Toronto Catholic education's history chronicled

  • February 15, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - If Catholics thought the debate over publicly funded religious education in Ontario’s last provincial election campaign was bruising, they should have a little history lesson. They would find that today’s battles are sedate compared to those of the 19th century.

In fact, the history of Catholic education in Ontario has been one long litany of struggles, conflicts, political rivalries, ethnic and religious strife. Yet, it has also been a story of one small victory after another, reaching to the full-government funding and provincewide system that exists today.

This history, or at least a microcosm of it as found in Toronto’s Catholic District School Board (TCDSB), is the subject of a new book by Dr. Robert T. Dixon. We Remember, We Believe: A History of Toronto’s Catholic Separate School Boards, 1941-1997, offers the most detailed account yet of Toronto Catholics’ long struggle to enshrine their own right to educate their own children, with government support.

“The Toronto Catholic school boards have throughout their history regularly been in the forefront to protect and advance the constitutional rights of separate school boards,” Dixon writes in his preface.

It was only natural, after a career an educator that took him to the heights of administration in Ontario, after earning a doctorate with a thesis arguing the constitutional merits of full funding or Catholic schools, after writing two previous history books on Catholic education in Ontario, Dixon should turn his hand to a subject that he holds close to his heart.

The Toronto board is the largest and oldest of Ontario’s Catholic school boards. Today it teaches more than 90,000 students in 201 schools. But its existence and position of influence was far from assured in mid-19th-century Ontario. As Dixon relates, Ontario then was part of a British colony that was still rough and ready, dominated by a small clique of Protestant and English and Scottish citizens. The Irish Catholic minority, though mushrooming due to immigration following the Irish Famine of the 1840s, was considered an underclass, often poor and poorly educated, viewed by their neighbours as innately drunken, ignorant peasants who slavishly followed the dictates of tyrant Roman Catholic bishops and the pope.

Dixon tells how, through the perseverance (and personal finances) of several Catholic bishops, along with the devoted aid of determined Catholic laity, the Toronto schools came into existence. He tells the stories of people like John Elmsley, who used his own fortune to help promote the growth of Catholic schools, and of Bishops Michael Power, Armand de Charbonnel and John Lynch who were quite open about telling their Catholic flocks how to vote and when.

He also describes how Catholic religious orders — notably the Loretto Sisters, the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Christian Brothers and the Basilian Fathers — came to Toronto at the request of its bishops to create a school system from scratch. Without their unending work for wages that were a fraction of those paid to secular teachers, the fledgling schools would never have survived or achieved the success they did.

Dixon also tells the stories of violent riots between Catholics and Protestants on the streets of Toronto, often using the pretext of parades such as the ones for St. Patrick’s Day (for the Catholics) and July 12 — the “Glorious Twelfth” — the anniversary of the victory of the Protestant William of Orange in the Battle of the Boyne over Catholics, in which Protestant Orange Lodges displayed their pride in the victory over “popism.” The ill treatment of Catholics included name-calling, breaking the windows of churches and convents, roughing up Catholics, firing of guns and threatening arson.

The newspapers of the day were also known for their intensely partisan and crude rhetoric. They used every whiff of malfeasance by Catholics to reinforce old myths about the indigence and ignorance of the minority in their midst.

Eventually, the physical violence was left behind but the nasty and angry public debate continued for decades into the 20th century, even as the small Catholic boards that were formed in Toronto’s early days were united into one that grew rapidly into the educator of thousands of young Catholics. Dixon tells how Catholics continually worked to obtain more equitable access to public funding, whether it was corporate property tax or government grants. He tells, too, of other key events along the way, notably the creation of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, and improved funding formulas that culminated in Bill 160, a piece of legislation passed by the Harris Conservative government and enacted in 1997.

The book was published by the Toronto Catholic District School Board and will be officially launched in the spring. Dixon hopes it will help Ontario’s Catholic community “have an appreciation of the board’s rich historical heritage.

The paperback volume, with 481 pages of text, photos, footnotes and index, is for sale for $32. It can be obtained through the TCDSB. .

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