Celebrating Seventy Years of Community Living Part One: How The Community Living Movement Began

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by Gord Kyle

It was a warm evening as Wesley Stitt made his way along Carleton Street in Toronto. The rain the day before had passed and the temperature had risen to almost 18 degrees centigrade — a November 4th temperature that had only ever been surpassed one time before, forty-five years earlier. Wesley was not alone; others were making their way down the street, but these fellow travellers were strangers. It was normal to see clusters of strangers along this stretch of Carlton just east of Yonge Street — sports fans making their way to Maple Leaf Gardens that sat opposite the Carlton Street Church where the present travellers were headed. But the Gardens was quiet that night, the Saturday game in which the Leafs would struggle to a 3-3 tie with the New York Rangers was still two days away and the winning game of the playoffs would not take place until April when the Leafs would steal the Stanley Cup from the Detroit Red Wings for the second year in a row.

Those who made their way down Carlton Street that evening were not there for sport. They had come at the invitation of Wesley Stitt, a man who until recently few of them had even heard of. Like Wesley himself, the others did not know what they should expect from their gathering. All they knew was that their families faced challenges that nobody, not even the elected government, seemed inclined to address. Something needed to be done. They each had their own stories, unique but similar. For Wesley, his reason for inviting the others to join him that evening was out of concern for his young son. As the result of his intellectual disability the boy was excluded from most of the things that children enjoyed. There were no organized recreational options he could take part in and his prospects for finding employment and living in a home of his own when he grew up were something Wesley could barely dream of. But what troubled Wesley the most was that his son was not welcome in school. In fact, provincial laws in Ontario made it illegal to fund educational services for any child who tested below 50 on an IQ test. The only support available to Wesley and his son was a placement in the Ontario Hospital School — the government institution in Orillia. This was an injustice that could no longer be tolerated. If Wesley had one aim that night, it was to join with others who shared his concerns and to find a way for his son to attend school without being sent away from his family and community to the decaying old institution up north on the shore of Lake Simcoe.

Wesley could have had no way of knowing what would come from the gathering of strangers he had invited. He could not have known that this modest gathering would set off a movement that would grow over the next seventy years into a provincial association and national family movement with ties to like-minded movements in countries around the world. He could never have guessed that the advocacy efforts that would emerge out of his invitation to the Carleton Street Church would change the social and legal fabric of Canada, pressuring governments throughout the country to provide billions of dollars a year in funding — changing the lives of countless people.

While Wesley was the one who invited people to gather that evening, it was, in fact, a woman named Victoria Glover who had got the ball rolling. Weeks earlier, on September 29, the Toronto Star published an anonymous letter. The author was Victoria Glover, a grandmother who was raising an 8-year old grandson who had an intellectual disability and whose parents had died. Following is some of what she wrote about her grandson and other children:

There is no school for such children, no place where they could get a little training to be some use in the world, only Orillia (the institution) which is always full. If these children can be taught something at Orillia, why cannot a day school be put at their disposal? I am sure their mothers would gladly pay for their transportation to and from school. After all, they are paying taxes for other more fortunate children’s schooling. I think it is time something was done for parents who from a sense of faith and hope in a merciful providence want to keep them at home living a normal life. These are real parents, only asking a little aid and encouragement…may the Ontario government help them and their children who might still be made something of, living a normal life with perfect love, understanding and guidance of such parents.

When Wesley Stitt read the letter, he contacted the Star for help in contacting the author. After speaking with Mrs. Glover, Wesley sent his own letter to the paper asking anyone interested in meeting to contact him. Thirty parents responded and 70 people gathered that November 4, 1948, at the Carlton Street United Church. The group was determined to make change and took immediate action. By the time the evening was done they had defined aims for their collective effort: (a) to establish a school to train children who have an intellectual of developmental disability of all ages, and (b) to provide a program incorporating the latest developments in education. Additionally, a delegation was appointed to take the following resolution to the Minister of Education, Dana Porter, on November 9:

Whereas there are many children in Ontario who are unable to benefit by the course of studies set forth by the Department of Education, but who, nevertheless, could learn many things which would enable them to become useful citizens if a special type of education were provided, we the parents and friends of these children respectfully urge the Department of Education to take steps in the future to make available facilities for such education.

The Minister informed the delegation that it was illegal for a local Board of Education to accept a child who tested less than 50 on an IQ test. The Public School Act would need to be amended if this was to be possible. And so, the group had its first specific advocacy objective — to change the Education Act. The group set to work, structuring itself into a formal Parents Council in November — incorporating the group three years later in September 1951 and then changing its name to the Metropolitan Association for R——- Children in 1954 (today known as Community Living Toronto).

Word of what was happening in Toronto spread quickly across the province and soon similar family groups emerged in Hamilton, London, Windsor, Brantford, Niagara Falls, and Welland. In the first ten years after the initial meeting on Carleton Street, 54 local associations formed across the province, a number that would double again in the years to come.

The effort in Toronto in the late 40s was not the only one in the province at that time. One of the key drivers of the education reform for children who had an intellectual disability came from an initiative taking place in the northern community of Kirkland Lake. Donald Frisby was an educator who moved to Kirkland Lake in the 40s and took up the cause of the students excluded from school on account of their low IQ scores. He approached the township and the board of education with a proposal to start a project to address the needs of these students. He was turned down — the board and town unwilling to invest in an untried venture for students that were not legally admissible to the public school. Frisby persevered, seeking financial support from local service clubs, and eventually securing a grant of $2500 from the federal Department of Education. In April 1947, the first class for six students who were ineligible to attend the regular local school opened in a rented room at the Trinity United Church.

Some friendly debate has existed in Community Living over the years whether the Kirkland Lake project or the Parents Council that emerged from the Carlton Street gathering should be considered the first local association. While the school in Kirkland Lake, which was guided by an advisory group of educators, representatives of the local service clubs and others, opened 19 months before the first meeting on Carlton Street, the group in Kirkland Lake did not organize as a parent group until 1953. Regardless, both initiatives were essential to the early evolution of Community Living Ontario. Donald Frisby served as the third president of the provincial Association in 1956 and ’57.

The Toronto group and those in other communities continued to push for reform of the Education Act to allow for funding of education services for children who had an intellectual disability. But they were not waiting on the government. In Toronto, the group began to fundraise and started a few small classes in churches and community centres in the city. In September 1952, they took the brave step of renting a house on Willcocks Street in the downtown and opening a school with backing from the Kinsmen Club.  

By early 1953, it became clear that the emerging family groups around the province would benefit from a more formal alignment of their efforts. The local groups had begun to develop tools to help with their work including written materials, training events, media information packages and so forth. There was a desire to collaborate on the development of these tools and make certain that they were available to all the existing and emerging family groups. Additionally, the effort to change the Education Act to allow funding to flow to the children the groups were concerned with would clearly benefit from a coordinated advocacy effort.

On February 6, 1953, a special organizational meeting was hosted by the family group in Hamilton with 38 members from the existing community organizations. The group passed a motion that all present units in Ontario organize into a provincial association. They passed a second motion as well that the name of the association be The Ontario Association for R——- Children. The inaugural annual meeting of the new association known today as Community Living Ontario took place two month later on April 17 at the Woodgreen United Church in Toronto. In attendance were representatives from the local associations in Windsor, Brant-Norfolk, London, Kirkland Lake, Niagara District, Welland, Hamilton and Toronto. In total 15 local associations joined the provincial association in the inaugural year 1953.

The creation of the provincial association had an immediate effect on the advocacy effort with government. The Department of Education announced that in anticipation of the formation of the provincial association, it had prepared a revision of the Education Act to include a new regulation entitled Assistance in Payment of the Cost of Education of R——- Children. The new regulation was approved on June 23, 1953 and was made retroactive to April 1. The regulation provided $25 per month for each pupil in a class operated by a parent group.

By today’s measures, this first advocacy success by our movement might seem trivial. $25 per pupil was not enough to cover expenses and local associations needed to fundraise to cover the remaining costs. Further, the regulation left the entirety of responsibility for the operation of schools on the shoulders of parents. But the regulation, in fact, represented a monumentally important change as it circumvented the legal barrier to providing educational funding to students who have an intellectual disability. The change opened the door to future education advocacy and reform and led to school boards beginning to directly operate some special classes in the late ’60s as well as an overhaul of the Education Act in 1982 that mandated almost all Special Education as a responsibility of school boards. (We will explore in a future article the evolution of the movement’s education advocacy which continues to be a key focus even after seventy years.)

It did not take long for the story of the success by parents in Ontario to spread to other parts of the country. In 1955, a special session was held in Toronto in advance of the annual provincial conference to discuss the formation of a national association. Representatives attended from British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. A year later, an organizational dinner was held at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto and the inaugural meeting of the Canadian Association for R——- Children took place in Calgary in 1958. Today there are provincial/territorial associations in every province and territory in the country organized under the umbrella of the national association which today is known as Inclusion Canada. The Canadian movement plays a critical role in the work of Inclusion international which is based in London UK and has a membership based throughout the world (the Executive Director of Inclusion International is a Canadian from Ontario who worked for the Canadian Association prior to assuming her international post).

The collective efforts of the Community Living movement have dramatically changed communities across Ontario, Canada and the world. Over the coming months, in celebration of our seventy year history, we will explore the key advocacy and community development efforts undertaken by the movement since that group of strangers first gathered on Carlton Street in 1948. And, of course, we will consider the work that remains to be done in the years ahead.

Note: I must acknowledge the work of Betty Anglin and June Braaten who wrote the tremendous twenty fifth anniversary book about Community Living Ontario back in 1978 titled Twenty-five years of growing together. I relied on their work for much of the information contained in this article. Over the coming year I will be writing further articles looking at the past seventy years of Community Living Ontario’s history. If you have comments on what I have written, questions about our history that you would like to see addressed in future articles, or information you wish to share with me about our history, feel free to email me at gordonkyle@gmail.com