At least this is how I imagine U of T’s inception: John Strachan, the Anglican bishop of Toronto, sitting in his rectory writing to the British Crown, explaining why a university was needed in Upper Canada. The British colonies of Upper and Lower Canada were self-proclaimed bastions of empire, carving an existence out of the boreal north, far from the industrial centres of London and Manchester, and the refinement of Victorian society. The isolation must, at times, have been oppressive: Kingston lay a few days to the east, along the lake’s edge. Further still were Montreal, and then at last Quebec City, the seat from which the metropole could be again be reached. England, an ocean’s journey away, was nevertheless totally cut off in winter, the St. Lawrence River freezing over and becoming unnavigable.
The isolation might not have seemed so pervasive except for the giant nation growing to the south, a beast with republican ideals and riotous political beliefs, encouraging elected representation and the abolishment of monarchy. Strachan, among many others, worried that many of Upper Canada’s youth, in search of higher education, were forced to study in the States — a dangerous endeavour, as their heads could easily be filled with dangerous republican thoughts during their extended stays.
To any North American today, it might seem excessive to worry about the influence of those promoting responsible government, the mainstay of our current political system. But the Canada of 1827 was a distinctly different place. Only a few years earlier, the War of 1812 had raged between the United States and Britain, being fought mainly on the frontiers of what is today called Canada. The same year that Strachan received his royal reply, in 1827, aluminum was discovered by Friedrich Woehler, and the first railway was opened in Austria-Hungary. Schubert wrote Winterreise in 1827, and Ludwig van Beethoven died.
Upper Canada itself had been created only 30 years before Strachan’s request. The colony was governed largely by appointed officials belonging to the Executive and Legislative Councils. The Family Compact, a Protestant clique of strict conservatives, effectively controlled the appointed councils, thus ensuring their own interests were represented. For reasons moral to political and economic, various colonial groups were worried about the influence of the United States. They thought having their own college might prove instrumental in keeping social and political evils at bay.
It was in March that the royal charter arrived, which authorized the “establishment of a College … for the education of youth in the principles of the Christian Religion, and for their instruction in the various branches of Science and Literature … at or near our town of York … to continue forever, to be called ‘King’s College.'” King’s College was to have the archdeacon of York as its president, and its teachers were to be restricted to Church of England members. The municipality purchased 150 forested acres north of the town. Plans and designs for the school, to be built at Queen’s Park, were produced over the next couple of years. Due to unforeseen difficulties, however, King’s College did not open its doors to students until 1842, at which point other Canadians had their own ideas about how the University, and the country, should be run. Robert Baldwin, in particular, eventual leader of the first responsible government of Canada, was set against the University’s religious affiliation.
In 1849, only seven years after the official opening of King’s College, Canada’s new responsible government — formed in 1840 with the Act of Union, which saw Upper and Lower Canada combined — passed a bill in Parliament that made the University officially secular. King’s College was renamed the University of Toronto that same year, on May 30. On January 1, 1850, the University opened its doors under the new policy, marking the birth of U of T as we know it today. In a pre-emptive response to what he knew would happen to King’s College, Strachan opened Trinity College, an institution with direct religious connections, just before the dissolution of his prized university.
King’s College thus came to a conclusive end on the first day of 1850, and the University of Toronto was born. The very tool that the Family Compact and colonial clergy had hoped would save religious and political identity in Canada was ironically transformed, in less than a decade, into a secular institution under a responsible government, both of which are still familiar to us today.