Former students reflect on Ritchie School memories ahead of demolition

It was a bittersweet reunion for many of Ritchie School’s former students.

They gathered at the school this weekend to reconnect and remember old times. But soon the century-old building they once attended will be torn down. 

The doors at Ritchie School opened to students and teachers for the first time for the 1913 – 1914 school year. It has served thousands of students and several different school districts in the 106 years since then.

David Ridley, executive director of the Edmonton Heritage Council, said it’s sad to see the building go but not every heritage building can be preserved.

“I think what we need to get our heads around is that it’s not always possible, given the structure of a building and the cost of remediation, to save it in whole or part,” Ridley said.

“But what communities can do is document what the experience was. [There are] other ways of making that memory and that preservation available even though it may not be in the bricks and mortars.”

Executive Director of the Edmonton Heritage Council, David Ridley, hopes other Edwardian-era schools around the city can be preserved. (Gabrielle Brown/CBC)

Steps to closure

The Edmonton Public School Board voted to close the building in 2008 when only 89 kids were registered there.

Then the Francophone School Board moved into the school and opened École Joseph-Moreau in 2009. It was the first Francophone junior high school in western Canada.

Eight years later, then-Premier Rachel Notley announced funding for a replacement school, a pledge that came about a year after a group of parents said they planned to sue the province.

“Parents have the right to have an infrastructure that is equivalent [to English schools] for their children,” Pierre Asselin, president of the school council at the time, told Radio-Canada in a 2016 interview. “That’s the only way we can grow our system and compete with English schools to keep our students in our system.”

Construction at the site is already underway and students are expected to begin classes in the modernized building in 2020.

‘I remember being kind of a terror’

Joanne Mick, who was Joanne Butlin at the time, was one of many former students who attended the weekend barbecue.

She was at the school from 1964 to 1967. Canada celebrated its centennial during her grade 9 year, which she marked by having tea with then-Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Grant McEwan, who gave each student a commemorative centennial dollar.

“So, because I was picked out of the group I was able to give him his cake and [have] tea with him,” Mick said. “That’s one of my favourite memories from here.”

Joanne Mick attended Ritchie School from 1964 to 1967. (Gabrielle Brown/CBC)

The centennial year also included a school trip to Quebec City with the choir. Mick said she still remembers being in awe of the old buildings and looking over the Plains of Abraham.

“It’s all because I went to school here that I was able to do that,” Mick said.

Mick also remembered the typical teenage hijinks, from fights behind the old Calvary Baptist Church, to clowning around in her third floor social studies class.

“I remember being kind of a terror,” Mick said. “I crawled out of the window and I stood on the lower part of the school from my social studies class. I never got caught but the kids in my class thought it was a hoot.”

A Ritchie School time capsule?

Ridley, from the heritage council, is also intrigued by rumours of a time capsule buried somewhere in the school. A project manager for the new building recently asked if he knew anything about it.

“I said I’d ask over at the city archives [Monday] whether there was any knowledge of that or whether there were any of the blueprints or plans that might be available,” Ridley said. “It seems like that’s unlikely or at least there doesn’t seem to be easy access to the knowledge that if there was a time capsule, where it was.”

The Francophone school district tried to preserve the building in some form, even if it was just a small portion. In the end, that proved to be beyond their budget.

“The Franco-Albertan community has a strong sense of past and heritage so I’m not surprised they gave it a try,” Ridley said.

With files from Mirna Djukic.

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