A couple of years ago, I led a group of retired Jewish women on a walking tour of the area in and around the western precincts of Lafontaine Park. It was a lovely mid – August day and the leisurely stroll was to end at St. Louis Square.
Once at the picturesque square, I asked my fellow ramblers to consider the rather ultra – modern building housing the ‘Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec’ on St. Denis Street, opposite the square. The edifice was at one time the site of that very same Aberdeen School mentioned in the ‘Montreal Mosaic’ article in Tuesday’s Gazette (“Project breaths new life into the city’s old stories”, Gazette, March 5, 2013, A-3). I then told them about the Aberdeen School Strike about which, somewhat to my surprise, none of them knew.
As coincidence would have it, the uncommon event took place exactly 100 years ago this month.
(below, Aberdeen School in 1900)
In the early years of the twentieth century, Aberdeen School was one of two Montreal Protestant schools with a substantial number of Jewish students, the other being Dufferin School on St. Urbain Street. In the Aberdeen educational facility alone, it is conservatively estimated that there were 500 Jewish pupils in the year 1913. The school, housed in a rather ornate Second Empire-style Victorian structure, was first opened in 1895 and closed its doors in 1957. The Canadian composer and pianist, Violet B. Archer, was one of its more important graduates.
As the story goes, early in the month of March of 1913 at Aberdeen School, a grade six teacher, Miss McKinley, was heard to have uttered in her classroom defamatory remarks about Jews. Taking offense, the primary school children informed the rest of the student body about it at recess time. Then and there, the pupils decided not to return to class, instead staging a strike. The headquarters of that walkout was St. Louis Square where the children impulsively gathered.
Many of the determined scholars came from working–class homes where political affairs were discussed quite openly – usually from a leftist perspective. Despite their very young age, they displayed remarkable organizational acumen. The kids quickly set up picket lines, appointed leaders, and passed resolutions. One of those demanded that all pupils maintain solidarity at the risk of being characterized a ‘scab’.
Apparently, the youngsters would have initially been satisfied with an apology from the teacher concerned but when it never came, they dug in their heels and demanded that Miss McKinley be dismissed from her teaching position.
Presently, the Baron de Hirsch Institute offered itself to the children and the institution’s administration as a kind of mediator in the dispute. The rather beleaguered principal of the school did not want to give in to the students at the risk of being seen establishing a precedent. On the other hand, he said he was willing, in the due course, to have the controversial teacher transferred to another location.
After some early reticence, the plucky pupils finally marched triumphantly back into their classrooms, and back to their studies. The rest is now history.
The Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network (QAHN) is to be commended for their efforts and, specifically, for their “Mapping the Montreal Mosaic” undertaking. We should all be grateful that in the past history-loving individuals took the time to record their impressions of various events in Montreal’s colourful, if not always perfect, chronicle. That was certainly the case with the story of the Aberdeen School Strike where much of the information we have about the happening is anecdotal.
With QAHN’s welcome initiative, Montrealers of all stripes and both languages have yet another opportunity, and another method, to leave behind for future generations their own diverse and vibrant accounts of the times in which we live. City dwellers may contribute, peruse the input of others, or both.
Local historians could hardly ask for more.
(below, the 1925 class of Violet B. Archer)