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Education in Québec, before and after the Parent reform

By Mathieu Pigeon, under the supervision of Dominique Marquis, internship director, Université du Québec à Montréal

The Canadian Constitution of 1867 made education an area of provincial responsibility. In Québec it guaranteed that Catholics and Protestants would have separate schools, administered by confessional school boards. Québec set up its first Ministry of Public Instruction in 1868, but abolished it in 1875 under pressure from the Catholic Church. The clergy deemed that it alone was able to provide appropriate teaching to young people and that the State should not interfere in educational matters. From that point on, education was entrusted to the authority of a Department of Public Instruction (DPI) made up of a Catholic committee and a Protestant committee. This situation remained unchanged until 1964, when education began to be secularized, with the State setting up a public education system.

Real hodgepodge

In the early 1960s, the DPI was overseeing more than 1,500 school boards. Québec's educational system was a complete hodgepodge: each school board took care of its own programs, textbooks and the recognition of diplomas according to its own criteria. Many rural areas had only one-room schoolhouses that had to cater to children of all ages. Conditions were not always ideal for either teachers or pupils.

Higher education

Until the Quiet Revolution, higher education was accessible to only a minority of French Canadians because of the generally low level of formal education. In addition, higher education was so expensive that it represented a luxury few could afford.

Most French Canadians who did benefit from higher education went to what was known as collège classique (classical college) and then university, although there were other options, such as the École Polytechnique de Montréal (engineering school), founded in 1873, and the École des hautes études commerciales (business school), founded in 1907. At that time, there were a hundred or so classical colleges in Québec, but only about twenty of them accepted girls. Over a century old, this institution came under the authority of the Catholic Church, and Church ideology was reflected in the educational program. Science and technology and anything to do with economics were given short shrift in the classical colleges.

Québec had three French universities: Université Laval, Université de Montréal and Université de Sherbrooke. For the 1953-1954 university year, they had a combined enrolment of approximately 7,500 French-speaking students. Statistics for 1960 indicate that 3% of French Canadians aged 20 to 24 attended university, whereas Québec's English universities -- McGill, Bishop's and Sir George Williams (now Concordia) -- had enrolment that represented 11% of young English-speakers in the same age group. Girls had a harder time getting into university and were not accepted in all programs. In the early 1960s, they accounted for just 14% of Québec's university population.

Worrisome situation

Following World War II (1939-1945), the United States and Canada enjoyed a long period of prosperity and modernization. It was against this backdrop that the two countries began overhauling their educational systems. In Québec, efforts at modernization were held back by the conservative views of politicians and the unyielding positions of the Catholic Church on education. Facilities were antiquated and the Québec government invested very little in them. At the dawn of the 1960s, the situation had become a cause for concern. The level of formal schooling among French Canadians was quite low: 63% of French-speaking students completed Grade 7 and only 13% finished Grade 11, as opposed to 36% of English-speaking students. Higher education was not meeting the needs of a modernizing Québec.

In the 1950s, Québec's educational system came in for frequent criticism. One of the most scathing attacks was levelled by Brother Jean-Paul Desbiens (1927-2006), writing under the pseudonym of Frère Untel. The publication of his book Les insolences du Frère Untel (1960) landed like a bombshell and has come to be regarded as a red-letter date of the Quiet Revolution.

Toward a brighter future

The spectacular growth in the birth rate in the postwar years, known as the baby boom, drew increasing attention to the issue of education. In the 1960s, baby boomers accounted for a significant portion of Québec youth. From 1945 to 1962, the number of children enrolled in Québec's schools rose from 660,000 to 1,350,000, and their needs continued to grow.

When the Québec Liberal Party came to power under Jean Lesage (1912-1980), it made education its top priority: education was to play a central role in the modernization of Québec and serve as an instrument of emancipation for French Canadians. One of the first steps the Liberals took was to modernize the education system. The age for compulsory schooling was raised from 14 to 16, and the provincial government set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry on Education in the Province of Québec. In deference to the Catholic Church, a clergyman, Msgr. Alphonse-Marie Parent (1906-1970), was appointed to head the commission, serving as chairman from 1961 to 1966.

The Parent reform

Between 1963 and 1966, the Parent Commission produced a huge five-volume report; its recommendations reflected the new values that had taken hold in Québec during the 1960s. Education was no longer considered to be a luxury, but rather a right, and the government wanted everyone to have the same opportunities to benefit from it. With this end in mind, the provincial government placed greater emphasis on free education and the building of new schools. To achieve these objectives, it took over control of the educational system and began secularizing it.

Many of the Parent Commission's recommendations were implemented by the government. A Ministry of Education was established in 1964 under the responsibility of Paul Gérin-Lajoie. The school boards were reorganized in what was known as Operation 55: from 1,500, the number of Catholic boards was reduced to 55, with the number of Protestant boards being set at 9. School curriculums were standardized. The classical colleges were abolished. At the secondary level, comprehensive high schools called "polyvalentes," which provide both general and vocational programs, were set up. For postsecondary study, Québec innovated in 1967 with the establishment of junior general and vocational colleges, or cégeps (collège d'enseignement général et professionnel). Cégeps offer two-year pre-university programs as well as three-year vocational programs that lead directly to the job market.

Access to higher education was promoted through a series of measures: free tuition was extended to the junior college (cégep) level; access to university was facilitated through a system of government loans and bursaries; and access to adult education was broadened. The establishment of the Université du Québec (UQ) network in 1969 was part of this effort to improve access. Like the cégeps, the institutions that make up the UQ network are located in the different regions of the province, thereby helping to make higher education more accessible to all Quebeckers, regardless of where they live.


Until the end of the 1950s, the Québec educational system struggled to produce qualified teachers. Many of them were graduates of teacher training colleges called "normal schools," while the remainder were members of religious orders that provided them with basic instruction, although this was sometimes not really adequate. One of the objectives of the Parent reform was to improve teacher training, responsibility for which had been taken over by the government. Normal schools were replaced by standardized university programs designed for future teachers.

Teachers' working conditions began to improve in the 1960s. Up until then, teachers had been underpaid and had not been unionized, and women teachers had often had to abandon their careers when they got married. During the Quiet Revolution, teachers became a major force in the trade union movement, and the importance the government gave to education meant they were able to make significant gains in the 1960s and 1970s. The teachers' union, now called the Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ), is one of the main Québec trade unions and a significant force in Québec society.

From the Parent reform to today

In the last quarter of the 20th century, Québec became a multiethnic society in which the denominational character of the education system no longer reflected reality. In the late 1990s, an amendment to the Canadian Constitution allowed school boards to be organized on the basis of language rather than religious denomination. This change in status was implemented in schools when a new reform of the Québec educational system was undertaken in 2000.

The educational system was brought into the modern age thanks to the Parent report, many recommendations of which are still in effect today. Now the results of Québec's system are comparable with those of education systems in other modern societies. This major transformation has helped raise the general level of schooling of Quebeckers, and especially girls, who now represent a larger proportion of university enrolment than boys. That does not mean that all the objectives of the Parent reform have been achieved, however. After broadening access to education, the State must now take steps to promote the overall educational attainment of all students, given that, even today, nearly one third of Quebeckers do not complete high school.


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