OLD BOYS: The Powerful Legacy of Upper Canada College

by James FitzGerald


Catholic New Times, October 8, 2000

The "Insider" helps change a school culture

I think somebody recommended the book to me in conversation. I remembered a few reviews when it first was published in 1994, but nothing remained in my internal computer. When I picked it up, I could not put it down. When I put it down it haunted me and it still does. I thought if half of this is true, then Upper Canada College (UCC), school of choice of the Canadian Establishment, might have burned all the remaining copies. Instead, they did something different.

James FitzGerald, a UCC “old boy” (class of '68), set out to get the flavour of his alma mater. He interviewed over 300 alumni and finally settled on 71 whose musings he presented in his fascinating book Old Boys: The Powerful Legacy of Upper Canada College (Macfarlane Walter & Ross). The power of FitzGerald's book lies in the unvarnished reflections -- the oftentimes excruciating candour with which his subjects speak. Quite consciously the author juxtaposes interviews, revealing contrasting opinions. Several interviewees (many of them well known Canadian figures) tell shocking tales of pedophilia, emotional cannibalism, stunning arrogance, alcohol abuse, suicides, mindless conformity to a business ethos, and deep anger at the type of education received.

Far and away the most hilarious interview in the book is with renegade right-wing economist John Crispo. Invited back to his alma mater to give a talk, Crispo told the school body that “their parents were by and large ripping off society. I said UCC boys were not constructive members of society because they were-spoiled brats. They owed something to society but they would probably never repay it because they were going to follow their parents' footsteps to Bay St., ripping off people with inside information and conflict of interest. If you were a failure, you need not worry. The insurance industry picked you up because presumably you had some social skills and you could use those to con the friends you had at UCC into buying insurance and keeping you alive. I got a standing ovation.” Mr. Crispo, of course, was not invited to tea with the headmaster.

That the school owes a debt to James FitzGerald is obvious. It set out to change its ways after the roasting several well known alumni gave it in the book. One prominent figure, Peter Dalglish, the founder of Street Kids International, ripped into the school in FitzGerald's book: "Some of the teachers were real bastards who singled out kids and destroyed them. A prime failing of UCC is that they have no sense of being a part of a community within the city or country. The school has to change; it is still very upper middle class. There are Asian kids at UCC now but most of them are richer than the white kids because they come from the Hong Kong establishment. UCC has never produced a Prime Minister while Eton has produced 19 British PMs. The question I have for UCC is how do we instill values in children growing up in a world overwhelmingly materialistic and consumer-oriented? I think that's the true mandate of the school, which it hasn’t even thought of addressing.”

Today, Dalglish is an employee of UCC, hired to change the school culture. In a newspaper interview last year, he acknowledged “the smugness and arrogance which plagued UCC in the 70's.” Today, UCC students are partnered with inner city-Toronto kids in the College's Horizon program. It’s is an eye-opening experience for the children of privilege, according to Nanci Goldman. The former Toronto Board co-ordinator of inner city services (downsized:by the Harris government and now working at UCC) states emphatically that the students are more socially conscious and considerate than Dalglish's contemporaries.

Times do change and UCC principal Doug Blakey is to be congratulated here for his enthusiasm for the program. A hidden debt, acknowledged or not, should go to FitzGerald, the Insider, who held the mirror up to his alma mater.

When I read FitzGerald's book, I laughed at the irony. Here were the parents of UCC students voting in overwhelming numbers for the present neo-conservative attack on education with its escalating pupil-teacher ratio and- heavier workloads for teachers. At the same time, they make damn sure that their own children had smaller classes and access to the opportunities being taken away from kids in public schools.

Another thought hit me. Where are the Catholic Old Boys? Stay tuned for my next article.

You can debate this with Ted via jtschmidt@rogers.com

James FitzGerald
Journalist and Author
Toronto, Canada