Boarding schools in Ontario

Today, Canadian private schools serve a broader range of needs than ever before.
“What people teach their young is often what they think is most important. And so what people teach their children in school gives us a very good sense of what the values of society are. What is it that you would like your children to learn? What is it that you’d like the next generation to learn?”
—Margaret MacMillan


By Glen Herbert

Boarding schools in Ontario predate the provincial public school system and, indeed, the formation of the country itself. The oldest in the province is Upper Canada College which was founded in 1829. Others followed, and many from the initial boon in the 19th century are still active today: Bishop Strachan School, 1867; Stanstead College, 1872; Ashbury College, 1891; Havergal College, 1894; Ridley 1899; St. Andrew’s College, 1899. 

A majority of the first schools reflected British traditions: they were grammar schools with houses and masters, coats of arms and chapels. The values they adopted and promoted were Victorian. Life was spartan, regimented, and demanding, to varying degrees. Frederick Hutt, a student at UCC in the 1830s, wrote to his brother, “I hope you will send plenty of nuts and cakes as I can hardly subsist on what we get.”

The purpose of the first boarding schools in Canada was emblematic of the time. They were created to help build the nation, and a primary goal was simply to prevent young men from traveling abroad to receive an education, particularly to the United States. The colonies needed staff to administer them. Schools and curricula were created to meet that need. And they were successful in that goal. When you look at the lists of alumni of the oldest schools in the country, you see a lot of political leaders. Kings-Edgehill in Nova Scotia, then very small by today’s standards, graduated two fathers of confederation. There were a few notable outliers—Pickering College, for example, was founded by Quakers, and was co-ed at its founding in 1842—though those were exceptions that proved the rule.

Why do families choose boarding?

In the past, students went to where the programs were, much as they still do today for post-secondary education, hence the need to board. For some families, that remains true today. For international students, boarding schools at the high school level provide an opportunity to come to Canada to access the curriculum, the language, and the culture. Some see boarding in secondary school as the first step toward attending, and thriving, in a post-secondary program in North America. Certainly, it can be.

That said, the place of boarding school within Canadian culture has changed. Domestic families have more to consider. By a recent count, there are more than 1900 private and independent schools in Canada, with more than 350,000 students enrolled. Especially in cities, families have a wealth of options—from Montessori, to IB, to elite sports and beyond—so the need to consider boarding to attend specialty programs is less acute.

For domestic families, and a decision to board can involve a broad range of criteria, though there are some key draws:

An international experience: The international flavour of boarding is a draw, and that’s particularly true at RLC. Despite being beyond urban centres, the school is like a mini-united nations, as the many flags hanging from the ceiling attest. Sitting in a classroom with students from around the world can be a very expansive experience—students see the course content through a global lens, but also begin to understand themselves as citizens of the world.

A community of interest: Boarding provides an opportunity live and learn within a close community of peers who share a like academic disposition, and that’s true at RLC. These are students for whom academics is a passion and who are functioning at a very high intellectual level. And, as we know from tennis and chess, when you play with others at the same or better skill level, it necessarily improves your game. Being part of a boarding community, simply because of its make-up, can offer the challenge and the perspective that some students crave.

Lifestyle: While this often isn’t the first criterium that families consider, there’s an argument to be made that it should be. Choosing a boarding school is choosing a place to live, of finding a community to be a part of. School is more than the time we spend in the classroom setting—it’s the experience of growing, being with others. When students board, those elements are highlighted through just the course of day-to-day life, spending time with peers naturally, without having to make appointments or plan events. When students at RLC give their community talks at the end of Grade 12, those are the kinds of experiences that they speak of the most: the long hours spent in conversation in the evenings, the great talks with friends and teachers in the dining hall, the day trips on the weekends. The activities are great, though sharing them with others is, too.

When Rosseau Lake College was created, the founders were thinking of all of those things. The boarding option would provide be a chance for young people to focus on academics and to feel the support of a close community of shared interest. It would be an international school, and educate students to see themselves as citizens of the world. And, it would allow them to live an active lifestyle, close to nature. Today, perhaps more than ever, the school meets those criteria the founders could not have imagined, and fulfills the the vision of a school that allows students to learn together, to live together in an appreciation of their diversity, and to grow an appreciation for the natural world.