Wendy Priesnitz - writer, editor, changemaker
Wendy Priesnitz
writer, editor, changemaker
Home       About       Writing       Blog

A History of the Modern Canadian Home Education Movement
by Wendy Priesnitz

Although many children were home educated in Canada’s early centuries, the modern homeschooling movement began in the 1970s. It was informed by an alternative education movement that developed out of the various sorts of countercultural activism in the 1960s in North America. At that time, some parents and activist teachers, who believed that the public school system was authoritarian, competitive, and unlikely to change, established “free schools.” These were small, child-centered, and run democratically. However, by the 1970s, many of these schools had evolved into what were called “alternative schools” and were under the jurisdiction of (or at least funded by) public boards of education.

For some families, like mine, this was a step in the wrong direction. We continued to question the politics of, and wanted to be independent from, what we saw as a monolithic, unimaginative, backwards-looking, factory-style mode of education. So, like a growing number of our counterparts in the U.S., we didn’t enroll our children in any sort of school and, instead, helped them to learn at home. We knew nobody else who was homeschooling and there were no support groups or sources of information available. Most homeschooling then was like what is called “unschooling” today: unstructured and respectful of and trusting in children's innate ability to learn what and when they are ready.

My husband Rolf and I launched the magazine Natural Life in 1976, partly in order to share information with Canadians about homeschooling and other self-reliant alternatives, and partly so we could stay at home with our two daughters, who had already been school-free for a few years. American author John Holt admired Natural Life and asked us for advice about publishing a newsletter, which he launched as Growing Without Schooling (GWS) in 1977. We published letters from John and an announcement about his newsletter in Natural Life and he began to hear from our readers (who, at that time, were mostly Canadian) with questions about legalities that he couldn’t easily answer. Knowing that our children were learning without school, he began to regularly bundle up the Canadian queries and send them off to me for a response. Soon after, in an attempt to meet other Canadian homeschooling families – and to find a peer group for our daughters – I shared our family’s homeschooling status on my editorial page in Natural Life.

At that time, the magazine had over 25,000 subscribers and was sold on the newsstands across Canada and the United States, resulting in a coming together of many home educating families, both locally and across Canada. A few of these people were becoming homeschooling activists in their own provinces. (When I began to receive homeschooling queries from our American readers, I referred them to the GWS office, lessening the burden of the deluge of mail on our family’s time and resources, and continuing the exchange of information and support with John Holt and his staff.)

Unlike the situation in some American states, homeschooling has always been legal in Canada, with language and procedures differing slightly from province to province. Provincial education legislation recognizes the right of parents to educate their children at home and provides them with an exemption from compulsory attendance at public schools or sees it as an alternative to public or private school attendance. In the 1970s and 80s, this legality was not well understood – or even known about in many cases – by local school authorities. This led to routine attempts at intimidation of families by school board truancy officers.

Our family was harassed twice by two different school boards in the Spring and Fall of 1979. Shortly after the first incident, I heard from one of our Natural Life subscribers living in Manitoba who was homeschooling her children. She had been a teacher and school principal but was also engaged in a dispute with her local school board. She told me that she was going to start a provincial organization and call it Manitoba Association for Schooling at Home (MASH). Realizing that there was a huge job to be done educating the educators, we agreed that a national advocacy and support organization would also be helpful. And so began Canada’s first two homeschooling organizations. I called the national one Canadian Alliance of Home Schoolers (CAHS).

The announcement of the organization’s birth was sent to media outlets across the country. That resulted in interviews on CBC national and local radio shows, as well as with numerous magazine writers and newspaper reporters. The day that I was on a radio program with the Education Minister for my home province of Ontario, truant officers appeared at our door once again needing to be educated about the legality of homeschooling.

Meanwhile, my office was trying to respond to close to 600 letters and phone calls from interested families and media. In order to disseminate information and facilitate communication, the newsletter The Canadian Home Schooler was created and included as part of the annual $3 membership. The newsletter became known as Childs Play in 1983 when CAHS had approximately 400 members. These publications included testimonies of challenges and successes, legal questions, lists of resources, and a growing directory of homeschooling families and support groups across Canada (although many families preferred to remain anonymous in fear of their school boards).

The uneasy stand-off between school authorities and these early home-based educators meant that homeschoolers of all persuasions had to respect each others’ differences and work together. CAHS was an inclusive group and members were a diverse cross-section of Canadian families, with a variety of political, religious, and educational philosophies and practices. And their reasons for homeschooling mirrored their belief systems. Some, who felt that schools were too rigid, coercive, and limited in scope, saw homeschooling as a way of broadening and enriching their children’s education beyond what was available in schools. Others were reacting to the secularism of public schools and wanted to control their children’s exposure to things they might have been exposed to in school.

However, for most Canadian homeschooling families in the 1970s and early 80s, education was largely a child-directed, informal but active pursuit. For those families who would have been comfortable using some sort of curriculum aids, all the commercial versions available were American, and few school boards or Ministries of Education would make their own materials available on the grounds that they weren’t receiving funding for children who weren’t enrolled in public schools.

Everyone was breathing a bit easier by 1982, when Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms was put in place. It supports the principle that, while every child has a right to an education and the right to attend school, parents also have the right to direct their children’s education at home, in accordance with their conscientious beliefs, and subject only to such reasonable limits as are prescribed by law.

Throughout the 1980s, the popularity of homeschooling continued to grow. Statistics about homeschooling in Canada have always been difficult to obtain. Since not all provinces require registration of homeschooled children, and even when it’s required many families don’t register (a number some researchers have found to be as high as 30 percent), it is virtually impossible to achieve 100 percent accuracy. However, estimates can be based on a variety of things, including analysis of Statistics Canada’s numbers of children in school versus numbers of school-aged children, adjusted for numbers of recognized truants. Extrapolation from American estimates based on relative population sizes roughly confirm the Canadian estimates. In 1979, I estimated that there were approximately 2,000 homeschooling families in Canada. That number has been used as a baseline ever since. In 1997, a Statistics Canada report estimated there to have been approximately 17,500 homeschoolers in Canada in the 1995-96 school year – or about 0.4% of total elementary and high school enrolment – a number I believe to be very much below the real number.

At any rate, as the popularity of homeschooling increased, provincial education authorities began to try to regulate it (sometimes at the behest of school trustee and teacher associations) and, in some cases, to create poor policy. Since 1979, I had been encouraging provincial groups to form and to make sure homeschoolers had a say in any changes to legislation, regulations or policy. Eventually, volunteers came forward to start provincial organizations, often as a reaction to a flurry of court cases (for instance, Godron, 1982 and Cline, 1988 in Saskatchewan; Anderson, 1985, Powell, 1985 and Jones, 1985 in Alberta; Kind, 1984 in Newfoundland; Beauchamp, 1979 and Prentice, 1984 in Ontario.

By the mid 1980s, provincial organizations were in place in about half the provinces, including Saskatchewan, Ontario, British Columbia, and Manitoba, along with a number of more informal groups in other provinces. By 1990, there were groups serving all the provinces and territories. The volunteer energy required to run these groups was immense, especially for families focused on helping their children learn, and some of them subsequently disbanded or faded away, to be replaced by other groups with different names.

In the early 1980s, mostly in response to questions from the media, I began to look for research papers about homeschooling in Canada. Not finding any, I decided to conduct my own, with the help of a small government grant and using the 1,000 families with whom I was already in contact.

The research was completed in time for the 1986 writing and 1987 publication of the first edition of my first book School Free – The Homeschooling Handbook, and later published as a stand-alone paper.

In the mid 1980s, Christian parents concerned about the secularization of public education began to embrace homeschooling in Canada, as had their counterparts in the U.S., in some cases, simply because there were no local private religious schools, or the families couldn’t afford the tuition. These mostly evangelical families typically used Bible-based curriculum produced in the U.S. As a result, by the mid 1980s, there were separate Christian homeschool support organizations developing in various provinces, operating parallel to the older, more inclusive ones. In 1991, a controversial American Christian organization called Home School Legal Defence Association (HSLDA) opened a Canadian office to support Christian homeschoolers – or, in their words, to help homeschooling parents begin to stand for their rights in Canada. Such was the growth and organization of the Christian homeschooling part of the movement that, by the turn of the 21st Century, the stereotypical profile of homeschooling for the average person and the media had become that of the conservative religious community.

Segmentation of the movement has continued, based mostly on religion and homeschooling style. Some families, who believe in an unstructured and child-directed style of learning, eschew the word “homeschooling” because it has the connotation of school-at-home; they prefer to call themselves “unschoolers,” which is a term coined by John Holt in the 1970s. My family preferred to popularize the term “life learning,” which we used beginning in the 1980s to describe an informal, learner-directed, life-based, non-coercive type of home-based education.

This unstructured, curriculum- and testing-free, experiential style of home-based learning is currently thought to be fastest growing segment of the homeschooling movement. With the explosion of Internet-based resources and electronic means of communication, many people outside the homeschooling world began to notice the life learning phenomenon, and some authors and visionary educators are observing that it will become the new face of public education.

copyright (c) 2023