It was January of 1961 and the Quiet Revolution was on and Jean Lesage, Quebec’s Liberal Premier at the time, had proclaimed, “Maitre Chez Nous”, but somewhere on a former patch of marshy land used as a Community Garden, the English population of Verdun, and the Catholic one at that, were also taking matters into their own hands.
The back of a postcard which came out in the spring of that year, stated, “ It is the most modern in design and is said to be one of the most complete in facilities of all educational establishments in Quebec.” The new school even had a part-time chaplain and a confessional right across from where the current staff room is today. The Boys’ Principal’s office was where the nurse is currently, the Girls’ Principal’s office is where the conference room is, the library was in the resource room above the current offices, and the cafeterias were located where the current music and games room are today, and where we would pay a dime and sneak out to recess with a fresh chocolate donut.
It was the opening of spanking brand new building. Verdun Catholic High opened for business, with high school going to Grade 11 from Grade 9, the increase at the time of the local English school population, due, in part, to those first baby boomers who were now entering into their high school years. There was also the westward movement from Pointe St. Charles, which would later go to Chateauguay and LaSalle, and then on to the West Island.
Both Catholic elementary schools, St. Thomas More and St. Willibrord had full numbers from 600 to 700 students, so the need was there. Local dignitaries, and school officials were on hand to open up the place, including a veteran teacher named Edward Dubois, and you guessed right if you said that was my late father who was teaching grade 7 at the time in the old St. Thomas More on Moffat. He used to tell me that I would be there (VCHS) one day as well and spend a lot of time there in future years. He turned out to be so right!
Thanks to high profile English Catholic personalities like the soon to be MP, Bryce MacKasey and the well known O’Reillys, Verdun had a spanking new high school. It was run by the Presentation Brothers on the boys’ side and the girls were ruled by the nuns of the Congregation de Notre Dame. Sister Johnson was probably the longest running of the girls’ Principals and Brother Philip for the boys, with other notable Principals being Brother Paul, and Brother Augustine who was known to chase down kids down the famous path in Beurling Park along the fence.
So the business of secondary education was on, and the school would have its highs and lows through the years, and had it first rumor in the first few years and for another 5 years or so, saying that the building was sinking an inch per year, which maybe had some basis in fact in terms due to the settling in effect, as the building has no basement or concrete flooring, and being on a former marshy garden.
The building, VCHS at the time, would go on to witness historical events, and in some cases, be part of news events. In November 1963, it was announced on the intercom as in most other schools, that President John Kennedy was assassinated and some schools finished early as most people’s minds went elsewhere, as we did at St.Thomas More.
But then, the following year in ’64, with America still in mourning and the youth looking for a new direction and some new answers, the British Invasion came knocking, opened the doors, and hit us like a hurricane and it seemed unstoppable, and it was led by 4 mop-topped musicians from Liverpool.
It was a group called the Beatles and would go on to become the voice of a generation and become the greatest pop-rock group of all-time and to this day, still outsell most artists and are credited by the music industry as a savior every time the Fab Four comes out with a newly digitized catalog, and students had copy books with Beatle pictures as their covers.
Following in their footsteps were names like the Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, the Animals, and the Dave Clark Five. Students would walk home with their little portable radios tuned to CFOX, or to CKGM’s Buddy Gee, and at nights to CFCF’s Dave Boxer to hear what was new from these groups.
Every high school at the time had kids forming their own bands and playing for their school’s dances. At VCHS, they would host the big local groups of the time. Groups like the Carnival Connection, and the Haunted which had no. 1 songs at the time called “Poster Man” and 1-2-5. But two names that appeared at the time at the sock hops went on to bigger and better things.
They were called April Wine and Trevor Payne and the Triangle. April Wine would become one of Canada’s top selling groups and Trevor Payne would go on to start the Jubilation Choir, one of North America’s most beloved and famous choirs who have sung for world leaders and the Jazz Festival. Outside of the big dances in the gym like the Carnival Dances which had the Carnival King and Queen presented, the Friday night sock hops were in the boys’ assembly hall in the area where the classrooms of Miss Tamara Beach and the art classroom of Michelle Wright are now located at Beurling Academy.
One of the more famous Carnival Kings at the time was a former elementary student of my father’s who went on to become a well-known local and national TV and Radio personality. He was a newscaster at CJAD and CKGM, and forgotten by many viewers as the CFCF News Anchor for Pulse News in between Bill Haugland and the late Andrew Marquis. In 2007, Gord Martineau received a lifetime achievement award from the RTNDA for 40 years in broadcasting with the last 30 years being at CITY-TV in Toronto. Another grad from the 70’s, Diane Ipperseil, went on to become Miss Diane on the Romper Room TV show on CFCF in the mornings.
But before the 60’s were out, tragedy and sadness would strike the school. It was on a rainy Friday evening in September of 1968. The students from the class of ’68 were on their way to the prom at the Dorval Airport Hilton. David Hill, a 20-year old student, who had dropped out in his teens had come back to graduate in the 67-68 school year, which he did, having passed his MEQ exams. His yearbook nickname was “Gums” and he just wanted to be an office worker.
Janice Gravel, 17, was nicknamed “Noise” and wanted to be a secretary. They both lived near the school and went together in a taxi. Their taxi had taken La Salle Blvd. and it was near Stephens in front of the Natatorium, that tragedy struck with a car crash that involved their cab. The taxi driver was reportedly drunk and some speed was involved. He hit another car and the grads were instantly killed. The tragedy made local and national news. For the next few months of the school year, it seemed like the student body was in mourning. We dedicate this feature article, in part, to their memory.
The growth continued with the school having big numbers. In 1970, there was a little over 1200 students. In February of 1970, the students witnessed history and was part of history. The students all went to the gym, sat on the floor, with several TV’s on stands and everybody watched the return of Apollo 13 in its triumphant return to Earth after almost being stranded in space with that blown tank.
But the next school year of 70-71, it was probably the biggest story locally and nationally. The school had reached its peak with 1350 students and 72 teachers. In October of 1970, we watched the City and Province under siege with the FLQ and the infamous October crisis.
We watched as my political hero, the late Pierre Elliot Trudeau invoke the War Measures Act and send the military into the streets and with it, the members of the Federal and Provincial Cabinets were under guard 24/7. Bryce MacKasey, the Verdun MP at the time was also Federal Minister of Labor, and his family was under 24-hour watch. His son Mike was a student at the school and taken to school in an army vehicle every day and the vehicle was parked outside the school. We actually felt protected.
That year, also marked the arrival of the city’s first ever live weekly radio show in a high school, with the school’s news and sports broadcast every Friday afternoon during the last 10 minutes of the day on the intercom system along with two top hits of the day, with a couple of songs being My Sweet Lord, Knock 3 Times, and Temptation Eyes by the Grass Roots. It was called Radio VCHS and the host was someone called Big Bad Bob, which is the same guy who writes this column and it was broadcast from the Principal’s office.
In September 1972, there was another news event that galvanized the nation. It was the Canada/Russia hockey series, which Canada really only won by a whisker. Eileen Sargent, a 70’s grad, remembers the last game well.
“My favorite memory of VCHS was the afternoon our school aired the final Canadian vs Russia game through the intercom so the entire school was able to listen at the same time. As Canada scored you could hear the students scream with excitement. I remember back then thinking how great the school was for allowing us to put away our books, etc for the afternoon to come together to cheer for our team and country,” says Eileen.
The 72-73 school year was also an exciting one for staff and students as everybody waited for the start of construction of a new extension in the back, which would contain a new pool, and upper gym, and house the new scenic cafeteria with views of the park and the pool down below.
Student Grant Wakefield remembers going outside to watch the construction unfold, which was in the wintertime, with everybody excited about the new pool. Grant’s two future kids, Cassandra and Curtis were recent BA graduates in 2007 and last June 2010. There is nothing like coming full circle.
The 80’s came along with a whimper. The late 70’s and early 80’s seemed to be generally uneventful, with the school chugging along, but the numbers were a changing. The Anglophone population was voting with their feet down the 401, even though Pierre Trudeau stamped out separatism with the War Measures Act, the birth rate was down and the westward movement of the population continued.
St. Willibrord School, with its high ceilings had closed and its students had moved to St. Thomas More, therefore making it the only English Catholic Elementary school in Verdun just down the street from VCHS. But troubled times still lay ahead.
With numbers dramatically going down at STM and VCHS, the Verdun Catholic School Commission had to make a decision. In the late 80’s, the decision was made to make 6100 Champlain Blvd THE SCHOOL for English Catholic services in Verdun.
From the outside, the left hand side of the building was for the little ones, and the other side was secondary, with the various Principals through the years being Richard David, the highly popular Errol Clement, with the last one being Alda McCaffrey, but the downward spiral continued albeit slowly.
With one building serving the English Catholic population of Verdun, it was incumbent upon the Verdun Catholic School Commission to keep the building full or the numbers stable with new exciting programs to stem the flow of students registering in neighboring high schools.
But with the announcement by the PQ of a more secular education system with the province going to linguistic boards and away from religious boards, the local CECV was doomed, and, needless to say, they wouldn’t be spending much money on their English building and even stopped installing new windows which they had started. The downturn continued. Darker days loomed on the horizon.
The 1998-1999 school year saw the new boards, including the west-island based Lester B. Pearson School Board begin operations, and with it decisions soon had to be made in terms of school closures due to a surplus and some cases, duplication of services. In Verdun, Argyle Academy merged with VCHS, whose numbers were down to fewer than 200, to form the new Verdun Regional, which had around 350 students that first of 2 years, but with little support from the Board to bite the bullet and try new programs to stem the westward tide, the handwriting was on the wall. As well, the new Governing Board system that is currently in place also started in that year.
THE 21ST CENTURY
Verdun Regional was down to about 240 students, so with the major round of Major School Changes, the announcement was made by Board Chairman Marcus Tabachnik with the statement, “I declare Verdun Regional closed.” It was gut wrenching to be in audience that day with a gentleman named Doug Flook as he and I were our respective school’s Regional Parents Committee Reps at the time.
So the building was closed as a full high school and the Board installed the ill-fated and ill-conceived Junior International, a so-called branch of LCCHS. It was painful to see the kids of Verdun on the 112 bus go by an almost empty shell of a building on their way to 2 LaSalle high schools. But with the CSMB sniffing around the building as a possible new French high school for Verdun or a regional one, the building needed the impression of some use, as the Francois Legault law allowed the education minister to take an underused English Building and give it to the French Boards.
But Verdunites did not go down without a fight. There were irregularities it seemed in the consultations and alternatives that weren’t presented by the Board it was felt by some, so 4 brave parents, including current Verdun Commissioner Doug Flook who was a parent-member the Verdun Regional GB at that time, decided to launch legal action against the Board and hired lawyer Julius Grey. But with a Francophone judge who didn’t really know the in and outs of MSC, or the local population mix, and who was eager to start his summer vacation, the parents lost their case.
Then, as a result of the next Major School Change round, and with big numbers coming from the elementary schools of Verdun and LaSalle as a result of those generous baby bonus boom years of the early 90’s, the LBPSB had a wakeup call, and according to some observers, they realized the error in their ways with Riverside Park having limited space sharing the building the Career Centre.
And with projections of around 2200 secondary students in the Verdun-LaSalle corridor, the Board in that MSC round of consultations, announced the return of a full English high school in Verdun for September 2003, which went on to be named Beurling Academy, after Canada’s and Verdun’s native son and flying hero of WW II, George “Buzz” Beurling.
BA, which is now in its 8th year, is a vibrant multi-cultural, multi- program high school with about 700 students. It has full sports programs and all the arts disciplines. BA is also active in the community with its fund-raisers for various charities and peer leadership programs that mentor to elementary students.
The parade of big names have continued to drop by such as singer Lorraine Klaasen and this year, Olympic hero and World Champ in women’s freestyle skiing Jennifer Heil dropped by to talk to students. There are other tentative names in discussion to hopefully stop by.
The last few years has seen a sprucing up of the building with major roof work, new windows, new doors, and last summer saw a complete re-paving and some re-work on the greenery outside. Regrettably though, that nice Christmas tree near the entrance was inexplicably chopped down and that beautiful cross, part of the brickwork on the front section was exposed, so the new school sign was installed to hide it. Privately, I have heard on several occasions that the folks at the Board consider this building as their jewel in the network. Publicly, they won’t say it for fear of offending others.
Verdun School Express has witnessed in action that the local population will support its school provided it has a range of programs for students and parents to choose from. To the Lester B. Pearson School Board, we encourage you to take care of this youngster, as it will pay you dividends with a high success rate and superstar graduates that could take on any top dog of any private school.
We would like to thank former students Eileen Sargent, Grant Wakefield, and John Kearney for their invaluable contributions of info towards this article. Again we salute the memory of those late students, David Hill and Janice Gravel, two grads from the class of ‘68 who died so early in their young lives on their way to their prom to celebrate their success with their fellow grads. You will never be forgotten.
Finally, we salute all the former and present students, teachers, staff, and administrators for their contributions to student life through the years as it is you who have embodied the spirit of this building. Happy 50th Anniversary, 6100 Champlain Blvd. You’re not getting older, but getting better!