Edward VII School / École de l’Étincelle

École Edward Vii, Montreal Star, 8 février 1913

Edward VII School, Montreal Star, 8 February 1913 [BAnQ]

An unassuming figure among neighbourhood buildings, the school at 6080 Esplanade Avenue is nevertheless an important part of Montreal’s heritage. Built in 1912 as part of the Protestant School Board system, it was originally named for Edward VII.

King Edward VII (1841–1910), son and successor to Queen Victoria, reigned over the British Empire from 1901 to 1910. He had visited Canada in 1860, becoming the first Prince of Wales to travel across the Atlantic. At the time of construction of the school named in his honour, he had been dead for two years.

Nobbs & Hyde, a Montreal architectural firm, designed Edward VII School. Percy Nobbs (1875–1964) is closely linked to McGill University, where he taught architecture for many years; he also designed several buildings on the campus. Born in Scotland, his elementary school education was in Russia, where his family lived for a time. He also received his first art classes as a child in St. Petersburg. Returning to the land of his birth, he pursued studies in design and applied arts. Through his training and convictions, Nobbs was part of the Arts & Crafts movement, insisting on sobriety and high-quality artisanal attention to decoration. He was invited to move to Montreal in 1903 to head the McGill University School of Architecture. At the time, the program had only two students. He helped revise the program and hired new professors. He remained its director until 1913.

In 1910, Nobbs established an architectural practice with George Taylor Hyde (1879–1944). Hyde was one of the first McGill architecture graduates, in 1899; he continued his studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their partnership continued until Hyde’s death in 1944. In addition to projects on the McGill campus, in 1914–1915 the firm designed several buildings for the University of Alberta. It also built many houses in Westmount, including Nobbs’s own residence. The firm also received commissions for several commercial buildings, including the 1911–1912 construction and 1926 enlargement of the workshops and offices of Henry Birks & Sons on the south side of Cathcart Street, opposite the well-known Birks store.

In the early 1910s, Nobbs & Hyde completed several projects for the Protestant School Board. They included the 1910 enlargement of Fairmount Public School, also located on Esplanade Avenue in Mile End, and the 1913 construction of Strathearn Public School on Jeanne-Mance Street, near Pine Avenue. These schools were constructed at a time of rapid population growth in Montreal, due both to internal migration and to immigration.

The school board had recently become concerned about fire safety after a deadly fire at its Hochelaga School in 1907. Too much wood was used in old schools, including the staircases, which made them susceptible to fire and hindered the evacuation of pupils. Pedagogical concerns also influenced specifications: the number and dimensions of classrooms and the gymnasium, as well as spaces for assembly and outdoor recreation followed standards established by the school board. Consequently, Nobbs & Hyde had little leeway in the design of Edward VII School.

Edward VII was an elementary (primary) school. Originally its three storeys provided 27 classrooms and a gymnasium. A new floor was added in 1914, also overseen by Nobbs & Hyde. With completion of this project, the school included a gymnasium, 33 classrooms and locker areas, two kindergarten classes, as well as workshops for industrial arts (Sloyd) and home economics. Even more classrooms were added at the end of the 1910s, also the case with other Montreal Protestant schools of the time.

According to the memories of someone who attended another school from 1924 to 1933, classes were co-ed, but boys and girls entered the school through separate entrances.[1] Outdoor play areas were also separate, as were physical education classes (girls and boys used the gymnasium at different times). At Edward VII School, the girls’ play yard, entrance and lockers were on the south side, while for the boys, they were on the north.

Like other Protestant schools, Edward VII’s ground floor was at street level. This contrasts with most Catholic schools of the time, where access was via an exterior staircase. Here, an interior vestibule leads to doors opening onto the ground-floor corridor. On the left are the offices for the secretarial and principal’s offices, and on the right a spiral staircase leads to the upper floors. The exterior walls are in red brick. Various designs decorate the brickwork. The concrete foundation runs below the ground-floor windows.

Les armoiries royales, avec la licorne écossaise à gauche et le lion anglais à droite

The royal coat-of-arms, with the Scottish unicorn on the left and the English lion on the right [photo Rachel Boisclair 2019]

Staff and visitors, not the students, use the main entrance, located at the centre of the facade. Above it is a decorative panel of the royal coat-of-arms of the United Kingdom, in honour of King Edward VII. It is interesting to note that the supporters accompanying the shield are arranged in the Scottish manner, with the Scottish unicorn on the left and the English lion on the right. Below the coat-of-arms are the floral symbols of England (the rose), Scotland (thistle), Ireland (shamrock), France (lily) and Canada (maple leaf).

The architectural designs for the facade also included a panel with the name of the school in English, with a figure of a boy on the left and a girl on the right. This panel has since disappeared, perhaps around 1980 when the name of the school in both languages was added.

All of Nobbs & Hyde’s plans, including the drawings of the bas-reliefs decorating the façade, and for the modifications and enlargements of 1914 as well as the plumbing and electrical plans, have been conserved in the Percy Erskine Nobbs Fonds of the Canadian Architecture Collection in the McGill University archives.

In the 1910s and 1920s, the northern part of Mile End was a new residential neighbourhood, with a heterogeneous population. The Saint-Georges parish had just opened schools nearby for francophone Catholics in 1909 and 1910 when Edward VII School opened to teach anglophone children, primarily Protestants. Other non-Catholic communities also sent their children to the Protestant school until the abolition of the confessional system in 1998.

At first the student body at Edward VII was mostly Anglo-Protestant, with a significant Jewish minority between the world wars.[2] In contrast to Fairmount School, Jewish students were never the majority at Edward VII. In the 1960s, with the exodus to new suburbs, the number of Anglo-Protestant and Jewish children diminished greatly as Mile End became a neighbourhood of more recent immigrants. While students of Italian and Portuguese origin were more likely to attend Catholic schools, Greek Orthodox families preferred Protestant schools.

By the start of the 1960s, Edward VII school was underused and the Protestant School Board agreed to rent some empty classrooms to the Montreal Catholic School Commission from 1964 to 1967. The rental agreement ended in 1968 because an increased immigration population in the district meant the classrooms were needed once more for non-Catholic pupils: “The past eight months [from May to December 1967] have seen a remarkable influx of New Canadian pupils into that area bordering both sides of Park Avenue and extending northwards from Mount Royal Avenue through Park Extension. As a result, the enrolment in Edward VII School continues to increase spectacularly.”[3] The school was enlarged yet again, in 1960 and 1974.

Parc-école Édouard-VII

Edward VII schoolyard park [photo Rachel Boisclair 2019]

During the 1970s, the lack of playgrounds for children, and car traffic around the school became issues in the neighbourhood. During this time, the Park Avenue YMCA offered classes and workshops for families newly arrived in Canada, both for parents and children. Its recreational program for children used the Edward VII gym; according to the organizers, if it were not for this, the children would have had to play in the back lanes – which at the time were not very safe or clean.[4] In 1973, an Esplanade Avenue residents committee, comprised primarily of school parents, campaigned to get the City to create playgrounds in the neighbourhood. They were concerned by the many accidents involving children who had no choices other than to play in the street or to walk a kilometre to get to the closest park.[5] Finally, a partnership was created between the school board and the City: the school board purchased vacant lots to the north of Edward VII School on which the City created a playground. The school yard, gym and other space on the ground floor were lent to the City for the use of residents after the school day ended.

The language of education was becoming an important issue in Quebec during this time. The question was decided in 1978, with the adoption of the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101), which limited access to English schools to children with a parent who had attended an English school in Quebec. Henceforth, few children in the neighbourhood around Edward VII would have the right to an education in English.[6] As of 1979, a francophone section was added to the school, and by 1985 it had become entirely francophone, although still part of the Protestant network. The school was then given the French version of its name: Édouard VII.

With the reorganization of the school boards on a linguistic instead of religious basis, Édouard VII was transferred to the francophone Commission scolaire de Montréal (CSDM). Since it now served the same territory as the former Catholic school Lambert-Closse, and with school-age populations continuing to decline, Édouard VII became redundant. In 2002, the CSDM reassigned the building to house a special school adapted to children with autism spectrum disorders.[7] It was given the name École de l’Étincelle (“spark” in French) and initially received about 70 students.

Étincelle carried out various renovation projects. Interior work was done and more recently the brick cladding near the roof was repaired. The school grounds, previously quite barren, are now shaded by many mature trees which offer a somewhat better setting. Different play areas, separated from each other, have been designed to offer different experiences and a mural now adds cheerfulness to the former coal storage structure.

In the entrance lobby, an evolutive artwork takes the form of a little boy’s head in profile, made of acrylic sheet. The sheet protects photos of students and bears the autism logo: three attached jigsaw puzzle pieces together with a fourth, detaching from the others. The work was designed to allow for periodic changes to the pictures of the children, teachers and other school staff. This mosaic of portraits provides both continuity, since it always displays the same shapes, and changing images, which allow students to recognize themselves.

Currently École de l’Étincelle has about a hundred students, aged 4 to 12.

Research and writing: Rachel Boisclair, Laboratoire d’histoire et de patrimoine de Montréal, UQAM
Additional research and writing: Justin Bur, Mile End Memories; Michelle Comeau, UQAM
Translation: Joshua Wolfe



[1] Robert Cadotte and Anick Meunier, L’école d’antan (1860-1960). Découvrir et se souvenir de l’école du Québec, Montreal, Presses de l’Université du Québec, 2011, p. 24 et 108. It was école Maisonneuve, on Létourneux Street. Co-ed classes only became the norm in the 1950s.

[2] Louis Rosenberg, A study of the growth and changes in the distribution of the Jewish population of Montreal, Canadian Jewish Congress, 1955. https://www.bjpa.org/search-results/publication/18153

[3] Correspondence (January 8, 1968) between M. de Grandmont of the Montreal Catholic School Commission and M. Japp of the PSBGM, CSSDM Archives.

[4] “Where will 1000 city youngsters be playing this summer?”, The Gazette, May 22, 1970, p. 19.

[5] Renée Rowan, “Les familles de la rue Esplanade exigent un parc pour leurs enfants ”, Le Devoir, Montréal, Thursday, July 26, 1973 and August 17, 1973, Street file, City of Montreal Archives, VM166-1-2-R4059-A.

[6] The law was changed in 1984 (after a court challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, adopted in 1982) to extend access to children with a parent who had attended an English school anywhere in Canada.

[7] Lisa-Marie Gervais, “Une étincelle pour allumer des enfants pas comme les autres”, Le Devoir, August 28, 2009, and school website.

Principal Sources

Robert G. Hill, “Nobbs, Percy Erskine“, Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada, 1800-1950

Norbert Schoenauer, History [of the School of Architecture, McGill University]: Legacy of Nobbs [vers 1990]

Three Montreal School Buildings“, Nobbs & Hyde Architects, Construction, vol. 6, décembre 1913, p. 455–461

E. B. Palmer, “Typical Schools of the Province of Quebec”, Journal of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, septembre 1927, p. 327–338.

Isabelle Bouchard, Gabriel Malo, Inventaire préliminaire des bâtiments patrimoniaux de la CSDM, Édouard VII, 2001

Roderick MacLeod et Mary Anne Poutanen, A Meeting of the People : School Boards and Protestant Communities in Quebec, 1801–1998, Montréal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004