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The Age of Dissent

Socialists, peaceniks, feminists, rabble-rousers: They came in search of an education. They left having taught the old school a thing or two

If you think student activism began and ended with the ’60s, consider this scene: 1895, Wardell’s Hall on Spadina Avenue, an off-campus meeting place for political and religious groups. A sign admonishes, “Gentlemen Will Please Not Spit on the Floor: Salvation is Free.”

On the evening of February 15, some 700 angry U of T undergraduates, almost the entire student body, crammed into the meeting hall, incensed by the dismissal of Professor William Dale for defending their cause in a letter to The Globe. Since September, Varsity editor James Tucker had been the voice of student complaint, writing a series of editorials criticizing the provincial government for meddling in professorial appointments and defending the students’ right to comment on the affairs of government and the university. The university expelled Tucker, but he kept up his attacks in The Varsity, emboldened by the students’ pledge to pay his tuition at another university the next year.

At the Wardell demonstration, another student activist emerged, future Prime Minister of Canada William Lyon Mackenzie King (BA 1895 UC, LLB 1896, MA 1897). According to one account, King “electrified” the crowd when he denounced an “age-old cult of tyranny” and called on students to boycott classes. For nearly a week, students kept up their angry protest in the hallways of University College while professors lectured to virtually empty classrooms. King called for an end to the strike when university president James Loudon met with a student delegation and agreed to a commission to look into the university’s affairs. The government-appointed commission censured the students, Tucker and Dale were never reinstated, and many students never forgave King. In his subsequent political career, he was known as The Great Compromiser.

Still, the protest, which made front-page headlines, gave rise to a later Royal Commission that formed the basis of the University of Toronto Act of 1906. It called for a clearer separation of government and university, for the creation of a university board of governors to manage its own affairs and also a student council – later the Students’ Administrative Council – to represent student interests.

What the student strikers fought for – freedom of expression, critical inquiry and dissent – are considered touchstones of the university today. They did not achieve success in their time. Indeed, it would take another 60 years of persistent activism for students to achieve “anything approaching freedom of expression or association,” according to Michiel Horn (MA 1965, PhD 1969), a professor of history at York University and author of Academic Freedom in Canada: A History. Horn, who completed his PhD at U of T during the height of the student movement in the ’60s, says the work of the student activist is hardly finished. University administrators, he says, ever mindful of funding ties to government and business, still often choose good public relations over encouraging students “to examine different points of view” or “to think critically if it reflects badly on the university.” “Academic freedom for university professors is largely secured,” says Horn, “but student academic freedom has never been safe. A student who shoots off his or her mouth is apt to find there is little protection at all.”

Here are a few who took the risk.

Turn of the Century: The She Decades

The first three rows at the Wardell Hall demonstration were packed with female undergrads, comprising some 100 of the 700 strikers, remarkable given that the women had won the right to attend lectures only a decade before, in 1884. Still, three women joined the delegation that pressed President Loudon to call an investigation into university affairs. The Mail and Empire reported that the women were “in many instances more extreme in their partisanship even than the young men.”

The female politicos may well have had more experience asserting their rights than their male colleagues. In a bid to prove their competency for university, several women wrote the university matriculation exams in the late 1870s, though they were not yet allowed to attend lectures. Henrietta Charles and Eliza Balmer were among those who continued their studies privately and won scholarships. In 1881, Charles wrote a dramatic plea begging for the right to attend lectures. Both formally joined the first women to attend lectures in 1884.

The women who stormed into Wardell Hall a decade later were particularly incensed by the dismissal of Professor Dale, a liberal educator and supporter of co-education. They were doubly angered by the whiff of government patronage surrounding the appointment of Professor George Wrong. In 1909, the aptly named Wrong led a university committee to investigate segregating female undergraduates into a separate college geared to teaching the domestic arts.

Again, the women battled back. The University Women’s Club helped form a United Alumnae Association to campaign for the election of three female graduates to the U of T senate committee in 1911 – specifically to defeat Wrong’s proposal. The women won, although Varsity’s wartime editor, Betsy Mosbaugh (BA 1945 UC), argued in a 1945 editorial that still the university had no true co-education, but a kind of “parallel education,” with men and women segregated in lecture halls and extracurricular activities.

As historian Sara Z. Burke (BA 1986 UC), assistant professor at Laurentian University, points out, it’s telling that Vincent Massey announced his gift of Hart House in 1910, shortly after Wrong’s proposal for a women’s college was defeated. Massey made it a condition that Hart House be open only to males, to discover “the true education that is to be the conversation of wise and earnest men.” The university honoured his terms until his death in 1972, when the doors of Hart House finally opened to women. Mosbaugh’s call for true co-education would have to wait until activists took up that cause in the ’70s.

The ’20s: A Moral Awakening

James Endicott (BA 1923 Victoria, MA 1924, ThD Hon. 1942 Emmanuel) called himself “probably the most denounced public person in Canada” when I interviewed him for The Varsity in 1986. Endicott, who died in 1993, was the president of SAC in 1923-24. It was described as an “uneventful year” by his son Stephen in a biography of his father, Rebel out of China.

While studying at Emmanuel College to enter the ministry, Endicott attended Bible-study sessions in the basement of Victoria College, led by a rather unorthodox chemistry professor, Dr. H.B. Sharman. By son Stephen’s account, Sharman pressed the group to challenge religious doctrine and to discover the will to do right even if “in opposition to the traditions and great institutions of the day” and “no matter what the cost.”

The approach stuck with Endicott, who helped found the Student Christian Movement (SCM). According to historian Horn, the SCM had just enough support from prominent Canadians to “maintain an aura of respectability,” although it spiced religious study with political action, taking up the causes of labour, racial equality and peace.

After graduating, Endicott went to China as a missionary and was later censured by the United Church of Canada for supporting student followers of Mao Tse-tung. He started an underground newspaper, which evolved into the Canadian Far Eastern. In 1947, he returned to Canada and university campuses to lecture on behalf of the burgeoning peace movement. In the chill of the Cold War, he advocated closer ties with the Soviet Union and China and denounced nuclear weapons. Considered a radical, Endicott was banned from speaking at the University of Alberta in 1953. “He was vilified during the Cold War,” says his son. “Afterward, the United Church recognized him as one of its prophets and apologized.”

The ’30s: No Speaking Easy

It was a tough job being editor of The Varsity in the ’30s, if you had an opinion and cared to voice it. In 1931, Andrew Allan wrote an editorial suggesting that university life led many students to a “practical atheism” – practising no true devotion and attending church just frequently enough to win acceptance in established society.

The editorial whipped up the Ontario legislature, under pressure in the Depression to defend funding of an institution that might promote free thinking, if not outright immorality – the two were often confused.

The university’s board of governors denied Allan’s comments and removed him from his post as editor. In response, Allan published Milton’s “Second Defense of the People of England” in place of his next editorial. SAC, then publishers of The Varsity, responded to Milton’s argument for a “free discussion of the truth” by suspending publication of The Varsity for the rest of the year.

SAC was still reeling from a 1929 editorial by L.J. Ryan (BA 1929 St. Michael’s) about an even more contentious topic: sex. In this editorial, Ryan claimed that the “new institution of petting” was “simply an exchange of amenities” between the sexes, causing no harm to one’s character. The student government capitulated to pressure from the university board of governors and fired him. The entire Varsity masthead promptly quit and started publishing a rival, called The Adversity, in the pages of the Toronto Telegram, where the rebel student journalists continued their fight for “a real student government” and an “unhampered student newspaper.”

In 1934, SAC, respectful of the university’s financial dependence on the government, laid down a set of publishing guidelines for The Varsity, forbidding discussion of politics, or any controversial subjects that might stir up “hostility,” then assured the university board of governors that “The Varsity shall cause no more trouble.”

Opinions differ on when a “real student government” finally appeared, but The Varsity won its editorial independence, officially separating from SAC in 1980 and electing its own board of student publishers.

The ’40s: The Socialists’ Calendar

While The Varsity wrote tidy reports of lectures on the issue of the decade – racial discrimination – the Student Christian Movement (SCM) joined student demonstrations at the Palais Royale dance hall and the Icelandia ice rink, which discriminated against black patrons.

Stephen Endicott (BA 1949 Victoria, MA 1966, PhD 1973), following his father’s path as a rabble-rouser, was active in the SCM and president of the U of T Labour-Progressive Party (LPP) club (the party was so named because of a federal edict that prevented the club from calling itself the Communist Party). U of T forced the students to disassociate themselves from the university when they picketed the Imperial Optical Company in support of workers trying to unionize. Sydney Hermant, a member of the university’s board of governors, owned the company. Endicott, now a senior scholar in the department of history at York University, recalls that the students still managed to stall a trolley car in front of the Hermant building (at Victoria and Dundas) and pull it off the tracks.

In 1947, the SCM took part in a demonstration at Queen’s Park to protest potentially escalating student fees. Though they marshalled the support of 10 student groups, only 125 people showed up. A Varsity editorial, suggesting the protesters had “a lot to learn,” directed the students to take their complaints to the university administration.

“The Varsity was hostile to student activism then,” says Endicott, who helped start a rival paper, Campus. “There was revolution stirring in the world, in China and Vietnam, and then you had the Cold War. There was quite an attempt by the media to stir up fears of communism and to dampen student activism as unpatriotic.”

The ’50s: Polite Engagement

In a Varsity article about the tenor of his time on campus, Keith Spicer (BA 1956 Victoria, PhD 1962), former chair of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), wrote that “subtly enforced conformity” fostered the decade’s reigning hallmark: apathy. As co-ed lounges opened up across campus, students focused their attention on socializing and preparing for a life of material gain.

And yet the campus was crawling with future politicians: Stephen Lewis (LLD Hon. 1991), future leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party, was a leader in the campus socialist party; Ed Roberts (BA 1960 Victoria, LLB 1964), who succeeded Joey Smallwood as leader of the Newfoundland Liberals, edited The Varsity; Walter McLean (MDIV 1960 Knox) and Barbara (Leaman) McDougall (BA 1960 UC), later prominent ministers in former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s federal cabinet; and Gov. Gen. Adrienne (Poy) Clarkson (BA 1960 Trinity, MA 1962, LLD Hon. 2001) all served on SAC.

“We did not call ourselves activists,” says Clarkson. “The phrase ‘student activist’ did not exist, but in the context of the time I probably was one.” Clarkson, a first-generation Chinese Canadian, was vice-president of SAC and head of St. Hilda’s College residence the following year. “We were preoccupied with world affairs and civil rights. We boycotted all South African goods,” she says. “We saw ourselves as working within the system, but we did feel that our university had a role in helping educate people in the Third World.”

She regrets making no progress on one issue: getting women admitted to Hart House. When then-Senator John F. Kennedy came to debate William Buckley Jr., women staged a protest to be allowed into the debate – to no avail. “All these things took root in me,” says Clarkson. “I felt there was not enough time to deal with these issues in university, but I thought, we will later – and I think we did.”

The ’50s “though calm and respectful relative to what happened a decade later,” were by no means uninvolved, says Walter McLean, SAC president in 1959-60. As a tour bus driver during summers, McLean shared the driving of a bus full of students “non-stop overnight” to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in part “to see the civil rights movement up close and try to understand it.”

After SAC, McLean won the presidency of the National Federation of Canadian University Students (NFCUS) and co-founded the Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO), serving for five years as CUSO’s first director of West Africa (based in Nigeria). “We were on the edge of a new world,” says McLean, who later served both as minister of immigration and as Mulroney’s special representative for Commonwealth and foreign affairs to the UN, dealing primarily with apartheid in South Africa. “A lot of us ended up in the House because the issues we tackled on campus gave us a national vision.”

The ’60s: Student Power

They staged a two-day sit-in at Simcoe Hall, occupied the president’s office, staged teach-ins at Hart House and Convocation Hall, shouted a Dow Chemical (think napalm) employment recruiter off campus, agitated for financial relief for draft dodgers and turned the lawns of the campus into a tent city for transient youth. The target – and some would say scapegoat – for much of the anger of U of T’s student movement in the ’60s was the administration, with then-U of T president Claude Bissell (BA 1936 UC, MA 1937, DLitt Hon. 1977) at its head. Police posted a 24-hour security guard outside the president’s house.

Inspired by the civil rights movement and as eager to challenge authority as its American counterparts, yet with no national issue or Vietnam war to protest, the student movement focused its political energy on revolutionizing the university. Its official leader was Steve Langdon (BA 1970 Trinity), SAC president in 1968-69 and subsequently a prominent NDP member of Parliament. He kicked off SAC’s most activist administration ever by challenging Bissell to debate the role of the university. Langdon argued that the university should not be neutral, concerned with the pursuit of knowledge, as Bissell saw it, but actively concerned with socio-economic issues outside the institution.

Langdon, who now runs an international training and advisory firm, was chiefly concerned with democratizing Bissell’s proposed new university government to ensure that students had a fair say. He and his co-strategist, SAC’s university affairs rep Bob Rae (BA 1969 UC, LLB 1977, LLD Hon. 1999), went to argue the case with faculty. An effective orator and deal-maker, Rae convinced professors to agree to student/faculty parity on the commission on university government, whose report would be the basis of the U of T Act of 1971. The Varsity wrote that Bissell left that meeting “shaking.” Later Rae helped draft the report, which collapsed the university’s unwieldy governing bodies into its current structure of governing council, with its 50 members elected from the university’s stakeholders: students, faculty, alumni and administration, lieutenant-governors-in-council and two presidential appointees.

Rae now credits Bissell with keeping the student movement from becoming violent, as happened at so many other universities in the ’60s. “I came to admire Claude tremendously,” says Rae, former premier of Ontario. “There were certainly confrontations, but his civility prevailed and affected those of us who debated with him.”

The late ’60s also saw the birth of Rochdale College, founded by U of T faculty and students – among them future kid-lit superstar and Poet Laureate of Toronto Dennis Lee (BA 1962 Victoria, MA 1965). Inspired by the notion of a collectively run, free university with self-directed seminars, the enterprise was such a success in its first year that an 18-storey tower was built at 341 Bloor St. W. But in the ensuing attempt to fully occupy the tower, the alternative-education reformers lost out to tenants into alternative drugs. Even so, Rochdale nourished the beginnings of such cultural forces as Theatre Passe Muraille, Nishnawbe Institute and Coach House Press.

One of the enduring successes of the ’60s was the formation of Pollution Probe in 1969, Canada’s first major environmental advocacy organization. Hundreds of U of T students rallied together after Sherry Brydson (BA 1970 Woodsworth) wrote a series of articles in The Varsity about pollution. Commerce student Tony Barrett (BCom 1969 Trinity, MBA 1987) helped organize the group and became its first staff member. “It was very clear to us where population and economic growth was headed,” says Barrett, “but people in power and business people did not want to listen. That’s when I turned into a flame-thrower.”

The group went on to score major successes, among them neighbourhood recycling efforts (which led to the Blue Box recycling program), the Canadian Coalition on Acid Rain, Canada’s ban on DDT and Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights. Still, Barrett, now an environmental consultant, is less than satisfied: “We were driven to make a difference, but we did not make enough of a difference. We’re pretty rich and fat in Western societies, while we’re disrupting and destroying climates the world over.”

Langdon is rather more optimistic about his decade’s contribution. “The ’60s and ’70s set in motion a lot of strains that led to our institutions being much more open and responsive,” he says. “Canada really stands out in terms of its openness and the democratic nature of our institutions. I think it has a lot to do with the student movement.”

The ’70s: Her Outrageous Acts

One of the largest women’s studies programs in Canada owes its inception to a then-19-year-old hellraiser, Ceta Ramkhalawansingh (BA New, Dip Child Study 1974, MA 1980). She and Kay Armatage (MA 1967, PhD 1974), then a PhD student and now a professor of women’s studies, put together a program outline, made up a brochure, photocopied U of T’s crest onto it and distributed it. “I got called into the dean’s office,” recalls Armatage, “and he said ‘This is not how we do things. We call together a committee.’ So I asked to be on that committee, and the women’s studies program came about in 1975.”

Ramkhalawansingh, who came to U of T at age 16, served on SAC, represented students on the university’s new interdisciplinary studies committee, campaigned for campus day care, disseminated birth-control information and advocated pro-choice. “I went to an all-girls’ high school in Trinidad,” says Ramkhalawansingh, now a manager of access and equity with the City of Toronto. “We studied maths and sciences and had a personal sense of accomplishment and confidence. When you grow up thinking you can participate equally and then find blatant prohibitions, you want to start challenging that.”

At The Varsity, co-editor Linda McQuaig (BA 1974 UC), who went on to write for the Globe and Mail and to author several books, including All You Can Eat: Greed, Lust and the New Capitalism, raised feminist consciousness with several articles – posing as a pregnant student to expose an anti-abortion counselling service on campus and going undercover as a topless dancer.

She and co-editor Tom Walkom (BA 1973 UC, MA 1974, PhD 1983) also helped provoke one of the largest student demonstrations on campus by printing a petition in The Varsity in 1972 to protest the exclusion of undergraduates from the new Robarts Library stacks. Students packed Convocation Hall for a protest rally, then occupied Simcoe Hall until the decision was reversed.

The ’80s: The Business of Activism

I was editor of The Varsity during some of the most significant issues of the ’80s – divestment, underfunding, the threatened closure of the school of architecture – but I can’t say it was an inspiring time.

As in the ’50s, apathy reigned, yet our generation lacked the intimate tutorial system and the optimism about jobs and the future that characterized the post-war years. We dutifully took up the significant workload the student movement left us and represented students on a myriad of committees and governing council – but we lacked the anger and sense of entitlement that fed ’60s activism.

We graduated into a deep recession with staggering student loans. We should have been deeply offended; instead, we worked hard to prove our merit according to the reigning ethos of the time: business and money.

At The Varsity, we did not want to be a passionate, activist student paper; we wanted to be the Globe and Mail. Gay students got elected to some of the highest student offices yet stayed in the closet, focusing not on liberation politics but on balancing the books and good governance. We considered it a good career move that one of our most articulate student leaders, Tony Clement (BA 1983 UC, LLB 1986), now Ontario minister of health, bypassed representing us on SAC to consort with real power on governing council.

“We were much more impaired as activists in the ’80s than in the ’60s,” says Virginia Green (BA 1985 Victoria), who helped found U of T’s Divestment Committee in 1983. “The world had changed. The whole yuppy, consumerism thing was taking over, and no one really cared about injustices.”

The Divestment Committee is a key example of ’80s activism in action. Started by the African and Caribbean Students’ Association, the committee launched a multi-year awareness campaign and sought support from student groups across campus. It focused its battle against apartheid on a specific issue: calling on U of T to divest its interests with companies that did business with the racist South African regime.

“We went through all the bureaucratic processes,” says Green. “We were angry, but we channelled that anger into effective means. We submitted a brief to governing council that was the size of a PhD thesis.”

When divestment activist Lennox Farrell, now a high school teacher (BA 1974 Scarborough, BEd 1976, MEd 1980), was accused of throwing a mace at South African ambassador Glenn Babb during a raucous Hart House debate, the committee helped form a top-notch defence team. Charges against Farrell were eventually dropped. Still, Green, now a member of the band Spirit Wind and a novelist, laments that the university did not fully divest its holdings in South Africa until several years later, in 1988.

The Gay ’90s

Coming out just before entering Trinity College in 1995 was no “major revelation” for then-student Bonte Minnema, though it would prove to be for the rest of the university campus. As president of the LGBTOUT (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Transgendered of the University of Toronto), Minnema took a microphone to the streets and into Simcoe Hall to talk up gay awareness. He staged same-sex kiss-ins on St. George Street, convinced SAC to let him be Homecoming Queen at a football game and even talked the Lady Godiva Memorial Band into attending some queer-positive events. “I was the official drag queen,” says Minnema, now working to raise money to complete his women’s studies and sociology degree.

U of T was already making progress in promoting gay rights. A group of faculty, staff and students, co-ordinated by political science professor David Rayside and Transitional Year Programme director Rona Abramovitch, initiated the Positive Space Campaign. The Sexual Diversities Studies program was started at University College, and faculty and alumni launched the Rainbow Triangle Alumni Association. And Minnema was instrumental in getting U of T to set up a Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgendered Queer Resources and Program Office.

According to current gay activist Mickey Cirak (BA 2000), U of T in the mid-’90s “was sort of conservative and squeamish on gay issues.” After Minnema – nicknamed the “fearless diva” – Cirak says “queer visibility was established.”

Margaret Webb (BA 1985 UC) is a Toronto writer.

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  1. One Response to “ The Age of Dissent ”

  2. Nigel Moses says:

    Nicely written and engaging. Article is a sweeping overview of student activism at U of T that is sensitive to the long history of participation of women students.

    The article would have benefited tremendously by providing key sources. The reader is left with nowhere else to go if they are interested in the fascinating, and still largely uncharted, history of student activism at U of T, and in Canada -- books by Martin Friedland and Anne Rochon Ford, for example (and there are many more). Claude Bissell's Halfway up Parnassus is a key text for understanding the student activism from a administrator's point of view and social control perspective.

    Mention of the divestment movement in South Africa in the 1980s is welcome, but some more attention to history of anti-racism movements would have been appropriate, some of it, not very pretty, such as RCMP spying on black students at U of T in the 1970s (RCMP Composite Reports [on U of T in mid-1970s] Canadian Security and Intelligence Service RG 146)