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Origin Story: Boarding in Canada

Where it came from, where it's been, and where it's going

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What people teach their young is often what they think is most important. And so what people teach their children … in school gives us a very good sense of what the values of society are. What is it that you would like your children to learn? What is it that you’d like the next generation to learn?”

—Margaret MacMillan

The oldest boarding school in Canada, King’s Collegiate School (now King’s-Edgehill School) was founded by United Empire Loyalists in 1788. It was given royal assent by King George III the following year, the first instance that honour was bestowed outside Britain. Beginning with just 12 boys in a private home near Windsor, Nova Scotia, the school quickly set an educational standard for the region and, later, the country. It continues to hold a place in the national consciousness today. Because of the age and importance of the buildings, King’s College is a National Historic Site, a designation it has held since 1923.

King’s was created at moment of heightened political anxiety in the wake of the American Revolution. While there were schools in New York and New England, there were none in the British colonies that remained after American independence. The initial goal of the school was to prevent young men from traveling abroad to receive an education, men that would be needed to stay to administer and defend the colonies. While the school remained small, its alumni took prominent roles in military, legal, religious, and political life (including two fathers of Confederation).


King's-Edgehill School, Windsor, Nova Scotia

 

King’s set the tone for other boarding schools that would be created in the British Empire outside of the UK. They were established so that the children of British ex-patriots could receive an authentically British education, as well as to retain and augment the human resources required to maintain the colonies. Schools throughout the commonwealth were organized in the same manner as their British counterparts—there were houses and headmasters, forms and terms—and reflected the values of Victorian England. The educational environment was much as we might imagine: high brow, strict, and reflective of all the class distinctions of the age. Leadership was an important topic, in part because it was of prime interest to many of the political leaders who sent their children to board. Further, the benefits were unequivocal—merely having gone to boarding school, regardless of any academic achievement there, was often considered a reasonable prerequisite to positions of leadership in business and political life.

" ... send plenty of nuts and cakes ... "

Many of the best-known Canadian schools were founded in the late 19th century: Pickering College, 1842; Bishop Strachan School, 1867; Stanstead College, 1872; Ashbury College, 1891; St. Andrew's College, 1899. Life there, at least in the early days, was spartan and challenging in ways that no boarding school is today. At Upper Canada College, Frederick Hutt, a student in the 1830s, wrote to his brother, "I hope you will send plenty of nuts and cakes as I can hardly subsist on what we get."

Ted Rogers, founder of Rogers Communication, went to board when he was seven. Having had a nanny at home, he recalled that “I went from having somebody brushing my teeth for me to being caned if my teeth weren’t clean enough. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it was a bit of a shock.” He later described the school as his "a surrogate father" in the absence of his own father, who had passed away prior to his enrolment.

There was a strong association with the military, something that was still very prominent when Rogers arrived. The Cadet Corps of Upper Canada College was begun in 1869, and through its 127-year history it remained an integral part of school life. Students took part in regular drills and exercises, including those with active rounds. Boys were expected be prepared for deployment at any time, as occasionally they were. During the Fenian Raids of 1866 UCC students were mobilized to guard military buildings and the port in Toronto.


Cadets, Upper Canada College, c. 1890s

 

The cadet program was an expression of the spirit of volunteerism and the Victorian militia movement, and it maintained an ongoing association with the national military. Between 1875 and 1937 UCC produced six commanding officers of The Queen’s Own Rifles. During WWI, 1,089 volunteered for military service, and 176 gave their lives. In 1919, membership in the corps became compulsory for all students. None of this was unique to a particular to UCC school, with boarding schools and many public schools following suit. Many cadet corps remained active into the 1960s and 70s.

In time, however, the cadet programs began to feel less relevant, more relics of an earlier time. Which indeed they were, especially when real rifles were replaced with wooden ones, or when real training evolved into a kind of pantomime of military training, and when the relationship with the military became less explicit. At UCC the corps was formally retired in 1987, one of last of its kind in Canada. (Two schools, St. Andrews College and Bishop’s College School have active cadet corps, though for the most part the programs have evolved, becoming more akin to outdoor education programs than military training.)

“ … education without tears … ”

“It's quite fashionable to say that the education system's broken,” says education researcher Sugata Mitra. “It's not broken. It's wonderfully constructed. It's just that we don't need it anymore.” As Mitra believes, that’s because it was designed for another time, and was created for a very specific context:

… [the school system] came from the last and the biggest of the empires on this planet. [The British Empire] Imagine trying to run the show, trying to run the entire planet, without computers, without telephones, with data handwritten on pieces of paper, and traveling by ships. But the Victorians actually did it. What they did was amazing. They created a global computer made up of people. It's still with us today. It's called the bureaucratic administrative machine. In order to have that machine running, you need lots and lots of people. They made another machine to produce those people: the school. The schools would produce the people who would then become parts of the bureaucratic administrative machine. They must be identical to each other. They must know three things: They must have good handwriting, because the data is handwritten; they must be able to read; and they must be able to do multiplication, division, addition and subtraction in their head. They must be so identical that you could pick one up from New Zealand and ship them to Canada and he would be instantly functional.”

A new direction

Many of the characteristics of the educational system that the Victorians developed remain with us today. That said, many don’t. Pickering College, despite a long history, was an early adopter of a more open, less punitive, more collaborative approach to education. In the 1932 edition of the school yearbook, “The Voyageur,” the editor reflected in his address on the changes that had been adopted by the school:

When in September 1927 Pickering College began to function once more as an educational institution, we, as the student body, were presented with a new conception of how a school should be operated. The conception was, as aptly expressed by the first editor of the Voyageur, “education without tears.” No longer were we obliged to submit to the tyranny of a group of elderly school masters whose word was law. We were allowed to come and go as we pleased on our own responsibility. Instead of stern task masters we found a group of young but competent teachers who were willing to meet us half way and to consider our point of view.

In 1930, Joseph McCully, headmaster of Pickering College wrote “we have realized that it is impossible to force boys to become educated; long hours of fatiguing drill and arduous driving on the part of the staff may succeed in cramming the heads of small boys with a vast collection of heterogeneous and unrelated facts, but such a result is not education.” Instead, he goes on, the goal of education should be to provide mentorship, and in providing an opportunity to develop talents and resiliency. Taylor Statton, head of character development at Pickering College, wrote in 1930 that:

The ‘habit of obedience’ forced upon the impressionable nature of a child does not develop judgment and will, but does develop that fatal facility in following other people’s wills, which tends to make us a hopeless mob—mere sheep, instead of wise, free, strong individuals. The habit of submission to authority, the long, deeply impressed conviction that to ‘be good’ is to ‘give up’—that there is virtue in the act of surrender—this is one of the sources from which we continually replenish human weakness … Those who know no other way of modifying a child’s behaviour than through ‘making him mind’ suppose that if he were not make to mind he must be utterly neglected. … the rich years of childhood should be passed in the acquiring the habits of self-direction.

You’d be hard pressed to find a better description of what boarding, in the decades since, would become. It’s an understanding based in the very modern idea that kids aren’t just “empty vessels who need to be sat down in a room and filled with curricular content.”

As the 20th century progressed, schools sought means to promote the habits of self-direction that Statton championed at Pickering College and in the summer camps that he founded and which continue to bear his name. Boarding schools, more than any other, proved to be particularly agile and able to provide the kinds of experiences that Statton was thinking of.

 

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