Reflections: Student days
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From Winnipeg, I went directly to Toronto, registering at Ryerson Institute in a prelude to university, working on high school matriculation subjects (botany, Latin, French, calculus) and living first at my aunt Goldie’s on Brock Street, then rooming on Lowther Avenue, near the University of Toronto, within easy walking distance of the campus.
While at my aunt’s, I took a membership out at the West End YMCA on College Street West and began to go to work on my physical condition, because I hoped to play football and basketball in and when I got into U of T. I worked out there almost every night, using the indoor track, the pool, and the weight room. I met a young guy my own age and size who had been in the navy, and we began to work out together. He, Paul Cassell, was training to become a competitive runner and did go on to make the Canadian Olympic team in 3,000 metres a few years later. He and I got to be steady companions for a few months, indeed until I was registered at university the following April. Later on, while at the University of Toronto, we both worked out at the Hart House gymnasium.
My dream of playing high level football was to peter out on a weakness that took me several years to accept. I was big enough and strong enough and purposeful enough to be a good football player but I was completely without a sense of timing and coordination for any complicated manoeuvre. In short, I would often throw off an opposing lineman and then flub going on to the next step or objective. I should have known this would be something to haunt me because years before, playing high school basketball, I was always being told to smarten up—because I never anticipated well where the ball was going and what the choices were for me to follow. The antithesis of Wayne Gretzky. Despite this, I had quite a bit of fun and comradeship from the time I did spend playing, and god knows it did me good to get into condition, because the four years in the army had been soft physical work.
Victoria College (U of T) 1945-49
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I moved from Ryerson, to first year at the University of Toronto in a summer course from April to August—we had to pass four subjects; if we had at least a B average, we could get into the honours (4 year) course.
In April, right near the start, I met Barbara, whom I married two years later. I think I met her on the stairs outside the Victoria College library; she thinks we met in the library and says I was condescending to her—mocking her for having to study so hard (I remember this, but think it was outside).
Anyway, I know I first got to know future politician and federal Liberal cabinet minister Judy LaMarsh (1924-1980) on the steps, because that was where smokers went to smoke, and she was a smoker (who died of cance).
Encountered Northrop Frye in first lecture I attend. Passed all four subjects in August and was admitted in September to the honour course in Modern History, encountering historian, Professor Frank Underhill for the first time.
Spent summer running and policing the bar and dance floor at the Royal Muskoka Hotel on Lake Rosseau, in concert with U of T dental student Harry Farley. I came out of the summer with $1,500, mostly made in tips. The hotel was destroyed by fire in 1952 and not rebuilt.
I played football (middle wing—now tackle) with the Victoria College team, which won the championship of the inter-faculty league. Walter London and Harry Boyd also played on the team. The next year, Walter went on to play football for Varsity, and Harry concentrated on hockey, as captain of the Varsity hockey team.
Spent summer running bar at Royal Muskoka Hotel in concert with Billy Louis, a first year student at University College, University of Toronto, who had been the chief bell boy in the summer of 1948, when I shared the bar job with Harry Farley (Harry was doing dental work, somewhere, with Indians). I came out of this summer with about $1,800, again mostly from tips.
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Married Barbara Elizabeth Laura Lamont in September, in North York, Toronto, above Eglinton, at Reverend H. Boyd’s house. He, a United Church minister, was father of my friend, Harry Boyd, a very good amateur hockey player, a history graduate, and who later became a high school teacher and hockey scout. Barbara’s aunts and two of my mother’s sisters were at the wedding. We honeymooned in Port Carling, in the Muskoka Lakes, at a tourist camp cabin beside a river, just off Lake Rosseau. I picked this place while working nearby in the summer. During the honeymoon I was studying like hell for a scholarship prize of I think $750. The exam was held the day we got back. I won it. We lived our first year in the basement flat at 12 Admiral Road, Toronto, which was familiar to me because Bert Critchlow, my aunt Dora’s lover, owned the house (he lived in the basement) and I had worked for him shoveling snow, gardening (he had a bunch of little businesses), and keeping the tank or storage bin charged with coke (coal) so gravity could carry it to the “iron fireman” which in turn spewed into the furnace box, to keep household furnaces going. Bert Critchlow was in England during this time. The university librarian, Dr. Wallace, lived in the first floor apartment. My roster of snow-shoveling clients was distinguished—including Mrs. Christie of the Christie biscuits fortune, Brigadier Gordon, father of future Liberal finance minister Walter Gordon, several of the Lash brothers, who were big in law, Dean Walter Kennedy of the University of Toronto law school, and Sir Ernest MacMillan, conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
In the fall, I became editor of Acta Victoriana, the Victoria College students’ magazine (6 issues yearly)—I’d been picked for the job in the spring.
Also this fall, I undertook to be coach of the Victoria College hockey team, which went to the league finals before being defeated.
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Graduated from Modern History in May with class standing of 1-4 (4th in class, first class honours).
This summer, I worked at Toronto reference library.
When we got back, it was time for me to start the library course at U of T.
Library School 1949-50
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Graduated in May with my second degree, a B.L.S., bachelor of library science.
Mark born April 4th at Hotel Dieu (hospital) Kingston.
Friend Harry Farley has new dental practice in Nipigon. Met Harry while in 2nd year U of T; he stayed across the hall from me in a boarding house, Delaware Street.
My father died on February 20th, in Sioux Lookout.
Mid 1953 I go alone to Port Arthur. Barbara and Mark follow in October, to live at 85 Pine Street.
Matthew born July 19th at Port Arthur General Hospital.
Move Crown Street to Arthur Street. Summer attend Ontario College of Education in Toronto.
In the spring I signed a contract with the principal of Port Arthur Collegiate, Hugh Dalzell, to join its staff that fall as a history teacher. Of course this meant separation from Lakehead Technical Institute which was on its way to becoming Lakehead College of Arts and Sciences (Lakehead University today). Before I left, I presented Harold Braun, the principal, with a draft description of the library space and facilities needed at LTI’s new location on large, untenanted lands to the southwest corner of Port Arthur along what was usually called the John Street road.
My relations with the Institute had become difficult because I had brought into the open the previous fall how slow and unenthusiastic the LTI board were in moving toward college and university status. The situation was complex.
Firstly, none on the current staff except Alex Ross and his successor, Tom Miller, had had any recent experience in universities. Three of the staff – two foresters and one geologist – were not interested in being professors. Rather they were using LTI more as a basic source of living money while they pursued their personal interests. The geologist, Trevor Page, had rich gold mining claims near Marathon that he was bringing up to patent strength. One forester, John Campbell, had a small saw mill operation and in association with it a box production line for shipping fish. John Haggerty, forester, and his wife were interested in developing a dog kennel as their long term work.
Secondly, the principal was very much aware he only had a B.A. and that increasingly, promotions in post secondary operations in Ontario were going to Ph.Ds. When Andrew Stewart, former president of the University of Alberta, said in a visit to the Lakehead that there should be no rush to university status, his caution to Braun was what Braun wanted to hear: “Go slow, build with extension courses and night classes until a core student body justifies going for a permanent building and the right to grant degrees.”
Thirdly, my main backer, Dr. Wilhelm, head of the Ontario Research Council, had died suddenly, and thus disappeared both his influence with the premier and his enthusiasm for a university at the Lakehead. With his death, enthusiasm also died for his idea of using the establishment of a forestry library, based on an English classification system, as a cover for me to establish the nucleus of a college library, on the Library of Congress system. The LTI board shrank from the idea, and the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests, which was paying my salary to set up a forestry library, was not happy to find that on the same salary, I was also setting up a college library.
The classic example of the cold shoulder I was getting from the principal, most of his ten person staff, and his executive board, was a marked hesitation to pay the express costs of some fifty cartons of books which I myself packed at the libraries of Queens University and the University of Toronto. These included a complete run of all the printed works of the Geological Survey of Canada from the 1850s to World War Two, and complete runs of the Canadian Historical Review and Pulp and Paper magazine. I had got these free, and the GSC volumes alone were worth many thousands of dollars. (I got material free from the goodwill I had generated among university and other librarians while at Queens, where I had offered them opportunities to pick up for free material that Queens had in duplicate or triplicate.)
Another reason for switching to high school teaching, aside from having run out of support at LTI, was friendships I had made with several teachers at Port Arthur Collegiate, including Peter Hennessy and Ran Ide – both of them good teachers full of Utopian zeal for liberally-minded teaching methods and high quality schools.
The other and I suppose strongest factor of all was financial. Barbara and I were developing a family and had managed to save nothing. By moving to teaching, I could make a thousand dollars more a year than I was getting at LTI (from Lands and Forests).
I reviewed some alternatives such as heading off to get a graduate degree at one of the universities at which my former professors at Toronto, Frank Underhill and Donald Creighton, had been willing to sponsor me for a fellowship.
I was also tempted to go into business as a consultant because of the acclaim and gratitude I had received for two pieces of research I had done in my spare time at the Lakehead – one on re-establishing a ground mill for pulp at Nipigon and the other for a re-organization of the waterfront at the Lakehead, which I had done for the City of Fort William’s town planner, Harry Parsons.
The PACI alternative was the safest, its money the surest, and the friends welcoming. Would I be able to handle the kids? I feared the worst and nothing like the worst ever happened. Truth was that I was like a duck finding a wonderful pond to swim in.
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The summer in Toronto, at the Ontario College of Education, was a bastard.
Barbara and the children stayed in the Lakehead. I stayed most of the time in Toronto with Bert Critchlow at 12 Admiral Road, three blocks from the OCE.
(I had done spare time work for Critchlow who had some thirty homes and lawns and furnaces he looked after in the segment of Toronto just north of Varsity Stadium. His clientele included half a dozen university professors, Walter Gordon and his parents, the MP for the area – Colonel Ross – Sir Ernest MacMillan of musical fame, Joseph Kennedy, our most noted constitutional lawyer, Stuart Wallace, chief librarian of the University of Toronto, and Mrs. Christie, heiress to the biscuit fortune. Bert had been an infantryman who survived the trenches in the Great War and established a personal business on the strength of a finished apprenticeship as a gardener on a big estate on the Don Valley. He and my maiden aunt Dora had had a long love affair and when I had come to Toronto in 1945, to go to Ryerson, he had immediately given me some work to make some money and we began to make a practice of eating an evening meal together at his Admiral Road apartment. It was a superb house with three huge apartments he rented out. All the tenants had high profile jobs. I go into all this name dropping not to impress with the league I observed but to underline what an education I was getting about position, influence, and status in Old Toronto – such a world far-away from the bush towns of northern Ontario and the roughness of military and mining camp bunkhouses. Bert and I got along well and through my years at university, we developed a beat of homes where I mowed the lawns in summer and kept the “iron fireman” stoked in winter.)
That summer I spent at OCE was one of the hottest on record and day after day by nine o’clock the temperature was in the low 90s. The classes were enormous – several hundred of us in a big assembly hall taking lecture notes.
One of the teachers was superb and famous across the province amongst teachers – Herb Diltz. He taught English with a flare and show that kept us hooked for the full 50 minutes of his performances.
The history dean – Lewis Carlisle?? – who was obviously learned and judicious, was very low key.
The other teachers we had were very dull, in particular an Englishman apparently of some renown who had been brought in for the summer to teach on the philosophy of education. Unfortunately, I found him so boring that I preferred to sit on a back seat reading a newspaper in what I thought was privacy.
It turned out Dr. Skinner, the Englishman, had an aide who took in his performances and who told him of the big lug near the back ignoring his teaching while reading the papers. This led late in the class year to my being summoned to the dean’s office where I was told that consideration was being given to dismissing me from the course for the dilatory way I behaved in Skinner’s lectures.
I was flabbergasted and made the case that I had said nothing, had been unobtrusive, and had listened to Dr. Skinner. I hadn’t taken notes because two years before I had taken a course at Queen’s University given by its principal, James Corry, on philosophy in education. This partially satisfied the dean but he insisted that I apologize to Dr. Skinner for behaviour insulting to his position, and behave carefully for the remainder of the course. I did so. Skinner was not particularly gracious about it and neither was I.
My frustration and the heat and the separation from family plus continuing regrets at the relative failure of my role at LTI had me in an unbelievably dark mood by the time we wrote the exams. When I got back to the Lakehead, the letter had arrived with my results, informing me that I had failed Dr. Skinner’s course. The mark given was so low that I was not entitled to appeal his decision. However, I would have the opportunity to write an exam in the subject the following summer.
On a return trip to Toronto, I went to Carlisle, with whom I had become friendly. He was shocked that I had been failed and he inquired for my achievement on the other exams, each of which I had passed with first class honours. He himself rated me highly as a potential teacher and he also went to the trouble of speaking to the dean, telling him I had achieved first class honours in honours history at Toronto, first class honours in library science at Toronto, and first class honours in a course given by the principal of Queen’s in philosophy in education. The dean told him that the case would not be re-opened.
The Toronto summer had been bad. Now I had this raging frustration hanging over me. The irony was that a classmate of mine passed Dr. Skinner’s course – after I helped him cram for the exam. His name was Barney Gallant, a Franco-Canadian from PEI; the week before the Skinner examination, he had thrown himself into my hands for help because he didn’t know what the man had been talking about most of the summer. Barney Gallant passed. I failed. Oh that made me angry.
(Vindication. The following summer I wrote and passed the exam Dr. Skinner had failed me in. By then, he had returned to England. I ran into him again about ten years later at a U of T library school function in honour of its head, Bertha Bassam. I was there, probably as a famous son of the school, being now an MP. Sid Wise and I had been favorites of Bassam. She introduced me to Skinner and I behaved as though I had neither heard of nor seen him before. He didn’t acknowledge our ‘past’ either, but seemed to shrivel. The trouble he had caused me. He himself should have called me in for a talking to rather than having the dean do so.)
Anyway, in September I started my two year stint at a high school history teacher.
September, switch from Lakehead Tech to Port Arthur Collegiate Institute.
At the high school where I was working, there was a staunch CCF member on the teaching staff, a Finn named Tauno Heitenan. When he found that I thought of myself as a CCF supporter, he was all for getting me to one of their monthly meetings.
Toby born October 9th at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Port Arthur.
Take up publicity work for Lakehead Rugby Football League and Thunder Bay Junior Hockey League; broadcast commentary at their games, put out news releases, etc. This work really got me back into the swing of things in Lakehead life.
1956 is the year I got into politics but my partisan position as a socialist and CCF supporter had been determined much earlier when I recoiled from my father’s strong Mackenzie King Liberalism. Dad had been a local party activist as a result of his friendship years before with Peter Heenan, who for a brief time in the 1920s was the minister of labour in a King government. In fact, during the summer federal general election of 1935, I worked on election day as an errand boy for Jack Donnelly, the Liberal boss in town – which paid off when the next summer his influence got me work with the Forestry Branch. But already, among miners and bush workers in Red Lake and Pickle Lake, socialist sentiment was strong and pro-CCF feeling had started to pick up when the party fielded so many candidates in that 1935 election. After that, I started to get into fierce arguments with Dad and I deserted the Liberals, at least emotionally, for the CCF and Mr. Woodsworth. With Dad, I made the case that King was too reactionary and overcautious in confronting the Depression (at least until FDR came along, giving King coattails to hang on to), that he was not moving on old age pensions, and so on. Later, when the war broke out, we argued over King’s military policy. And of course, during the conscription crisis, when I was in the army, I wore black coveralls with ‘Vote CCF’ on the back (see my army recollections).
My formal entry into the party did not crystallize, however, until after the city of Port Arthur held a CD Howe day, to honour their greatest citizen – ‘the minister of everything’ in King’s and St. Laurent’s governments. To raise an audience, they had PACI and other students traipse down to the arena to fill out the crowd of adults. I had to march my grade nine home room class downhill about 15 blocks to the arena (it was late April, I’m pretty sure). My gang wound up in the top rows at the middle of the rink. Tauno came up to me; his kids were right next to mine. While waiting for Howe to arrive, he asked what I thought about our kids and us being obliged to turn out. I said that it made me angry, that this was really a pre-election event designed to help guarantee Howe’s reelection. He said he agreed and said he wished we could raise hell about it. I said I wished so too.
I had already been through the embroglio over Lakehead Tech’s slow pace to universityhood and some further actions I took now that I was out of there were the push I needed to join and run for the CCF. I knew George Wardrope, the local MLA and minister in the Frost government, and had lobbied him for action on LCI, with no response. I had then tried the local Liberal provincial candidate, Dan ?, and he said he’d send it to the party leader at Queens Park – but again no word. Then I gave the critique to Tauno who sent it to Donald C. MacDonald, the new CCF leader in Toronto. He phoned me, asked a lot of questions, and said he would certainly ask about the matter during debates on the department of education’s estimates. And he did, very effectively. Frost himself had to enter the debate to rescue his education minister, Dr. Dunlop, who was elderly and confused confronting Macdonald, who knew so much more about the Lakehead post-secondary scenario than he did. As a result, Frost announced that very night on the floor of the legislature a grant of I think it was $300 thousand dollars to buy land and hire an architect to start what was to be Lakehead College first, then to become Lakehead University. This news, of course, made the front page in the Lakehead for several days. Tom Miller and others were very pleased – he had helped me write the critique. Tauno told me what Macdonald had said to him – that surely Fisher realizes that by doing something political, things can be accomplished. Why didn’t he consider being a candidate for the upcoming federal election. Next time Donald C. came to town, he came around to see me – expressing his pleasure at meeting me and saying he’d never received so organized and pungent a critique, that its effect in the house was devastating. I told him that I would indeed take out a party membership and that I would consider running.
I guess it was in September that I attended my first meeting as a member and met the active core of party people, who turned out to be smart, friendly and hard-working – Fred Robinson (Port Arthur’s mayor), his wife Jean (a Port Arthur alderman), Ron Wilmot (a grocer and alderman who had been the provincial CCF MLA from 1944 to 1952), and several union bosses: Steve Brodack of the carpenters, Jack Pecheau of the pulp cutters, Dave Sproule of the shipyard workers, Frank Mazur of the grain handlers, and ? of the steelworkers. We had a great evening (lots of fun, very interesting) and they said that with a good, aggressive candidate, there was a chance to beat Howe, who had got a lot of backs up.
We decided to meet once a week through means of a sub-committee on election preparedness. It was very quickly agreed that Peter Hennessy, my fellow history teacher, would be the official agent, and that Ron Wilmot would be the official campaign manager. It was tacitly accepted that I would be the candidate, so I asked – what if another mounts a challenge to my nomination and wins? I was told that another was sure to run but that I would certainly win. The party women supported the idea of Fisher’s candidacy. So did ‘The Jolly Boys’, an informal club of beer drinking men who had parties at the local Moose Hall at which they drank beer, played cards and put so much per ‘pot’ into the election fund. Our weakest representation was out beyond the city.
There were six active CCF clubs more than 75 miles beyond Port Arthur, in Nipigon, Terrace Bay, Marathon, Beardmore, Long Lac, and Geraldton. None of them knew much about me. One of things we planned at our regular meetings, usually at our house, was getting to know the hinterland, where 40% of the votes were. Remember, this was a huge riding, the largest in Ontario. Planning at these meetings got into signage, pamphlets, letters to the editor, transportation, and canvassing for new members and re-signing old ones. When I joined the CCF, we had about 125 members. By election day we had about 800 members. The women who would run the main committee room in Port Arthur were chosen – Jean Robinson and Jean Wilmot being chief among them. We began to establish the list of those who would enumerate for us. The CCF, which ran second to Howe the Liberal in the 1953 election, was entitled to name enumerators to develop the voters list, who were paid a fee of about $50 by the Chief Electoral Officer. Local CCF practice was that the enumerator would give the fee to the campaign coffers (quite legitimate).
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