The following article first appeared in The Echo of Cantley Volume 30 no 3, September 2018. This article is made available for the enjoyment of others with the express permission of the Echo of Cantley.
During the late 1960s, many large regional high schools were built across Quebec. Hull’s Philemon Wright Regional High School opened in 1968, replacing smaller schools in Buckingham, Hull and Aylmer. Looking back 50 years, most of us students remember opening day as an unforgettable event that would never be allowed to happen today!
Perhaps the best summary of the organized chaos of opening day is in the school’s very first yearbook with Vice Principal Bill McQuarrie’s message:
On Monday, September 23 at 9 a.m. the door (and there was only one) opened to admit 1,441 students and 76 teachers, thus ending the prospect of an extended fall vacation. The building was far from complete. In fact, we had access to only the second floor of one block of the three-block building. This meant sixty to seventy-five students to a classroom—classrooms often without blackboards or desks. There was no gymnasium, library or cafeteria, no shops and only two washrooms. The entire student body and staff were confined to this one floor for the whole school day. At noon hour, classrooms became lunchrooms.
Construction had just started the previous November. Many problems including the clay ground, rain and poor road access to the site caused huge delays. Until late October 1968, when Daniel Johnson Boulevard was finally open to traffic, the only access to the school was via Highway 5.
On opening day only the second floor of the school was ready. Students walked into school through what can only be called a construction site with piles of earth, construction materials and equipment everywhere. While students occupied the second floor, construction continued below with the noises and constant dust.
With only half the classrooms finished, the solution was to hold two classes per room, a teacher in the front teaching one group and second teacher in the back with students facing rear of the room. The first week some did not even have desks. Students sat on the floor. Students and teachers getting lost in the new school was common as timetables and room assignments were constantly changing.
As weeks went by more classrooms became available. In November, the shops were finally finished, but the cafeteria, library, auditorium and gymnasiums were not completed until January.
Everyone I spoke to for this article echoed a similar sentiment, “It would never be allowed today” – 1,500 staff and students trying to work and learn in an operational construction site! In 1968, there were no cell phone pictures or social media, no concerned parents, and no government inspectors saying “No.”
Throughout it all, nobody remembers any accidents or anyone getting hurt.
The students of 1968 had all come from much smaller schools. At the new school, in addition to hundreds of new friends, we had the excitement of a new school with facilities many of us had only dreamed of, but are the norm for today’s schools.
Bob McClelland is a local farmer, history enthusiast and was one of many Cantley students attending Philemon Wright High School in 1968.
For a detailed English version of this story see “Up the Gatineau”, vol 44, available through Gatineau Valley Historical Society - http://www.gvhs.ca/publications/utga-pwhs.html or from Cantley 1889.