Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Canada passes the Technical and Vocational Training Assistance Act

In 1960 the Government of Canada passed the Technical and Vocational Training Assistance Act (TVTA Act), the last Act passed by the federal government to provide funds for investment in technical and vocational education.  Over six years, the Act provided funding for projects valued at more than $1.5 billion. The program ended in 1966 as provincial and federal governments differed in their visions for the future of education. The reasons for the cessation of funding are manifold, but the Act was responsible for the placement of over 400,000 students and created 662 new schools.

The 1960 Act is significant for four reasons. First, it created funding for post-secondary technical institutions. Second, it built new secondary schools at no cost to municipal governments. Third, it significantly changed the composition of Ontario secondary schools. Last but not least, for the first time since Confederation, federal money was made available to assist with secondary schools in the provinces – specifically related to the promotion of technical and vocational education.

In order to provide some context to the passage of the Act, it is important to know that in 1952, the government of Louis St. Laurent passed the Unemployment Insurance Act, providing a wage for those temporarily out of work. As the federal government in Canada was already responsible for Unemployment Insurance, it was a logical step that they would commit funds for the training of those citizens who had lost their jobs or for those who were about to become unemployed. 

The Act came about due to a number of issues.  With the exception of a brief period following the First World War, there had been resistance to vocational education in Canada for the first half of the twentieth century.  However, there was another factor at play in the thinking of the federal government during the 1950’s. The rapid growth of the secondary school population following World War II, due to the baby boom and the increased percentage of teenagers participating in secondary education, pressured governments into funding capital expenditures to construct new schools.  At the same time, there was economic stagnation and rising unemployment in the late 1950’s, and this caused the Conservative government of John Diefenbaker to take action.

At that time, it was perceived that the best means of dealing with the burgeoning student population in secondary schools was to build more schools.  At the same time, in order to address the continuing effects of economic slowdown, it was deemed prudent to begin retraining the existing adult work force for stable, long-term employment in technological fields.  The Technical and Vocational Training Assistance Act not only earmarked substantial funding for adult vocational training, but also a significant portion, $90 million, was set aside for secondary school capital projects.  This included the construction of new schools and the refurbishing of existing structures. The codicil attached to this funding was that one half of the space in the funded schools must be devoted to technical and vocational training subjects. 

Within six months of the passage of the TVTA Act, Ontario had signed an agreement with the federal government. John Robarts, the education minister of Ontario at the time, overhauled the secondary school curriculum to permit the streaming of students into technical/vocational programs.  This curriculum adjustment was referred to as the “Robarts Plan.”  In the six years following this agreement, the initial $90 million grew to $805 million in Ontario alone.  It resulted in the construction of 335 new schools and additions to 83 existing schools, all dedicated to technical/vocational education.

All of these new schools rapidly filled with students, as the baby boom “bulge” moved through the educational system.  Because the schools were technical/vocational in nature, the percentage of secondary school students in technical subjects exploded. Between 1961 and 1966, the percentage of high school students enrolled in non-academic programs almost doubled, from 24 to 46 percent of the total school population. In numerical terms, the number of technical students more than tripled, from 72,000 to 232,000 students. Despite the overall increase in the secondary school enrolment, the number of students in academic programs actually dropped!

There are those who argue that the “Robarts Plan” was a failure.  The Ontario secondary school curriculum was re-jigged again in 1967, due to the perception that the vocational streaming was providing a different quality of education based on ethnicity and socio-economic status. In addition, these programs suffered from an alarmingly high dropout rate. Nevertheless, the federal funding provided by the TVTA Act was responsible for the construction of numerous schools that would never have been built without it, and many of the post-secondary technical institutions created were converted into community colleges and have resulted in the successful education of thousands of adults.

No further federal funds became available due to federal/provincial conflict over roles, and differences between Quebec and other provinces.   When the federal government began funding educational initiatives, clearly defined in the BNA Act as an area of provincial responsibility, there was feuding and disagreement over how and where money should be spent.  The Technical and Vocational Assistance Act was necessary to respond to the population increase of the post-war period and the reality of a changing labour market.

Now, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, Canadians again find that there is a dearth of skilled technical persons in the labour force.  As Canada moves from a resource-based economy to a knowledge-based economy, there is an increasing need for a technically knowledgeable, highly skilled workforce.  The Ontario governments over the past decade have stressed the importance of technological education, but the funding has not materialized to adequately support the intended initiatives.  Canada needs to compete in a global economy, and workers in other countries are more highly versed in robotics and the science of mechatronics than Canadian workers. Following the example of the 1960 Act, it is time for another act of Parliament to provide the financial impetus to provide the nature and quality of education necessary for competitiveness in the twenty-first century.


Smaller, Harry  Vocational Training in Ontario’s Secondary Schools: Past, Present - and Future?

Shohet, Linda     Development of ABE/Literacy in Canada: A chronology 

Additional Sources:


  Prepared by Duncan Bell (OISE/UT), 2004

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