By Michael Wagner
For much of Canada’s history, Christianity was a dominant cultural force. Roman Catholicism was extremely influential in French-speaking Canada and Protestantism was extremely influential in English-speaking Canada.
This phenomenon can be seen clearly in Canada’s education system. Until the final third of the twentieth century, Christianity had a strong presence in public schools across the country. Christianity’s role in education is solid evidence that historically Canada was a Christian country.
University of Ottawa Religious Studies professor Robert Choquette includes a chapter about the role of Christianity in education in his book Canada’s Religions: An Historical Introduction(University of Ottawa Press, 2004).
Provincial governments have jurisdiction over education in Canada and each provincial system has its own unique history and policies. Therefore it can be difficult to make generalizations about education policy in Canada. However, in most cases a close look at the educational system of any particular province will demonstrate the robust influence of Christianity, at least until the latter part of the twentieth century.
Ontario is a good example. The government of Upper Canada (as it was then known) adopted legislation in 1816 to create common schools (as public schools were then known). By 1838 about 50% of school-age children were enrolled in such schools.
After the union of Canada West (Ontario) and Canada East (Quebec) in 1841, new education legislation was adopted. According to Choquette, this new law “allowed the confessional minority (Catholic or Protestant) of any school district to elect its own school trustees and to establish its own school that would be distinct from the school of the majority in that district” (p. 289). In other words, there could be parallel public schools—one primarily Protestant and the other primarily Catholic. This is the cornerstone of Catholic separate schools in Ontario.
The school systems of Canada West and Canada East subsequently evolved separately. The leading figure in the development of the system in Canada West was Egerton Ryerson, a Methodist minister. He became the superintendent of education in 1846 after serving as deputy-superintendent for two years. Ryerson developed a system of common schools on the premise that they should be available to all school-age children. Importantly, as Choquette points out, “It was understood that these common schools would be Christian” (p. 290).
The Christian emphasis within Ontario’s school system would remain for many years. According to Choquette, Canadian churches were aggressive in promoting Christianity during the latter part of the nineteenth century and this affected the education system to some degree: “By the turn of the twentieth century, Canada’s Catholic and Protestant churches had made significant gains in their distinct but similar campaigns to transform the Dominion of Canada into the Dominion of the Lord, and schools were key instruments in this enterprise” (p. 292).
To make a long story short, Christianity wasn’t eradicated from Ontario’s school system until after the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was adopted in 1982. By 1990, two important court cases had determined that Christian influences within Ontario’s education system violated the Charter of Rights. Thus the Ontario government quickly eliminated those Christian influences. As Choquette notes, “For the first time, nearly 150 years after its founding, the Ontario public school system is required to be religiously neutral in its curriculum and activities” (p. 295). Neutrality in education is impossible, so what this really means is that Christian influences were replaced by secular influences.
Although most public schools across Canada today are thoroughly secular, that is a relatively recent development. Choquette writes, “Between 1850 and 1960, the vast majority of schools in Canada, whether public, separate, private, elementary, secondary, or post-secondary, were confessional schools. Given the small numbers of Canadians of religions other than Christian, this meant that schools were usually Christian” (pp. 291-292). This is clear evidence that Canada was a Christian country for most of its history.