With the U.S. Federal Elections approaching and looming large on seemingly every Canadian and American news outlet, we thought we’d flip through St. Catharines high school yearbooks to take a look at one of the earliest introductions to politics for many of us: student government and student debates.
Most secondary schools in Canada today have some sort of student government, whether it’s called a student voice, council, senate, parliament, or something else. The student government, elected by the student body and supported by teaching faculty, often act as the voice of the students and organize assemblies, special events, service-oriented projects, and advocacy efforts.
From the yearbooks I flipped through, it seems that elected student government in St. Catharines high schools only emerged after the Second World War and cemented itself in student culture by the 1950s. This may be attributed to a heightened awareness of international affairs among the student body. Yearbooks at this time feature articles in their literary sections focused on the mounting geopolitical tensions of the Cold War and the ever-widening ideological divide between liberal democracy and communism. In an article written in the 1951 St. Catharines Collegiate Vox Collegiensis outlining the formation of a new citizenship lecture series, the student author Robert Bell began by acknowledging that the current year was “darkened by the threat of impending war” and “political and military decisions of great significance to the development of world history” and due to this, “a new and more vital interest in the operation of the Canadian Government has been aroused on the part of the student body.”
The elected members of the 1950-1951 St. Catharines Collegiate Senate took their responsibility as the voice of the students seriously. President Ted Lanksy noted in his address that the executive members “organized quickly” to “fulfill our election promises” and planned numerous student-centric events throughout the school year including, but not limited to a Grade 9 orientation, the Sadie Hawkin’s dance, the school Variety Show, and the Spring Formal. The Student Senate also took part in formally welcoming special guests to the school on behalf of the student body, including an official visit by Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent and Agnes MacPhail, first female Member of Parliament, among others
The 1950-1951 Student Senate at the St. Catharines Collegiate is one of the earliest examples of elected student government I could find in the Museum’s collection of local high school yearbooks. As I flipped through yearbooks published into the 1950s and 1960s, it seems that over time elected student governments became the centre of student culture. The 1969-1970 Grantham High School Student Council, for example, organized what they saw as a “well-balanced range of events” including “Commencement, Prom, Winter Carnival, Variety Show’ and even a “stirring Remembrance Day Assembly.” As with other high schools at the time, the elected executive would further make appearances at athletic events, fundraisers, and other activities of the student body.
Elections themselves seemed to also be a large part of student culture, where student council candidates ran campaigns and participated in assemblies to deliver speeches and election promises. You may recall the extra buzz and excitement in the hallways of your own high school during student council elections!
Student debate teams, debate societies or speakers’ clubs, appear in our collection of high school yearbooks as early as the 1920s. The teams were designed to enhance students’ public speaking skills and confidence, while also providing an opportunity for students to dig deeper into the political, economic, and social issues of the day. Debate teams would meet to hone their technique, organize and prepare for formal debates amongst each other, and even compete against different schools in debating tournaments.
Flipping through the yearbooks of Ridley College, the Acta Ridliana, it is clear that the school prided itself on a large and successful debating society. The school’s yearbook publications often dedicated several pages to both the senior and junior debating societies, covering activities in extensive detail. In 1970, Ridley College hosted their first Invitational Debating Tournament, where 22 public and private secondary schools across southern Ontario, including a few from St. Catharines, were invited to take part in a full-day tournament. Each school was represented by three debaters and a coach, and each team prepared themselves to either defend or oppose the following resolution: “that nationalism is a beneficial force in the world today.” After several rounds of debate Brebeuf College of Toronto, an all-boys Catholic secondary school, won the tournament, arguing in opposition.
It is interesting to flip through St. Catharines yearbooks across high schools and decades and read the names of the young minds who served on elected student government or participated on debate teams. How many went on to become politicians, public speakers, or have dedicated their voices to support important causes? High School can shape us in so many ways, including introducing us to new activities, interests, and school subjects that can spark a life-long passion.
Sara Nixon is a public historian and Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre.