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University of Toronto
U of T Great Past

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Question

What made the "blood fairly boil" in U of T student and future prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1895?

Answer The dismissal of Latin professor William Dale sparked a mass meeting of 700 angry students including King, from the Class of '95. A strike would follow.

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 Friday afternoon, February 15, 1895, the "largest mass meeting in the history of the University" was held in Wardell's Hall, since then demolished, a large hall on the west side of Spadina Avenue, half a block south of College Street. The hall was often used for religious and political meetings. A large sign greeted those entering the building: Gentlemen Will Please Not Spit on the Floor.

William Dale
William Dale

Seven hundred students attended, including a hundred women. The immediate cause of the demonstration was the dismissal by the Ontario government of the popular University College professor of Latin, William Dale, which had been publicly announced earlier in the day. The news of his firing had galvanized the student body. William Lyon Mackenzie King - called "Billy" by his classmates - a member of the class of '95 and a future prime minister of Canada, noted in his diary, "I was that excited that I could not keep still, my blood fairly boiled. I scarcely ate any lunch."


A motion was introduced to "abstain from attendance at lectures at University College until a proper investigation be granted by the provincial government into the difficulties existing at the University."

A motion was introduced at the meeting by the "rather solemn, moon faced" "Billy" King to "abstain from attendance at lectures at University College until a proper investigation be granted by the provincial government into the difficulties existing at the university." A journalist later wrote that King "electrified his hearers by his denunciation of the age-old cult of tyranny," just as his grandfather William Lyon Mackenzie had done as one of the leaders of the 1837 rebellion. Another leader who spoke was James Tucker, the "frail, but thoughtful and soft-spoken" editor of the Varsity. The motion passed with five dissenting votes.

The boycott of classes was successful. George Wrong, the professor of history, wrote to his father-in-law, Chancellor Edward Blake, then a member of parliament in England, that only one student turned up at one of his lectures.

James Tucker
James Tucker

"One of the causes of the strike was the appointment of Wrong himself, the previous fall, amid rumours of nepotism due to his connections with Blake. The editor of the Varsity, James Tucker, a member of the class of '95 and considered by some of his classmates "the outstanding man of our year," kept up the attack, assisted by other members of the Varsity staff such as King. It is likely that behind-the-scenes support for the Varsity was being given by William Dale, the Latin professor, and other members of the staff who lived in the University College students' residence… A further issue creating controversy was the cancellation by the university council in early 1895 of an advertised debate involving two workers' advocates that had been organized by the Political Science Association. Once again, the Varsity, with strong student backing at a mass meeting, attacked this "most truly regrettable state of affairs."


"Rather would we leave the University without a degree," Tucker wrote, "than surrender the principle for which we have been contending."

The Varsity was ordered to apologize. The issues, Tucker wrote in the Varsity, had to do with freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. He would not apologize. On Wednesday, January 29, the university council suspended him. "Rather would we leave the University without a degree," Tucker wrote, "than surrender the principle for which we have been contending."

George Wrong
George Wrong

The following week, the Toronto Globe published a remarkable letter to the editor from Dale taking up the Varsity's cause, which inflamed both the government and the university professoriate. It appeared on the front page of the paper. "I have," Dale wrote, "read the testimonials which Mr. Wrong took the trouble to print and I should imagine that no chair in the University was ever filled on such slight grounds as those testimonials afford." "It is the letter of a madman," Wrong wrote to Chancellor Blake.

Most of the professors in the University were outraged. The government moved quickly. President James Loudon was summoned to meet with the cabinet on Monday and was informed "they had decided to dismiss Professor Dale." On Thursday Dale himself was summoned to a cabinet meeting, and asked to resign. He refused to do so, and on Friday, February 15, his dismissal was announced officially. The announcement gave rise to the previously described strike vote.

James Loudon
James Loudon

After the strike was declared, there was much discussion between the students and the university administration. On February 20, another mass meeting was held at Wardell's Hall, and a motion was passed that students should return to lectures pending negotiations to appoint a commission. On Friday, Loudon sent the government a recommendation for a commission of inquiry, which the government accepted. The students returned to classes.

Loudon continued to have problems with the students. The evening of the day the strike was called off was the conversazione, the first that had been held since the fire in 1890. Promenading, that is, walking with a partner to music, was part of the program, but the students preferred dancing, which was banned. The Toronto Star described Loudon's undignified attempt to stop it: "The president evidently anticipated [dancing] and was on hand at once to prevent it. He was successful in each room in which he was, but when he entered the East Hall the dancing began in the West, and when he returned to the West it was resumed in the East… The dancing was kept up at intervals until nearly three o'clock."

The commission's report, released April 27, 1895, Friedland goes on to write, rejected the students' complaints, though it found there was a "want of tact at times" in the administration's dealing with them. Tucker's Varsity's articles were deemed "offensive and entirely beyond the line of fair comment." The students' other claim that they had a right to invite people to deliver lectures on university property was "untenable," and it was "impossible to see how any other course could have been pursued" with the dismissed Professor Dale. Many of the participants in the student strike of 1895 would go on to distinguished careers. King, of course, went on to be Canada's longest serving prime minister. Wrong would become known as one of Canada's foremost historians. But his adversary Dale would never find a permanent teaching position again. And the Varsity's "frail but thoughtful" Tucker was not allowed to write finals or receive a degree from U of Tů he died at the age of 31.

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