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Education Nation

A 125th anniversary retrospective on how the CEA has informed, connected, challenged and inspired educators across the country

Most people are surprised to learn that the CEA has been around almost as long as Canada itself.

As it turns out, the very Act designed to bring the colonies in British North America closer together had the unintended effect of ensuring that a significant distance would always exist between them. The guarantee to leave several essential elements of governance – most notably education and health care – in the hands of the provinces created the conditions for a sense of disconnect, if not disunity. The teacher associations recognized an opportunity to create an organization that could bridge that gap and connect colleagues across the country.


Anyone who has studied innovation will know that many great ideas struggle to gain the traction they need to become reality, and this idea was no different. It took nearly 25 years for the perceived barriers to be cleared and for the Dominion Education Association (DEA) – later to become the Canadian Education Association (CEA) – to be launched in 1891.

A national perspective on education: The first half-decade

It must have been quite an emotional moment when the Association’s first president, the Honorable G. W. Ross, Minister of Education for Ontario, rose on July 5, 1892 to address the educators, politicians and dignitaries gathered in Montreal. Reading between the lines of his call to action, we hear a message that was meant to resonate with an audience well beyond the one actually seated in front of him:

Let us try and do what the politicians have not yet done —what the public sentiment of this country has not yet done, viz.: to bind together the twenty thousand teachers of Canada… and through them declare to the world that Canada is not divided into provincial ideas, but that the sentiments of the Provinces are united into one harmonious whole.

Ross’ vision for the DEA was a bold and compelling attempt to underscore the important role that he believedthe nation’s educators could play in building a sense of unity in a country threatened by a parochial mindset. To be sure, the organization was to be committed to the work of ensuring quality schools in a country that was still expanding in all directions. But Ross also saw in this new organization an answer to the defining question that he bravely posed to delegates at that Convention: “Are we going to be provincial in our education or are we going to be national?”

Those early days of the DEA were hardly the stuff of headlines. The life of the organization was built around convention gatherings, held rather irregularly with little in the way of follow-up from year to year. While the CEA archives do record the presentation of some rather passionate and timely ideas about public education, pedagogy and school structure – many of which could still capture the imagination of 21st century audiences – little momentum was sustained between conventions.

One recurring issue for the young Association had to do with the establishment of some type of Federal Office of Education – a formal mechanism that could collect national data and statistics relating to education, share information among provinces and create a smoother path for the interprovincial certification of educators. However, these discussions about a centralized office were often quickly shut down; at least one voice at the meeting table or on the convention floor would sound the alarm against any move that might threaten the constitutional assurance of provincial autonomy.

Nevertheless, the pressure to find a way of maintaining a national perspective on Canada’s public education system was building, and gradually the DEA began to wake up to the idea that it could, in fact, be the very organization to take up this role! Infused with a strong vision for a unified voice in education, respected in the education community across Canada, and recognized by many as a neutral national body, the Dominion Education Association was prepared to begin a new chapter in its story.

The decision in 1913 to move from a general education association to one that was much more representative of provincial departments of education was an important step for the Association. Although it may have seemed to some as though the CEA was turning its back on part of its founding constituency, the shift ensured that all provincial ministries of education had a place at the CEA table. It raised CEA’s visibility, kept it in touch with provincial concerns and needs, and drew leaders in education departments across the country more deeply into the work of the Association. The CEA could truly declare itself an organization that was national in both vision and representation.

Over the next twenty years, increased funding from the provinces sparked a burgeoning sense of hope. The CEA further defined its sense of mission and values; there was a new organizational mandate and esprit de corps. In the months and years that followed, the CEA began to take on much of the work that to this day is part of its energy and dynamic.

Informing, researching, connecting: CEA in the postwar education boom

In the 1940s, Canada found itself immersed in another World War. While this took an immense toll on the country, politicians and citizens alike began to look ahead to the infrastructure that would be necessary to support their post-war aspirations. It is no surprise that education figured into those conversations.

What may be surprising to some is the role that the CEA played in this aspirational thinking. The CEA spent over a year conducting a cross-Canada survey that identified the chief educational needs of the country. Nothing of this magnitude had ever been commissioned before, and the committee’s report had a great influence on the way that education would be designed in the important period following the war.

The widely distributed survey report was a strong example of the type of interprovincial dialogue that the CEA was in a position to broker, and it caused provincial ministers to stand up and take notice of just how useful this type of cooperation could be.

The tension between what is necessary and what is possible is being felt throughout our education systems.

Funding was finally secured to hire the CEA’s long-awaited first paid staff, and the Association began to be recognized for its ability to gather and publish some of the country’s most innovative thinking. The quarterly magazine Canadian Education (later, Education Canada) was established. A monthly newsletter, an initial step toward a CEA-based information service, experienced rapid expansion as school districts and provincial ministries expressed an interest in being connected with other jurisdictions and regions of the country.

Those involved in education today would likely find it strange to imagine a time when the phrase, “The research shows…” was not part of everyday discussions about teaching and learning. But in the post-war years the education sector looked longingly at the growth of research in other fields. Soon, the CEA officially adopted fostering and publishing educational research as one of its pillars.

The CEA quickly became a trusted partner in the research and production of numerous reports and studies focusing on educational policy and practices, forming the basis of a rich and extensive library available to ministries and other interested people in the education community.

Through this period of increased activity, the CEA never lost sight of its original vision of becoming an organization that connects those working in education throughout the country – and indeed, around the world. A joint Canada-U.S. Committee on Education was established in 1944 and continued until 1961. The CEA represented Canadian education at a number of international conferences. And the CEA-administered Teacher Exchange Program was a popular initiative that encouraged not only provincial exchanges, but also experiences for educators in the U.S. and the U.K.

During this period of energetic flourishing, a series of grants from the U.S.-based Kellogg Foundation (yes, that Kellogg) enabled the CEA to launch one of its most successful and longstanding endeavours. Over the course of its 45-year history, the CEA Short Course in Educational Administration connected over 3,000 system leaders with the latest educational thinkers from across the country and around the world.

One of the most significant enabling factors in these years was an intensified relationship with education ministries, the strength of which led to the formation  of a special Standing Committee of Ministers of Education. This Standing Committee would eventually become the Council of Ministers of Education, constituting itself as the separate organization that continues today.

While the creation of CMEC did cause some uncertainty among the CEA executive, the ongoing bond between the two organizations ensured that CEA programs and services  would continue and, in fact, grow.

Taken on their own, each of these developments is, at best, interesting. But in the long view, these programs, initiatives and products became the building blocks that were placed on the CEA’s original foundation. Many of these initiatives expanded and developed in the years that followed, becoming a large part of the CEA’s identity in the educational community.

Challenging assumptions, supporting transformation: CEA today

125 years have passed since the CEA story began as that one, albeit small, organization dedicated to maintaining a sense of connection and vision across a growing country. Not only has it been able to hold open the space for interprovincial dialogue and cooperation among the country’s educators, system leaders, academics and politicians but, in recent years, CEA has expanded that space, leveraging advances in communications technology to draw in the voices of students, parents and educational thinkers from the international community.

This is a critical time in Canada’s story, not only for public education but for all public institutions across the country.

The tension between what is necessary and what is possible is being felt throughout our education systems. The CEA has courageously positioned itself at the heart of this tension and, by drawing on a 125-year tradition of building trusted and trusting relationships, is engaging Canadians in provocative and innovative conversations about transformational change.

By drawing a larger diversity of voice and perspective into the life of the organization, the CEA is revitalizing some of its familiar vehicles for engaging with Canadians, as well as creating new opportunities for communication and innovation.

But perhaps most significant is the commitment of the CEA to push the boundaries on Canada’s thinking about change in education. In the past decade, work related to student engagement, teacher aspirations, and neuroscience have caused many to begin to challenge the assumptions that we make about teaching, learning and equity for all students. While these have always been part of conversations in Canadian public education, the CEA is working hard to ensure that they become influential in both policy and practice.

Current President and CEO Ron Canuel sees the role of the CEA quite differently than did the Association’s first leaders in 1891. Beyond the connective power that has been a defining feature throughout the Association’s history, he points to the ability of the CEA to anticipate what lies ahead for education in Canada:

“Through our research, our information networks and the opportunities that we have to talk to people involved in education nationally and internationally, the CEA enables people to think and plan more than two or three years in advance, something that is rare in this field. We’re able to mobilize conversations ahead of when they would normally happen – often before people are even ready to have them.”

The 125th anniversary of any organization is a cause for celebration. But the story of the CEA is more than the story of a single organization. It is the story of one of this country’s strongest supporting pillars: its public education system. And it is a story that is rooted in the past, present and future of Canada itself.

As Canadians continue thinking about what is necessary and what is possible in public education, it’s exciting to know that the CEA will continue to be a courageous, forward-thinking advocate for change – gathering, leading and engaging voices from across the country.


Photo: Canadian Education Association

First published in Education Canada, December 2016

Meet the Expert(s)

Stephen Hurley

Stephen Hurley

Education Consultant, Catalyst, voicED Radio

Stephen Hurley is a recently retired teacher from the Dufferin Peel District School Board in Ontario. Stephen continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada.

Stephen Hurley est un enseignant récemment retraité de la Dufferin Peel District School Board en Ontario. Stephen continue de travailler à ouvrir des espaces publics pour des conversations dynamiques sur la transformation des systèmes éducatifs partout au Canada.

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