Ontario’s colleges have come a long way in 50 years

By Steve Paikin - Published on Apr 06, 2017
Kathleen Wynne, Bill Davis, Deb Matthews, and Hazel McCallion celebrated the 50th anniversary of Ontario's college system Monday alongside school representatives. (Steve Paikin/TVO)

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It’s hard to imagine that one of the most successful post-secondary educational systems in the world started in an abandoned manufacturing plant just half a century ago.

Back then, options for Ontarians after they finished high school were much more limited than they are today. Only about 10 per cent of graduates went on to university. Most everyone else either got a job, or got married and started a family. Other options just weren't readily available.

But Ontario’s education minister, then in his mid-thirties, resolved to change that. Bill Davis was the political point man for a group of educators who envisioned a system of “community colleges” that would offer more technical or practical post-secondary skills to high school grads.

His friend, University of Toronto professor Reg Stackhouse, went to Ottawa to negotiate with the federal government for an old wartime factory in east-end Toronto. While Stackhouse waiting to see Public Works Minister George McIlraith, a bureaucrat predicted it would be a waste of time — there was no chance they’d get the building. But fortunately, McIlraith turned out to be a big fan of the idea, having a soft spot for Scarborough, where he started his legal career. He ordered his staff to arrange a lease.

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And that’s how Ontario’s first ever community college — Centennial College — was born, offering classes in, among other things, secretarial science and business administration, to about 500 students.

Fifty years later, Centennial now boasts a student body of almost 21,000 full-time and 20,000 part-time students. Many of the province’s now 24 colleges of applied arts and technology, with campuses in 200 communities around the province, have demonstrated similarly astonishing growth, from the largest (Toronto’s Humber College, with nearly 30,000 full-time students) to the smallest (Northern College in Timmins, with just over 1,200 full-time students).

On Monday, all Ontario's college presidents gathered at Queen’s Park for “College Day,” a chance to trumpet their successes to government representatives. As the two dozen officials waited on the grand staircase on the main floor of the legislature for an official photo to be taken, in walked an old gentleman, walking slightly hunched over, with a big smile on his face.

It was Bill Davis, now 87 years old.

Surely the father of the college system could not have imagined how the network of schools he established as a minister in Premier John Robarts’s government would grow. Davis sees the indispensable role he played in the repatriation of our Constitution with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms as his most significant contribution to Canada. But the establishment of the college system must come a close second. Millions of young Ontarians have enjoyed an expanded array of post-secondary choices because of his efforts.

Today, the college system includes more than 225,000 full time students and 84 per cent of its graduates will find employment within six months of graduation. And in a trend no one could have predicted 50 years ago, fully 15 per cent of college students are now university graduates. It seems a good chunk of Ontarians, after getting a grounding in philosophy, psychology, or sociology, are opting for a more practical follow-up studies in hotel management, computer animation, the culinary arts, or a thousand other career offerings.

But as the group stood on the Queen’s Park steps watching many photographers record the historic moment, it became apparent that Bill Davis wasn’t actually the oldest person in the shot. That honour went to Hazel McCallion, the 96-year-old former mayor of Mississauga, who, as Sheridan College’s chancellor, decided to crash the event. It was a happy 50th birthday for Ontario’s colleges, particularly since the man who started it all was still around to beam with pride, like a proud papa. 

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