The Centre for All Canadians

Thomas “Tom” Henry Bull Symons, CC, OOnt, FRSC, FRGS, teacher, historian, university president, author (born 30 May 1929 in Toronto, ON; died 1 January 2021 in Peterborough, ON). Thomas Symons was the founding president of Trent University (1961–72) and founding vice-president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada(1978–84). He is perhaps best known as chair of the Commission on Canadian Studies (1972–84).

Early Life and Education

Thomas Henry Bull Symons was born in Toronto to Harry Lutz Symons, a First World War flying ace, and Dorothy Bull, the daughter of financier and historian William Perkins Bull. He attended Crescent School and Upper Canada College and studied at the University of Toronto Schools. He graduated with a B.A. from Trinity College, University of Toronto, in 1951. He then studied at Oriel College, Oxford University, graduating with a B.A. in 1953 and an M.A. in 1957.

Founding President of Trent University

Thomas Symons was a tutor of History at Trinity College, the University of Toronto from 1953 to 1955. He was dean of Devonshire House, an all-male residence at the University of Toronto, from 1955 to 1963.

In 1961, a group of residents from Peterborough, Ontario, asked Symons to create a university for the city. He served as president and vice-chancellor of Trent University from 1961 to 1972. The university welcomed its first students in the 1964–65 academic year. Under Symons, Trent University established Canada’s first Indigenous studies program, a Canadian Studies program, and the Journal of Canadian Studies. He was made Vanier Professor in 1979. Symons retired in 1994 but remained involved in university life.

Canadian Studies

Thomas Symons is perhaps best known as a champion of Canadian Studies. He was a founding member of the Journal of Canadian Studies editorial board. Symons was also chair of the Commission on Canadian Studies (1972–84). As the author of Know Ourselves: The Report of the Commission on Canadian Studies(1975), he alerted Canadians and Canadian universities to the importance of teaching and research about Canada, its prospects, problems, and circumstances. Symons also wanted Canadians to participate in the wider scholarly world, both through contributions to Canada and by a willingness to learn about and be open to, the perspectives of others.


Thomas Symons’s life was characterized by service. He was involved in many organizations and chaired numerous committees. Internationally, this included work with the Commonwealth Standing Committee on Student Mobility in the 1980s. Symons was also chair of the International Board of United World Colleges in the 1980s and of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (1971–72). He also chaired the Commission on Commonwealth Universities (1995–96).

Symons advised the provincial government of Ontario as the chair of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (1975–78), helping lead many advancements for the LGBT community. He was also a member of the Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee (1979–82) and chair of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board (1986–96). Symons was the founding vice-president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (1978–84). He was also chair of the Policy Advisory Committee to R.L. Stanfield (1968–75). He was a founding member of Heritage Canada and chair of the Ontario Heritage Trust (2010–17) and served on the National Library Advisory Board and the Canada Council, among others. Symons was also a Member of the Advisory Council of the Historica Foundation (now Historica Canada).


Thomas Symons published articles, reviews, and monographs on a host of topics. His publications include Life Together: A Report on Human Rights in Ontario(1977), with Rosalie Abella et al, and Some Questions of Balance: Human Resources, Higher Education and Canadian Studies(1984), with James E. Page. He also contributed to Ontario Universities: Access, Operations, and Funding (ed D.W. Conklin and T.J. Courchene, 1985).

Honours and Awards

Thomas Symons received many honours and awards, including a fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada and the Royal Canadian Geographic Society. He was given the Order of Ontario and was made a Companion of the Order of Canada (1997). Symons received the Queen’s Silver and Diamond Jubilee Medals and the Canadian Centennial medal. He also received a Knighthood from the Vatican in the Order of Saint Sylvester.


Source: Thomas H.B. Symons | The Canadian Encyclopedia

Article by:  James E Page

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