Liberal arts education for all

Drummond Wren:

Human rights advocate,

innovator in Liberal Arts education for all,



By Wendy Terry

originally published March/April 2011


          In St. James Cemetery, Common Burial Plot C113, lie the ashes of Drummond Wren. How sad that this anonymous grave site is the last resting place of the man who changed Canada’s human rights history and transformed the lives of adults who took WEA classes in the 1930's and 1940’s.

          Unfairly persecuted by anti-communist fanatics of the time, his life has been unsung. This article will sing his song.

          Drummond Wren was the General Secretary of The Workers’ Educational Association of Canada (WEA) from 1929 to 1951. The WEA is a charitable organization that publishes this paper, Learning Curves, and is a partner in University in the Community,

         The WEA was founded in 1918 in Canada based on the British WEA model, which offered a university education to working people. Drummond Wren first joined the WEA to take classes himself after returning from the First World War (he was one of those young men who lied about his age in order to serve in the armed forces.) 

Human rights advocate 

          If you google Drummond Wren, the legal case he was involved in comes up—not the man, Drummond Wren. This case, which changed the human rights of  “Jews and others of objectionable nationality” in Canada, is described in a biography of Bora Laskin by Philip Girard of Dalhousie University. (Bora Laskin was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada from 1973 to 1984.) Laskin and Wren became friends and colleagues when Laskin taught for the WEA.

          The case was about a restrictive covenant on a piece of land that the WEA had purchased, prohibiting it from being ‘sold to Jews or persons of objectionable nationality.’ Wren and Laskin collaborated on the case, now known as Drummond Wren, to have the covenant declared void, as it was on October 31, 1945 by Justice Keiller McKay. Given our case law legal system, all such covenants then became void.

          It was an important and courageous achievement given the anti-Semitism of the time.

          Just as Drummond Wren, the case, is known as a precedent-setting human rights case, we hope that Drummond Wren, the man, will come to be known as one of Canada’s historic human rights advocates.

Adult Education Innovator

          The innovative role of adult education seen in the WEA classes taught by Bora Laskin and others was recently chronicled by Jeff Taylor of Athabasca University in his book Union Learning.

          Taylor focuses on the role the WEA played in the development of labour education. But another reading of WEA archives and the history of adult education suggests that many WEA students were primarily seeking a Liberal Arts education at a university level—one that they would not normally be able to afford. Many of the WEA students were not union members.

          Taylor notes that in the 1920’s, the WEA was based in Toronto, working in co-operation with university-based educators and trade union leaders to offer university level evening classes. By the mid 1940’s, the WEA, a fledging national organization, offered evening classes, study groups, weekend institutes, summer schools, and visual education across Canada. Managing this growth was a challenge and as Taylor noted it was often shaky and haphazard given sporadic funding and a dependence on volunteers.

           Nevertheless, due to Wren’s determination and creativity, the WEA developed many new approaches to adult education and provided a liberal education to those who would not normally get one.

It has been said that the WEA believed in teaching students how to think not what to think, in other words, critical thinking skills. Every lecture was followed by a discussion.

          In addition to the development of a national network of evening classes in urban centres, Wren developed techniques to extend the reach of Liberal Arts learning to the unemployed, those in rural areas, and war workers.

          Wren became the WEA General Secretary in 1929, just as The Depression was starting.

          Beginning in 1931, the WEA ran free lectures for the unemployed in co-operation with the Unemployment Educational Association. Historian J.A. Blyth noted that while the lecturer made academic theory relevant to the everyday lives of unemployed students, the lecturer received a liberal education from the students.

          The WEA summer school, which opened in 1932, offered a “holiday with a purpose,” with guest lecturers like Sir Fredrick Banting and Harold Innis.  

           Bringing Liberal Arts learning to people geographically isolated was one of Wren’s innovative achievements and much needed in a country Canada's size. Today, distance education uses computers as the medium; for the WEA it was the radio.

           In 1936 Wren founded the Agricola Study Club. The WEA prepared and distributed written lectures and discussion guides, which students used to form their own study groups. By the early 1940’s,  the Study Club had over 10,000 members in 29 towns across Canada.

          In 1937, the CBC gave the WEA a 30 minute program on Saturday evenings which was called The WEA Farm Forum, broadcast from Winnipeg, Toronto and Halifax. Roger Schwass, in his doctoral thesis, noted that the WEA Farm Forum established the discussion formats used later in the Canadian Association for Adult Education’s National Farm Radio Forum.

           In 1940, Wren used film strips to start off a student-organized discussion group. Again, workers who were isolated used this WEA film library on topics such as Canadian Social History as a basis for a discussion group.

           During the war years, programs were developed to bring education to Canada’s war workers. The National Labour Forum was started in 1942. Every week, up to 100,000 listeners tuned into programs where labour leaders, professors, government officials and everyday workers discussed economic issues. The WEA booklet, Labour Forum Facts, was used by listener groups to discuss the evening’s topic.

           In 1942, the WEA Summer School found a permanent home in Port Hope. In the first year, 81 labour leaders met with the Director of National Selective Service at Port Hope. This meeting was ‏considered the beginning of a spirit of co-operation between labour and government during the war years.

          Today in Port Hope, you can visit the building that housed the summer school, now Molson's Mill on the Ganarasa River.

          Recently, I ran into Alice Wiebs, a former student of the WEA Summer School, who remembered Wren as a fascinating teacher. She glowed as she told me about her classes -- as do all students do who have been awakened by a charismatic teacher and an engaging course.

          While Wren was developing these educational innovations with a few grants from government, he was also establishing WEA branches in every major Canadian city.


          Despite Wren’s success for over two decades in creating, developing and promoting WEA courses, he felt forced to resign in March 1951. He was persecuted in a perfect storm of anti-communist hysteria that characterized the post war years.

          Taylor notes, “The WEA …became identified and denounced as communist because of the company it sometimes kept.”

          Moreover, with the subsequent decline of the WEA, Canada lost the possibility of a Liberal Arts education for all in Canada. In other countries where the WEA survived and thrived, adults from disadvantaged backgrounds can today walk into their local community-run learning centre and take courses that help them understand themselves and their world. That this option is not part of Canada’s educational culture is a loss not only to individuals but to Canadian society.

         Henry Milner, a Canadian political scientist, in his book, Civic Literacy: How Informed Citizens Make Democracy Work, determined that adult and civic education enabled welfare states to survive and adapt. His role model was Sweden, where today the ABF (the Worker’s Educational Association) runs 100,000 study circles a year for a million participants who are least likely to participate in adult education.

          Milner notes that “there is good reason to believe that, when it comes to civic literacy the content of what is learned as an adult is more important than that learned in school in one’s youth.”

          With Wren’s resignation, Canada lost the kind of education that Liberal Arts brings to civil society, and we are the poorer for its absence.

          WEA learning was Wren’s passion. But he resigned in 1951 hhoping that by sacrificing himself, he could save the WEA from being unfairly maligned. In his resignation speech, in page after page, he listed the summer schools, the radio programs, the study groups, the branches all across Canada, and the support of the students. The emotion crackles off the page; his heart was breaking.

Wren's legacy

          Drummond Wren made Canada a more just place, helped hundreds of thousands of adults, who would never have had a chance to do so otherwise, get a university Liberal Arts education, and suffered great injustice with grace. We hope in future years his contributions will be acknowledged and lauded.

Post Script

          After his resignation, Wren worked at as a labour arbitrator. WEA loyalists kept the WEA alive.

          I became the director in 1984. Today, the WEA is a partner in University in the Community with the University of Toronto, a program that brings Liberal Arts learning to those who otherwise could not afford such learning—about 90 students a year. We hope this time, Liberal Arts learning for all takes hold in Canada, for if we are to become global citizens, we all must think, question, reflect and grow. 


Toronto, Canada