Defining a right to education in Canada
Public education in Canada is relatively strong. But not every child has equitable access to the quality education that will give them the best chance for long-term success.
People for Education, in partnership with the Maytree Foundation, has been working with experts from across the country to develop a tool to articulate what quality education should look like.
A Draft Right to Education Framework is a way, among other objectives, to embed equity in our education system.
Education “multiplies” other rights
The right to education is a doorway to other human rights, including civil and political rights to freedom of expression, of association, of freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the right to vote, and the right to privacy and family life. It enables cultural rights, social and emotional well-being, and economic rights. And, according to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, education is “the primary vehicle by which socially and economically marginalized adults and children can lift themselves out of poverty.”
Creating a framework that articulates the right to a quality education will help ensure that Canadian education systems create engaged learners with the capacity to continue learning, to collaborate, to communicate effectively and think critically, and to understand themselves and society. Quality education systems promote and prioritize student well-being, and prepare students for long-term success, no matter the future path they choose.
Every child, including the world’s most disadvantaged, has the right to education because it has the power to change lives. Education is a powerful tool for breaking the cycle of poverty; supporting child survival, growth, development, and well-being; and closing the gap in social inequality.
The Right to Education in Canada
Unlike most countries, Canada does not have a national department of education. Control over education rests with the provinces, territories, and Canada’s First Nations, Métis, and Inuit.
However, Canada does have a responsibility to ensure all children have access to education. The federal government has made that commitment repeatedly when it signed on to a range of international conventions, covenants, and agendas, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976), the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1991) and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (2015). Canada has also endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) (2007) and in 2020, introduced legislation to implement it. Each contains specific commitments to quality public education. The Convention on the Rights of the Child was the first human rights treaty to explicitly recognize rights of Indigenous children to language and culture, and UNDRIP specifically references “the right of Indigenous families and communities to retain shared responsibility for the upbringing, training, education and well-being of their children, consistent with the rights of the child.”
Canada made a further commitment in 2016, when representatives from Canada joined world leaders to adopt the Incheon Declaration for Education 2030, which outlines goals to achieve a strong, high-quality education system by 2030 (UNESCO). Those goals include a commitment to the evaluation of outcomes, preparing well-trained and qualified teachers, building well-resourced systems, nurturing literacy and numeracy skills, competencies such as analytical and social-emotional skills, cultivating citizenship skills, human rights literacy, and global and sustainable development.
So, Canada has an important investment in the quality of education its children receive. The Right to Education Framework would introduce consistency in the quality of education and harmonize the standard of education that all Canadian children and young people should expect – no matter what their background, where they live in the country, or their learning needs – all while providing a structure that can adapt to local and regional needs.
Human rights treaties consistently frame education as integral to the full development of the human personality and a sense of dignity and self-worth, as well as being indispensable to the promotion of peace, democracy, environmental sustainability, citizenship, and for realising other human rights.
Having a rights-based framework won’t change things overnight.
However, it will provide a way to keep track of Canada’s progress toward high quality, universally accessible education for all its children and young people. This “progressive realization” of rights is a concept enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. It’s a way to hold states accountable for demonstrating that they are using all available resources to make progress toward an agreed upon set of rights.