With the Ontario election 11 days away, history teachers are still asking each other a painful question: What went wrong? How did John Tory, the Conservative leader, who spent two decades being carefully educated, somehow miss all that stuff about separate Catholic schools, Confederation, and the bargain over the funding of education? It's a complicated subject, true, but Tory can't have gone to sleep every time it came up.
After all, Toronto gave him the best education available, especially in his adolescence at University of Toronto Schools, the ultimate among elite high schools. Then he got a good Toronto BA and a good Toronto law degree.
Yet he so badly misunderstood the history of Catholic education that he succumbed to the argument other religions had been making for years -- that funding only Catholics was unfair and all religions deserved government money for their schools. Because they too could follow the Ontario curriculum and maybe someday, by emulating today's Catholic educators, avoid getting too darned religious about it.
Those who know little history (a group that, historians fear, includes Tory) wouldn't see anything wrong with that idea. So he committed himself to funding any religious school that promised to observe provincial guidelines. That's how he created the intellectual squalor of the current Ontario election campaign.
Naturally, Premier Dalton McGuinty opposed Tory's plan. In his TV ads, he claims that funding religious schools would deprive children of the right to be schooled side by side with children from other religious traditions. Here was a truly baffling argument, stranger than anything from Tory. McGuinty, his wife and his children went to Catholic schools. This meant his whole clan was, as he put it, "sequestered and segregated." They were robbed of the chance to "grow together and learn from one another" alongside non-Catholics. His argument inevitably implied the abolition of Catholic schools but somehow he stopped before he got there.
McGuinty couldn't say: "Look, we were here when the deal was made, it's not a perfect deal for us either, but it's what history gave us. That's Confederation. Live with it." He would have been charged with speaking honestly while campaigning, an offense under the Criminal Code.
Instead he hinted that, if we only understood what he was saying, we would realize that the Conservatives were, as usual, up to no good.
In truth, a certain kind of history supports John Tory, but it's the history he helped make, not the history he studied (or didn't). Behind it stands the figure of William Davis.
As Ontario education minister from 1961 to 1971, Davis won the affection of many voters with a sprinkle-down policy, sprinkling Ontario with a light coating of universities and colleges, to the delight of every town that got one. Politicians didn't claim to know what these places would teach ("the usual thing," they would have said, if someone had asked, which no one did). It turned out that Davis also didn't know how to pay for them.
When his generosity made him premier, a job he held from 1971 to 1985, he stopped worrying about education. Ever since, the universities have complained of being starved.
As premier, he pursued every identifiable cluster of votes. A guy I knew in the citizenship department spent his time commissioning polls to learn which self-designated ethnic leaders were in fact influential (therefore, to be feared and funded) and which could be safely ignored.
Partly by supporting all the right folk dancers, Davis assembled a coalition strong enough to keep him in office.
In 1982, the 28-year-old John Tory, a young star of the Conservatives, became the premier's principal secretary. For three years he watched the master at close range, learning the key words ("inclusive," etc.) and absorbing hard-earned wisdom about appealing to one ethnic group after another.
That's why he was ready when people from the religious schools came calling. They asked for what they considered the 2007 equivalent of the help they enjoyed in the 1980s. To Tory, the Davisite, it seemed like a good idea, at the time. If he remembered history, he decided it was irrelevant. When I mentioned historic arrangements during a television debate, a Christian fundamentalist said they were made a long time ago, therefore not worth considering.
Nevertheless, Tory at least dimly understood, even before the election campaign began, that his policy might, just possibly, generate difficulties. He had a plan. He announced that all such problems would be sorted out by a commission headed by, yes, William Davis himself. He'll know what to do. He always did.