Religious Schools

The first schools in New France were operated by the Catholic church (as indeed were schools in France itself). In the early nineteenth century the colonial governments moved to set up publicly funded education systems. Protestants and Catholics were deeply divided over how religious and moral education should be delivered. In Upper Canada the Catholic minority rejected the Protestant practice of Biblical study in schools, while in Lower Canada the Protestant minority objected to the education system instilling Roman Catholic dogma. Thus in both these areas two schools systems were established, a Catholic and a Protestant.

Upon Confederation these schools systems were enshrined in the British North America Act (BNA), 1867. Both Quebec and Ontario were required by section 93 of the BNA Act to safeguard existing educational rights and privileges of the Protestant and Catholic minorities. Thus, separate Catholic schools and school boards were permitted in Ontario. However, neither province had a constitutional requirement to protect its French- or English-speaking minority. Toronto was formally established as Ontario's provincial capital at this time.

British Columbia established a non-sectarian school system in 1872.
In the three Maritime provinces, schools were mainly Protestant, and a single Protestant oriented school system was established in each of them. In Newfoundland there was not only the Catholic/Protestant split, but also deep divisions between Protestant sects, and nine separate schools systems were set up, one catering to each major denomination. Eventually the major Protestant boards merged into an integrated school system.

Over time, the originally Protestant school boards of English Canada, known as the public schools, became increasingly secularized as Canadians came to believe in the separation of Church and state, and the main boards became secular ones. In Ontario all overt religiosity was removed from the public school system in 1990. In two provinces the sectarian education systems have recently been eliminated through constitutional change.
Newfoundland and Labrador eliminated its tri-denominational Catholic-Protestant-Pentecostal system after two referendums. In Quebec the Catholic/Protestant divide was replaced with a French language/English language one.

Religious colleges are attached to numerous universities.

Language war and school crisis in Ontario
In Ontario in 1912, the Conservative government of Sir James P. Whitney issued Regulation 17 which severely limited the availability of French-language schooling to the province's French-speaking minority. French could only be used in the first two years of schooling, and then only English was allowed. Few of the teachers at these schools were fluent in English, so they had to shut down.

French-Canadians--growing rapidly in number in eastern Ontario because of migration, reacted with outrage, journalist Henri Bourassa denouncing the "Prussians of Ontario"--a stinging rebuke since Canada was at war with Prussia and Germany at the time. It was one of the key reasons the Francophones turned away from the war effort in 1915 and refused to enlist. Ontario's Catholics were led by the Irish, who united with the Protestants in opposing French schools.

Regulation 17 was eventually repealed in 1927.