Popular education in those days was at the lowest possible ebb. In 1837 there were in all the private and public schools of the provinces only one-fifteenth of the total population. In Lower Canada not one-tenth could write. The children of the habitants repeated the Catechism by rote, and yet could not read as a rule. In Upper Canada things were no better. Dr. Thomas Rolph tells us that, so late as 1833, Americans or other anti-British adventurers carried on the greater proportion of the common schools, where the youth were taught sentiments “hostile to the parent state” from books used in the United States—a practice stopped by statute in 1846.
Adequate provision, however, was made for the higher education of youth in all the provinces. “I know of no people,” wrote Lord Durham of Lower Canada, “among whom a larger provision exists for the higher kinds of elementary education.” The piety and benevolence of the early possessors of the country founded seminaries and colleges, which gave an education resembling the kind given in the English public schools, though more varied. In Upper Canada, so early as 1807, grammar schools were established by the government. By 1837 Upper Canada College—an institution still flourishing—offered special advantages to youths whose parents had some money. In Nova Scotia King’s College—the oldest university in Canada—had its beginning as an academy as early as 1788, and educated many eminent men during its palmy days. Pictou Academy was established by the Reverend Dr. McCulloch as a remonstrance against the sectarianism of King’s; and the political history of the province was long disturbed by the struggle of its promoters against the narrowness of the Anglicans, who dominated the legislative council, and frequently rejected the grant made by the assembly. Dalhousie College was founded in 1820 by Lord Dalhousie, then governor of Nova Scotia, to afford that higher education to all denominations which old King’s denied. Acadia College was founded by the Baptists at Wolfville, on a gently rising ground overlooking the fertile meadows of Grand Pre. The foundations of the University of New Brunswick were laid in 1800. McGill University, founded by one of those generous Montreal merchants who have always been its benefactors, received a charter in 1821, but it was not opened until 1829. The Methodists laid the foundation of Victoria College at Cobourg in 1834, but it did not commence its work until after the Union; and the same was the case with King’s College, the beginning of the University of Toronto.