Common Schools Act

Old one room School house

Common Schools Act

In May 1871, New Brunswick’s government enacted the Common Schools Act, introducing free standardized education province-wide. This new system proposed the creation of school districts, the building of educational institutions, and set enhanced standards for teaching qualifications. A contentious point was the Act’s non-denominational stance, prohibiting teachings from the Roman Catholic catechism. This led to heated disputes, failed efforts to repeal the law by the House of Commons and the Privy Council, and even escalated to a violent protest in Carquet that resulted in two fatalities.

The Common Schools Act sought to replace the previously disjointed system of individual schools with a unified, province-regulated public schooling system, as outlined in the British North America Act of 1867. This change was met with opposition from religious groups like the Anglicans and French-speaking Catholics. They viewed the teaching of religion and the French language in distinct schools as essential for preserving their cultural heritage. However, the Act banned religious teachings in schools and didn’t acknowledge the French language. Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s Conservative prime minister, chose not to back the opposition, believing that discrediting the proposal could jeopardize the recently formed Confederation.

Sir John A. MacDonald
Sir John A. MacDonald

Nevertheless, New Brunswick’s Executive Council introduced amendments to the Common Schools Act on 6 August 1875, providing some concessions to Catholics. In areas with significant Catholic student populations, schools could be used for Catholic religious education outside regular hours. Members of religious orders teaching in public schools could wear religious attire and weren’t obligated to secure teaching certificates from provincial training institutions. Additionally, they were permitted to teach in their native languages, including French, at primary school level.

Still, these changes fell short of offering distinct schools for New Brunswick’s religious and linguistic minorities. A system resembling Nova Scotia’s was adopted, where funds from federal, municipal, and private sectors supported both denominational and non-denominational institutions. Despite these changes, the overarching school system remained a public entity.

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