Great Scot! They're Canadian greats

10th October 2008 at 01:00

Pupils in Toronto recently voted for their choice of "Greatest Canadian of all time". The highest number of votes was cast for the late Tommy Douglas, the Scots-born champion boxer, baptist minister and politician who did much to bring about Canada's national health service.

Tommy Douglas, from Camelon, Falkirk - grandfather of actor Kiefer Sutherland - is one of many distinguished Scots-born role models few, in this country, learn about at school. Hands up if, for example, you can name the two Scots who became prime minister of Canada?

The Sir John A Macdonald School in the Scarborough district is named after one of them. Macdonald was Canada's first prime minister and is fondly remembered as the "father of the nation". I visited the school which bears his name and noticed that its crest includes symbols from the Macdonald clan and colours from its tartan.

"Mac's a great school," Graham, 12, says. "We all know who Sir John A Macdonald was and what he did for Canada."

The St George campus of Toronto University, north of the downtown area, reminds me of the buildings and grounds of Glasgow University. The links between Scottish and Canadian universities are strong and a display in the university's visitors' centre tells how the organisation and principles of Canada's largest university are largely based on the democratic ideals of Scottish universities.

It was also, probably, Scotland that provided Canada with one of its thorniest education problems: separate publicly-funded schools for Roman Catholic and non-denominational pupils. Most Canadian provinces have dealt with the divisive nature of a dual school system by abolishing it. But Ontario, in which Toronto lies, has decided to retain its constitutional right to a dual system.

It is an issue that still rankles with many. Indeed, the United Nations has ruled that Ontario's dual system is unfair. "Schools should bring people of all races and religions together," says history teacher Helen Yu. "Canada is one of the world's most ethnically-diverse countries and it is important that young people are not divided by the public school system."

On my travels, I like to pick up ideas with possible applications for Scotland. An interesting one, on show in a photographic exhibition in Toronto's Central Railway Station, is the School Train which picked pupils up at different rural stations and provided lessons in the on-board classrooms.

Another good idea - a bit like our Scottish Education Awards - is the annual Prime Minister's awards for excellence in teaching. Some teachers don't like the idea of singling out individuals for special praise but the dominant view here is that the awards are a good idea, recognising the work of excellent teachers as well as the teaching profession as a whole.

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