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WHITE, JAMES FRANCIS, teacher, principal, school inspector, and author; b. 18 Nov. 1857 in Trenton, Upper Canada, son of James White, a shoemaker, and Ellen Maloney; m. 1918 Helen Gertrude Buck in Rochester, N.Y.; they had no children; d. 20 May 1922 in Toronto.

A natural teacher and gifted administrator, James F. White was one of the few lay Roman Catholics of his generation who had a direct and positive influence on separate schools in Ontario. He was as candid about the shortcomings of these schools as he was forthright in recommending solutions. Firm in the belief that Catholics could do much to improve their own schools, he survived the Byzantine politics of Ontario’s education bureaucracy by learning how to deal with departmental officials on the one hand and the Catholic hierarchy on the other.

White was the youngest child of Irish parents; one of his sisters became a nun and another a teacher. He went to a separate elementary school, graduated from high school, and, following some private tutoring, enrolled in the Toronto Normal School for the August–December session of 1875. In addition to winning the Dufferin Medal, he earned a first-class provincial certificate, an achievement that guaranteed him a $100 annual bonus from Archbishop John Joseph Lynch* of Toronto. His early teaching career, which lasted no more than six years, culminated in principalships in Brockville and Lindsay. Outside the classroom, he was a delegate in July 1878 at the convention of separate school teachers in Hamilton, where he was elected recording and corresponding secretary as well as a member of the committees on the convention’s constitution and by-laws and on legislation.

In April 1882 the government of Oliver Mowat* appointed White the first provincial inspector of separate schools, in answer to grievances over Protestant inspectors and the lack of consistent professional inspection. After years of intense lobbying, separate school supporters had finally received their own inspector, and a Catholic one at that. White took up residence in Toronto. His appointment, which required him to report directly to the minister, made him the most influential Catholic within the department of education – he was a member of its central committee – and the most powerful lay voice in the separate school camp. His authority would never diminish, even after he gained an assistant (Cornelius Donovan of Hamilton) in 1884.

For his first report, dated December 1882, White travelled from Windsor to the Quebec boundary and as far north as Mattawa. He inspected 135 schools and, though he had another 58 to examine, he felt sufficiently confident to write a detailed analysis. He highlighted a host of ills: the neglect of English in many German and French schools; poor ventilation, lighting, and heating; weak instruction in reading, grammar, and history; indifferent attendance; lack of parental support; and deficient financial support that left many schools, especially in rural areas, struggling to survive. He reserved his harshest criticism for two areas of concern that were to dog him and separate schools well into the 20th century: the uneven certification of teachers and the failure to use the same approved textbooks in all schools.

White advocated normal-school training and certification for all separate school teachers, including those from religious communities. His stand was unpopular because it was often the low-paid and well-liked religious who allowed many urban schools to stay open. He nonetheless argued that it was wrong for trustees to continue hiring teachers with Quebec certificates, which were hardly equal to third-class Ontario certificates. Moreover, regulations adopted in 1879 recognized only those Quebec certificates acquired before confederation. That holders were generally French-speaking religious made White’s position all the more unpopular, particularly in the archdiocese of Ottawa, where many French schools had come to depend on religious. Although a model school for training French-speaking teachers was established in Plantagenet in 1890 [see Sir George William Ross*], evidently as a result of White’s recommendations, a crisis erupted in Ottawa in 1892. On the invitation of the French section of the city’s separate school board, White wrote a confidential report (later leaked to the press) on the state of its French schools. A scathing indictment of the management and teaching methods of these schools, many run by the Montreal-based Brothers of the Christian Schools, the report was incorporated in the 1895 report of a provincial commission on Ottawa’s separate schools. The commissioners praised the work of the teaching sisters but were extremely critical of the Christian Brothers and demanded that they earn Ontario certification. White not only agreed, in his inspector’s report of 1895, but he also threatened to recommend the suspension of grants to schools run by the Christian Brothers, who left Ottawa that year and would not return until 1902.

For many years White and other separate school inspectors pleaded unsuccessfully with the Catholic bishops to endorse normal-school training and examination of the religious. White remained keenly interested in the issue following his retirement as an inspector in 1902 and even after the matter was taken out of the inspectors’ hands in 1904, when J. D. Grattan, a Catholic teacher and ratepayer, sued the Ottawa board over its decision to hire the Christian Brothers for a school to be built in Notre-Dame parish. Grattan claimed that, since they did not possess Ontario certificates, they were not qualified to teach. The agreement of the High Court of Justice was upheld in 1906 on appeal and, upon reference, by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council [see Charles Hugh Gauthier]. When the government of James Pliny Whitney* was drafting legislation in 1907 on qualification, White privately intervened with the premier. In letters dated 13 and 23 March he suggested a process whereby the religious could obtain certificates with minimal embarrassment and time. His ideas were incorporated.

On the subject of textbooks, White had been no less adamant that all separate schools follow departmental regulations. An abuse of a privilege that allowed boards to choose unauthorized works had led to a confusing variety of texts. From the start White urged an end to such usage. In his report on Ottawa’s French schools in 1892, he was disdainful of the Christian Brothers’ choice of the De La Salle series of English readers and demanded their removal. When inspecting school children, he used the common-school books instead of those chosen by the bishops, a practice that brought him into conflict with Lynch. The archbishop took White’s dislike of the Sadlier’s series and the readers favoured by the Christian Brothers as a scandalous insult to episcopal authority, but White was not intimidated. He enjoyed a more constructive relationship with Lynch’s successor, John Walsh*, who found no offence in White’s opinion in 1891 that “while all are agreed that the reading books for Separate Schools should be Catholic in tone it is no less essential that they be well adapted to teaching purposes.” Walsh accepted White’s changes in 1895 to the Sadlier’s readers and the adoption of the fourth common-school reader for high-school entrance examinations. As a sign of their friendship, the inspector had written “Separate school law and the separate schools of the archdiocese” for Jubilee volume, 1842–1892: the archdiocese of Toronto and Archbishop Walsh (Toronto, 1892).

By 1902, when he resigned, White had performed great service to Catholic education in Ontario by forcing public consideration of the contentious problems of teacher certification and textbooks. However, for all his heroic efforts to remind the province of the deplorable state of public financing of separate schools, he was unable to persuade the government to provide more equitable funding. In this failure he did not stand alone – joining him was a long line of bishops, priests, prominent laymen, teachers, and trustees.

On 11 Dec. 1902 White succeeded John Alexander McCabe as principal of the Ottawa Normal School. In addition to managing this large school, he taught the history of education, school management, and English. His workload in 1909 forced him to decline both the invitation of Copp Clark Company to revise the Canadian Catholic readers and the request of Archbishop Fergus Patrick McEvay* of Toronto to compile a Canadian history. In 1913, however, he found time to be secretary of a lay Catholic committee formed to give the Ontario bishops recommendations for the improvement of Catholic secondary schools and colleges. Four years later he remodelled the entire normal school building. White remained principal until his death in 1922 following prostate surgery. He had been ill and had lived in Toronto for the final year of his life, and was buried there in Mount Hope Cemetery.

A chancellor of the Knights of Columbus, White left bequests to many Catholic organizations and charities. In 1905 he was awarded an honorary lld by the University of Ottawa. He served as president of the literary committee of the Quebec Battlefields Association during the tercentenary celebrations of 1908. Education, however, was his true passion. The Toronto Globe wrote that he “was widely known among the teachers of this Province for his accurate scholarship, his devotion to duty, and his great ability as an instructor. He was beloved and admired by all who knew him as a courteous Christian gentleman.”

Michael Power

AO, F 5, MU 3122, White to Whitney, 13, 23 March 1907; RG 22-305, no.6577; RG 22-354, no.10796. Arch. of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, L (Lynch papers), AO20.04, White to Lynch, 21 Dec. 1879; AO30.15, Lynch to White, 30 April 1888; ME (McEvay papers), AE01.92, White to McEvay, 6 Aug. 1909; AE01.93, White to McEvay, 6 Dec. 1909; W (Walsh papers), AB04.25, White to Walsh, 23 Feb. 1895; AD01.11, White to Walsh, 3 Oct. 1891; AD01.17, Walsh to White, 3 Oct. 1895. NA, RG 31, C1, 1871, Trenton, Ont.: 67–68; 1901, Toronto, Ward 4, div.40: 2 (mfm. at AO). Catholic Register (Toronto), 1, 8 June 1922; 9 Jan. 1954. Globe, 24 Aug. 1877; 23–25, 29 July 1878; 17 Aug. 1895; 3 Nov. 1906; 22 May 1922. Ottawa Citizen, 20, 22 May 1922. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1912). Documentary history of education in Upper Canada from the passing of the Constitutional Act of 1791 to the close of Rev. Dr. Ryerson’s administration of the Education Department in 1876, ed. J. G. Hodgins (28v., Toronto, 1894–1910), 19: 9–11. Judicial decisions on denominational schools, ed. F. G. Carter (Toronto, 1962). Ont., Legislature, Sessional papers, 1896, no.1: 6–18; reports of the minister of education, 1882, 1884–85, 1892, 1909, 1921. C. B. Sissons, Church & state in Canadian education: an historical study (Toronto, 1959), 62–63. Toronto Normal School, 1847–1897: jubilee celebration (October 31st, November 1st and 2d, 1897); biographical sketches and names of successful students, 1847 to 1875 (Toronto, 1898). F. A. Walker, Catholic education and politics in Ontario . . . (3v., Toronto, 1955–87; vols.1–2 repr. 1976).

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Cite This Article

Michael Power, “WHITE, JAMES FRANCIS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/white_james_francis_15E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/white_james_francis_15E.html
Author of Article:   Michael Power
Title of Article:   WHITE, JAMES FRANCIS
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2005
Year of revision:   2005
Access Date:   October 1, 2023