What Did Michael Power Really Want?: Questions regarding the Origins of Catholic Separate Schools in Canada West

Article excerpt

Historians have been seriously divided on the question of Bishop Michael Power's support of state-funded Catholic separate schools in Canada West. Historians with a bias towards the Catholic system argue that Power was a staunch supporter of schools, thereby proving that the support of Catholics for a separate system was unbroken since early colonial times. Non-Catholic historians, some of whom are detractors of the separate school system, retort that Power was a moderate who did not place much stock in separate schools, even to the extent that he was willing to become the chair of the first School Board governing the colony's Common Schools. They cite Power's successor bishops, strident European-born ultramontanes, as the principal advocates for separate Catholic schools. Once having identified the "second hand" origins of these traditional arguments, this paper analyzes Power's school policies by a careful examination of his intellectual, spiritual, and political formation, in addition to an exploration of his words and deeds. What results is a revisionist account of Power's attitude towards education and his careful cultivation of a multifaceted plan for Catholic education, given the evident ambiguities and uncertainties germane to the school systems of his time.

L'appui de l'eveque Michael Power aux ecoles catholiques separees et subventionness de l'Ouest canadien, a fortement divise les historiens. Ceux penchant pour le systeme catholique soutiennent que Power etait un supporter loyal, prouvant de cette facon que la contribution des catholiques a un systeme separe remonte aux temps coloniaux. Les historiens non-catholiques, dont quelques-uns deprecient au reste le syteme des ecoles separees, affirment quant a eux que Power etait un modere qui n'investissait pan beaucoup de fonds dans les ecoles separees, meme dans l'eventualite de devenir le president du premier conseil scolaire dirigeant les ecoles publiques de la colonie. Ils considerent plutot les eveques successeurs de Power, ultramontains ardents d'origine europeenne, comme les principaux avocats des ecoles catholiques separees. En fait, cette these traditionnelle repose sur des arguments de seconde main, car elle ne tient pan compte de la formation intellectuelle, spirituelle et politique de Power, pan plus qu e de ses declarations et de ses actions, qui temoignent de son attachement a une education catholique polyvalente, en depit du flottement dans les systemes scolaires de son temps.


There once was a time in Ontario when uttering the words "separate schools" would guarantee, in the least, an argument, or at worst, a fistfight. Political parties, communities, neighbourhoods, and families became seriously divided over the perceived right, or even the necessity, to allow the province's Catholics to establish and maintain publicly-financed separate schools. The controversy and debate over these schools has also been evident in scholarly discussions of education nationwide. Since the late nineteenth century there have been two conflicting historical perspectives arguing the constitutionality, moral validity, and existence of publicly-financed Catholic schools. One issue upon which neither of these two historical schools has been able to agree is whether or not Michael Power, the first Bishop of Toronto, believed in, and was prepared to advance, the idea of a Catholic school system, sustained by the public purse. The question of Michael Power's commitment to Catholic separate schools is critica l for several reasons, not the least of which was the fact that his new diocese contained the fastest growing region in British North America, providing a haven for tens of thousands of European migrants annually. His diocesan territory extended from Oshawa in the east to Sandwich in the west and, then, from Lakes Ontario and Erie as far north as the Lakehead and the watersheds of Lakes Huron and Superior. …