Formal education has a complicated history in Canada. Loyalists and other American immigrants brought with them a stronger tradition of education than what existed in New France (outside of the main towns), which much of British North America inherited. This was evident in the West during the first two decades of the 19th century when the HBC established schools at Red River for the mixed-blood offspring of its employees and when North West Company men lobbied for a school at Fort William or Rainy Lake for the education of their métis children. A basic education was regarded by these men as a critical and fair demand; they valued fundamental reading and writing skills in particular.
Parochial, Private, Public
In contrast, illiteracy was the norm in rural Lower Canada. Many Canadiens saw little value in formal education. Farm life was trying, subsistence farming even more so, and all hands were required to work. Even children worked at farm labour from a very young age.
In 1846 the united Province of Canada passed the Common School Act, which took education out of private hands for the most part, but the legislation had little impact in smaller, poorer districts. The law called for a tax assessment on residents to cover school construction, and the execution of the policy was to be guided by locally elected school commissioners. Poor farmers greeted the new levy with resentment and the commissions attracted the few literate residents in a community, individuals who weren’t always typical of the larger population. Suspicion of education as a tool for assimilation of French speakers by the dominant English regime was rampant (and, in Lower Canada in the aftermath of the Durham Report, that was a reasonable response).
In the growing towns of the Canadas, formal education remained something only a minority enjoyed at mid-century. In Hamilton, for example, it is estimated that barely half the population between the ages of 5 and 16 attended school. The share only crept above 40% between the ages of 7 and 13. Education could, of course, be delivered by private tutors in the homes of the better-off citizens, and being schooled abroad was an option for the children of the elites. Throughout the 19th century, the children of the more senior HBC traders and their Aboriginal wives were often sent to Britain for their education.
The rise of widespread, publicly supported schooling in mid-century was one more expression of a growing democratic sentiment, one that linked education to individual accomplishment and social improvement. A better educated society was better equipped to handle democratic responsibilities and promised to be more economically dynamic. As well, it was believed that schooling could address in some measure the perceived problems associated with unemployed, disruptive, perhaps criminal, and possibly pauper children on the streets of the growing towns and cities. In the same way, too, public schooling was wielded as a weapon against social disorder that might follow in the wake of immigration. These motivations reflect a particular urban, Anglo-Saxon, and moralistic perspective on both childhood and Irish immigration.
Not everyone subscribed to the view that either concern was significant, but enough did together that they shaped the language and legislation around schools. That said, what education most boys in British North America received prior to mid-century was informal and limited. “Sunday schools” became highly popular in England in the 18th century and soon spread to British North America: these were the only educational venues many boys and girls would ever see, despite the changing views in support of formal learning.
In the 1840s growing interest in a common project of secular education raised questions about teacher training. Normal schools began to appear across the colonies and the colonial administrations began to take an active role in developing curriculum and education systems. This process should be viewed in the context of the broader ethos of reform as it was emerging in the mid-century. As we shall see in Chapter 11, reform took a particular shape when it came to formal politics, but more generally it called for the betterment of a broader slice of society. Old social relations were being tested. Demands were rising for greater opportunities to improve those things thought to be essential to personal achievement. Education certainly fell into this category. But, as historian and social scientist Bruce Curtis has indicated, it was a potentially divisive if not explosive issue: