1986’d Pt 2: Privatizing textbook evaluation under Bob Rae’s NDP & Mike Harris’ PCs, Consolidation of Canada’s textbook publishers

Updated March 3, 2024

Textbook evaluation in Ontario began to be outsourced in 1994 under Bob Rae’s New Democratic Party administration. (After leading the Ontario NDP, Rae, a university roommate of future federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, switched affiliation in 2006 to run for the Liberal Party leadership and as of 2024 is Canada’s representative at the the United Nations) In cooperation with several teachers’ associations, the province established the Ontario Curriculum Clearinghouse (OCC) as an arms-length agency to help school boards evaluate and share secondary learning materials that supplemented textbooks.[1] Meanwhile the scope of textbooks had shrunk through tightened congruency requirements. As late as 1976 textbooks only had to “contribute significantly to a unit of instruction,” but in 1979 congruency was quantified at 10% of a subject curriculum. In 1997, under Rae’s Conservative successor, books had to match 50% of curriculum – and by 1998 it was 85%. This further shrunk the diversity of thought that students could read in print, even via chance browsing in a school library. In the era of open sourcing, the textbooks proposed and majority recommended had been wonderfully diverse, but suppression and increased restrictions frittered that wonder and variety away.

In 1998, OCC won a contract with the Ministry of Education to evaluate learning materials for kindergarten to grade 8 in mathematics, science and technology, and language. To complete its first contract, OCC hired 100 teachers to evaluate 170 books in 19 days. [2] Schools then had less than two weeks to order books for the next school year. The manic process was dubbed a fiasco. “Schools have been short of books for a decade; it’s really bizarre that the process is so rushed,” [3] said publisher Jack Stoddart, then president of the Association of Canadian Publishers.

Two years later the agency, now incorporated as not-for-profit Curriculum Services Canada (CSC), won an Ontario contract to evaluate grade 10 textbooks for English, math and French. The arrangement became permanent in May 2002 when Conservative Education Minister Elizabeth Witmer announced that CSC would evaluate all English-language materials going forward.[4] The printed annual Circular 14 list of approved textbooks had become the Trillium List database. CSC’s 750 evaluators were teachers, principals and education consultants who, CSC claimed, received in-depth training and mentoring. Its managers were primarily former teachers and provincial government employees, but private industry was also represented. In 2011 CSC’s board of directors included members from the Royal Bank of Canada, Canada’s largest bank, and commercial Bay Street lawyers Blake, Cassels & Graydon.

In the mid 19th century, largely home-schooling parents had handed the power of textbook selection to government. One-and-a-half centuries later, government let private industry in the door. This privatization of evaluation occurred primarily under Premier Mike Harris’ ‘Common Sense’ Conservatives. That said, neither the Dalton McGuinty or Kathleen Wynne Liberals reversed course.

Privatization meant a less thorough evaluation for more cost. Whereas the Ministry of Education had commissioned up to seven reviews for each submission, CSC’s evaluation panels included only three. Publishers began to be charged $3,500 for each submission. CSC management used most income from textbook review to fund other lines of business. According to CSC’s 2010 annual report, curriculum evaluation generated $730,000, 19% of its revenue, but accounted for only 4% of costs.

Publisher submissions for evaluation had shrunk precipitously; in 2009/10 only 28 textbooks were submitted. The Government of Canada made it difficult for educational publishers by granting broad exceptions to intellectual property protection that permit public school systems to photocopy at large. The changes made ELHI publishing less profitable than other markets.

Transparency was an issue for public and private censors. The Education Ministry confirmed that CSC is subject to Ontario’s freedom of information legislation. Yet the organization was evasive. On the phone, CSC’s director of evaluation services agreed to meet and discuss the textbook review process, but thereafter called back to decline. As CSC was a third party in the evaluation process, she declared that it wasn’t her place to grant interviews. She suggested looping back to the ministry’s communications representative.

CSC declared bankruptcy in 2018. Responsibility for evaluating English-language textbooks was assigned to Curriculum Matters Incorporated, a Thornhill, Ontario-based agency staffed by some of the same CSC staff as before.[5] The bankruptcy hardly seems worthwhile.

The Trillium List online database that replaced the print Circular 14 serial is less descriptive and less permanent. The database is not promoted and is hidden away deep on the government’s maze of a web site. Fewer specialists than before are involved in the Trillium List’sproduction and maintenance. Saving money is a noble governmental objective, but textbooks and information production are such a minor cost compared with costs for school facilities and human resources.


The Ontario government and the textbook publishing industry have both restructured. Professor Laura Pinto documented the transformation of the Canadian textbook industry from healthy competition to oligopoly.[6] Three large companies, Thomson Nelson, American McGraw-Hill Ryerson and British Pearson, controlled 92% of the Canadian educational market in 2005. Pearson Education Canada had been created in 1998 with Pearson’s acquisition of Simon and Schuster, and the combination in Canada of Addison Wesley Longman with Prentice-Hall imprints. But the federal Department of Canadian Heritage ordered Pearson to divest some of the series published by its former competitors to a Canadian buyer.[7] Smaller publishers Gage and Irwin picked up divestures, but by 2003 Nelson – Canada’s largest educational publisher – had acquired both Gage and Irwin.

In 2010 authorized publications for elementary and secondary schools had dwindled to just 310 titles (after removing multiple editions of the same text), where there once would have been a thousand more. Nelson Education Ltd., Pearson PLC and Scholastic Canada Ltd. provided 76% of the 160 titles for the elementary market. Just five market participants provided the other 24%, each contributing no more than 12 titles. Three publishers, Nelson, McGraw-Hill Ryerson and Pearson provided 73.5% of the 150 titles for the secondary school market. Oxford University Press supplied another 11% while seven other publishers contributed the remaining 15%.[8] Publishers compete for courses. In grades 11 and 12, where students have the most elective courses, 21 courses had a single text listed. In another 24 courses, educators could choose between only two books. Just two courses had more choice. Native Studies courses had no associated textbooks until 2012.

In 2007, Toronto-based Thomson announced the sale of its Nelson educational division to private equity. To remain onside with federal regulators and provincial buyers, and avoid concessions like those Pearson faced, the database company structured a deal so that its ELHI business Nelson, with its trophy case of imprints including Gage and Irwin, Harcourt, Duval and Norby, would be majority owned by Canadian private equity fund Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS). Other assets would be controlled by British Apax partners.[9] a London, England-headquartered global private equity firm composed of funds from public and private corporations, insurance companies and university endowments. OMERS is the pension fund for Ontario’s municipal employees: librarians, bus drivers, police, nurses and firefighters. By selling Nelson to OMERS, Thomson preserved its Canadian status and unencumbered access to its most important market.


Prior to divesting Nelson, Thomson’s CEO had disclosed frustration with the company’s failure to convince educators to switch from printed texts to Internet media, as it had accomplished in its other markets.[10] By eliminating most printing expenses, electronic E-books offer publishers the opportunity to shrink staff while reaching larger audiences. The customers are anywhere with a network. Schools may purchase copyrighted content downloaded to an electronic reader purchased by either the school or students or built into ongoing “textbook” fees. New editions in this digital paradigm are available faster and are much less capital intensive than print. Revisions are reduced to file edits and downloads. The production and evaluation cycles, from the publication of ministry guideline to authorized textbook, is simplified. The financial risk of a text being rejected by provincial buyers is comparatively small. The difference between draft and final editions is less meaningful.

Two years after Thomson fretted about public resistance, Nelson vice president James Reeve and new OMERS CEO Paul Renaud appeared to be making progress with media consumers. Nelson managers were convinced that e-books were the future. Reeve said the company was “adapting to Canadians’ interest in technology … creating more electronic and online supplements as an alternative to our print resources.”[11]  Educational buyers had quickly gone from preferring print-based texts to demanding publishers adapt to their preference for e-books.

Both e-books and electronic databases like the Trillium List that the annual serial Circular 14 replaced share characteristics with television as well as with printed books and serials. The persistence of publication is not guaranteed. As needs change, an e-book and database can be altered without noting the versioning, which could further assist governments that want to hide its gatekeeping activities.

Marshall McLuhan termed the printed page the “first teaching machine” as it allowed people to read widely.[12] Television and other electronic media offer something different. With the transition away from books, McLuhan wrote, society moved away from the intimate and precise “one-thing-at-a-time of print” to the all-inclusive “field of electricity.”[13] TV is a continuously formed mosaic. The average shot length in television news had decreased to five seconds in 2019.[14] Visual bombardment is so rapid that the conscious mind cannot contemplate or contest, only receive. Fear, anger and other emotions can be received, but there isn’t enough time, from scene to scene, to determine whether those emotions are appropriate. “The vague, ambiguous, uncommitted person – whether in politics or entertainment – will survive on TV,” wrote McLuhan.[15] Images are professionally massaged behind the camera to become irresistible. Screen viewers participate in extreme feats with which no printed page can compete with.

Educator Bob Davis listed the loss of Canadian independence as the first of five results from the decline of history teaching. “Loyalty via TV” was the fourth.

Television now creates a strong measure of loyalty to capitalism and “democracy” directly through its commercials and life-style programs, thus removing the need of traditional Western governments for history and civics as indirect loyalty techniques … Television also provides its own view of what history is all about … Proponents of social history like myself need to be aware that TV has its own version of social history – a completely depoliticized one.[16]

Books are a less desirable medium than previously partly because capital interests have discovered and nurtured more penetrating conduits to consumers. As much as public school dumbs down the kids, broadcast and streamed television can be ruthlessly stupefying. Private censors have no obligation to work in the public interest. Endowed special interests should be expected to be in outright conflict with public interests.


As much as public school dumbs down the kids, broadcast and streamed television can be ruthlessly stupefying.


Analysis of domestic television viewing habits reveal that, by and large, English-speaking Canadians do not want to watch Canadian television if they have a choice. There are historical reasons for this beyond population differences. Before CBC television began broadcasting, Canadians were already receiving American programming via rooftop antennae.[17] So while Canadian textbooks began as anti-American, much of Canadian television started out as America-positive. This air attack delivered the fatal blow. Writer Patricia Bailey says the 1951 Massey Commission report on culture, and its chair, future Governor General Vincent Massey, framed support for the arts in terms of political ambitions rather than for art’s sake. [18] Sounds dry. English-language CBC focused on news and current affairs rather than drama. American television was more dynamic. In 2019 less than 20% of Canadian broadcasting revenue went to Canadian producers.[19] English-Canadian television broadcasters exist largely to replace American commercial advertisements with Canadian ads, a process called simultaneous substitution. If textbooks and schooling are considered a mode of social reproduction that television replaced, the impact has been that Canadian values and language have become more American and less British.


*Canadian Mockingbird is a newly available story on textbook censorship.


Next week, 1986’d Pt3: The Harris’ Conservatives’ multi-forum assault on Indigenous people, Government secrecy in textbook evaluation harms education & free speech


[1] Curriculum Services Canada (2008). A History of Curriculum Services Canada. Toronto.

[2] (1998). Textbook fiasco. Toronto Star. Toronto.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Curriculum Services Canada, “A History of Curriculum Services Canada”., 61-2.

[5] Email from the ministry’s Christine Gardner, Manager of Curriculum, Assessment and Student Success Policy Branch, Ontario Ministry of Education.

[6] Pinto, L. (2005). “Ontario’s incredible shrinking textbook supply chain.” Our Schools/Our Selves 14(4): 61-74.

[7] Lorinc, J. (1999). Pearson divests lines to Canadian companies: Gage and Irwin benefit from conditions of Prentice Hall-Addison Wesley merger. Quill & Quire. Toronto. 65:4.

[8] My statistics, collected in 2010, refer to availability rather than actual purchases. Dr. Pinto worked directly with publishers to get closer to overall sales.

[9] Thomson Corporation (2007). “Thomson to Sell Thomson Learning Higher Education Assets to Funds Advised by Apax Partners and OMERS Capital Partners for Combined Total Value of US$7.75 Billion.

[10] Austen, I. (2007). Thomson Agrees to Sell Its Educational Operation. New York Times. New York.

[11] Ibid.

[12] McLuhan, Marshall. “Electronics and the Changing Role of Print.” Audio Visual Communication Review 8, no. 5 (1960): 74-83.

[13] McLuhan, 79. In the same work he also called this linear characteristic “static fragmentation.”

[14] Leetaru, Kalev. “Using Google’s Video AI to Estimate the Average Shot Length in Television News.” Forbes (2019). Published electronically June 3. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kalevleetaru/2019/06/03/using-googles-video-ai-to-estimate-the-average-shot-length-in-television-news/?sh=32742fbf8e3a.

[15] McLuhan Ibid, 80.

[16] Davis, Bob. Whatever Happened to High School History: Burying the Political Memory of Youth, Ontario: 1945-1995.  Toronto: James Lorimer & Co, Ltd., Publishers in Cooperation with Our Schools/Our Selves, 1995. Better known analysis commentary of the broadcast television era is available from Neil Postman and Steven Powers in the 1992 How to Watch TV News (New York: Penguin), Postman’s 1985 Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York: Penguin) and Curtis White’s 2004 The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves (New York: HarperCollins).

[17] Bailey, Patricia. “Why Canuck TV Sucks – and Quebec Shows Thrive.” Winnipeg Free Press (2003). Published electronically July 6. www.winnipegfreepress.com/historic/31354149.html.

[18] Ibid

[19] Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. “Communications Monitoring Report.” Ottawa: CRTC, 2020.