A well-meaning guidance counsellor at Paris District High School told Linda Schuyler she could look forward to a great future as a teacher or a nurse.
“Firefighter, lawyer, television producer — those weren’t even on the radar screen” she told an audience of students, faculty and members of the public on the Brantford campus of Wilfrid Laurier University.
She said little to her guidance counsellor, but vowed to break the 1960s stereotypes for bright, ambitious young women.
A few months later, Schuyler (Linda Bawcutt at the time) was off to Waterloo University on a mathematics scholarship. She didn’t particularly like math and didn’t like the course her life was taking. “It was an unhappy time.” At Christmas, she quit. Early the next year, she strapped a knapsack on her back and set out for a round-the-world tour. She didn’t get very far. On her first stop — England, the country of her birth — she and 2 friends were in a horrific car crash. Both young men were killed. She was injured badly and sent back home.
By the time she recovered, it was too late to get into university. She applied to teacher’s college and married her high school boyfriend, Brian Schuyler. Her life seemed to unfolding exactly as the guidance counsellor had predicted.
After a brief teaching stint in London, Ontario, Schuyler moved on to Earl Grey Junior High in Toronto. It was an inner-city school with kids from South East Asia, Mexico, Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe. It stretched her understanding of diversity. “In Paris, the idea of diversity, at the time, was a white Catholic girl dating a white Protestant boy,” she recalled. “Here I was in a classroom with kids of all different types of background and ethnicities.”
Schuyler drew on her early experiences as a newcomer to Paris Central Elementary School. “I remembered back to feeling like an outsider in Grade 3,” recounted. Her classmates called her a slimy limey. They mocked her accent. “What were these kids (Earl Grey students) going through, living in the old world at home and at the new world at school?” She asked them and they told her poignant, funny, heartbreaking stories.
Hoping to one day tell their stories, she started taking filmmaking and broadcasting courses at night. In the summers, she experimented with an 8-millimetre camera, making short films about young people coping with suddenly-active hormones, alcohol, drugs, racism, pregnancy, body image struggles, abortion and suicidal urges. She needed money to go further. By lucky circumstance, the Prime Minister of the day, Pierre Trudeau, had just announced multiculturalism as official government policy. Ottawa offered small grants to groups providing recognition to contributions of diverse ethnic groups. Schuyler applied and got one.
She used it to produce her first professional film. It was picked up by every school board in the country. “I was getting a name for myself. Who wouldn’t want to make more?” That was the genesis of The Kids of Degrassi Street, followed by Degrassi Junior High, Degrassi High and Degrassi: The Next Generation. Schuyler produced more than 500 episodes, showing kids they were not alone and stimulating discussion of once-taboo subjects. She won an armload of Emmys and Canadian Screen Awards, as well as an honorary doctorate from Laurier Brantford.
In 1995, Schulyer married her co-producer Stephen Stohn. They live in Northumberland County on the north shore of Lake Ontario. She remains close to her parents, Jack and Joyce Bawcutt of Paris and remembers her early days, playing in the Mary Maxim factory where her father worked.
In 2015 Schulyer and Stohn donated $1 million to help purchase and restore Paris Old Town Hall, now known as the Bawcutt Centre.