While apprenticeships in the trades have existed for thousands of years, formalized vocational education is a relatively new concept.

It was not until the early 20th century that Canada saw its first vocational schools funded by the Federal Government. As formalized vocational education in Canada evolved throughout the twentieth century, and now into the twenty-first century, it has experienced its share of growing pains and continues to wrestle with some issues that still haunt it from its past. Canada has been progressive as it continues to build on its history of formalizing vocational education systems. However, there are still issues that need addressing if Canada is to continue to be a leader in training world-class tradespeople.
Canada has much that it can be proud of in the way of formalized vocational education. Canada modelled its trades training from the European form of training, specifically the French system of the seventeenth century. Prior to the seventeenth century, apprentices were treated as no more than cheap labour for master artisans. This form of indentureship was not always viewed as a negative as it kept orphans off the streets, fed and clothed them and offered them opportunities to be trained in a trade to support themselves. This began to change in the late 17th Century in New France (Canada). Records show that by the end of the seventeenth century, some apprentices in New France were receiving a clothing allowance and that some of the higher sought-after trades were even providing a living wage to some of their more mature apprentices (Moogk, 1971, p. 68). As the industrial revolution began to accelerate, there was a significant need for trained tradespeople and apprenticeships became more civilized and democratized (Moogk, 1971, p. 77).

As formalized vocational education began to evolve in Canada, the government took an interest in its importance. In 1910 the Federal Government established the Royal Commission on Industrial Training and Technical education and began to provide federal funding for vocational education (Lyons, Randhawa, and Paulson, 1991, p. 140). This commission was no small feat as there had been rising tensions between private industry, the Provincial Governments, and the Federal Government. Through the lobbying efforts of the Canadian Manufacturers Association and the efforts of the future Prime Minister William Lyons MacKenzie King, the minister of labour at the time, it was recognized that there was a need to provide funding for the broad field of vocational education. As the field of vocational education started to grow, the Federal Government acknowledged the need for teachers trained in their specific fields. In 1960 the Technical and Vocational Training Assistance Act helped include funding for vocational teachers (Taylor, 2010, p. 506). Early on, Canada understood the need to make vocational education a national priority, yet today there is still a disconnect between private industry, the provincial and federal governments, employers and trainees. In order to address these disconnects, there has been a strong mandate to standardize the training provided across the provinces, such as the Interprovincial Standards Program and, more recently, a harmonization initiative whose goal it is to provide a set of training initiatives that would be standard across all provinces (Lyons et al., 1991, p. 145). Even though the Provincial and Federal Governments have worked, and continue to work together to help build up vocational education, there are still some issues that continue to persist from their past.

In 1966, after roughly 56 years of providing funding for vocational education, the Federal Government withdrew the funding for vocational education and specified that vocational education would now become a provincial responsibility. This withdrawal left the Provincial Governments and school boards to cover the entire costs of training in their vocational programs (Lyons et al., 1991, p. 143). This effectively decentralized vocational education into the thirteen provinces and territories, allowing for each to provide their own training and requirements for the trades. While the provinces have worked together on programs such as the Interprovincial Standards Program, there are still trades that are deemed as “voluntary”, such as carpenters, roofers, and painters who do not need regulation across the provinces and are not bound by the Interprovincial Standards (Gunderson and Krashinsky, 2016, p. 407).

While the Provincial Governments provide substantial funding for apprentices in vocational education today, this funding is directed mostly towards in-class training. A substantial portion of vocational education is performed out in the industry by employers through hands-on training. For example, in the electrical trade, the apprenticeship consists of 40 weeks of in-class training (1200 hours) and 6000 hours of hands-on training. While there is some funding available for employers regarding training their apprentices, the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum has estimated that the average employer spends $207,000 per trainee over a four-year period (Meredith, 2011, p. 326). Even though there is a substantial return on investment by training an apprentice, this could be a deterrent for some employers to participate in a formal “apprenticeship” program. Industry and the provinces are working towards solutions for these problems, through harmonization initiatives and grants for employers that provide training for apprentices.

While Canada has moved forward and continued to make progress, vocational education has always suffered stigmatization and is often viewed as an educational track for those who may struggle in traditional academics. The trades have often been viewed as second-class employment and not of high importance. As Lyons et al. (1991) state, “Until recently, we did not treat domestic programs for highly skilled workers as vital to the nation’s interest” (p. 137). Vocational education continues to suffer the image as being a dumping ground for those who struggle with academics, have learning needs, or behavioural issues (Tayor, 2010, p. 505).

In addition to the non-academic stereotype, since the advent of formalized trades education, females have not held much of an active role in the trades. From the times when the only true apprenticeship available for females was tailoring (Moogk, 1971, p. 75), the trades are still severely underrepresented with only 10% of registered apprentices identifying as female (Gunderson and Krashinsky, 2016, p. 407). Of this 10 %, most are enrolled in what is referred to as the “Pink” trades such as hairdressing, cosmetology, and cooking (Meredith, 2011, p. 324). Even today, not only are females under-represented but there is a substantial misrepresentation of visible minorities and aboriginal Canadians (Meredith, 2011, p. 325).

With all of its issues, Canada remains a forerunner in formalized vocational education. It continues to offer opportunities for those who are more mechanically inclined than academically and has been a leader in making sure that apprentices receive fair wages and adequate training. It continues its mandate to provide a standardized system of training for all apprentices across all provinces for both the compulsory and voluntary trades. However, one cannot ignore that there are still significant steps that need to be taken. The governments must continue to work with private industry to provide training that will be a benefit to both the apprentices and the employers (Meredith, 2011, p. 340). The governments (both Provincial and Federal) need to continue to enact policies that will push Canada into the future concerning vocational education. As the pains of a skilled trades worker shortage begin to be felt across Canada, both the government and private industry need to continue to work together to learn from past issues and to take steps for a better future.


Gunderson, M., & Krashinsky, H. (2016). Apprenticeship in Canada: An Increasingly Viable Pathway? Challenge, 59(5), 405–421.

Lyons, J. E., Randhawa, B. S., & Paulson, N. A. (1991). The Development of Vocational Education in Canada. Canadian Journal of Education / Revue Canadienne de l’éducation, 16(2), 137-150.

Meredith, J. (2011). Apprenticeship in Canada: where’s the crisis? Journal of Vocational Education & Training, 63(3), 323–344.

Moogk, P. N. (1971). Apprenticeship Indentures: A Key to Artisan Life in New France. Historical Papers, 6(1), 65-83.

Taylor, A. (2010). The contradictory location of high school apprenticeship in Canada. Journal of Education Policy, 25(4), 503–517.