By BARRINGTON A. MORRISON
The Liberal representative for the riding of Etobicoke, the Honorable Leonard Austin Braithwaite, had put forward a motion in the Ontario Legislature to remove The Common School Act of 1850 from the Legislation. Braithwaite was the opposition critic for the Department of Labour and Welfare. He was the first Black Canadian to be elected to a provincial legislature in Canada. In his maiden speech to the Ontario Legislature on February 4, 1964 he stated with unabashed aplomb:
“I refer to Chapter 368 of the Revised Statute of Ontario which is called The Separate Schools Act and which provides for the setting up of Protestant and Colored separate schools. Now after the Civil War it may have been, Mr. Speaker, that there might have been need for some of these schools in the southwestern part of our province. Those days have passed. I am certain, Mr. Speaker, that an examination of many of our other laws and statutes will reveal that there are other Acts that need to be brought up to date.” (Journal of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Ontario, Vol. XCV111. 1963 & 1964; 27thParliament, 1st and 2nd Sessions) p. 414.
Without further elaboration on his reasons for repealing The Separate Schools Act, Braithwaite went on to talk about his riding of Etobicoke and its special place in Confederation. Listening attentively was the Minister of Education for the governing Progressive Conservative Party the Honorable William G. Davis who later became the Premier of the province of Ontario.
On March 12, 1964 at 2:00 p.m., exactly one month and eight days after listening to Braithwaite’s speech in the Legislature, Davis introduced the first reading of Bill 87 to amend the Separate Schools Act. Davis began his introduction by noting the absence of the member for Etobicoke (Braithwaite) from the legislature.
It is instructive to note that there were no discussions after the introduction of the Bill, and it continued unopposed to its second reading on March 20, 1964. The Bill was passed in the third reading on Monday, April 27, 1964 without being sent to a Standing Committee for a thorough non-partisan discourse.
No government should make or enforce laws which shall abridge the constitutional rights and privileges of citizens on account of race, colour or previous condition of servitude. Governments are instituted to secure these rights and to deprive any group or class of people of their constitutional rights and privileges without legal representation, a vote, or debate is at variance with the principles of sound legislation and good government. It is a fact that The Separate Schools Act of 1850 was passed under the auspices of four different administrations of government, with extensive discussion in the Legislature and included public discourse, petitions and representation.
The same democratic principles that brought the provisions for a Separate Schools Act into law should also apply in repealing the Act. Davis might have argued that repealing the Act is to take the moral high ground. However, the late John Kenneth Galbraith reminds us that: “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises of moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”
In repealing the Act post-haste without debate, Davis not only engaged in the “moral justification for selfishness”, but in the self-indulgent paroxysm of political partisan rhetoric that is counter to the core principles of the Ontario Legislature.
The existence of the provision for Separate Schools based on religion has been in Ontario for 165 years, (the law for Separate Schools was introduced in 1850). This law has not impeded, subverted, or weakened the progress of the school system in the past. It is unreasonable, therefore, to assume that the provision in the law for Separate Black schools would endanger the system. In fact, the extraordinary success of Black schools in the early 19th century should serve as a template for academic excellence in our country and communities. These early schools produced Canada’s first Black doctor, Anderson Ruffin Abbott in 1861. His classmate, Alfred Lafferty, earned a Masters degree in 1867 and became Headmaster of a Richmond Hill County Grammar school in 1866, and many other Black scholars went back to the United States to distinguish themselves in the fields of science, medicine and politics.
There are some individuals in the White community, and also in the Black community, who oppose the establishment of Separate Black schools in Toronto. In today’s public schools the dropout rates for Black males are well above 50 per cent in the Toronto District School Board; Black males are less likely to enroll or graduate from college or university; and they make up less than 1 per cent in the gifted and talented programs. They are more likely to be classified as suffering from a learning disability, or pathologized as behavioral and placed in a special education program. These trends have become so common in Toronto that a recitation of the dismal statistics no longer generates surprise or even alarm.