Aberdeen school Montreal student strike occupation carré st-louis

Photo by WalkMontréal

Montreal’s first ever student strike was an occupation of Carré St-Louis to decry antisemitism

On Feb. 28, 1913, hundreds of socialist Jewish tweens from the Aberdeen School walked out of class, crossed St-Denis and took over an ‘elite space’ to fight for social justice.

The students were told their actions would cause trouble, and trouble is the last thing the community wanted. 

It was the last day of February 1913 when several hundred students from the Aberdeen School — located where Sherbrooke metro station and the ITHQ stand today — walked out of class, crossed St-Denis and occupied Carré St-Louis. The students were mostly children, and mostly Jewish. In the cultural and psychological geography of early 20th century Montreal, Carré St-Louis was an ‘elite space’ that clearly belonged to the French Canadian bourgeoisie. It wasn’t long before someone took offence at hundreds of Jewish kids standing around in a park that, while public, didn’t belong to them. Police on horseback were called out to “restore order.”

The previous day, a teacher at the Aberdeen School, given the pseudonym Miss McKinley by a local press keen to protect her identity, was overheard calling her Jewish pupils dirty, and saying they had no place at the school. For five students in her sixth grade class, this was the last straw. Jewish students at the school were often quite poor, some lived in cold water flats while others lived in homes with no running water at all. Bathing was a luxury. Clothes were over-mended and often second hand. Many of the Jewish students at Aberdeen School didn’t quite get enough to eat. It wasn’t their fault or their parents’ — they had fled pogroms in Eastern Europe and the Russian Empire in the hopes of finding a better life in Canada, but instead, in Montreal, found persecution and poverty. In a city described as having two solitudes, they were the third, unwanted by the two minorités-majoritaires.

Antisemitism was a common experience for the Jews of early-20th century Montreal, and in reaction to the near constant barrage of official and unofficial hatred, they retreated into that which brought them comfort. They spoke Yiddish, they lived close to the clothing manufacturers that employed them, clustering together near the Main, and they did their best not to draw attention to themselves. In the years leading up to the 1913 Aberdeen Strike, antisemitic editorials and letters to the editor became increasingly frequent in Quebec’s newspapers. Leading political figures, like Henri Bourassa, could make astonishingly hateful statements — such as declaring Jews were unproductive vampires on Quebec society — without any care of consequences.

Aberdeen school Montreal student strike occupation carré st-louis
The Aberdeen School, circa 1900

Despite all this hardship and oppression, at least some of the students at the Aberdeen School knew there was a line, and when it was crossed, there were viable ways of fighting back. Many of the students were the children of people who worked in the needle trade, and a year earlier, many of their parents had gone on strike against the terrible working conditions they were forced to endure.

The Aberdeen School Strike is an obscure historical episode, but it may very well be both the first organized protest against antisemitism in Canadian history, as well as the first student strike. 

There are parallels between the Aberdeen strike from 111 years ago and what’s happening today. The general public tends to react negatively when students strike — particularly on social justice issues — but this tends to be a negative reaction out of proportion to what’s actually occurring. In the same way that McGill and UQAM students aren’t occupying their university buildings, the Aberdeen students didn’t occupy the school, but an ‘elite space’ across the street. The downtown campuses of Montreal universities are about as elite as it gets in terms of local real estate, even though they are public institutions whose grounds are de facto open 24 hours a day.

It’s also worth noting how it typically falls on the shoulders of students to advance social justice causes in our society. And in 1913, fighting antisemitism was about as popular as protesting ethnic cleansing in Palestine is today. Who else but students — the very people our society asks to challenge the status quo and to become the change they want to see in the world — could lead the fight for a better tomorrow?

The parallels don’t end there. Despite McGill University asking Montreal police — repeatedly — to sweep in and expel the occupation, the police are remarkably demonstrating unprecedented restraint. They even urged McGill officials to try to work things out with the students themselves. In 1913, mounted police showed up to clear Carré Saint-Louis, but they couldn’t bring themselves to do much more than keep the kids off the sidewalk.

And these were no kinder, gentler police either. Just the previous year, police had been employed by garment factory owners to infiltrate the garment workers’ strike and break heads on the picket line. The police were as intimidating then as they are now. Moreover, the sight of mounted police may have reminded some of the striking students of the Cossack raiders of the old country, those who perpetrated the pogroms so many of Montreal’s Jewish community had fled. Despite the evident intimidation, reporters on the scene described brave children holding a picket line, demonstrating a maturity far beyond their years.

Aberdeen school strike montreal
Montreal’s first ever student strike was an occupation of Carré St-Louis to decry antisemitism

In their journal article Little Fists for Social Justice, Roderick MacLeod and Mary Anne Poutanen argue that, since many of the children were likely familiar with the actions their parents had taken in the garment workers’ strike of 1912, they in turn organized effectively, maintained discipline and made important connections with the elders of the Jewish community, who ultimately negotiated with school commissioners on their behalf.

The strike didn’t last very long, and it was the students who compromised. Miss McKinley admitted only that she had made inappropriate comments, and argued still that those comments were misunderstood. The students had asked for an apology, but settled for this admission knowing they had accomplished far more. They had stood up for themselves, they had stood up for a righteous cause, they had stood up against the forces of power that sought to silence them. They had reached out to the elites of Montreal’s Jewish community and managed to get them to go to bat for the otherwise ignored children of the working poor, and further still got local media, otherwise disinterested in matters of antisemitism, to consider their cause. 

mcgill anti-genocide protest university Canadians protesting on campuses
McGill University, 2024. Photo by No Borders Media

Ironically, the Aberdeen School Strike is largely forgotten because it succeeded, because practically everyone involved behaved like adults and because it didn’t degenerate into violence. Across Montreal, Canada and much of the world, there have been many claims directed at the university students occupying campuses — in protest of attempted genocide — of violent intent or hateful language. These claims are, with few exceptions, bogus. 

The people making such unsubstantiated claims — including university officials, politicians and an unfortunate number of self-described journalists — have discredited themselves, and deserve our scrutiny and suspicion, not the students striking for social justice.

The students occupying McGill and UQAM in protest of genocide in Gaza are carrying the same torch held by Jewish students protesting antisemitism over a century ago. 

Let them hold it high. ■

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes.