Glebe Collegiate Institute – a historic landmark

Glebe Collegiate Institute, this year celebrating one hundred years, has a rich history and presence in the community.  
Photo: Liz McKeen

By Blake Butler

This September marks the 100th anniversary of Glebe Collegiate Institute (GCI). The school has been home to more than 40,000 students and 3,000 teachers since it first opened in September 1922. It is a fixture of the Glebe community.

As current GCI student Zahra Duxbury explained in the April edition of the Glebe Report, the school was initially built as an expansion of the Ottawa Collegiate Institute (OCI), now known as Lisgar. A growing local population and provincial policies such as the 1919 Adolescence School Attendance Act created crowded conditions at OCI. Construction began in October 1921, and the new collegiate institute opened its doors less than a year later. With the building not yet fully completed, the “official” opening was delayed until May 1923. That ceremony was held in the new assembly hall and included music by the OCI orchestra and speeches from prominent local figures such as R.H. Grant, Ontario’s Minister of Education, and G.H. Bowie, OCI board chairman.

The school may have been constructed as an expansion to OCI, but students and teachers quickly found ways to make their new home distinctly their own. In 1923, a committee of students and teachers chose blue and yellow (inspired by the University of Michigan) for the school’s colours. The formation of a student council and the Lux Glebana, the student yearbook, followed two years later. Local athletic achievements and 1926 Dominion championships in basketball and rowing – the rowing team also won an international championship that year – elevated the young school’s athletic reputation.

A rivalry with Lisgar was also established during these early years. The infamous “Great Bun Fight” of 1925 was one prominent episode in this history. That year, Lisgar students were invited to the Glebe school’s first Military Ball. As former GCI student Elizabeth Serson wrote in her 1947 commemorative history, Glebe: The First Twenty-Five Years, “no one knows who threw the first bun…But in two seconds the air was filled with whizzing missiles. Benches and tables were mounted for better aiming, and the cafeteria was separated into two well-defined camps.” The battle was eventually put to a stop by principal A.H. McDougall. A healthy rivalry continues to exist between the two schools today.

By the 1930s, enrolment eclipsed 1,300 students – more than could fit in the main assembly hall. This growth brought greater recognition from the OCI board, and in 1931, Glebe Collegiate Institute became its own entity, separate from Lisgar. Glebe continued to make great strides that decade. In 1932, the Glebe Science Club – the first high school science club in Ontario and one of the first in Canada – was formed. Male and female athletic teams continued to do well too. Men’s football and basketball won 14 and 15 Eastern Ontario Secondary School Association (EOSSA) championships respectively between the mid-1920s and mid-1940s. Women’s basketball and track teams also claimed multiple EOSSA championships in the 1930s.

The Second World War led to a steep decline in attendance, as many students and teachers signed up for military service. Life at the school changed significantly too. Lesson plans included topics such as map reading, Morse code and meteorology. Twice a week, students marched, practised bandaging and held air raid drills. Glebe students also raised money to support the war effort. The fighting had a devasting impact on GCI and the Glebe community. According to Serson, a total of 198 Glebe students and teachers died in the Second World War.

The school grew in the years following the war. In 1967, the High School of Commerce – which had shared the building with GCI since 1929 – moved to its new site at 300 Rochester Street. While the space was briefly filled by the Eastern Ontario Institute of Technology, it was soon taken over by GCI.

Student voices acquired greater prominence in later decades with the creation of the student newspaper, Novae Res, in 1965. Initially started by students, the paper became part of an accredited journalism course overseen and supported by teachers during the 1970s and early 1980s. Novae Res continued to publish until the early 2000s. Its successor, Glebe Gazette, was started by students just a few years ago.

Major educational changes came when the school introduced its bilingual program in 1972. GCI was one of many Ontario schools that incorporated French-language training into its curriculum following the passage of the federal government’s Official Languages Act (1969) and Ontario’s Official Languages in Education Program.

Glebe students continued to excel in academics and extracurricular activities. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Glebe’s physics team finished in the top three in the Sir Isaac Newton competition nine times. The robotics team has had similar success since the mid-1990s, placing in the top three in nine national competitions. Between 2006 and 2012, local newspapers ranked GCI as the top sports high school in the Ottawa-Carleton region four times.

During his speech at the school’s opening ceremony, R.H. Grant remarked that “it was not stone or steel that made a school but something living and real, the spirit of the school.” That has certainly been the case at GCI. Over the past century, students, teachers and staff have shaped GCI into the school that it is today. This year’s 100th anniversary provides a great opportunity to reflect on its history and to imagine what is ahead for the school’s next century.

Blake Butler is a Glebe resident and history PhD candidate at Western University.

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