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OISE's Ontario Historical Education Collections (OHEC)

History of Ontario

The region that is now Ontario became a British colony in 1763. The Province of Upper Canada was established in 1791. Upper Canada merged with Lower Canada (Québec) to form the Province of Canada in 1841. During this period, Upper Canada was known as Canada West. The Province of Ontario was established by the British North America Act during Confederation on July 1, 1867. 

Departments and Ministries Responsible for Public Education in Ontario

Since the mid-nineteenth century, a series of governing bodies have overseen the public education system in Ontario.

  • Department of Public Instruction (1850 – 1876): Prior to Confederation, the Department of Public Instruction was responsible for the supervision of the education and the library systems of Canada West and the development of education policy. The Department was headed by the Chief Superintendent of Education, Egerton Ryerson, who held the position from 1844 until his retirement in 1876. 
  • Department of Education (1876 – 1972): The Department of Education replaced the Department of Public Instruction in 1876. The new Department was responsible for developing and administering policies regarding schools and school boards in Ontario. Other responsibilities included the certification and training of teachers, the creation of Model Schools and Normal Schools, the approval of textbooks, and the appointment of school inspectors and county examiners. The Minister of Education assumed the roles and responsibilities previously held by the Chief Superintendent. 
  • Ministry of Education (1972 – 1993; 1999-present): In 1972, the various Departments of the Government of Ontario were restructured as Ministries. During this widespread reorganization, the Department of Education became the Ministry of Education. Between 1993 and 1999, the Ministries of Education, Colleges and Universities, and Skills Development were merged into a new Ministry of Education and Training.

Educational Acts

The following list provides a summary of significant legislation related to public education in Ontario. 

  • Common School Act (1846): The first major piece of education-related legislation in Ontario. The Act was based on a bill of recommendations written by Egerton Ryerson. Widespread educational reforms included policies related to classroom organization, curricula and standardized textbooks, teacher training and certification, the creation of Model Schools and Normal Schools, and the appointment of school inspectors and county examiners. 

  • Common School Act (amended 1850): The 1846 Common School Act was amended in 1850 to include the Separate Schools Clause, which allowed for the establishment of separate schools for Catholics, Protestants, and Blacks. The amendment enabled these communities to request a separate school through the school board of trustees; however, the trustees used the clause to enforce racial segregation by requesting separate schools for Black children despite the objections of Black parents.

  • British North America Act or Constitution Act (1867)Section 93 of this Act assigned education to the provinces rather than the federal government. The Act also legally guaranteed the legitimization of separate schools, including denominational schools and separate language schools.

  • Ontario School Act (1871): With this legislation, free elementary schooling in government-inspected schools was to be provided for all. “Common schools” were renamed as “public schools” and attendance became mandatory for children between the ages of eight and fourteen.