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Wednesday, February 1, 1995

THE MYTHS OF UPPER CANADA COLLEGE Old Boys: The Powerful Legacy of Upper Canada College

February 1, 1995,  The Literary Review of Canada

Old Boys:
The Powerful Legacy of Upper Canada College
compiled and edited by James FitzGerald
Macfarlane Walter & Ross

I went to Upper Canada College from 1956-1967. I was never caned, never bullied (and never bullied anyone), never fought (except for tame little boxing matches), was uninterested in and hopeless at sports and got a good education. James FitzGerald was a year behind me for nine years. I struggle to remember him. Had he interviewed me for this book he would not have used the interview. My unexceptional experience would not have suited his agenda or his publishers. Maclean's entertainment writer Brian Johnson in a kind reference in the book calls me an eccentric. That is putting it a bit strong, but I do not think my contentment was unusual for either conventional or eccentric boys.

Old Boys is a compilation of edited transcripts of interviews. FitzGerald interviewed three hundred old boys of Upper Canada College and chose seventy one to include in the book. He chose whom to interview. The interviews are presented as monologues varying from about a page to about eleven pages in length. They have obviously been heavily cut. We are not told what questions were asked. Interview subjects did not approve the entries as printed; though at least one was actually submitted in writing. In a brief introduction FitzGerald traces his ancestors at the school back to the 1830's and recites clichés about the school's importance and character and briefly describes how he compiled the book. He does not explain why he undertook the massive labour.

The book has an obvious market in eight thousand living old boys, nine hundred present boys, present, past and prospective parents, staff and past staff, friends of old boys wondering what their experiences were, people interested in celebrities like Conrad Black and Robertson Davies, social critics and gossips. But shelves could be filled with warm recollections of proud and loyal old boys, if anyone could be bothered to compile them. Even to attract the interest of its ready made market this book required both celebrities and hints of scandal. As reward for his labours FitzGerald is able to offer on the dust jacket, Black and Davies, Ted Rogers and Michael Snow and a boy who endured violent sexual abuse and is now a gay priest dying of AIDS, a bisexual student working as a part-time male stripper while at the school and football played while high on LSD. The book has been widely and rather melodramatically reviewed. The Globe & Mail gave it two reviews. John Allemang, evidently a loyal and highly prejudiced old boy of University of Toronto Schools, proclaimed it a "masterful oral history" and claimed that "anger, fear, humiliation and despair" filled the book. As U. T. S. faces full independence and the loss of its three million dollar a year provincial subsidy it may hope that its lower profile will spare it the attentions of a James FitzGerald amongst its old boys, or, since the 1970's, girls. Two weeks before Allemang's review Robert Fulford devoted his Globe column to Old Boys characterising it as "a kind of Little Book of Horror, a 369 page scream of pain".

Allemang and Fulford's reaction may be a common one and must be largely what FitzGerald intended. Many tales of canings and incompetent, sarcastic or uncomprehending teachers and bullying, delinquent or unhappy students support it. If FitzGerald had interviewed himself his story would likely have confirmed the impression, though even taking the book at face value it is false. But FitzGerald's labours on the book mark an ambivalent obsession. He had already written an unpublished book on his experience of the school. Ambivalence is reflected in many of what may be read as the most critical entries.

The last entry, from Daniel Borins (at the school from 1984 to 1993), complains of injustices but ends:

I think I got an excellent education at UCC. I was allowed to excel in anything that interested me. There were almost limitless possibilities. But paradoxically, at some point, you always had to give in and conform to the ideology of the school. All the time I was there, it was like, I hate this school, but I love it. I want to stay, because I want to see if it can change.

Avi Lewis, son of former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis and Michele Landsberg, whose sending him to the Prep in 1976 led to their being predictably teased, shows a more self-conscious ambivalence. His entry ends:

I learned a lot about the world in my three and a half years at UCC - a world which I lament, and which I will spend my life trying to change.
Good socialist dynast, he sounds like one of his mother's columns describing

a place where there was an absolute intolerance for any variation from a norm which is mythological and destructive in the extreme.
But he went to the school because his public school seemed so inadequate that he "was going slowly insane". And the move was successful.

Academically, the school was an absolute flowering for me. The teachers were, with only a couple of exceptions, committed, creative, and supportive. They were joyful about learning and communicated it without barriers. It was really a revolution for me to be in a place where intellectual achievement and commitment were praised, regarded, and encouraged.
He made the politic decision to go to Jarvis Collegiate for high school.

My learning more or less stopped after UCC and resumed at university. Jarvis has a good reputation, but there's just no comparison with UCC.


About half the entries are on balance critical; perhaps ten have nothing good to say about the school. One or two simply simply tell a story like Alan "Monk" Marr's highly successful prank of turning up at the premiere of Richard Burton's Hamlet in 1964 as a "famous satirist and rock singer from New York". For the most part the entries from the most prominent old boys are complimentary. Conrad Black (1951-1959), who was expelled for stealing and selling exam papers in 1959 is a predictable exception. But he is not as hard on the school as he was in his autobiography A Life in Progress: "I think it's a good school and I wish it well." He develops such a careful and detailed special pleading in extenuation of his theft that despite his disclaimers it for the first time occurred to me that he regrets having had to leave. But such a precocious ego would not likely have been happy at any school.

Much criticism simply reflects the left wing or politically correct ideologies of some old boys demonstrating the varied and unpredictable intellectual development of boys who pass through the school. A few years after leaving the school in 1963 Wally Seccombe took a "classic New Left" turning becoming at one stage a comrade of the young Judy Rebick in a revolutionary Marxist group. I remember reading at the time his formulaic article on "Housework under Capitalism" in the January/February 1974 number of the New Left Review. I decided me not to renew my subscription. Now a sociology professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Seccombe gives the school a standard post-Marxist treatment. But he too is ambivalent. Going back very reluctantly for a twenty five year reunion in 1988 he was effusively greeted by retired principal, Patrick Johnson, who died in December 1994: "The school was meant to produce more Wally Seccombes. We have produced too many stockbrokers". His entry ends:

It is a cliché that we repress painful and unpleasant experiences. But I was amazed to discover at the reunion how deeply I had forgotten, repressed or excluded the warm, deep, friend-for-life boyhood experiences that I had at UCC because of my own hardening ideological opposition to the school and all that it stood for. I had repressed the very best of what Upper Canada College meant to me. I had become so vigorous in my opposition to the school as a ruling-class institution that I had completely forgotten how happy I was there.

A lot of the criticism comes from old boys who had family troubles that would have made their childhoods unhappy in any event. FitzGerald would be among them. The first critic, the third old boy in the book, is Guy Purser (1919-1927). An only child, his mother "ran away with another man" when he was two. His father abandoned him to go to war in 1914 when he was six. Engagingly he says: "My father was a nut and my mother was a nut. You're looking at the son of a nut." His maternal grandfather paid to send him to Upper Canada. The ambition of the school to be "A Family Writ Large", the title of 1950's principal Cedric Sowby's memoirs, gives it a responsibility to boys from unhappy families, particularly when it takes them into boarding, and on much of the evidence of this book it often failed. But equally often it is blamed for unhappiness no school could have overcome.

Some of the more recent boys seem to have had altogether too good a time. Lincoln Caylor (1980-1987) claims to have spent much of his time drinking with a set that included John Turner's son David.

I was sleeping through half my classes. It didn't matter because I seemed always to get about 65 per cent in my sleep. It bothered my dad that I wasn't putting out any effort, but we were having so much damn fun.
As he says "UCC wasn't that strict in my time."

The entries regularly contradict each other. Tom Godwin, a British Columbia (1947-1955) cardiologist, says "I was better than the French teacher, I. K. Shearer, in French. That's how crappy his French was." Conrad Black, who should be a better judge of French, says "Shearer was an amusing guy in a way and he certainly knew French well." On issues like whether or not the school was repressive or authoritarian their are conflicting accounts. Chris Gilmour and his brother David, the novelist and CBC arts commentator, seem to be at odds on this. Chris (1957-1965) says "My basic grievance about the place is that it socialized me against my will as opposed to just letting me develop into whatever I am." David Gilmour, who was three years behind his brother, in FitzGerald's year as it happens, ran away from boarding, but after two months "wanted to go back to Upper Canada so badly that I could taste it..." He was let back and despite further delinquencies was allowed to finish his year. In his experience the school was "not afraid to endorse rebellious behaviour".


Who knows what to believe? FitzGerald makes a preemptive comment at the end of his introduction:

The highly subjective nature of this book is based on the belief that human memory is fallible yet indispensable to understanding ourselves. My modus operandi rests on the premise that because an interview subject has chosen to remember an event in a certain way, the recollection is the truth for him. The fact that, ten years later, he may choose to remember it differently, or fail to remember it at all, is an unalterable fact of human psychology. While it was obviously impossible to verify the objective truth of every vignette or anecdote related in this book, every effort has been made to verify the authenticity of the salient historical events.

As the truth of most of what is said is generally known, if at all, only to the interview subjects, it could not be checked. But some errors that could have been checked and corrected have not been. Harry Wilson (1919-1922), father of Michael Wilson (1949-1955) and chairman of the board of governors of the school from 1962 to 1967, thinks his "awful portrait" by Alan Collier does not hang at the school. His grandson Geoffrey (1984-1986) says is does. It does. I checked. It's quite a good portrait. Guy Purser is recorded talking of studying piano with Ernest "Sykes". Could that be Seitz? Shortly afterwards Purser complains that Toronto Symphony ladies thought Ravel was a detergent. Peter B. Gooderham, before rambling on about how much money his grandfather gave away and how he was his favourite grandson, talks of a rifle company inspection by the governor general, Lord Beaverbrook. It was presumably Bessborough.

Accepted as a limited, subjective and biased presentation of school experience Old Boys has some value. That many people have been persuaded to talk so candidly is interesting. It is sometimes difficult to gauge the exact spirit in which they talk. Some entries read like prepared remarks. Other are more like something overheard in a bar. The entries are often rambling, confused and tedious and must seem particularly so to readers who do not know the people who are talking or who they are talking about.

As a basis for assessing the school and the experience of those who went there, however, the book is inadequate. There is no argument or, rather, there are dozens of contradictory and undeveloped arguments. As a measure of customer satisfaction it is highly misleading, though not so negative as reviewers claim, if read thoughtfully. In my second year at Trent University, Paul Weinzweig, a sociology lecturer, had his office next to my room at Champlain College. He was working on his Toronto doctoral thesis on Upper Canada. In January 1968 he was able to administer a 144 question survey to the whole upper (high) school. Five of the interview subjects in Old Boys and FitzGerald himself were there at the time and presumably answered the questionnaire. Of 462 responses 70% said Upper Canada was a "very good school for me", 25% said it was "a fairly good school for me" and 5% said it was "not the school for me".

Assessments may change with experience of life after school. But thousands of old boys have given money to the school. In 1994 1403 old boys gave the school $357,274. Thousands have sent their sons to the school. More would if they could afford it or their sons could get in. The common theory that being an old boy with money guarantees places for your sons at the school has never been true when competition for places was strong, as it has been now for decades. In any event, old boys rich and powerful enough to have influence to exert do not need the school to establish their sons.

A large block of old boys is simply indifferent to the school. The resentful, whom FitzGerald sought out, are a decided minority. Their experience cannot be dismissed, but it has to be placed in context. The majority who do not share their resentment cannot be dismissed on the basis that only unenlightened, incomplete human beings could have been content, a common implication in Old Boys.

Old Boys was only possible because the size, distinctiveness, independence and history of Upper Canada College make it a sufficiently definite community that people can attempt to talk about it at all. Public schools without corporate independence, with shorter histories, much larger and often more fluid student bodies and larger staff and administration are too amorphous to get the kind of treatment Upper Canada gets in Old Boys. Many people have hated their high schools and found incompetent or nasty teachers and unjust administration there. Corporal punishment survived longer in some public systems than it did at Upper Canada. Private school education is so marginal in Canada that anyone unhappy in it is always conscious that there is an alternative in a public high school and can blame his private school for his unhappiness. Anyone unhappy in a public high school is more likely to blame "the system" and react in a generalised generational rebellion in which his school is not specifically targeted. Many of the critics in Old Boys, whether because of family problems or simple adolescence would likely have been unhappy wherever they had gone to school. But they blame the school because that was the one thing that could have been changed. They had to have a family, for good or ill, they had to be young, they had to go to school, but they did not have to go to Upper Canada College.


Upper Canada's fame makes it a target, but its being a target adds to its fame. It it not quite a case of "any publicity is good publicity", but Old Boys and its reviews flatter the importance of the school and will add to its mystique. Upper Canada is not "Canada's most prestigious academic institution" as the dust jacket ludicrously claims. It does not produce the leaders of Canada. From two ministers in Mulroney's cabinet it is down to one M. P., John Godfrey, who defeated fellow old boy John Bosley. In 1957 John Porter in work for The Vertical Mosaic found twenty nine (sometimes misquoted as 29%) of the six hundred and eleven members of his Canadian born economic elite were old boys. Under 5 % is not, however, an overwhelming presence and in the larger and more fluid business world of the 1990's Upper Canada's representation is probably down to about 2%.

More interesting but more difficult to assess are the cultural or intellectual leaders. Other Losses author James Bacque (1936-1947) says "Certainly Upper Canada has produced a number of writers and artists out of all proportion to the general population. On the other hand, there are fewer than one might expect, given the advantages." The comments of such figures are as mixed as the whole book but on balance more complimentary. Robertson Davies (1928-1932) is a "whole hearted supporter of the UCC system." The communist historian Stanley Ryerson (1919-29), though naturally critical of such an establishment institution in itself, was a happy boarder. He traces his development into a communist to friends at the school and a French master, Owen Classey, who had been H. G. Wells' childrens' tutor and "conveyed an element of the Fabian socialist approach which questioned the old established fiats." Michael Snow (1942-1948) was not happy at the school but does not blame it. He won the art prize and went to the Ontario College of Art because of it. It might have happened at any school. But it did happen at Upper Canada College, sometimes condemned as philistine.

Upper Canada has not played a major role in national life. It is no Eton. Canada has no aristocracy and consequently no school for them. Upper Canada always was and remains a school for affluent middle class Toronto. When that constituted a community Upper Canada had the virtue of being a community school when there was some consensus on common values. Today middle class Toronto is much bigger than it was and the school's natural community has broken down. It draws its boys from a much wider and more diverse market.

The school has always had to compete with the free public schools and other fee paying schools and the number of the latter has increased with the widespread disenchantment with public education. It has been through serious drops in enrolment. By 1916, under the unsatisfactory principalship of H. W. Auden, upper school enrolment had sunk to 113. Under W. L. Grant's historic principalship beginning in 1919 enrolment soared to over 400. Day boy fees could be raised from $120 to $200. When Sowby became principal in 1949 there were eighty vacancies out of 465 places in the upper school. When he left in 1965 there were over 500 in the upper school with strong competition for places and fees had risen from $400 to $1100 on their way to $12,500 now. The slumps were also periods of academic decline when admission standards all but disappeared and good teachers were hard to pay and keep. Entries for old boys from the 1940's reflect such a decline.


In the last twenty years the widening of its market, the intrusion of parents, and relentless fundraising have in complex relation changed the school. Fundraising was intermittent through most of the school's history. A few munificent gifts from the Massey Foundation and rich old boys came without organised effort. The "emergency" in 1958 when the 1891 building was condemned and had to be evacuated overnight changed all that. A campaign was organised and the three million dollars required for a new building successfully raised. Most old boys were then asked for money for the first time since they had left the school. The structure then established was continued for a modest programme of annual giving but fundraising gradually became fully professionalised and relentless. In 1992 the school managed to raise a further fifteen million dollars for various additions.

Historically the school had often paid its teachers less than public schools. Its grounds had always been extensive and its buildings imposing but by the 1960's it risked falling behind the lavishly outfitted public high schools of a time when government deficits were not a problem. The reaction of the school was to make itself the best school money could by. Fees continued their escalation to an historic high in constant dollars. Fundraising became an essential part of what is now a fourteen million dollar a year business. Gradually the idea developed that in addition to selling its education for whatever the market could bear and drawing on the good will of old boys the prestige of the school could be sold to parents. From negligible amounts, giving by parents rose from the late 1970's until it now exceeds giving by old boys. In 1994 320 parents gave $535,749 and 192 past parents $76,547. Even a few grandparents have started giving money to the school. To encourage the others the names of parents who give are listed by grade in the school's annual reports.

Parallel with their generosity the parents have been involving themselves more and more in the school. Parents' attendance at the school used to be confined to entrance interviews, parents nights, attendance at plays, concerts and games and occasions of trouble. Now there is a parents' organisation busy with sales and volunteer work (by mothers) in the libraries and elsewhere. Their most telling initiative has been the preparation of class directories for parents "to facilitate contact between parents of boys in the same grade". These have facilitated "social parent network evenings" organised by grade. In the past parents would only hope that their sons would benefit from an Upper Canada education. Now the networks and prestige of the school are available to parents. Much of this must be of no interest to parents who only wanted to buy their sons a good education or who are old boys anyway. It complicates the work of the school, which is always trying to satisfy parents looking for very different things.

Some parents are looking for standards and discipline they fear are lacking in the public schools. Others are more interested in the prestige or the standards without the discipline or tradition. Some parents would want a strict dress code, even a uniform. Other object to such requirements as there are, brooking no interference by the school with their sons' affectations. It is a common misconception that the school requires a uniform. While boys are required to have blazers for special occasions, it is a very long time since they regularly wore a uniform. A jacket and school tie has been all that has been required for most of the time covered by Old Boys and there is constant friction over issues like shoes, socks and hair length. Boys dress down at the end of each day, ostensibly for safety reasons, though private school girls and boys from the newer private schools in uniform can be seen all around town. Boys are now more indulged, not to say spoilt, by parents more likely to be rich than just affluent. Boys are more likely to be under pressure to get ahead, to seek admission to an American university, where a quarter of graduates now go.

The book will not hurt the school. It will hurt some of those living who are mentioned. It may hurt some of the interview subjects who may never be so public again and may live to regret their participation. They are caught forever like the subjects of Michael Apted's Seven Up film series. Most of the people who will actually read the book will be able to set their own experience and knowledge of the personalities against what they read and will only have their impressions of the school confirmed. People who only know the school as a big name will from reviews and seeking out the more exciting bits have their prejudices confirmed or merely be diverted. If some potential parents attracted by the school's prestige are put off, there will be no harm to the school or their boys from that. The book cannot change much at the school. Much that was objected to, caning, boxing and the cadet battalion, are now long gone. The arguments for coeducation are stale and inconclusive. The out of town private schools have generally turned to it as the tradition of sending sons to board died out and enrolments declined. For Upper Canada the question must remain closed for the moment because of the impact it would have on the private girls schools. Separate education for girls still has considerable support. For the rest the criticisms are too confused or contradictory to provide agenda. Judgement of Upper Canada is finally a political question. If elites and class must be destroyed institutions like Upper Canada must go down with them. If any cultural hegemony must be dissolved, so Upper Canada as it has been must disappear, even if there are to be multicultural, meritocratic elites.

Weinzweig assessed Upper Canada, by the techniques of conventional 1950's American sociology, for its effectiveness in socialising an existing elite and transmitting what he rather romantically called aristocratic values. He found that it was highly effective. But he identified two trends that might threaten its effectiveness. One was generational alienation, which, writing at the end of the sixties, he saw as having the potential to undermine all educational institutions. Twenty five years on that threat seems remote, though echoes of the sixties can be picked up in comments of some of the most recent old boys. The other trend he called "the strengthening of democratic sentiment". The effects of this could be complex and he detected "a move to a more meritocratic ideology" in moves to improve academic facilities and raise formal teaching credentials. He wondered whether "increments in technical and specialized facilities [would] erode the aristocratic values of elitism, tradition and humanistic education." He noted the irony that general democratic concern with standards of education had broadened awareness of the option of private education and led to "increasing numbers of applications from middle and lower middle class families".

There have always been families that made sacrifices to afford an Upper Canada education for their sons and there are probably more now than ever. Scholarships are too little to facilitate many admissions. On the other hand, the Upper Canada brand name, in an era when luxury brand names have had their strongest appeal, attracted an increasing number of boys from families that had little in common with the traditional private school constituency except money. To some extent these families may have been seeking integration into a traditional elite. But many will have bought an Upper Canada education much as they bought BMW's as the fruit and sign of their material success. The school has been prepared to deal with them in those terms. Disparities of wealth may remain or even increase. But the stable, bourgeois communities that Upper Canada and the other private schools served have been broken up in the more fluid and culturally various world of recent decades. Notwithstanding, Upper Canada's freedom to select its students and staff and relative freedom to control its curriculum make it possible for it to provide a traditional liberal education to the highest standards, to instil classic values and pass on Anglo-Canadian culture and to be a community in a way that most schools cannot. There is a demand for what the school can do and, with greater or lesser success from time to time, has done. But Upper Canada cannot appeal to everyone who can afford to pay and still be an effective integrating community. If it is not to become simply a posh educational supermarket, it will have to find its market niche. Such a strategy would involve some retrenchment. By now the momentum of the business may prevent such a repositioning.

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