but the move towards more local participation has not resulted in dramatic changes in how schools work or what they do.



The role of the federal government in Canadian education is an unusual one. Canada is the only industrialized country that has no federal office or department of education. Even in other federal states, such as Germany, there is a significant role in education for the national government. In Canada, federal activity in education, while it exists, is limited. Thus, there are different arrangements in each province for curricula, teacher certification, and even grades within the school system.

BOX 2.3 Provisions for Elected School Governing Bodies in the Quebec Education Act (Updated to June 2014)

42. A governing board shall be established for each school. The governing board, which shall have not more than 20 members, shall include the following persons:

(1) at least four parents of students attending the school who are not members of the school staff, elected by their peers;
(2) at least four members of the school staff, including at least two teachers and, if the persons concerned so decide, at least one non-teaching staff member and at least one support staff member, elected by their peers;
(3) in the case of a school providing education to students in the second cycle of the secondary level, two students in that cycle elected by the students enrolled at the secondary level or, as the case may be, appointed by the students’ committee or the association representing those students;
(4)    in the case of a school where childcare is organized for children at the pre-school and elementary school level, a member of the staff assigned to childcare, elected by his or her peers;
(5) two representatives of the community who are not members of the school staff.
The students’ representatives and community representatives on the governing board are not entitled to vote.

46. The principal of the school staff shall take part in the meetings of the governing board but is not entitled to vote.

56. The governing board shall choose its chair from among the parents’ representatives.

64. Every decision of the governing board must be made in the best interests of the students.

68. The meetings of the governing board are open to the public.

74. The governing board shall analyze the situation prevailing at the school, principally the needs of the students, the challenges tied to student success and the characteristics and expectations of the community served by the school. Based on the analysis and taking into account the strategic plan of the school board, the governing board shall adopt, oversee the implementation of and periodically evaluate the school's educational project. In exercising such functions, the governing board shall seek the collaboration of persons having an interest in the school. To that end, the governing board shall encourage the communication of information, dialogue and concerted action between students, parents, the principal, teachers and other school staff members and community representatives, and their collaboration in helping students to achieve success.

75. The governing board is responsible for approving the school's success plan, and any updated version of the plan, proposed by the principal.

75.1. The governing board is responsible for approving the anti-bullying and anti-violence plan, and any updated version of the plan, proposed by the principal. The main purpose of the plan must be to prevent and stop all forms of bullying and violence targeting a student, a teacher or any other school staff member.

83. Each year, the governing board shall inform the parents and the community served by the school of the services provided by the school and report on the level of quality of such services.
The governing board shall make public the educational project and the success plan of the school. Each year, the governing board shall report on the evaluation of the implementation of the success plan.

While the provisions of Section 93 of the Constitution Act give primacy to provincial authority over education and to the structures outlined in the preceding pages, the act does not preclude federal government involvement. As education grew in importance in Canada, the federal government has made various efforts to play a more important role, and today it continues to have a presence in education despite the constitutional provisions of Section 93 (http://cmec.ca/299/Education-in-Canada-An-Overview/index.html). Some educational programs are run directly by the federal government, while others are collaborative ventures run jointly with the provinces or other educational authorities. (The federal role in the funding of education through transfer payments to the provinces is dealt with separately in Chapter 5.)

A major area of federal activity arises out of attempts to address the educational requirements of those areas of federal jurisdiction spelled out in Section 91 of the Constitution Act (e.g., national defence, Indian affairs, the territories, prisons, external affairs, and the economy). Thus, the federal Department of National Defence is responsible not only for the education of service personnel, but also for the education of children of members of the armed forces, either through the operation of schools on military bases or through agreements with nearby school boards. In the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut territorial departments of education perform functions generally similar to those of the provinces, they are funded primarily by the federal government.

The federal government, through the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada, has in recent years worked to develop a national strategy for promoting international education (Advisory Panel on Canada’s International Education Strategy, 2012; Canada, 2014). Encompassing both K-12 and post-secondary education this strategy covers foreign students studying in Canada, Canadian students studying abroad, collaboration between Canadian education institutions and those in other countries, and the exporting of Canadian education models to other countries (Canada, 2014).  

Of considerable significance in this regard is Canada’s membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) established in January 2000 and the ongoing global negotiations taking place through the WTO to liberalize trade in services under the General Agreement on Trades in Services (GATS) (Canada, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade [DFAIT], 2003). In its participation in these negotiations designed to promote international trade and competition and the opening up of international markets to foreign service providers, Canada’s position has been that, while it is seeking increased access to international markets for the export of Canadian educational services, foreign access to Canada’s public education is non-negotiable (DFAIT, 2003). To do this, Canadian government representatives have drawn a distinction between “commercial education” and “public education” and remained committed to keeping public education out of the GATS negotiations. While advocates of the GATS negotiations argue for the substantial economic benefits that could be gained from exporting Canadian educational expertise, others see the process as presenting very dangerous threats to the integrity of public education in Canada. In this regard Grieshaber-Otto and Sanger (2002) suggest that the aims of GATS conflict with the basic principles underlying public education:

The impetus of the GATS is to expand commercial opportunities to foreign service providers and investors—in short, to commercialize services. Canada’s public education system exists to ensure free, high quality education for all regardless of citizens’ financial circumstances or their ability to pay. (p. v)



The provision of education for Aboriginal people is a critical issue in Canadian education—one that is very closely related to the broader questions of the purposes of schooling that were raised in Chapter 1, as well as to issues of authority and structure already introduced in this chapter.

Aboriginal peoples of Canada are defined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as including Indian, Inuit, and Métis people of Canada. According to The Statistics Canada National Household Survey the Aboriginal population of Canada in 2011 was 1,400,685 or 4.3 per cent of the total Canadian population. According to this survey this population was made up of 851,560 First Nations, 451,795 Métis, and 59,445 Inuit peoples.  Among the First Nations population 637,660, or 74.9% of First Nations people, identified themselves as Registered Indians and 213,900, or 25.1% Non-Registered (Statistics Canada, 2011). While the funding of education for registered/status Indians on reserves is provided by the federal government, providing education for the children of non-registered/non-status off-reserve Indians and Métis people is normally a provincial responsibility. As this latter population has become increasingly off-reserve, the educational needs of Aboriginal students have become increasingly important issues for many school divisions.

The term “Indian” is used in this chapter section as primarily a legal term to refer to those people who have the status of registered Indian as defined by the Indian Act. Beyond this legal distinction the term has little utility and is often considered pejorative: used by Europeans to identify Aboriginal people of America, it homogenizes an ethnically and linguistically diverse group of people. For political identification, the term “First Nations” is preferred by many Aboriginal people to refer to the various governments of the Aboriginal people of Canada. The Assembly of First Nations (1988, pp. 45–46) uses “First Nations” rather than “Indians,” “tribes,” and “bands” (terms used extensively by the federal and provincial governments), and as a noun-adjunct instead of “Indian” in phrases such as “Indian education.” (See Keslar (2009) for a careful overview of Canadian Aboriginal identity and terminology.)

The Indian Act, first introduced in 1876 and revised several times since, provides the legal framework that has regulated the federal government’s relationship with registered Indians. Administrative responsibility has resided primarily with the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. Sections 114 to 122 of the Indian Act deal specifically with schooling. Section 114 addresses the question of control over schools. It states:

1.   The Governor in Council may authorize the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs in accordance with this Act to enter into agreements on behalf of Her Majesty for the education in accordance with this Act of Indian children, with:
a)   the government of a province
b)   the Commissioner of the Northwest Territories
c)   the Commissioner of the Yukon Territory
(c.1)     the Commissioner of Nunavut
d)   a public or separate school board, and
e)   a religious or charitable organization.

Nowhere in this list of potential purveyors of education is there recognition given to Indian consultation or to the legitimacy of Indian control of Indian education.

Residential Schools

The early history of the implementation of the Indian Act saw the federal government enlist the services of the churches to operate schools among Indian communities. Over the years, a number of different institutional forms were experimented with, ranging from local day schools to residential schools. Residential schools took on different forms in different contexts including industrial schools, boarding schools, student residences, and hostels. A system of residential schools existed across every province and territory except New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, with close to 100 schools operating at its height (INAC, 2004). The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996) outlines the federal government’s rationale for residential schools as follows:

The tragic legacy of residential education began in the late nineteenth century with a three part vision of education in the service of assimilation. It included, first, a justification for removing children from their communities and disrupting Aboriginal families; second, a precise pedagogy for re-socializing children in the schools; and third, schemes for integrating graduates into the non-Aboriginal world. (p. 337)

The damage that this school system inflicted on many students and families is now becoming well documented particularly through the work of theIndian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commissionestablished in 2008 and the acknowledgement by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in an officialStatement of Apology to Former Students of Indian Residential Schoolson June 11th, 2008.

In the 1950s the federal government began to take direct charge of Indian education and to operate its own schools, and most residential schools had ceased to operate by the mid-1970s. In the 1960s, under a new federal vision of Indian education, there was a movement toward integrating Indian children into the provincial school systems, either through master tuition agreements between federal and provincial governments (negotiated without Indian consultation or agreement) or through individual agreements between the federal government and local school boards. However, throughout this period the federal government also continued to operate many of its own schools, and, despite changes in the ways in which federal responsibility for Indian schooling was carried out prior to the 1970s, there was much that did not change. First, the structure and content of Indian schools and their curricula were always defined and controlled by non-Indians. Second, the definition of an appropriate curriculum considered Indian cultures, languages, histories, and identities as essentially irrelevant. Third, Indian schools were, with very few exceptions, unsuccessful by almost any definition.

Educational Renewal

Since the 1970s, First Nations communities have struggled to change the circumstances imposed on them by the federal government, asserting the importance of an education that reflects their histories, languages, values, and aspirations, and over which they alone exercise control. The National Indian Brotherhood (1972) stated clearly:

If we are to avoid the conflict of values which in the past has led to withdrawal and failure, Indian parents must have control of education with the responsibility for setting goals. What we want for our children can be summarized very briefly: to reinforce their Indian identity; and to provide the training necessary for making a good living in a modern society. We are the best judges of the kind of school programs which can contribute to these goals without causing damage to the child. (p. 3)

The Assembly of First Nations (1988), in a declaration of First Nations jurisdiction over education, restated and re-framed this position within a jurisdictional claim of sovereign self-government by asserting that

[e]ducation is one of the most important issues in the struggle for self-government and must contribute towards the objectives of self-government. First Nations governments have the right to exercise their authority in all areas of First Nations education. Until First Nations education institutions are recognized and controlled by First Nations government, no real First Nations education exists. The essential principles are that each First Nation government should make its own decisions and arrangements rather than having them imposed from outside. (Vol. 1, p. 47)

In 1973, the federal government stated that it was prepared to accept the principle of local control. Important steps toward that end have since been taken although as a number of recent reports (Assembly of First Nations 2010; Auditor General of Canada, 2011; Canada, 2011) have all documented much remains to be done to create a holistic and lifelong education relevant to the contemporary needs and aspirations of First Nations people. Key priorities identified in these reports include: addressing the current generally recognized federal under-funding of First Nations school systems; developing and funding new arrangements for providing those secondary and tertiary level services provided in provincial schools at the school board or provincial levels (e.g. consultants, psychologists, curriculum developers); developing and funding improved Aboriginal language programs; improved teacher preparation and professional development opportunities for First Nations teachers and administrators; and, the creation of a First Nations Education Act that would provide a stable operating framework for school systems that currently does not exist.

Today, approximately 60 percent of registered Indian students attend band-controlled or First Nations schools; a large majority of the remainder attend provincially operated schools. A few federal government schools continue to exist, and private schools also play a role in the education of registered Indian students, as shown in Table 2.4.
No single blueprint for Aboriginal self-government in education exists; indeed a central principle of self-government is that local communities and individual First Nations should be free to develop their own plans without outside interference. Across Canada this has seen innovation at the local and provincial levels. In February 1997, an agreement between the federal government, the provincial government of Nova Scotia, and the Mi’kmaq Chiefs of Nova Scotia provided the first agreement in Canada to transfer jurisdiction for education from the federal government to First Nations communities.

Offering a model of how First Nations’ jurisdiction in education might develop into a national educational network,The Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples(1996, Vol. 3, pp. 563–65) laid out a proposal for a four-tiered system that would involve local community, individual First Nations, multi-nation organizations, and Canada-wide networks collaborating to provide a comprehensive Aboriginal education system However over the ensuing twenty years, many proposals for substantive changes in First Nations education have been made but few have come to fruition for various reasons.


Table 2.4 Elementary/Secondary Enrollments on Reserves by Type of School, 2011-2012








Atlatic Provinces


Band Operated Schools

4 788

9 004

15 130

15 567

11 699

6 310

3 893

66 388

Provincial Schools

8 192

6 648

3 434

5 392

6 007

9 001

2 190

40 863

Private Schools








1 925

Federal Schools





1 330



1 421

TOTAL (Full-time equivalent students)

13 618

15 922

18 666

21 114

19 520

15 661

6 098

110 597

Source: Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. Federal Funding Levels for First Nations K-12 Education. Available at https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1349140116208/1349140158945


Federal Collaboration in Provincial Schooling

In addition to those areas directly responsible for the delivery of educational services, the federal government plays a role in representing what it sees as the national interest in the provincial educational arena. Such initiatives have taken many forms, but the common element is the provision of federal funds in their support. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Canada Studies Program, administered by the Department of the Secretary of State, represented such an initiative. In response to concerns expressed about students’ ignorance of their own country, this program saw considerable resources allocated to the production and implementation of elementary and high-school curriculum materials. Similarly, the Secretary of State continues to provide the Official Languages in Education Program, which is directed toward educating official minority language students in their mother tongue and toward promoting bilingualism. In this program, the federal government enters into bilateral agreements with the various provinces to provide money in support of minority language programs, including immersion ones. Federal funds have played a major role in expanding immersion and protecting other minority language education opportunities.

Vocational and technical training is another area in which the federal government has a long history of collaboration and conflict with the provinces. Federal activity in this area, justified by the federal government’s responsibility for national economic development, began in the first decades of the twentieth century. In the 1960s, the federal government provided, through the Technical and Vocational Assistance Act (1960), funds for building technical and vocational high schools and departments in existing high schools. The federal government’s concern with producing a better-trained Canadian labour force continued into the 1980s and 1990s. Its 1990 Stay-in-School initiative was designed to combat high-school dropout rates. In announcing this program, the government press release noted that, “while education is a provincial responsibility, it is one of the federal government’s main responsibilities to establish national labour market policies and programs …. Ensuring that young people are prepared for the transition from school to the workforce is a shared responsibility” (Canada, 1990). A recent federal initiative has been to support schools across the country accessing the Internet through the development of SchoolNet<www.schoolnet.ca>.



Canada has a number of organizations that are involved with education at the national level. The provinces, worried about growing federal involvement in education, created in 1967 the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC). CMEC is made up of all the provincial ministers of education and higher or postsecondary education (a number that can be as high as twenty depending on whether these two areas are the responsibility of one or two ministers in each province). The council usually acts only when all of the ministers agree, and this does not happen often on matters of import. Thus, the organization has, for most of its history, had only limited impact on Canadian education. CMEC has also developed a set of pan-Canadian achievement tests to measure Canadian students’ learning in different curriculum areas as part of the School Achievement Indicators Program. These tests have been administered regularly in different subject areas to a random sample of 13- and 16-year-old students across Canada (Statistics Canada and Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, 1999) and provide an example of pan-Canadian activity by the Council of Ministers of Education.

Another long-standing national educational organization is the Canadian Education Association (CEA), now more than 100 years old, which is made up of both individual members and organizations such as provincial governments, universities, and school districts. CEA attempts to be a nonpartisan information exchange, promoting discussion of educational issues.

Each of the major interest groups in Canada also has a national organization to lobby on its behalf. The Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) represents English-speaking Canadian teachers. The Canadian School Boards’ Association includes school districts across Canada. The Canadian Association of School Administrators (CASA) has a membership primarily of school superintendents, while the Canadian Association of Principals (CAP) is the umbrella group for school principals. None of these organizations, however, plays a very important role in shaping provincial or national policy in education.



Education’s “structure” consists of those more permanent sets of relationships of power that are formalized through laws, regulations, and policies, and that regulate the day-to-day operation of schools and school systems. While there is much that is relatively unchanging in these structures (as was suggested in our examination of the educational debates in Upper Canada in the mid-nineteenth century), there is also much that continues to change. Provincial government reforms, the contemporary struggle for Aboriginal self-government, challenges over minority language rights, and the implications of economic globalization are each likely to require that we develop new relationships to meet the educational needs of a changing world. That these structures are neither necessarily permanent nor necessarily right, but rather a reflection of a particular set of interests expressed at a particular point in time, requires that we understand what those interests are. A central concern of this chapter was examining who exercises the power that defines the form of public schooling, and how this power is regulated and legitimated. What is clear in both a historical and contemporary context is that the “public” to whom public schools were held accountable has been a particularly exclusive group. It is to this question of the struggle for power—the politics of public schooling—that we turn in Chapter 3.



1.   The prologue to this chapter outlined some of the complexities of both school board decision making and Aboriginal education in Canada. In the prologue, Norman has to decide what to say and how to vote in an upcoming board meeting. Based on the information in this chapter, identify what you consider to be the essential issues in the case study and prepare a presentation for Norman that details what you think the board should be doing, and why.

2.   This chapter has described Canada’s public school system as being centralized at the provincial level. Find out more about the educational system of a country that is either more centralized (for example France or Korea) or decentralized (for example the Netherlands or the US), and use your findings to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of a centralized system.

3.   Some observers believe that school boards have outlived their usefulness and should be abolished. Write an argument either defending or critiquing this view.

4.   Does your province recognize separate (religious) schools? If so in what ways? Trace the origins of separate schools (or lack of them) in your jurisdiction.

5.   Find out who the minister of education is in your province. What is this person’s background? What policy positions or issues is he or she presently tackling? (You may want to undertake this assignment by contacting to the minister’s office, in which case part of your study could be what sort of response you get, from whom, and when.)

6.   Interview a trustee from your local school board. Ask him or her about what the board does, what the role of the trustee is, how he or she came to the position, and what issues are of major concern.

7.   Assume that your school board is opening a new school next year. It is hoped that the school will be a model of school–community collaboration. Prepare a plan for community involvement that would include deciding (1) who constitutes “the community” (parents, students, residents, businesses, and so forth); (2) which areas of school life the community would and would not be involved in; (3) what you mean by “collaboration”; and (4) how you would regulate collaboration.

8.   Examine the history and purposes of residential schools in Canada with the meanings of “education” and the “purposes of schools” discussed earlier in Chapter 1 of this book.

9.   With few exceptions, the student voice is accorded little formal place in Canadian school governance. As yet, students are not generally included in the concept of “the public” to which schools are accountable. Suggest ways in which students could be given a greater part in the administration of their school systems.

10. Canada is one of the few countries in the world without a federal government ministry or department of education. Is this appropriate? Why or why not? What arrangements might be most suitable for the federal role in education?