Ontario's College System
Don McLaren was here—and left giant footprints
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Before I really got to know Don McLaren, I thought he was vain, with a tinge of arrogance. That was my impression on first meeting him. I think a lot of others thought the same…until they found what really drove him and made him an achiever.
He was a brilliant sociologist who joined Air Canada in 1960 and brought with him a passion to change the face of education in Canada . For the Canadian Flag Airline was finding out the hard way that it had to educate and re-educate employees hired from Canadian schools.
Although its business was flying, Air Canada in the early 1960s found it was turning into a facility where teaching was becoming a big part of their business…and the same was happening at Bell, Northern Electric, IBM and other companies.
As well as an absence of national coordination of education in Canada they saw out-of-date courses, and out-of-step curriculum and teaching techniques that had not changed in decades. They saw antiquated management in schools and little or no research.
Simply put, many business leaders believed that Canada’s largest industry and most crucial public institution, education, was not ready or able to provide an educated work force to give Canadian industry the competitive edge that was vital, as it entered the last half of the rapidly changing 20th century.
Because of this, Air Canada, in 1962, set out to change the attitude of students towards the work world they faced and what the future held for them.
For decades, decision makers in academia came from the Humanities. Someone had to tell them, and the teachers, that what their charges were learning might not be enough for the world they would be entering.
To the great credit of Air Canada and its then vice-president Claude Taylor, who was Don’s boss, McLaren was turned loose to lead the charge in the crusade for change.
Meetings were arranged in different parts of the United States to pick up ideas, because data processing and computers were beginning to change the way things were done.
Education was being courted by television and vice-versa and the magic of electronics and related sciences with rockets and satellites foretold of a much different future, needing a much different work force.
It was McLaren’s pushing and persuading that got education officials out of their offices to pick the brains of the world looking for answers and Air Canada was always helpful with travel arrangements.
With the zeal of a crusading evangelist, McLaren stood before audiences from Montreal to Vancouver, preaching the need for change. His speeches and the papers he produced painted a bleak picture for Canada if the technicians and the industrial scientists and engineers required in the decades ahead were not there.
McLaren brought a number of industrial leaders together in Montreal who pressed for a national office or clearing house so there could be coordination of effort across Canada to eliminate the regional disparity in education.
Not long after that meeting, the Council of Ministers of Education was set up at a meeting in Winnipeg by all the provincial ministers including Quebec . The first Chairman of the Council was Ontario ‘s education minister, William Davis.
The first time I met Don McLaren was at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto when I picked him up at his room to take him to meet Dr. Robert Jackson. Bob Jackson would, in the months ahead, become the founder and the first director of O.I.S.E., the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
I remember it well for as we met the first thing he said was, “Is my hair parted straight?” That became a personal joke between us, for from then on, when we met, I would comment, before he asked, “Yes, Don, your hair is parted straight.”
There were times when Don’s socializing created a bit of a problem…for he loved a party. In Paris , New York and Frankfurt I dragged a reluctant Don to his room…but he was always up bright and ready-to-go in the morning. We looked at factory schools in Germany, met with the French Science Teachers’ Council in France ...and it was always Don who asked the most penetrating questions, getting the kind of answers we were looking for.
Don and I, the Assistant Deputy Minister, and the Director of Planning from the Quebec Department of Education, went to Rome to look at Telescola, probably the most successful education television enterprise in the world at the time. We spent two days with the Director, Dr. Neri, and again it was McLaren the non-academic who elicited the answers we needed with his insightful questions.
Don and I had a drink together at Leonardo da Vinci airport in Rome and we parted. He was going to Paris to meet his wife and do some Christmas shopping and I was heading home to Toronto . As he walked toward the gate to his plane he turned and said something like, “I’ll see you in Montreal next month - don’t forget.” I was a bit concerned as I watched him weave his way through the crowd…for he had three drinks to my one.
The next time I saw Don was at Expo. I was alone and saw him walking arm in arm with a woman I knew was not his wife. I skirted around him so as to come up to him from the back…and when I was about five feet behind him I called out, “McLaren, what are you up to?” Without even turning around he answered, “Westcott, you old son of a b——, come here and meet my sister-in-law, she’s from out west and I’m showing her Expo.”
We chatted for a few minutes and said goodbye…and I was never to see Don again, although we did talk on the phones a couple of times after that meeting. He died suddenly of a heart attack.
Here was a nice guy from Montreal who worked for Air Canada. He was not a teacher nor was he on any government payroll…but his insight and a drive that few of us could match, had an influence on education in Canada beyond that of many high-placed academics. When Don was crusading for change in the 1960s there were no colleges. Not one. Today we have over 180,000 students attending 24 Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology across Ontario. For me it`s sad to think that none of them will have ever heard of him – or know of his contribution.
I still think of Don and his, “Is my hair parted straight?” or as I watched him heading alone to his plane at the airport in Rome, or the last time I saw him when he was “showing his sister-in-law around Expo.” For Don was a giant and I was lucky to get to know him and have him as a friend.
I have often wondered if he would have driven himself as he did and been such an achiever if he had been able to see.
For Don was totally blind…....and had been that way all his life.