Meeting Dr.Bette Stephenson (A Memoir).

While writing the two previous Monologues about the ARS Private School in Toronto, I remembered a meeting we had with Dr. Bette Stephenson in the early eighties. At the time she was the Minister of Education in Premier Bill Davis’ Cabinet.

Armenian Community Center (ACC) had a very cordial relationship with Premier Davis and also with a few of his cabinet members, but Dr. Bette Stephenson was not one of them. I think the meeting was facilitated by another cabinet member, Mr. Tom Wells.

Apart from the ARS Armenian School representatives of Antranig Artinian and yours truly, the meeting was also attended by two representatives from Jewish Community School, and two representatives from the Greek Community School.

Prior to the meeting, we, six of us, had discussions about how to get some funding from the Ministry of Education. We had agreed to ask about two thousand dollars per student. At the time that was less than one-third of the average cost of each student in the public school system.

We also agreed our spoke person will be David, a young school principal of a Jewish school who I think was the only one among six of us who was Canada born and educated. He was well-spoken, opinionated, and passionate about getting our schools subsidized by the Ministry of Education. He was also passionate about parents having a choice in how to educate their children.

Our selling point was that we do not want any funding for the language and culture that we were teaching in our schools. We were happy to implement the mandatory curriculum, but Ministry should pay a small portion of the money it was saving by not absorbing the full cost of the education of our students.

Antranig was concerned about David’ strong personal opinions and said, Յուսամ այս տղան տաք ապուրին մէջ պաղ ջուր չը թափէ. (Loosely translated, I hope David won’t pour cold water in a hot soup). We made it clear to David that, we had to stick to our intended purpose of the meeting, and not be opinionated and confrontational.

None of us knew, or met, Dr. Stephenson prior to the meeting. (I and Antranig had “met” Dr. Stephenson only once at a campaign fundraising banquet for Mr. Tom Wells where she was one of the head table guests).

The meeting was conducted in a wood-paneled room with a matching rectangular table. We sat facing each other, six of us on one side, and the Minister and her young recording secretary on the other side.

The young principal presented our case rather well, even better than we expected. But the answer from the Minister was very assertive and in no uncertain terms, she said as long as she was the Minister of Education there will be no public funding for private or community schools. She said, if we presented proposals for extracurricular activities in public schools for teaching the ethnic language and culture, she was favorably inclined to consider them.

We made the counterargument that, since at the time there were hardly enough students in any of the public schools to make such a well-intended proposal feasible, asked why not fund similar extracurricular activities in our schools?. Her answer was even more assertive and she repeated, no funding for private or community schools, period. She left no room for compromise.

Needless to say compromise was part of Canadian politics and we had benefited from it during our relations with Canadian politicians. I remember at least two occasions, both related to the construction of the new ACC at 45 Hallcrown Place.

The first one was with John Williams, a fatherly figure and one of the most humble, kind, and caring politicians we ever met. At the time he was the Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) for Oriole? riding in Toronto.

Once while we were having one of our “regular” meetings in his office to further explore the possibility of how to get funding for the construction of the new ACC, he said he looked into many possibilities and it seems that there is money available for programs but not for capital expenditure.

When we said first we have to have a building to be able to implement the programs, suddenly he enthusiastically said “that is true” and added, “there is a first for everything, maybe this could be one of them”.

Mr. Williams worked very hard and opened many doors for us including that of Premier Bill Davis’ which led to the generous funding of ACC construction. (It was probably a first for such funding as well). Mr. Williams was a doer.

The second one was with Premier Bill Davis himself, and it was during the construction of the ACC. At the time the government had adopted an economic austerity plan and frozen the capital expenditure funding. The construction of the ACC was in full swing and without the government’s continued funding it would have come to a standstill.

We managed to arrange a meeting with Premier Davis who received us in his office. Premier Davis was a very cordial, attentive, and altruistic person. He shared our concerns and advised us to be patient and added “After every freeze, there is a thaw”.  True to his word, soon there was a “hot spell” and the freeze did thaw.

Zohrab Bebo Sarkissian


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