Situated at the centre of the densely populated Jewish neighbourhood between the wars, Baron Byng High School was a Protestant public school with a student body that was, for a time, 99 percent Jewish. This paradox is testament to the segregation efforts of the Protestant School Board, which sought both to avoid the dilution of Anglo-Saxon culture and Protestant religious instruction taught in their public schools, as well as the perceived disruption of classes when many students left for Jewish holidays. Baron Byng is iconic in the memories of many Montreal Jews who grew up along “the Main.”
At the beginning of the 20th century, the confessional school system of Quebec relegated Jews and other “non-Catholics” to Protestant schools. As long as Jews did not outnumber their Christian counterparts, it was rare that problems of accommodation rose. Until 1907, most Jewish children were concentrated in the Jewish-run Baron de Hirsch Institute Hebrew Free School on Bleury, which fed students into a number of Protestant schools. However, the school’s closing, coinciding with a wave of immigration, resulted in an influx of newly arrived East European Jewish students who overwhelmed the Protestant schools. Members of the school board expressed concerns about attendance during Jewish holidays, especially the High Holy Days, which were deemed to play havoc early in the school year. At the same time, it was difficult to ensure religious instruction along Anglo-Saxon cultural traditions, as Jewish teachers were vying for equal opportunities to teach, and some schools had very few Protestant students.
The board sought to rectify the problem by segregating Jewish students into separate classes, and, where possible, as in the case of Baron Byng High, making the entire school Jewish. Named in honour of the Governor General at the time, the Baron himself opened the school at 4251 St Urbain Street in 1922. The proportion of the Jewish population attending Baron Byng rose from 89 percent in 1924 to 99 percent just fourteen years later, reflecting a similar pattern at the Bancroft, Devonshire, and Mount Royal schools. Other Protestant schools with large Jewish populations included Aberdeen, Fairmount and Strathearn schools as well as Commercial High.
Through the 1920s, most Protestant schools with a majority Jewish population were located east of Hutchison Street. By the 1960s, the Jewish population was slowly migrating to the suburbs and only Baron Byng was situated in the old area of Jewish settlement between Hutchison and St. Denis.
Baron Byng High’s most illustrious graduates include poets Irving Layton and A. M. Klein, Supreme Court of Canada Judge Morris Fish, N.D.P. leader David Lewis, and writer Mordecai Richler, who paid tribute to it in his novels as “Fletcher’s Field High.” The Baron Byng building currently houses Sun Youth/Jeunesse au soleil, a community organization which was co-founded by Sid Stevens, a Baron Byng graduate. To this day, many Baron Byng alumni groups gather to reminisce about the Protestant school that was Jewish.
Compiled by Marian Pinsky
Annual Report. Montreal: Protestant Board of School Commissioners, 1925.
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*Images courtesy of Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee National Archives and the Jewish Public Library Archives.