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A look at the issues that plagued the U of O in 1964

Originally published on April 16, 1964.

The following article is an attempt to briefly outline the history of the University of Ottawa, its present situation, and its plans for the future. The author also gives his impression of the university’s present structure, and a proposed solution to the financial dilemma which faces the University of Ottawa.

The beginning 

On December 29, 1843, a letter arrived at the residence of Bishop Phelan, auxiliary administrator of Kingston; it was from Bishop Bourget of Montreal. He wrote: “I expect great developments in our two dioceses, and I am convinced that the Oblates will not have many years in Bytown (Ottawa), before they will have been able, by obtaining help from Europe, to establish college, covenants, and schools that will be to the advantage of the inhabitants of the Ottawa Valley, who are deprived of the great benefits that the church dispenses to her children elsewhere.”

The five years which followed this letter saw these hopes become a reality, and on September 27, 1848, the first Bishop of Bytown, Joseph Bruno Guigues, founded St. Joseph’s College of Bytown. It was a three-story wooden structure, built just behind the present basilica, and had an enrollment of 80 students. The college was bilingual, for it was the wish of Bishop Guigues to establish a college “that would offer equal educational opportunities to the two elements of the population and would attract the young men upon whom Providence would call later to play an important role in the affairs of the country. These young men, living and growing up together would soon come to know and to esteem each other, and while preserving their national idiosyncrasies, would learn to wage side by side the good fight for God and country.”

Henry Tabaret 

In 1849, the college became simply the College of Bytown. But, the first few years were difficult ones. Until that time, no one had faced the complexities of the Canadian duality. Nearly every year the entire teaching staff changed, and problems in this new experiment in education mounted until 1853. In that year, Bishop Guigues discovered a very promising young priest, Reverend Henri Tabaret. The bishop removed him from parish work, and set him at the head of the new college. From then on, the growth of the College of Bytown was assured. “The mingling of the two languages offers a difficulty which is not insurmountable,” said Father Tabaret as he began his 30 years of devotion to what was to become the University of Ottawa. 

Under Father Tabaret’s leadership, the new college flourished. He departed from traditional ways and established new pedagogical methods, and devised a new curriculum which for those years was almost hearsay. His new program included a classical course where the arts and sciences shared the teaching hours in a well-conceived proportion. The staff rallied around the new ideas, with faith in the new program, and it turned out to be a success. 

Given Charter

In that same historic year, the wooden building which housed the college for five years was abandoned. The new structure was of stone, located on the present site of LaSalle Academy on Sussex St. Three years later the college again moved, this time to Sandy Hill to an edifice on the same spot as the present administration building is located. In 1861, the college became the College of Ottawa, changing its name with the city’s name change, and in 1866 the Union, government of Canada granted a University Charter to the Ottawa College, and there was the proof that Tabaret’s hopes had not misled him. 

By an act of government, a bilingual university was established in the bilingual capital of a bilingual country. 

Henri Tabaret guided the university until his death in 1886. Had he lived three years longer he would have witnessed what for him would have been the “brightest crown” for a catholic college; for in 1889 the college was honoured by Pope Leo XIII when he raised it to the rank of a Pontifical University. 

New building 

In those early years, under Father Tabaret and his successors the Catholic University of Ottawa, as it was sometimes called, grew and prospered. The main building on Wilbrod St. was enlarged; the academic program was revised to qualify students for liberal and scientific professions; scientific laboratories were developed and ranked among the best in Canada, and the university taught physics, chemistry, mineralogy, geology and astronomy in its new science faculty wing; the faculties of theology and philosophy were also founded.

As the 20th century arrived, the future of the university appeared bright. The little wooden college had become a university.


But on December 2, 1903, the University of Ottawa was a mass of twisted, blackened stone and timber, razed by a disastrous fire. The magnificent edifice which housed all the faculties and classes burned to the ground. Records of that fire indicate a peculiar yet perhaps prophetic incident which occured on that distressing day. When the fire had ravaged the entire edifice, observers noticed something rather startling. Amid the rubble of the fallen building, the bronze statue of Father Tabaret, near the central door, remained unaltered. It still stood as if to say, “the work must go on.” And it did. 

The hopes of Father Tabaret did not die, and the slow laborious process of rebuilding began. Plans were made; funds were raised; and in 1904, the cornerstone was laid and a group of fireproof buildings arose.


It is interesting to note that in the early years of the University of Ottawa, it was administered by both the French and English Oblates of Mary Immaculate. One of the first rectors of the university was father Timothy Ryan (1866-1867). Others were fathers James McGuckin (1889-98) and William Murphy (1905-11). And, it is almost inexplicable, but nonetheless factual that at the turn of the century, and indeed up to World War I, the student body at the university was nearly totally English-speaking! But the tide soon turned for about this very time, the Oblates were divided into two clerical provinces — one French speaking and one English speaking. The university was given to the Oblates of the French province.

In 1930, the English Oblates founded St. Patrick’s College. The exact reasons for the division and subsequent changing hands of the university’s control, seem to be covered by the dust of the years.

College growth   

The Sandy Hill campus continued to grow. In those years between two world wars new buildings, faculties and schools were added. A faculty of canon law was added in 1929, the normal school in 1930, and a school of music in 1931 (now defunct). In 1933, the Ontario Legislature revised the University’s Civil Charter and the Pontificial Charter was revised the following year. Nursing (1933), a faculty of political science and one of library science (1936), were also added to the institution’s list of studies. Summer courses, correspondence courses and courses in experimental psychology were also introduced in those years. 

In 1942 the Guidance Centre was founded, and a school of medicine was formed at the university. The following year a school of pure and applied science was built, and the same year, the Ontario Government gave the University of Ottawa its first educational grant, for the faculty of medicine only. 

The precedent was set. 

Progress was not always in proportion to ambitions, efforts, hopes or sacrifices, but as the university celebrated its centenary in 1948 — billed as “100 years of catholic education” — the Oblates had great faith in God and the future. The University of Ottawa then consisted of five faculties and 12 schools and institutes, with ambitious plans.

The construction boom began. The faculty of medicine was installed in a new building on Nicholas St. in 1950, and in 1956 the new faculty of arts building on Waller St. was opened. The science campus also began to emerge about this time. Electrical engineering (1957), chemistry (1958), and biology (1960) buildings began to round out the hopes for the future. The ecclesiastical faculties (sedes sapientiae) on Main St. were also constructed (1959). The drab grey buildings which in many ways characterize the University’s appearance started sprouting up over Sandy Hill.

Embryo years

In looking back over what might be themed the embryo years of the University’s growth, it is of interest to note some of the “claims to fame” which can be made. In 1879, the first bilingual alumni organization was formed; in 1884 the College of Ottawa boasted of being the first in America to utilize the incandescent electric light. From 1885 to 1892, the football team was six times Dominion Champions, often provincial and interprovincial champions, and, in fact, did a great deal to popularize the sport in Canada. However, on the other side of the ledger, it is probably one of the last universities in the country to have an established students’ council (early fifties) and an autonomous, uncensored student press (which occasionally seems dubious even today). Further, girls were not allowed admittance into the University of Ottawa until the middle of the last decade. In fact, the original charter states … “for the purpose of endowing a college for male education and for no other purpose whatsoever…” 


Today in 1964 the university’s growth continues. A new residential tower is under construction, and there are even hopes for the success of the expansion program and fundraising program. The University of Ottawa now boasts of being able to offer almost a full cycle of courses. It has ecclesiastical faculties (theology, philosophy and cannon law); and civil faculties — arts, law, medicine, pure and applied science, and social science. There are also schools of nursing, psychology and education, library science and a high school. The school of graduate studies has some 20 departments. 

There are summer courses, extension courses, and correspondence courses. Eleven affiliated colleges are also included in the university’s organization, with four of them in Saskatchewan, one in Alberta, five in Ontario and one in Quebec. The total enrollment of the university is over 10,000. The character of the university continues to be bilingual. Courses are taught in both languages. The University of Ottawa is administered by the French Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and is the only bilingual university in Ontario. But what of the future? 

Must re-examine   

In this year of our lord, 1964, the University of Ottawa must re-examine its position as a university and a Catholic university. In the middle of the 20th century, no private organization can be expected to run a university unless it has unlimited funds. The Oblates do not. Without government subsidy, the university cannot provide its student body with the proper facilities, and indeed with a proper sound education. This is a problem which our institution must face. 

The facilities on the Sandy Hill campus are far from adequate. In the science and medical faculties, students are provided with all they need to become professional scientists and doctors because those faculties are supported by provincial grants. But in the field of the humanities, unsubsidized by government money, the university offers little. The satisfactory, and top priority should be given to the construction of a Humanities Library. The university has no theatre school, and indeed no theatre. The academic hall is an elaborate lecture hall, but not a theatre for university drama. We lack a school of music; no liberal arts college is complete without offering a degree in music. Early in its history, in fact, up until the early fifties, the university did have such a school. At the time, it was demolished, they sold the piano and the space was cleared for the construction of the new law school which has never begun. 

In the realm of sports facilities and a social centre, the University of Ottawa is far behind every other institution of higher learning in Canada. All it can offer is one gym, the Minto, and two old houses for a student centre. These things are an integral part of a university education; yet this campus cannot offer them to its student body.

Space is at a premium. Classes are being held in a converted liquor warehouse on Nicholas St.; the law school is on the fourth floor of the Arts Building; social science is in the Administration Building; domestic science is located in the old Arts Building on Waller St.; and even on the government supported science campus, classes are still being held in wartime barracks.

Lists of other insufficiencies could be enumerated, but the point has been made. The University of Ottawa is desperately in need of money if it is to serve this country as a university, and serve the needs of its students. It is not fulfilling that role now!

Debt mounts

The university’s debt is mounting. Each year the Oblates of Mary Immaculate cover the ever-increasing debt; it cannot do this indefinitely. Expansion is needed, but the funds are not available. Any university’s main source of income is the provincial government, but the University of Ottawa’s professed Roman Catholicism prohibits its receiving its full share of the province’s educational grants. 

The question has been asked — who is wrong? Should Ontario change its policy on religious institutions and fill the U of O coffers? Or should the University of Ottawa give up its religious affiliation and become eligible for Queen’s Park funds? Or is there not another alternative? 

Ontario’s policy, and indeed the policy of all of Canada’s provinces with the exception of Quebec is quite clear; if the church wishes to run a university — let the church pay for it! Separation of church and state — a valued part of democracy — is the basis of the government’s refusal to support church-owned universities. In fact, the Ontario government has gone around this very policy by giving money to the science and medical faculties on campus; the reasoning is simply that it is difficult to teach Catholic physics or biology. Yet there are those who feel, and with some justification. That the Ontario government should not have made that exception. But in the field of the humanities it is a different case. The legislature remains firm on its tight money policy, for a scrutiny of the arts curriculum certainly betrays the university’s catholicism. Anyone who is realistic cannot hope that someday the government will change its policy. We are the only religious university left.


The answer to the dilemma lies not with the government’s policy, but rather with the university’s. Provincial grants are a necessity, unless the university is content to offer a second-rate Catholic education. But the solution is not secularization! This is a rash and unwarranted response to the problem which presents itself. The university’s Catholicism is an integral part of her essence and history, and not something that can be demolished quite so easily. Nor does the answer lie in watering down the Catholicism to the point where we try to dupe the government into believing we are no longer Catholic; we cannot change a few subjects, have religion courses no longer compulsory, and pretend the crucifixes aren’t on the walls. The solution however, is found in a realistic and common sense approach to Roman Catholicism at the University of Ottawa.


The university must reorganize itself on a college basis, with the formation of a secular arts college which would offer a non-denominational education to any student desirous of it. On the other hand, the university would continue to offer a Catholic arts education in a Catholic college run by the Oblates. It would, of course, mean that the Oblates would have to relinquish some of their present control over the university, but essentially the Catholicism which of the very essence of the university will remain, unadulterated, within the confines of the college. 

But above all, what it will mean is that the Ontario government will give the university provincial grants; grants are given to the university as a whole, which is allowed to distribute them among its colleges as it sees fit, providing the university as such is not religiously affiliated. This is not what happened to Assumption which is now the University of Windsor. It doesn’t mean abandoning Catholicism, but rather changing the university’s structure to meet the needs of a changing country. Catholicism must not be the stumbling block to the future of the University of Ottawa, but rather its guiding light to a more realistic approach to education. 

Shortly, this university will be forced to decide its own future. If it chooses Catholicism as its spirit and changes its structure to a new and more realistic one, then it will be able to fulfill its role as a Canadian university and a Catholic one. If, however, the university decides to remain as it is, then Catholicism will be its shroud.

The future 

The University of Ottawa can become the symbol of Canadianism — living proof of the experiment of bi-culturalism that succeeded. It can be an example of Canada’s duality, the dream of Father Tabaret — realized at last. The Canadian nation is really going on trial every day in the lecture halls of this university, and the country cannot afford to have this experiment fail. Let Catholicism and its traditional “search for the truth” be the principle which will lead this university to its maturity. 

The University of Ottawa can be the bilingual university, in the bilingual capital, of a bilingual country, or it can be a small, second rate Catholic college in a small Canadian city. The choice will be made in the months and years ahead. 

Fun facts about this article

  • Peter Mandia, the Fulcrum’s editor-in-chief in 1964 founded Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius. He died in 1994. 
  • The “war barracks” mentioned in the story were part of the U of O’s efforts during World War II. After joining the war in 1939, the Canadian government tasked universities with assisting in the war effort, which led the U of O to build barracks and train officers
  • The majority of U of O’s barracks were constructed to house some 400 members of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps
  • Some staff members keep some salvaged materials from the barracks where their buildings were originally located
  • In 1965, the Oblates relinquished administration of the University and it became a provincially funded secular institution
  • Contrary to what the original author stated, Assumption University still exists as a Catholic satellite university of the University of Windsor
  • Technically, the author’s idea ended up coming true, as the Catholic University of Ottawa that he attended still exists as Saint Paul University. According to Saint Paul, they are the original U of O and the modern U of O was created in 1965