As a boy, Charles Pascal was a class terror, routinely sent home for causing trouble – until a teacher changed his life.
He later became a renowned educator, undersecretary of state, and tireless champion of public education, whose greatest achievement in the province was as the architect of Ontario’s full-day kindergarten program.
Pascal died in Toronto on April 24 after suffering complications from surgery. He is 79 years old.
Pascal’s legacy is his work as special adviser on early learning to then prime minister Dalton McGuinty and his groundbreaking 2009 report “With Our Best Future Thoughts.” This has led to the transformation of kindergarten from being taught by a single teacher for half a day, or every day, to a full day of play-based learning that includes early childhood educators, which is a unique model of staffing. She also envisions schools as learning centers, complete with pre- and after-school care where children get healthy snacks, and parents can access lots of resources.
Adopting the Pascal plan — introduced in 2010 and fully implemented in 2015 — made Ontario the first province with full day programming for four and five year olds. It’s a game changer for teachers, students, and stressed-out parents who no longer have to think about parenting.
Pascal – or Chuck as he is called by family and friends – is not only passionate about education.
“He’s passionate about almost everything – it’s just part of his DNA,” his wife Tassie Notar told the Star, adding he even gets mad when he eats out at restaurants. “He just likes to make a difference. He told me that if he had a tombstone he would say, ‘I tried.’”
Pascal was a professor, bureaucrat, executive director of the Atkinson Charitable Foundation, won many awards, received several honorary degrees and was a member of the Order of Canada. He also writes opinion columns for Star, never shy away from calling out policy makers, regardless of their political line.
“He had an enduring passion for good social policies that answered needs, particularly in the areas of education and social justice,” his best friend and former Liberal finance minister Greg Sorbara told the Star. “He fought for those things his whole life.”
This is a key message in Pascal’s book, “Leading the Inside Out: Lessons Learned the Hard from Education, Government and… Baseball,” in which he says that public education is the key to a safer, healthier, future. fairer and more prosperous. for the many, not just the elite few.
“What he brought with him was a burning desire to see this world a better place because of the way we educate young people,” recalls journalist Steve Paikin, an old friend. “A large part of his raison d’être is about ensuring that young people, wherever they come from… get off to a great start in life.”
Pascal believed that if you get the right education, everything else will happen: There will be fewer people in social assistance, in prisons, in hospitals; and more people get good jobs, pay taxes, live healthier lives.
“It really ran into his professional life: If we can get our education right, nothing can stop us,” recalls Paikin, host of TVO’s current show “The Agenda with Steve Paikin.”
But it is the role in Pascal’s personal life – as father to Blaise, Jesse and Tai – that he is most proud of, he told the Star in a 2009 interview.
“My bio is nothing but show business if you compare it to the most important role I played in education, parenthood,” Pascal said, adding that he is most proud of what never appears on a resume: “activist parents” and maybe even ” coercive parents.”
He can be pushy with friends too. Paikin once went on air, after interviewing a politician, to find a series of scathing voicemails from Pascal, reprimanding him for not asking tougher questions.
“There were days when the man had no filter between what he thought and what he said,” recalls Paikin with a chuckle. “But we always knew it was coming from a good place.”
Annie Kidder, executive director of the advocacy group People for Education, said Pascal was a mentor to her for the last 25 years, adding, “He was a stubborn person. Charles never mince words. They met when he was part of an ad-hoc group of concerned parents and he headed the Atkinson Charitable Foundation, which became the organization’s initial, and vital, funder.
“He’s always holding you accountable when it comes to what you’re trying to do,” she tells the Star. “He pushed hard. Very critical when he needs it. He always put his money where his mouth was… and believed in the cause.
Pascal was born in 1944 in Chicago, the second of three children. Early in school, he was known as a troublemaker, often sent home for acting out. But his 3rd grade teacher let him write all of his assignments around a baseball theme because he knew he loved the sport. In her book, she credits him with shaping and saving her life, and as an adult sends her letters of thanks. Her response was, “Of course I remember you, Charlie. You terrorized your second grade teacher, and it’s my job to set you straight. Not a big problem!”
Through baseball he became aware of social inequality from an early age. Raised on the north side of Chicago – a wealthier and mostly white part of town – his team would play against teams from the south side, which consisted mostly of black kids who lacked the new uniforms and kit. “As a young athlete, I really saw a world that I didn’t have/had explicitly,” he recalled in a 2003 Star interview.
He attended the University of Michigan on a baseball scholarship and graduated with a PhD in psychology in 1969, then moved with his first wife to Montreal to teach at McGill University. Once there, the new father convinced the school to create a day-care center for the faculty members’ children—a Canadian university’s first.
In 1977, Pascal moved to teach at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). And in 1982, he became president of Sir Sandford Fleming College in Peterborough and married Notar in a ceremony held on campus. While becoming president, he met Sorbara, then minister of colleges and universities, and the pair hit it off, with Sorbara recommending Pascal’s appointment in 1987 as chairman of the Ontario Board of Regents, the governing body for provincial colleges.
The job brought him back to Toronto, closer to average, where he appeared in the Blue Jays box press as a stringer for the American news agency UPI. For someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport, he was relishing the opportunity. He also coached the University of Toronto’s varsity baseball team for a dozen years.
During Bob Rae’s government, in 1991, Pascal was appointed deputy minister of the Prime Minister’s Council for Health, Welfare and Social Justice and later served as undersecretary of state for social services and education. He wasn’t a classic bureaucrat – he was a big advocate of social justice policies, always rooted in evidence.
Jane Bertrand, program director at the Margaret and Wallace McCain Family Foundation, worked closely with Pascal when he was undersecretary and remembers him as provocative, challenging, inspiring and articulate.
“He knows how to influence progressive public policy and he doesn’t get lost in the weeds. … He will stick with lofty messages,” said Bertrand, who also worked with him as part of the team that delivered the full day kindergarten.
In 1996, he became the first full-time executive director of the Atkinson Charitable Foundation, which was founded by former Star publisher Joseph Atkinson and is committed to social and economic justice. He chaired the foundation for 15 years, during which time it provided OISE with an endowment to establish the Atkinson Center for Society and Child Development, and was key in establishing the benefits of the Ontario Child Tax, Canada Welfare Index, and early learning policies.
The origins of a full-day kindergarten started with a pilot project led by the foundation, the center, the City of Toronto and the Toronto District School Board. It explores a full day of programming, from 7am to 6pm, covering a full range of services for kids and families.
That caught the attention of various prime ministers, including McGuinty, who in 2007 appointed Pascal as special adviser to early learning. Pascal and Kerry McCuaig, colleagues in early childhood policy at the Atkinson Center, traveled throughout the province, consulting with parents and educators. He said parents described kindergarten as their “hell year” due to the difficulty finding child care for only half the day, or every day, and stressed teachers crying over having to constantly switch between two groups of children.
Pascal was so determined to make key stakeholders understand what a full day of kindergarten was like that he would goof off during meetings with senior board staff, superintendents, and others.
“He would act like a four year old, and then he would ask people to interact with him,” recalls McCuaig with a chuckle. “Men would freeze in their seats, like ‘Please don’t ask me,’ and women were more likely to engage. … This is not an attempt to be funny, though. It’s been quite an effort to talk to these people who have never really concerned themselves, really, with the learning and rearing of very young children.”
Pascal’s team’s work culminated in a 2009 report, transforming kindergartens in Ontario and providing models that have already been adopted in other provinces. And research has shown that kids in full day kindergarten are much better prepared for Grade 1, in terms of communication and socialization and general knowledge.
Pascal later returned to OISE to teach and continues to advise organizations and governments. In his honor, OISE has announced the Charles Pascal Memorial Scholarship.
OISE (252 Bloor Street W.) will host a public celebration of Pascal’s life on May 2, between 4pm-6pm in the library. Participants are asked to register in advance.
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