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U of T Great Past

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Question Who was an early advocate for higher education in "Upper Canada"?
Answer First lieutenant-governor John Graves Simcoe, whose passion helped pave the way for today's University of Toronto.

On March 15, 1827, King's College - the precursor to the University of Toronto - was granted its royal charter by King George IV. Throughout 2002, U of T celebrated 175 years of Great Minds. As part of the celebration, the U of T website featured excerpts from The University of Toronto: A History, written by Martin Friedland, University Professor and Professor Emeritus of Law at U of T.

On the Sixteenth of March, in the seventh year of the reign of George the Fourth -- that is, in 1826 -- John Strachan, the leading Anglican clergyman in York, left the town (later called Toronto) for England. His principal mission was to obtain a charter for a proposed university for Upper Canada. The result of his trip was a royal charter -- and 25 years of intense conflict on the question of the place of the church in higher education in the colony.

John Graves Simcoe, the first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, had been in favour of a college in the colony. Even before he had left for Canada in 1792, the Oxford-educated Simcoe had written about establishing "a college of a higher class," a vision that even earlier had been expressed by the United Empire Loyalists who had come after the American Revolution to what would later be called Ontario.

Early Toronto
York (Toronto) in 1828

Such an institution, wrote Simcoe, "would give a tone of principle and manners that would be of infinite support to government." Of perhaps more importance, it would also help prevent students from picking up subversive ideas in the United States, where, "owing to the cheapness of education ... the gentlemen of Upper Canada will send their children." Simcoe had fought against the Americans in the Revolutionary War and obviously had no wish to lose the rest of British North America as well.

"I have no idea that a University will be established," Simcoe wrote to the Anglican bishop of Quebec in 1796, "though I am daily confirmed in its necessity." Such an institution, he felt, would "strengthen the union with Great Britain and preserve a lasting obedience to His Majesty's authority." He also stated that a university would "have a great influence in civilising the Indians," and then added, "and what is of more importance, those who corrupt them."


A Canadian university, Simcoe believed, would prevent the colonists from sending their children to school in the U.S.

In the late 1790s, an education endowment had been established in the recently created province, then with a population of perhaps 25,000 Europeans. Five hundred thousand acres of "waste lands" scattered throughout the new province had been set aside as an endowment for the support of schools, and a "college or university." A report by the Upper Canada Executive Committee in 1798 recommended that a university be established in the town of York and that half the education endowment be used for that purpose. Little was done, however, until after new colonial governor Sir Peregrine Maitland arrived. In 1819, Maitland, who had commanded a brigade at Waterloo, referred the issue to his executive council, and in 1822 he sent a request to England for the use of the endowment lands for a university.

John Strachan
John Strachan

The British government, however, appeared to favour the development of a university in Montreal to serve both Upper and Lower Canada. McGill College had received its royal charter in 1821, with John Strachan himself having played a major role in its establishment. In 1807, Strachan had married the widow of the brother of James McGill, who brought with her a welcome annuity of £300 a year (Strachan had lavish tastes). Strachan had helped persuade James McGill to leave his fortune to found an educational institution. McGill had thought that Strachan would be its first principal, but Strachan probably felt that he had greater prospects in Upper Canada.


Strachan wanted education in the province to be conducted by his church's clergy

Strachan was asked by Maitland to prepare a document to take to England, outlining why a university was necessary. As Simcoe had done a quarter of a century earlier, Strachan warned of the danger faced by sending students to the United States for their education. In the United States, he wrote, "politics pervade the whole system of instruction. The school books... are stuffed with praises of their own institutions, and breathe hatred to everything English... Some may become fascinated with that liberty which has degenerated into licentiousness, and imbibe, perhaps unconsciously, sentiments unfriendly to things of which Englishmen are proud." Three-quarters of the doctors in the province, he went on to say, had studied in the United States. Moreover, he wanted to be able to train Church of England clergy to act as teachers. "It is of the greatest importance that the education of the Colony should be conducted by the Clergy," that is, the Church of England clergy.

However, others would have different ideas on the role of the church in education, Friedland goes on to write. The resulting "University Question" would play a central role in Upper Canadian politics for the next 25 years: a debate that would only end with the provincial government's creation of the more secular University of Toronto on Jan. 1, 1850.

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Links of interest:

Read more about early Ontario history, including John Graves Simcoe, here.
Read one of John Strachan's poems here.
More about the University of Toronto Press.

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