Up the Gatineau! Articles
The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 44.
How Philemon Wright High School Teachers and Students Met the Challenge of 1968
After the end of World War II, Quebec (and the rest of Canada) underwent a period of rapid population growth. The increase in the birth rate, known as the Baby Boom, led to a surge in the number of children. Between 1945 and 1962, there was a dramatic increase in the number of students enrolled in Quebec schools: from 660,000 to 1,250,000. The Quebec educational system came under heavy criticism for outdated facilities and a lack of investment.
When Jean Lesage and the Liberal Party came into power in Quebec in 1960, they made education a priority. A Royal Commission of Inquiry on Education in the Province of Quebec was formed, headed by Msgr. Alphonse-Marie Parent. The resulting report contained many sweeping recommendations, including the establishment of comprehensive (polyvalent) high schools that would provide vocational as well as general educational programs.
In 1967, the concept of CEGEPs (Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel) was introduced, offering two-year programs leading to university. All of these changes set the stage for the planning and construction of two new regional English high schools in Western Quebec: one to be located in the Hull-Aylmer area, and a second one for Shawville. Other consolidated English schools were opened in communities such as Lachute, Ormstown, Lennoxville and Cowansville, and French “polyvalent” schools were opened across the province.
Athletic facilities also received a much-needed update across the province. For example, none of the four small high schools that were replaced in Western Quebec had had a gymnasium large enough to have an official-size basketball court. Regional track meets had to be held in Ottawa, because there was no 400-metre track in the entire Outaouais. Montreal was eight years away from hosting the 1976 summer Olympics, and Quebec had come to the realization that its athletic facilities were behind the rest of Canada’s.
In 1965 an order-in-council created the Protestant Regional School Board of Ottawa Valley [now the Western Quebec School Board]. In May 1967 this board forwarded the final plans for the Hull-Aylmer school to the Quebec government for approval. The school design had been awarded to the architectural firm of McLean and MacPhadyen.
The new school would draw students in grades 7 to 12 from a large area, serving the present-day City of Gatineau and surrounding region from Luskville in the west, to Gracefield in the north, and as far east as Thurso. It would be called Philemon Wright Regional High School, after the founder of Hull.
The Board decided to build in Hull (now part of the City of Gatineau), on land that was originally part of the James Hammond and Murtagh farms. Ed. Brunet & Sons was awarded the contract on November 1, 1967, for a school that was to open the following school year. Ten short months to build a school may have been unrealistic to begin with, and this already-tight timeline was compounded by the unexpected site condition of Leda clay. Not surprisingly, the school was not ready for the start of the 1968 school year. Although the school did open its doors in late September 1968, the official opening didn’t occur until February 1969, and therein lie some interesting tales.
On the 50th anniversary of the Philemon Wright Regional High School, one of its alumni looks back at the organized chaos of that first school year.
If a new high school were to be built today, during its construction the grounds and building would be designated as such, and only those with steel-toed boots, safety glasses and a hard hat would gain entry. But back in 1968, staff and students had to show up for classes at the still-under-construction Philemon Wright Regional High School, with minimal safety precautions in place.
These first students had enjoyed an extended summer holiday of several weeks, because their new building was “not quite” finished. Most were eager to see their old school friends and explore their new school when classes did finally commence in late September. Although 50 years may have dulled the memory of many of us who were there on Day One, the following passage quickly brings to mind those early days. It was Vice Principal Bill McQuarrie’s message, printed in the front of the first edition of Falcon, Philemon Wright’s school yearbook, describing an almost unbelievable situation:
An uncompleted school building was not the only concern for the school board. Daniel Johnson Boulevard, the street that now connects the school to Mont Bleu Boulevard, had not yet been built; school buses and cars could not get to the new school. The area in front of Philemon Wright was an empty field. Highway 5, which now goes as far north as Wakefield, was in 1968 a dead end in the field east of Philemon Wright. The highway was open to traffic only as far north as St. Joseph Boulevard. An arrangement was made with the Quebec Ministry of Transport to allow school buses to travel north on the unopened section of the four-lane highway, drop off students, and then make a U-turn and exit onto Mont Bleu. Students made the short walk through the bush and field to the school. This same unopened section of Highway 5 also became the staff parking lot. The arrangement lasted until mid- October, when the City of Hull finally completed Daniel Johnson Boulevard, permitting school buses and teachers to access the school grounds.
Cam Metcalfe, then a grade 10 student from Aylmer, remembers the routine: “My most vivid memory of the first days at Philemon Wright is of the long line of school buses parked down the middle of Highway 5 …. We trekked over to the school through the bushes—not difficult, but rather informal.”
The students and most of the teachers had one thing in common on Day One: they were unfamiliar with the layout of the new school. The first few weeks posed a huge learning curve for everyone, especially since the school building was more than twice the size of any of the schools it had replaced.
In the beginning, teachers and students occupied the second floor during the final construction work on the first floor. However, to imply that even that floor was student-ready was a bit of an exaggeration. Hallways were still hazardous construction zones, with wires hanging from open ceilings; sawhorses provided the only protection from open stairwells. In addition to the constant noise from the work crews and their equipment, clouds of dust rose during the polishing of the terrazzo floors on the level below. Outside, the schoolyard consisted of waiting piles of earth, gravel, equipment and materials. Fortunately, the first days of school were warm and sunny, but when it eventually rained, the yard became a sea of mud.
Perhaps the nearest student to the new school was Ken Hammond. The easternmost land for the school had come from his parents’ dairy farm. The Hammond house and farm buildings were situated just west of what is now the St. Joseph Boulevard and Rue Jean-Proulx traffic circle. Ken, now a large-animal veterinarian in Kingston, watched the construction on the former back section of his family farm. When school started, he remembers walking through the fields and across the railway track to class. His memories are of mud and stifling hot classrooms, with students and workers everywhere. Noise from the construction made it hard to concentrate. With no recreation facilities or cafeteria, there was not much for students to do between classes, and he often observed students going for walks in the bush behind the Hammond farm—often in couples!
Philemon Wright was the only English high school in the Outaouais to offer grade 12, so it attracted a number of students from other schools and boards in the region. Laird Graham of Bristol and three of his friends from Quyon shared a basement apartment in Hull near Gamelin Boulevard to attend Philemon Wright. Laird recalled, “For someone coming from a small high school [Shawville], the sheer size of the building and the number of students was initially overwhelming, and during the first week I used to get lost trying to find my classroom. I also remember walking under unfinished hallway ceilings with wiring hanging down and seeing tradesmen all over the place. It was truly total chaos the first few days, and the construction lasted for months.”
Jackie Bullis and his twin sister Judy may have had the longest bus ride of any of the students. They lived on a farm in Northfield on the east side of the Gatineau River near Gracefield. Every morning, together with five other students, they took a station wagon ride the six kilometres to Gracefield. From there they got on Emmerson Courtney’s school bus for the two-hour-plus trip down the old Highway 11 (now 105) to Hull. In the 1960s, Highway 11 was a narrow, crooked and bumpy ride. On snowy days they would be on the last bus to arrive at school, and late, but the principal and teachers understood. During the bus ride, Jackie remembers some students talked, some did homework and some slept; in the winter, they left home in the dark and got home in the dark.
Jackie remembers being in shock when he arrived at Philemon Wright. He had spent from grade 1 to 7 in a one-room school with nine students, then moved on to a school in Kazabazua with 120 students. At Philemon Wright he had 1,440 schoolmates.
The bus ride home was so long, Jackie remembers some days bus driver Courtney would stop at a little restaurant in Wakefield to give the kids a break; everyone would pile out for a pop and chips or a chocolate bar.
Jackie was keen on sports, and the new school offered lots of opportunity to participate. He even found time for other activities. One day in the fall, he and friend Dave Beech were walking the halls with about 10 minutes left until the bell would ring for classes to start. No one was around. Construction was still ongoing, and they spied a stepladder set up under some overhead ducts. His friend Dave said, “Are you game to go up?” Jackie was hesitant, but up they climbed. During their exploration in the ceiling, someone took away the ladder; they were stuck overhead and missed their next class. Fortunately, a janitor came along and realized what had happened. He retrieved the ladder, got them down, offered only a chuckle, and didn’t disclose their unauthorized adventure to any of the teachers.
If the situation for students was a challenge, one can only imagine the task for teachers. Former Hull High School teacher Kevin Drysdale had become the new Head of Science at Philemon Wright. He recounted the frequent meetings at the school site during the summer of 1968 between department heads and Principal Clyde MacTavish to discuss the distribution of classrooms and laboratories. Except, he remarked, there weren’t any actual classrooms anywhere at that time—only the building’s steelwork had been finished to that point.
Kevin also recalled that Principal MacTavish produced the timetables and the lists of teachers and students for each class on long sheets of kraft paper. Additions and subtractions were made daily. Drysdale remembers constant hiccups, including the school board initially not ordering enough desks for the students.
Former Philemon Wright history teacher Ted Doering was also there for the early weeks. “Two classes were held at the same time in each room—one class facing the front and the other the back. It was awkward and cramped, but we knew it was temporary and we all managed, with a bit of good humour.”
A few classes had even more challenges. Then Grade 11 student Judy Coté, who came to Philemon Wright from Kitigan Zibi near Maniwaki, remembers her science class on the first day. “There were no desks, so we all sat on the floor.”
Some teachers improvised—former student Laird Graham remembers taking a history class outside under a tree on the northwest slope of the property: “one of the very few areas not covered with dirt, or gravel, or mud,”
Construction noise was not the only distraction the first fall. The area around the school was still undeveloped open fields, and many students remember the October afternoon they spent watching a bear cub in a wild apple tree beyond the cafeteria parking lot.
Shop teachers had an additional challenge. Former teacher Bill McLachlan, who previously sat on the school board before becoming an electricity instructor, remembers that the shop wing did not open until November. The interim solution was to hold classes in the large student lounge. Five classes, each with a teacher and all sharing one blackboard, were held simultaneously. As McLachlan explained, “It took cooperation and well-disciplined classes in order for learning to occur.”
Technical/vocational classes, or “shops,” as they were frequently referred to, were a new concept for the board. Many students who were not inclined to academics blossomed with the chance to learn a trade. Programs were offered in automotive mechanics, electricity, welding, sheet metal, woodworking, bricklaying, small motors and technical drawing.
One spring day in 1969, the welding class’s task was to repair a gas tank. A student who was not too environmentally conscious poured the contents of the gas tank down the manhole outside the shop. Sometime later, another student threw a lit match down the manhole; the resulting explosion blew off the manhole covers on nearby Daniel Johnson Boulevard. No one was hurt, and the gas tank repair lesson must have been learned well enough, because one of the unnamed guilty parties eventually became a shop teacher.
A word should be said about Principal Clyde MacTavish, or simply Clyde as he was affectionately referred to by both teachers and students (although not to his face). He was in his late 30s at that time—a stocky but very athletic individual with a certain presence. Shop Director Dave Bates, who would succeed MacTavish as principal in 1976, remembers Clyde as having an incredible memory. He knew where every class was supposed to be and who was teaching it—this during the early days when almost everyone was still getting lost and most classrooms were occupied by two teachers teaching two classes.
Although the school intercom system worked, there was no functioning bell system. Many will remember Clyde coming over the intercom saying, “I will now ring the bell to end first period,” and then we would hear the sound of a cowbell. During the early weeks, much of MacTavish’s day was spent at the top of the back stairs answering questions from lost students and teachers and generally directing traffic.
MacTavish’s style could be called management by walking around. He was a very good basketball player, and many noon hours he would appear in the gym, shoot a few baskets, and then be gone. He helped set the tone of the school for everyone; he was present and knew what was going on in his school.
Fortunately, the situation improved literally week by week as more classrooms were finished and things got closer to normal. In October, street access to school (via the new Daniel Johnson Boulevard) and the staff parking lot were completed, and by Christmas, the library, cafeteria, single gymnasium, first-floor classrooms and shops were ready. Only the double gymnasium remained uncompleted because of problems with the large dividing partition. The playing field and track would have to wait until the fall of 1969 for use. I still remember physical education teacher Dave Fisher holding track and field practice on the only flat dry surface around—the unopened section of Highway 5.
Former student Sylvia Bretzloff, who later became a teacher with the Western Quebec School Board, reminisces, “When it was finally finished and fully opened, we all celebrated our new school, especially the new art room that featured a skylight and a treasured teacher Miss [Madeleine] Dexter.” Everyone enjoyed the added facilities. Besides the art room and shops, there were three home economics rooms, business education rooms, extensive sports facilities, an auditorium, a large library, and activities such as drama, band, and a model United Nations.
Everyone I spoke to for this article echoed a similar sentiment—“It would never be allowed today”—meaning some 1,500 staff and students trying to work and learn in an operational construction site. However, no one told the students, teachers or Principal MacTavish that it could not be done. No cell phone pictures on social media, no concerned parents, and no government inspectors saying “No.” Failure was not an option. Throughout it all, no one can remember any accidents or anyone getting hurt.
The students of 1968 had all come from much smaller schools; some, like me, had even experienced time in a one-room country school. At the new Philemon Wright, in addition to hundreds of new friends, we had the excitement of a new school that had facilities many of us had only dreamed of.
Despite those very difficult first few months, I believe teachers and students would judge Philemon Wright’s first year as a success. One of the strengths, and a key to success, was that staff and students from each of the three merging schools chose to work together instead of apart, something that could easily have happened.
Since September 23, 1968, Philemon Wright has had almost 50 more “first days of school,” and many more thousands of students have created their own high school memories. But for the teachers and students of Philemon Wright who were there on Day One, the organized chaos and excitement of the “Fall of ’68” is something they will never forget.
The author wishes thank the many former teachers and students who shared their memories of Philemon Wright’s first year. A special thank you to Sean Curry, Frances Curry and Dave Bates for helping collect stories and photographs and for verifying facts.