Centennial College: A History Lesson

When Ontario Education Minister William Davis announced the need for a network of colleges to help the province become more competitive in an increasingly technological and global economy in 1965, the Township of Scarborough took the initiative to become the first community to make a home for this new form of education. Rallied by school trustee Reg Stackhouse, a committee of Scarborough and East York residents found an empty factory at 651 Warden Avenue — the former radar division of Canadian Arsenals Ltd. — and persuaded the federal government to lease it as a temporary campus.

The inaugural documents were signed in May 1966, and Centennial College — named for the coming 100th birthday of Canada — became a reality. It took only four months to turn the plant into the province’s first college campus, but the work wasn’t quite finished. When the doors opened on October 17 to 514 students enrolled in 16 career-oriented programs, professors had to shout over the sounds of jackhammers and drills.

Hugh Innis, Centennial’s first Dean of Faculty, described the chaotic early days this way: “I had to hire 28 faculty members in four days, after interviewing about 200 applicants. Two-by-fours [lumber] were passing over my head when I was interviewing. They literally built the place around us while classes were going on.” A librarian looked up from his desk one day to see a worker with a sledgehammer over his head, aiming at a library wall. He was in the wrong room and, fortunately, was notified in time.

“By and large, the people have been the extraordinary thing about the college,” recalled journalism professor Frank Thayer. “In the beginning the college attracted the kind of faculty members who were not interested in a 40-hour week, and much of their free time was spent discussing Centennial and its direction.” Indeed, it was a unique experience for the teachers who had been recruited out of other schools and from industry to teach the new programs in technology, public relations, journalism, business, welfare services, and early childhood education — the disciplines of the service-based economy that was emerging in the 1960s.


John Haar was appointed the first President of Centennial College. He left in 1970 to become the first President of Grant McEwan College in Edmonton, Alberta.
The government merged the Provincial Institute of Automotive and Allied Trades with Centennial. A large auto service facility was purchased from Volkswagen Canada at 930 Warden Avenue to house the automotive trades, forming the college's second campus.
Douglas E. Light was named Centennial's second President. He had been recruited from Toronto's Humber College, where he had been Vice-President. He had previously worked as a metallurgical engineer, as well as a professor. He left Centennial in 1978 to become President of George Brown College in Toronto.
The new Ashtonbee Campus building opened adjacent to the old VW building, with enough space to train technicians knowledgeable in every form of land, sea and air transportation. It became Canada's largest transportation training centre, with half of Ontario's auto mechanics having studied there.
The Ontario government transferred responsibility for nursing education from the province's hospitals to its colleges. Locally, the Scarborough Regional and the Toronto East General schools of nursing joined Centennial to form the School of Health Sciences, based at Warden Woods Campus.
Centennial's third major campus opened near Highway 401 and Markham Road. Progress Campus would become home to 900 business and 700 engineering technology students in its first year of operation. Controversy quickly followed the opening when the neighbouring Howard Johnson Hotel requested the name of the short street that wound around its property be changed from Progress Court to Howard Johnson Court. Scarborough council endorsed the proposal, but reversed it two weeks later when Centennial students noisily protested the street name change.
Ivan Bev McCauley was named Centennial's third President. A familiar face on campus, he was originally hired as the college's first Director of Continuing Education in 1967, then rose through the ranks to become Vice-President Academic before being tapped for the top leadership position. He retired in 1992.
In keeping with the times, Centennial commissioned a new corporate identity. The boldly coloured crescent logo, created by Toronto designer Ralph Tibbles, depicted an assembly of people and ideas, as well as radiating knowledge. The logo was updated in 1996, providing a more contemporary image – and economical, since printing required only one colour: sage green. The logo was replaced in 2005 with a fresh new look that adopted a more international style.
East York Campus opened in the autumn, fulfilling a long-standing promise to bring community college education to the borough, part of Centennial's official catchment area. The former Ontario Teacher Education College, located near Pape and Mortimer, would serve the schools of Business and Continuing Education for 10 years before closing for renovations.
Six business programs and one engineering technology program offered cooperative education as an option, a distinct advantage that allowed students to spend three out of nine semesters working for an employer performing tasks related to their studies and earning a paycheque. The option proved so successful that it became a mandatory requirement in all three-year business programs, while engineering technology expanded its offerings.
With small businesses creating the lion's share of new employment opportunities, entrepreneurship was finally viewed as a legitimate way of jump-starting the economy. The Ontario government awarded Centennial with a Centre of Entrepreneurship – the only college to receive its own centre without a university partner. Serving students and the local community with small business start-up and survival advice, the centre promptly earned a national award for service excellence. The Centre of Entrepreneurship remains in operation to this day, serving small businesses throughout the GTA.
Phase Two of the Progress Campus opened at a cost of $11.3 million, physically linking the original building with the Douglas E. Light Gymnasium (named after Centennial's second college president) in response to rapid enrolment growth in business and technology programs in the 1980s. The addition featured a state-of-the-art child care centre providing high-quality daycare to 64 infants, toddlers and preschoolers, as well as a learning lab for early childhood education students.
Dr. Catherine Henderson was appointed as Centennial's fourth President and became one of the few women to serve as an Ontario college president at the time. She left the college in 1998 to become the President of the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD University today). John Johnston was named Interim President until a new Centennial leader could be hired.
East York Campus reopened as The Centre for Creative Communications after its makeover as a high-tech digital media campus for advertising, corporate communication, broadcasting, journalism, and book and magazine publishing students. The concept garnered $17 million in corporate support after closing in 1989 in preparation for the extensive renovation and upgrading. The building did not sit idle during the transformation; it served as a ready set for "Degrassi High," the hit television series. The renovated campus gained a vast broad-bandwidth network designed to carry digital content, including computer animation, digital photography and multi-media arts.
Centennial's child care centre at John Diefenbaker Public School in East York moved to its own dedicated building adjacent to the East York Civic Centre on Coxwell Avenue. Much like the daycare at Progress Campus, the purpose-built centre offered child-scaled features and plenty of natural light. The college's original daycare at Warden Woods Campus, which opened in 1972, remained in operation until 2004.
Richard Johnston was named Centennial's fifth President. As the former MPP representing Scarborough West, he was a well-known NDP politician and friend of the college, having served on the Council of Regents. He retired from the college five years later to concentrate on his burgeoning winery in Prince Edward County.
Financed entirely by students, the $8-million Student Centre at Progress Campus opened to accolades. The dramatic 30,000-square-foot structure houses a spacious main events hall, computer lab, offices, meeting rooms and recreation and retail space, relieving overcrowded lounge space at Centennial's main campus. The centre is owned and operated by the Centennial College Student Association Inc. The Student Centre was awarded a Governor General's Medal in Architecture in 2002, selected from a field of 148 national entries.
In response to chronically low vacancy rates, Centennial acquired the Howard Johnson Plaza Hotel Toronto East, across from Progress Campus. The college immediately set out to convert the 190-room facility into a student residence in time for fall classes. Having purchased the property for substantially less than the cost of new construction, Centennial offered its residents numerous amenities at a fair rate. In addition, the Hospitality and Tourism Administration program began hosting conferences on the site, both as a way to create practical learning opportunities for students and as a revenue-generating enterprise.
Partly out of a concern for Ontario's "double cohort" of grade 12 and OAC-level students graduating from high school at the same time, Centennial launched new "applied degree" programs to draw university-minded students into challenging, four-year college programs. Centennial's offerings were unique (no Ontario university offered the specialties) and included Computer and Communications Networking, and Software Systems Design. Centennial had already begun offering a collaborative Nursing degree program in partnership with Ryerson University in response to legislation requiring future RNs to have a four-year Nursing degree.
Ann Buller was named Centennial's sixth President. She came to the college from Nova Scotia Community College, where she had been the Vice-President Academic and Chief Learning Officer. Ann was no stranger to Centennial; she had previously worked at the college from 1989 to 2001, during which time she progressed from Student Liaison Coordinator to Vice-President of Student Services and Advocacy.
Thanks to capital funding by the Ontario government and an ambitious fundraising campaign, Centennial was able to build a new campus on land leased from the University of Toronto at Scarborough (UTSC). The Centennial Science and Technology Centre, designed by celebrated architectural firm Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg, enabled the college to close its "temporary" Warden Woods Campus after 38 years. Located at Morningside Ave. and Ellesmere Rd., Scarborough's newest landmark became home to Centennial's health sciences programs, as well as selected programs in engineering technology. Its close proximity to UTSC allowed the college to offer five collaborative-degree programs with Canada's largest university for the first time.
Building on its reputation as a diverse and inclusive place of learning, Centennial sought to expand its reach beyond Canada's borders by partnering with schools in mainland China, India and elsewhere in an effort to make the Canadian college experience readily accessible to international visa students. Working with governments and education agents abroad, Centennial's reputation grew – and so did its international student enrolment by leaps and bounds between 2006 and 2010.
Centennial formally launched its Signature Learning Experience, a bold statement of distinction designed to set Centennial apart from the many other post-secondary institutions serving the GTA. SLE helps build a foundation for a critical understanding of diversity, equity and social justice issues, and gives students cultural competencies that prepare them for a changing, global environment and workplace.
The Scarborough Centre for Alternative Studies, an adult education centre built and operated by the Toronto District School Board on the grounds of Progress Campus, was sold to Centennial College to help accommodate the college's rapidly expanding student population. Centennial moved quickly over the summer months to adapt the three-storey building for fall classes. A number of classes and labs were modified for use by Information Technology faculty and students.
With the opening of its new Library and Academic Facility at Progress Campus, Centennial took a big step towards reducing its carbon footprint. In addition to providing a much-needed new library to facilitate students researching and studying, the LEED Gold-certified building is an on-site teaching tool for the School of Engineering Technology and Applied Science. The four-storey Living Wall biofilter purifies and humidifies indoor air to create a healthier and more comfortable indoor environment, as well as minimize heating and cooling costs. The new addition also provided 22 classrooms, a large lecture theatre, an art gallery and more communal space for the benefit of students.
Opening in time to mark the 45th anniversary of Centennial, the Athletic and Wellness Centre at Progress Campus built on the experience and expertise the Centennial College Student Association Inc. gained after operating its award-winning Student Centre on campus. Approved by a student referendum, the CCSAI embarked on a $22-million expansion and renovation of the DEL Gym, transforming it into a multipurpose recreation facility and wellness centre that enhances the student experience and invites alumni and members of the public to become reacquainted with Ontario's first college.
In response to a growing demand for commuter-friendly post-secondary education in the Durham Region east of Toronto, Centennial College opened a satellite teaching location jointly with Durham College in the community of Pickering. With convenient access to the Pickering Town Centre, Hwy. 401 and GO Train station, the Pickering Learning Site offers selected graduate certificate programs of interest to local residents.
The sprawling Ashtonbee Campus received a thorough makeover with the addition of a glass-enclosed "gateway" building on Ashtonbee Road, as well as an expanded gymnasium. The additions were welcome updates to Centennial's oldest campus, which dates back to 1972. The new trestle-inspired building centralizes registration and other student services on the ground floor, and accommodates a contemporary library on the second level. The original campus gym gained a naturally lit second floor to make room for weights training, exercise studios and related amenities. The Globe and Mail called the new addition one of Toronto's best new examples of "city building."
Centennial is leading the Ontario college system by marking its 50th anniversary first, appropriately enough, and by unveiling its colourful commemorative logo. Centennial is celebrating its history with a series of special events, culminating in a gala fundraising event in the fall.

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