Public education expert Charles Pascal helped usher in Ontario’s full-day kindergarten
Miss Pond would have smacked her hands together with satisfaction. She had been right about Charlie.
Charles Elliott Pascal entered Miss Pond’s third grade class at DeWitt Clinton Elementary School in Chicago with a reputation for “acting out.”
Mr. Pascal later wrote about his third-grade arrival: “I was a bored kid who had regularly been sent home for mischief.” He then encountered his new teacher. “Miss Pond learned from my love of baseball and allowed me to do all of my subject work using the game as my framework.
“For example, I did a paper on how best to choose a bat. You need to choose one that is heavy enough to impact the ball but not so heavy that you can’t move the bat through the “plane” quickly (ie bat speed).
“So, in the third grade, I learned the physics formula for explaining how best to choose the right bat: F(orce) = M(ass) x A(cceleration)” better known as Newton’s second law of motion describing the relationship between an object’s mass and the amount of force needed to accelerate it.
“Miss Pond understood the need to adapt to the individual differences of those she led.” Mr. Pascal retained this lesson through his decades-long career of civil service administration, public policy creation, university teaching and institutional management. He would listen first, then shape policies to fit the needs of those being managed, led, persuaded and taught.
He lived the rest of his life as an affirmation of Miss Pond’s understanding of education. The acting-out, smarty-pants kid morphed into what one of his greatest admirers, Annie Kidder, executive director of the Ontario activist group People for Education, called “an incredible combination of huge heart and total hard-ass.”
He died on April 24 in hospital in Toronto from post-surgical complications. He was 79.
Mr. Pascal, known to his family and friends as Chuck, was a renowned global expert on public education, notably in the field of early childhood development. His seminal 2009 report to then-premier Dalton McGuinty of Ontario – With Our Best Future in Mind, Implementing Early Learning in Ontario – led to the creation of full-day kindergarten in the province. He later persuaded the government to introduce the Ontario Child Benefit for moderate- and low-income families. With former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, he also created the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, as a companion metric (and, in many people’s minds, a superior one) to the Gross Domestic Product, as a yardstick for Canadians’ quality of life.
He became a member of the Order of Canada in 2015.
In 1995, he left government to become the first executive director of the Toronto Star’s Atkinson Foundation which he transformed from a body where nice people wrote checks in a passive, left-proactive way to a strategic grant-making organization welded to the principles of social and economic justice. When he left the foundation to reinvolve himself with government, senior staffer Christine Avery-Nunez, now operations manager of Toronto Metropolitan University’s Future Skills Centre, said his Atkinson team made up buttons reading “What Would Charles Do?” as a watchword from their former boss.
He was profane. Tough. Just about everyone had stories of Mr. Pascal swearing at the elites of politics and academia and hanging up the telephone on them. Mary Rowe, deputy chief of staff to former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne, called him “very American” – which she defined as “tenacious; he wasn’t a polite Canadian.”
He was born in Chicago on April 21, 1944, the son of restaurant designer and owner Samuel Pascal and his wife, Harriet. He attended Chicago public schools and then went to the University of Michigan on a baseball scholarship, graduating with a doctorate in applied psychology. He briefly played as catcher for the Chicago White Sox semi-pro farm team but couldn’t hit a curve ball, said his close friend, former Ontario finance minister Greg Sorbara. That made him not quite good enough to be called up to baseball’s major leagues, perhaps the only time in a rich life of accomplishment when it could be said that he wasn’t quite good enough.
Mr. Pascal, PhD degree in hand, went to McGill University as an assistant professor.
He soon accepted a teaching position at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Shortly after, at age 37 in 1982, he was appointed president of Sir Sandford Fleming College in Peterborough, Ont., where he met Mr. Sorbara, then minister of colleges and universities in the Ontario government of Premier David Peterson.
There was, at that point, a vacancy for chair of Ontario’s Council of Regents, the governing body for the province’s colleges. Mr. Pascal made no secret of wanting the job.
Mr. Sorbara had been impressed by him at their meeting and asked senior officials in his ministry what they thought of him for the post. He was told, “He’s good, but if you appoint him there are going to be two ministers.” Mr. Pascal was appointed, and he and Mr. Sorbara became – and remained – close friends.
“He was on a first-name basis with every Ontario premier from Bill Davis to Kathleen Wynne,” Mr. Sorbara said.
“He developed those relationships because he believed he should be working on a social democratic system that was fairer and reflected a more just society. Whatever else he was doing – when he wasn’t watching baseball and wasn’t playing poker – that’s what he was dedicating his life to.”
Mr. Pascal’s life was a story of ambition, but ambition of a special kind: He had a passionate ambition to build a fairer world. And he believes that a life without cause is a life without effect.
When Bob Rae first campaigned federally for the NDP in the Toronto riding of Broadview in 1978, Mr. Pascal and his wife, Tassie Notar, walked into his committee rooms and introduced themselves. They became immediate friends.
when Mr. Rae left federal for provincial politics in 1982 and subsequently led Ontario’s NDP into government in 1990, he appointed Mr. Pascal first as deputy minister of the Premier’s Council on Health, Wellbeing and Social Justice and then deputy minister of community and social services and then deputy minister of education.
Mr. Pascal left government in 1995 when Mr. Rae was defeated by the provincial Conservatives under Mike Harris.
Mr. Pascal made it apparent to everyone he encountered that he wasn’t a classic bureaucrat. He unveiled himself as an advocate for social justice policies, always rooted in evidence. He made it clear that a society of social justice came hand in hand with a society of economic justice.
“Two things about Charles that were terrific: He was absolutely unafraid to say what he thought and he didn’t just try to manage a problem,” said Mr. Rae, now Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations. “He was trying to lead. Even when he was a deputy minister, he was also an advocate.
“He made a difference in our government because he understood how to get things done. He was very pragmatic. He was a one-man think tank. He had a huge network that he was not afraid to mobilize. He was one of a kind.
“To get things done in any community you need people who know how to inspire and get them done. He was a great life coach, always asking what are you doing and why are you doing that. Very insightful.”
when Mr. Rae found himself at the depths of unpopularity in the early 1990s and being booed whenever he appeared in public, he was at one point asked to give a speech and he told Mr. Pascal, “I can’t.”
Mr. Pascal told him, “You have to.” And then he told Mr. Rae what to do.
The Toronto Blue Jays, unlike the premiere, were at the height of popularity. following Mr. Pascal’s instructions, Mr. Rae got his daughters to make a sign. He walked on stage and held the sign up in front of his very hostile audience. It read: “No speech today. Cheers for the Jays.” His audience cheered.
Mr. Pascal leaves his wife, Anastasia (Tassie) Notar; children, Blaise, Jesse and Tai; brother, Ross Pascal; and five grandchildren.
University of Toronto president Meric Gertler wrote to Ms. Notar that Mr. Pascal, who ended his career as professor emeritus at the university, “was a remarkable scholar, educator, and public servant and the University of Toronto was privileged to count him as a distinguished member of our professoriate.”