New Brunswick School Question

The New Brunswick School Question grew out of a dilemma following controversial legislation that threatened the existence of separate schools in NEW BRUNSWICK in favour of "common," provincially regulated schools. At the opening of Parliament on 5 April 1871, a measure to introduce "common schools" was tabled for the upcoming term because the provincial Conservative government felt that the existing school system was inadequate. Quality of education was questionable and attendance was poor. In the predominantly Roman Catholic area of Gloucester attendance rates were the worst: during the last term of the old school law, 882 pupils were on the register but only 489 attended regularly.

On 17 May 1871, the New Brunswick government passed the Common Schools Act to strengthen and reform the school system. At the same time, it abandoned an informal system of denominational schools that had been in place since the 1850s. Proponents of the legislation claimed that non-denominational, mandatory schooling would allow access for all the province's children. But many citizens in the province were opposed to the principle of free schools, claiming that the education of children was the responsibility of parents and that the government had no right to dictate that their children attend school. The main opponents of the legislation were denominational groups like the Anglicans and, more vehemently, the Roman Catholics.

Various remedies were proposed to appease the dissenting Roman Catholic population, including DISALLOWANCE. None of the proposed measures worked. The 1871 Act, though it violated commonly held principles, did not violate Section 93 of the BRITISH NORTH AMERICA ACT, which authorized "the Parliament of Canada to enact remedial laws for the due execution of the provisions respecting education in the said act." The tension culminated with the Caraquet riots in January 1875 in which 2 people were shot and killed.

The Caraquet tragedy highlighted the need for accommodation on the school issue. Amendments were made to the Act which somewhat addressed the issues raised by the Roman Catholics. Yet New Brunswick did not get a real separate school system. In the end, a system similar to that of Nova Scotia was implemented: a combination of tax dollars from federal, municipal and private sources would be given to both denominational and non-denominational schools, but the predominant school system in the province would be public.