In 1900, Canadian universities together enrolled 6,641 students. 89% were male, 11% female. 44% of students were in the Arts and Science, while 27% were in medicine, and 11% were in Engineering.

The key to understanding Canada’s somewhat chaotic higher education system lies in understanding two key phenomena: sectarianism and federalism. The former issue historically dominated Canadian higher education and gave it much of the institutional shape it has today; the latter was largely peripheral to higher education at the time but conditioned the entire political framework in which post-secondary education exists today.

Let’s start with sectarianism. Pretty much every university in Canada created during the nineteenth century from Winnipeg east was originally founded to serve a particular local religious community:

  • Laval (both Quebec and Montreal campuses), Saint Mary’s (at least during the years it was actually open) and St. FX were Catholic.
  • King’s in Nova Scotia along with UNB, McGill and King’s in Ontario were Anglican.
  • The Methodists had Victoria College in Toronto.
  • The Baptists had Acadia and McMaster.

Thus, the core of Canada’s oldest universities were exclusively religious in origin.

Non-sectarianism came slowly and in fits. Dalhousie was founded in 1818 partly because Lord Dalhousie thought King’s Anglicans-only policy was madness. But the Board of Governors that ended up being appointed tried to imitate King’s instead. Dalhousie would subsequently shut its doors for 20 years; when it re-opened it had a more Presbyterian flavor.

The Baldwin-Lafontaine government in 1849 tried to make public higher education in Upper Canada a thing by converting Anglican King’s into a non-denominational University of Toronto, the main impact of which was that all the Anglicans left and created Trinity College instead (not the same Trinity College you see today).

McGill went through something similar – it went secular in the 1850s, only to see an exodus of staff, students and donors to what became Bishop’s university. Even by 1900, McGill was the only fully non-sectarian university in Canada (though until 1893 it was led by a geologist who was a full-on creationist of the “life on earth began in 4000 BC” variety, Principal James Dawson).

Toronto and Manitoba were “federated” entities in which religious institutions offered instruction alongside a secular institution which also held an examination and degree-granting function over the entire edifice. Nova Scotia tried something similar, setting up the University of Halifax to act as a federative umbrella over that province’s universities, but in true Nova Scotia fashion the universities and their alumni triumphed over provincial attempts to rationalize the system and the experiment was abandoned in the 1880s.

The other major event of the nineteenth century for higher education was Confederation. The basic problem that faced the Founders at the Quebec Conference in 1864 was how to replace the clunky double-majority parliament of the post-1841 Canadas with a system of representation by population (greatly desired by George Brown and the Upper Canadians) while ensuring that under no circumstances would Protestant Ontario Anglophones get their filthy hands on Francophone Quebec’s Catholic schools (the deal-breaker for Lower Canada).

The solution was federalism, with national and provincial governments with different areas of responsibility. Education (among other things) was vested firmly at the provincial level, a fact enshrined quite specifically in s.93 of the Canadian Constitution.

Legal responsibility for post-secondary educational institutions and their funding therefore came to rests with the provinces which over time diverged in their orientation. This is why we in effect have ten provincial systems of post-secondary education in Canada rather than a single national one (though to be honest we probably glamorize these minute differences; in most respects our systems are pretty similar).

In terms of funding, most provinces were giving money to universities by 1900, but these funds were irregular and unsystemic. The only province that had regular and predictable funding for universities – well, for one university anyway – was New Brunswick, which in 1828 began providing an annual grant of $8,844,480 to the University of New Brunswick.

This annual grant would remain unchanged for – are you ready for this? – 78 years, increasing once again only in 1906.


Published on September 7, 2018 by Alex Usher; Higher Education Strategy Associates

Reproduced with Permission

Higher Education Strategy Associates | 20 Maud St, Unit 207, Toronto, ON M5V 2M5

WEBSITE:            EMAIL: