Rethinking post-secondary education

The long and storied career of Progressive Conservative William Davis, the premier of Ontario for 14 years from 1971-85, made for an engaging seminar to a packed assembly at the Erindale United Church this past Thursday morning. As part of the Associates of UTM’s “Canadian Perspectives” fall lecture series, Davis was invited in to discuss his contributions to the advancement of Ontario’s educational system during the 1960s and 70s.

“You have to look at course offerings. You have to say that if we are going to be competitive with China, with our friends south of the border, the federal government is going to have to invest more in education,” Davis emphasized to the audience. “Show me a good lawyer or doctor and I’ll show you a good kindergarten teacher.”

Davis points out that our post-secondary educational system is only as good as our elementary and high school systems. It’s a collaborative effort on the part of school teachers at all levels to foster the knowledge capital of our society. The right kind of growth for universities can only occur if the federal government distributes funding equally across programs and initiatives so that all knowledge-seekers’ needs can be met.

“I began to realize that for those who really wanted to pursue mechanics, a four-year program would be of no real benefit to them,” said Davis.

This tangent led into his involvement in the origins of the Ontario colleges system, including the humble beginnings of U of T’s Mississauga campus.

Over the course of his tenure as Ontario’s minister of education and university affairs from 1962-71, Davis went about the restructuring of several institutions into new non-denominational, provincially funded universities across the province, including Brock, Trent, Laurentian, Windsor, and Ottawa. In addition he also opened 22 community colleges. The first of these was Seneca, which at the start was at odds with York over offering many of the same courses.

Davis foresaw the benefits of immersing students in joint academic-practical accelerated curricula because a higher percentage of college graduates tended to find employment right out of school in contrast to their university counterparts. Davis added that students shouldn’t be forced to choose between college and university; there should be aspects of both streams complementarily woven into the fabric of each.

He recalled how the then-mayor of Streetsville, Hazel McCallion, had expressed interest in Mississauga building its own university campus in her township. However, Davis staunchly campaigned to have the campus be located in his home provincial riding of Erindale. Managing to secure a parcel of land near Dundas and Mississauga Road owned by Reginald Watkins in 1965, he gradually bought out the landowners northwards by raising compensation for their properties by 25%, thus minimizing local opposition to the new campus.

While calls for the campus to be its own university abounded at the time of Erindale’s inception, the majority of faculty and area constituents agreed that the prestige of being under the University of Toronto umbrella was too much to part with.

He cited that by comparison, the University of Western Ontario has done a much better job at fostering its school spirit and stressed the need for UTM to enhance its student life services.

His greatest achievements, he recounts, were in the handling of the separate schools system. In the more religiously motivated times of his political career, Davis often sought to diffuse tensions between Catholics and Protestants, who sometimes squabbled over the non-sectarian Christianity being promoted in public schools.

As a means to financially support distinctively Catholic schools, Davis rallied the support of former premiers Leslie Frost and John Robarts into establishing the Foundation Tax Plan, which lead to a new influx of cash for Catholic elementary schools.

Although all students in Ontario were schooled equally from kindergarten up to grade 10, those within the Catholic school system were required to pay full tuition costs to attend school beyond that level as recently as 40 years ago. It was public policy for student’s families to fork over $1,100 (after inflation, equivalent to about $6,300 today) in order to complete their studies at the same school, otherwise students would have to be transferred to a secular public school. Davis believe the government shouldn’t extend educational subsidies up to the grade 10 level but not for an additional year of schooling, so he sought to change the policy.

Davis also touched on a number of other subjects, including his involvement in ceasing the expansion of the Spadina Expressway through the Annex, founding TV Ontario, and working with former prime ministers John Diefenbaker, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, and John Turner. He spoke about his involvement in the Partition of the Canadian Constitution, feeling that although we should continue with the institutional frameworks established by the British, Canada was its own sovereign nation and ought to be free to augment its constitution without the input of the British parliament.

Davis, along with the premiers of several other English-speaking provinces, had reached an agreement with the federal government by November 1981 after years of debating, but Québec was excluded from the final negotiations. Davis regrets having to have kept René Lévesque, premier of Québec at the time, in the dark about the proceedings; but he felt that it was a pivotal move to keeping the country united.

“Important in public life is a sense of humour,” Davis concluded at the end of the lecture, noting that he takes his work seriously, but not himself.

To honour the Brampton native, Sheridan College renamed its Brampton site to “Davis Campus”.

Recently, UTM followed suit by rededicating its South Building as the William G. Davis building.

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