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Educational Discourse and the Making of Educational Legislation in Early Upper Canada

  • Anthony Di Mascio


In 1787, a group of American refugee settlers in the western portion of Quebec, which would become the colony of Upper Canada in 1791, collectively petitioned the Governor General, Lord Dorchester, for schools. They insisted, in fact, on a relatively comprehensive network of schools funded directly through the government purse. Dorchester responded by appointing William Smith, the former Chief Justice of New York State with whom he had formed a political friendship during the American War of Independence, to head a special committee to report on the state of education throughout the entire province. Several hundred copies of the report were printed and released in 1789. The report recommended a government-supported tripartite elementary, secondary, and university school system. The recommendations were not acted upon, but the report's ideas lingered in public discourse for years to come. In the writing of the origins of schooling in Upper Canada, this report has not received considerable attention. Moreover, the intentions and goals of these early settlers advocating for government-aided schooling are characteristically overlooked. In the dominant view, the building of Upper Canada's school system was motivated by the bureaucratization and institutionalization concerns of major school advocates and politicians in the mid-nineteenth century.

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1 “Petition of the Western Loyalists,” 15 April 1787, in Documents Relating to the Constitutional History of Canada, 1759–1791, ed. Doughty, Arthur G. and Adam Shortt (Ottawa: J. de L. Taché, 1918), 949–51. Upper Canada would be renamed Canada West after union with Lower Canada in 1841, and would subsequently become the province of Ontario after the Confederation of Canada in 1867.

2 On the other hand, the report has received relatively considerable attention in Quebec educational history. See, for example: Louis-Philippe Audet, Histoire de l'enseignement au Quebec, 1608–1971, 2 vols. (Montreal: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1971); Dufour, Andrée Histoire de l'éducation au Quebec (Montreal: Boréal, 1997); Magnuson, Roger The Two Worlds of Quebec Education During the Traditional Era, 1760–1940 (London, Ontario: Althouse Press, 2005).

3 See Bethune, A. N. Memoir of the Right Reverend John Strachan, First Bishop of Toronto (Toronto: Henry Rowsell, 1870); Burwash, Nathanael Egerton Ryerson (Toronto: G. N. Morang, 1903); Putnam, J. Harold Egerton Ryerson and Education in Upper Canada (Toronto: William Briggs, 1912); C. B. Sissons, Egerton Ryerson: His Life and Letters, 2 vols. (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, and Company, 1937–47); Spragge, George W. “John Strachan's Contribution to Education, 1800–1823,” Canadian Historical Review 12 (1941): 147–58; Phillips, C. E. The Development of Education in Canada (Toronto: W. J. Gage Limited, 1957); Boorman, Silvia John Toronto: A Biography of Bishop Strachan (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, and Company, 1969); Henderson, J. L. H. John Strachan, 1778–1867 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969); Flint, David John Strachan, Pastor and Politician (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1971).

4 See Donald Wilson, J. Stamp, Robert M. and Audet, Louis-Philippe, ed., Canadian Education: A History (Toronto: Prentice Hall, 1970); Houston, Susan “Politics, Schools, and Social Change in Upper Canada,” Canadian Historical Review 53 (1972): 249–71; Katz, Michael B. and Mattingly, Paul H. ed., Education and Social Change: Themes from Ontario's Past (New York: New York University Press, 1975); Prentice, Alison The School Promoters: Education and Social Class in Mid-Nineteenth Century Upper Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977); McDonald, Neil and Chaiton, Alf, ed., Egerton Ryerson and His Times (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1978).

5 See Curtis, BruceThe Political Economy of Elementary Educational Development: Comparative Perspectives on State Schooling in Upper Canada” (PhD dissertation, University of Toronto, 1980); Houston, Susan and Alison Prentice, Schooling and Scholars in Nineteenth-Century Ontario (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988); Curtis, Bruce Building the Educational State: Canada West, 1836–1871 (London, Ontario: Althouse Press, 1988); Curtis, Bruce True Government By Choice Men? Inspection, Education, and State Formation in Canada West (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992).

6 See Gidney, R. D.Centralization and Education: The Origins of an Ontario Tradition,” Journal of Canadian Studies 7, no. 4 (1972): 3348; Gidney, R. D. “Elementary Education in Upper Canada: A Reassessment,” Ontario History 65, no. 3 (1973): 169–85; Gidney, R. D. and Lawr, D. A. “Egerton Ryerson and the Origins of the Ontario Secondary School,” Canadian Historical Review 60, no. 4 (1979): 442–465; Gidney, R. D. and Lawr, D. A. “Bureaucracy vs. Community? The Origins of Bureaucratic Procedure in the Upper Canadian School System? Journal of Social History 13, no. 3 (1980): 438–457; Lawr, D. A. and Gidney, R. D. “Who Ran the Schools? Local Influence on Education Policy in Nineteenth-Century Ontario,” Ontario History 72, no. 3 (1980): 131–43; Gidney, R. D. “Making Nineteenth-Century School Systems: The Upper Canadian Experience and Its Relevance to English Historiography,” History of Education 9, no. 2 (1980): 101–16; R. D. Gidney and W. P.J. Millar, “From Voluntarism to State Schooling: The Creation of the Public School System in Ontario,” Canadian Historical Review 66, no. 4 (1985): 443–73; Gidney, R. D. and Miller, W. P.J. Inventing Secondary Education: The Rise of the High School in Nineteenth-Century Ontario (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1990); Smaller, Harry “Teachers and Schools in Early Ontario,” Ontario History 85, no. 4 (1993): 291–308.

7 Two major exceptions in the historiography are Purdy's, J. D. 1962 doctoral thesis, “John Strachan and Education in Canada, 1800–1851” (PhD dissertation, University of Toronto, 1962) and Wilson's, J. Donald 1971 doctoral thesis, “Foreign and Local Influences on Popular Education in Upper Canada, 1815–1844” (PhD dissertation, University of Western Ontario, 1971). These scholars, however, overwhelmingly concentrate on educational decisions made at the level of the political elite.

8 Errington, Elizabeth Jane Wives and Mothers, Schoolmistresses and Scullery Maids: Working Women in Upper Canada, 1190–1840 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1995); “Ladies and Schoolmistresses: Educating Women in Early Nineteenth-Century Upper Canada,” Historical Studies in Education 6, no. 1 (1994): 71–96. Similar themes are found in Prentice, Alison and Theobald, Marjorie, ed., Women Who Taught: Perspectives on the History of Women and Teaching (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991) and Heap, Ruby and Prentice, Alison, ed., Gender and Education in Ontario (Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press, 1991).

9 Gaffield, ChadChildren, Schooling, and Family Reproduction in Nineteenth-Century Ontario,” Canadian Historical Review 72, no. 2 (1991): 157–91.

10 Axelrod, Paul The Promise of Schooling: Education in Canada, 1800–1914 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997). See especially Chapter 2, “Building the Educational State.”

11 McNairn, Jeffrey L. The Capacity to Judge: Public Opinion and Deliberative Democracy in Upper Canada, 1191–1854 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000).

12 Wilton, Carol Popular Politics and Political Culture in Upper Canada, 1800–1850 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2000).

13 The circulation statistics of the colonial newspapers and their readership information is limited; however, it is safe to assume that participation in print culture discourse was probably limited to those who were the most likely to be literate and able to purchase print media material. Determining who such people were, however, raises more challenging questions. The evidence indicates that print culture in Upper Canada was not a parochial one, and that a range of groups had access to print media. Jeffrey McNairn has demonstrated that women, for example, often managed newspapers during the absence of their editor-husbands; others retained ownership of newspapers as widows. Moreover, William Lyon Mackenzie, editor and proprietor of the Colonial Advocate, reported Mississauga Aboriginals at Credit River among his subscribers. Literacy levels in Upper Canada furthermore indicate that social class did not necessarily serve as a barrier for participation in print culture discourse. In his study of English-speaking Canada, Harvey Graff has indicated that literacy and illiteracy rates among the poor and wealthy in Upper Canada were relatively the same. See McNairn, The Capacity to Judge, 131; Mackenzie, William Lyon Sketches of Canada and the United States (London: Effingham Wilson, 1833), 133; Harvey Graff, The Literacy Myth: Cultural Integration and Social Structure in the Nineteenth Century (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1991).

14 There was only one newspaper for most of the 1790s, the government-sponsored Upper Canada Gazette, which began, publication in the city of York (later Toronto) in 1793. While the newspaper was government sponsored, its editors did not always see eye-to-eye with the colonial government. Its first editor, Roy, Louis was criticized for being “indifferent about his work,” and dismissed after only one year, while the newspaper's second editor, Tiffany, Gideonaroused official displeasure” for failing to toe the official line and was eventually dismissed himself. Two additional newspapers began publication at the turn of the century, the short-lived Canada Constellation in 1799, and the only slightly longer-lived Niagara Herald in 1800. Both newspapers, published by Gideon and Silvester Tiffany, were independent and can be considered “moderate” newspapers in that they neither toed nor defied government lines. Upper Canada's first anti-government newspaper, the Upper Canada Guardian, edited by Willcocks, Joseph appeared in 1807. The conservative and widely successful pro-government Kingston Gazette, edited by Stephen Miles, and funded by prominent Upper Canadians such as Member of the Legislative Council Richard Cartwright, appeared in 1810. While the Kingston Gazette was certainly a pro-establishment publication, this did not mean that it was closed to ideas that were not supported by the colonial government. It printed contributions, often from conservatives themselves, which diverged from the interests of the colonial government. For a more detailed discussion on Upper Canadian newspapers in this period, see Benn, CarlThe Upper Canadian Press, 1793–1815,” Ontario History 70 (1978): 93102.

15 Upper Canada Gazette, 2 November 1796. A similar announcement was made a year later in the 25 November 1797 issue.

16 Upper Canada Gazette, 20 November 1796. That some previous issues of the Upper Canada Gazette are missing makes it impossible to say with certainty that this was the first school advertisement in the history of the province.

17 Upper Canada Gazette, 8 March 1797.

18 Upper Canada Gazette, 10 March 1798.

19 Upper Canada Gazette, 28 June 1797.

20 Anonymous, A Tour Through Upper and Lower Canada. By a Citizen of the United States. Containing, A View of the present State of Religion, Learning, Commerce, Agriculture, Colonization, Customs and Manners, among the English, French, and Indian Settlements (Litchfield: 1799).

21 “Address from the Upper Canada Legislature to the King's Most Excellent Majesty,” in Documentary History of Education in Upper Canada, from the Passing of the Constitutional Act of 1791 to the Close of the Reverend Doctor Ryerson's Administration of the Education Department in 1876, comp., Hodgins, J. George 2 vols. (Toronto: L. K. Cameron, 1894–1910), vol. 1, 16. Hereafter cited as DHE.

22 DHE, vol. 1, 17.

23 Journals of the House of Assembly, 15 June 1799, 104.

24 Journals of the Legislative Council, 29 June 1799, 96.

25 Upper Canada Gazette, 6 July 1799.

26 Holding certification, however, was not an enforced requirement, and the lack of records dealing with this issue leads me to conclude that it was purely symbolic. Nevertheless, the idea that government could play a role in what was generally considered a private matter was alive.

27 Niagara Herald, 16 May 1801. The Niagara Herald was published by the Tiffany brothers, Gideon and Silvester. Gideon had been the editor of the Upper Canada Gazette in the 1790s before being fired for failing to toe the official line.

28 Niagara Herald, 21 February 1801; 28 February 1801; 7 March 1801.

29 Upper Canada Gazette, 24 July 1802.

30 Upper Canada Gazette, 21 August 1802.

31 Prentice, Alison L. and Houston, Susan E. Family, School, and Society in Nineteenth-Century Canada (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1975), 6.

32 Journals of the House of Assembly, 16 February 1804, 429–30; see also, DHE, vol. 1, 48–49.

33 Journals of the House of Assembly, 1804, 16, 17, 20 February 1804, 430–32, 435, 438; 19, 25, 27 February 1805, 34, 43, 46.

34 Journals of the House of Assembly, 22–28 February 1806, 85–101; Journals of the Legislative Council, 28 February to 1 March 1806, 267–9.

35 “An Act to establish public schools in each and every District of this Province,” Journals of the House of Assembly 10 March 1807, 185; Journals of the Legislative Council, 10 March 1807, 293. The Act provided a total of £800 for eight grammar schools which were to be centrally located in each of the colony's eight districts. Five trustees in each district, appointed by the lieutenant governor, were given powers to appropriate funds and appoint teachers. Teachers were to be natural born subjects, and could be unilaterally dismissed from their positions by the lieutenant governor. For a complete reproduction of the Act, see DHE, vol. 1, 60–61.

36 Jackson, John Mills A View of the Political Situation of the Province of Upper Canada, in North America in which Her Physical Capacity is Stated; The Means of Diminishing Her Burden, Increasing Her Value, and Securing Her Connection to Great Britain are Fully Considered, with Notes and Appendix (London: W. Earle, 1809), 18.

37 Journals of the House of Assembly, 11 February 1812, 15–16.

38 Petition of the Inhabitants of the Midland District, Journals of the House of Assembly, 11 February 1812, 16–17.

39 Journals of the House of Assembly, 26 February 1812, 54; Journals of the Legislative Council, 3 March 1812, 427; Journals of the House of Assembly, 4 March 1814, 132–33; Journals of the Legislative Council, 4 March 1814, 446–47.

40 Kingston Gazette, 25 September 1810. The newspaper's editor, Miles, Stephen although a supporter of the official government line, was a Methodist and not a member of the Church of England clique that dominated Executive politics.

41 Kingston Gazette, 25 September 1810.

42 Kingston Gazette, 30 October 1810.

43 Kingston Gazette, 13 November 1810.

44 Library and Archives Canada (LAC), MG24-J1, John Strachan Fonds, Letterbooks and Miscellaneous papers, “Report on Education,” 1815.

45 See especially the work of Purdy, J. D.John Strachan and Education in Canada, 1800–1851” and Wilson, J. DonaldForeign and Local Influences on Popular Education in Upper Canada, 1815–1844” cited above.

46 Curtis, Bruce Building the Educational State, 22.

47 For a complete reproduction of the act, see “An Act Granting to His Majesty a Sum of Money, to be Applied to the use of Common Schools Throughout this Province, and to Provide for the Regulations of Said Common Schools,” in DHE, vol. 1, 102.

48 Gourlay, Robert Statistical Account of Upper Canada, 2 vols. (London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1822).

49 Strachan, James A Visit to the Province of Upper Canada, in 1819 (Aberdeen: D. Chalmers & Co., 1820), 132.

50 Gourlay, Statistical Account, 225.

51 Upper Canada Gazette, 13 January 1820.

52 Journals of the House of Assembly, 21 February 1820, 205–8.

53 Journals of the House of Assembly, 4, 6, 7 March 1820, 247, 253–4, 261–62.

54 The Assembly took up the matter eight years later in 1828, and it became, as historian Hodgins, J. George calls it, a “cause celebre” evoking a great deal of feeling, as well as a politico-religious discussion, both acrimonious and bitter, throughout the province. It developed into a prolonged struggle against the alleged attempt to introduce a quasi state-church system into Upper Canada, pitting the public in direct opposition to the ruling executive elite.

55 “York Trustees to Lieutenant Governor Maitland,” 28 August 1820, DHE, vol. 1, 175.

56 “George Hillier to the Trustees of the Common School of the Township of York,” 31 August 1820, DHE, vol. 1, 176.

57 DHE, vol. 1, 175.

58 The 1830s would witness the rise of reformers in official politics and their increased influence in designing future educational legislation. See Curtis, Bruce Building the Educational State, for a review of reform educational initiatives in the 1830s.

59 For a discussion on the public debates of the 1830s, see R. D. Gidney's classic article, “Upper Canadian Public Opinion and Common School Improvement in the 1830's Histoire Sociale/Social History 5, no. 9 (1972): 48–60.

Educational Discourse and the Making of Educational Legislation in Early Upper Canada

  • Anthony Di Mascio


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