The Canadian Principal


The Canadian principal shares many characteristics of counterparts in other English-speaking countries. School leaders everywhere are experiencing greater demands and increasing expectations due to multiple education reforms in the last decade. Preparation programs are struggling to provide relevant training experiences to adequately prepare leaders for the multitude of roles they are expected to fulfill. Greater numbers are expected to retire in the next few years than ever before and fewer qualified candidates are applying for each vacancy. Within Canada while there are many similarities in the principalship from region to region, there also is diversity related to issues such as requirements for initial appointment, mandatory professional development, and bargaining group affiliation.

Many studies have been done in the last few years focusing on different aspects of the Canadian principalship, some of which have a national perspective such as the Leadership Crisis Studies (Canadian Association of Principals, 1999, 2000) while most have focused on a specific provincial jurisdiction (MacNeill 2000, Bognar 1996, Williams 2001, Hickcox 2002, Catholic Principals’ Council of Ontario 2001, Renihan 2000, and others).


Of the incumbent school leaders approximately 30 to 57%, depending upon the province, are expected or are able to retire in the next 3-5 years. The average age of principals is 46-51 years. Decreasing numbers of candidates are applying for school leadership positions and even within the current pool of vice-principals many express no desire for the principalship, e.g., a survey of New Brunswick vice-principals stated that only 19.5% of them were interested in a principalship. Williams states that the outflow of qualified persons through retirement strongly outnumbers newly qualified persons entering the field. (The number of replacement-qualified persons over the five year period is only 44 per cent of those projected to retire – a decrease in the pool of 56 per cent). 1

Bargaining Unit

Affiliation with teacher associations varies from province to province with some provinces such as Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia separating principals from teachers and others where principals remain in the teachers’ bargaining unit. This has significant ramifications for the principal’s working relationships.

Training and Preparation

Many provinces such as British Columbia do not mandate a specific educational requirement in addition to a teaching certificate for appointment to the principalship. While in practice many districts require or give preference to candidates with a Masters’ degree, the following examples illustrate the variance across Canada. New Brunswick requires a Principal’s Certificate with an extended practicum and a prerequisite of at least five years teaching experience. In Nova Scotia there are no principal certification or preparation regulations but most districts require an advanced degree and participation in three provincial modules offered by a leadership consortium. By far the most sophisticated and longest standing (almost forty years) principal certification program is in Ontario. There the Principals’ Qualification program includes 2 three-week courses and a 40 hour practicum. The Northwest Territories and Nunavut have a certification program with similarities to the Ontario program except the candidate does not require a Masters’ degree and must complete the certificate within two years of appointment as a principal. Quebec requires the attainment of 30 university credits (equivalent to a Masters’ degree) within five years of appointment.

Professional Development

Generally speaking, across the country, professional development is the individual’s responsibility. The notable exception is Ontario which has instituted the Mandatory Professional Learning Program which requires all education professionals to complete 14 courses within each five-year cycle. While a number of provinces, districts and/or professional associations offer leadership modules or short courses, these programs are usually not mandatory nor do they provide official credits. Professional associations are taking an increasing role in skill development and a provincial principal leadership centre is being contemplated in at least one jurisdiction. Most programming at this time in Canada is directed at principal candidates and new appointments.


The differences among provinces in policy and practice related to the principalship reflect the provincial rather than national mandate for public education in Canada. However, if examples of best practice from around the world provide the framework for an overarching set of role expectations, standards, preparation and professional development programs, more consistency among provincial practices may emerge in the future.

1 Williams, Thomas R. (2001) Unrecognized Exodus, Unaccepted Accountability: The Looming Shortage of Principals and VicePrincipals in Ontario Public School Boards, p. 10.