70 years ago in Eastern Ontario
by Craig Stevenson
If there are two truths about public education, they are as follows: that schools reflect broader community and social values, and that an individual within a school can do much to shape the experience of its students.
Each applies to Avonmore High School during the period in which William Powell served as principal and—more importantly—as the commander of the school’s army cadet program.
From 1943 to 1952, Powell molded Royal Canadian Army Cadet Corps Number 1989 into an exceptional group of students who represented their school at the highest levels of achievement and recognition within the national cadet movement.
School cadet programs were well established by the time Powell founded the Avonmore corps. Prior to World War One, they introduced young Canadians to military service at a time when European nations were moving toward war. Cadet training was intended to strengthen Canada’s military role within the British Empire by creating a class of young “citizen-soldiers”. As a disciplinary benefit, one educational authority declared that cadet training was “a remedy for the hooliganism of the town and the loutishness of the country.”
By 1911, most Canadian provinces had implemented a school cadet program. The federal government, through the Militia Department, provided training and materials. A major financial gift came from Sir Donald Smith, founder of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Under his official title as Lord Strathcona, Smith donated $500,000 to a trust in his name, with the funds intended to reward exceptionally proficient cadet groups.
At first glance, the school cadet programs seem to reflect a more warlike age, when Canada’s place in the world was very different than it is now.
But that is not entirely accurate. The cadet program at Avonmore High School provided social and learning opportunities that turned this small rural high school into a rather elite academy. It was so extensive, and provided so many experiences beyond the classroom, that it is tempting to conclude that the cadet program at Avonmore High School was the education.
The visual record bears this out. Courtesy of William Powell’s photograph collection, we have a clear view of the extent of cadet activities at Avonmore High School and in the broader community. Powell intended the Avonmore cadet corps to extend beyond simply being a school group, to being a highly visible community organization rooted within the school.
Below, the cadets play a prominent role in a “drum-head” ceremony at Finch High School in 1946. This ceremony was a traditional military service held to remember those killed in battle. The Avonmore corps contributed an honour guard to the event, pictured here standing at attention and holding aloft their Corps 1989 flag and the Union Jack. The ceremony was attended by local residents and dignitaries such as Lionel Chevrier, Member of Parliament for Stormont and the Minister of Transport in the cabinet of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King.
Coming as it did so shortly after the end of World War Two, this ceremony held somber significance for local communities that had lost young men to the conflict. In a small village—and with a small school at their disposal—cadet activities were a visible feature of community life. By necessity, much of their training occurred beyond the school’s walls, in Avonmore’s streets and fields. In this scene from 1948 (below), the cadets are on full display as they march down Avonmore’s Main Street.
Led by majorette Mavis Grant, her baton held high, the cadets demonstrate impeccable organization as they march in a column separated into distinct files. These activities added value to what was taught inside the school. Cadet training became an extension of the curriculum, and a chance to apply lessons in a real-life, practical sense—much as would be done in Canada’s regular military. Below, the cadets conduct radio communications drills next to the high school, using what is likely surplus equipment from the recently-ended war.
This drill would have added substantial meaning to any related science or technology teaching in the classroom. The same can be said regarding physical education. In this photograph (below) the cadets have assembled next to the school before taking part in a winter skiing drill, complete with rifles slung over their snow-camouflage ponchos.
The drills are reminiscent of the type of winter combat that had so recently taken place in wartime. These would have been skiing drills only, however. The rifles—Cooey Model 82 .22 calibre training rifles obtained by Canadian cadet corps in large quantities—were used in the school’s basement firing range. Powell’s ability to develop a strong cadet program in Avonmore was matched by an enthusiasm for publicizing their talents beyond the immediate community. In 1947 he arranged to have his cadets profiled twice on Cornwall radio station CKSF. In a February broadcast, Cadet Officer Stirling Lang explained how their training helped develop a sense of well-rounded citizenship.
In June, a live broadcast from the school profiled the cadets’ artistic side with a piano and vocal presentation on the weekly “These United Counties” show.
The drills and publicity paid off with a flurry of broader recognition for the Avonmore corps. The high point came in 1948, when the cadets were awarded their third-consecutive Strathcona Shield as the top-performing high school cadet corps in Canada. This award alone was the crowning achievement of any Canadian cadet corps—but there was more. That same year, they won three prestigious awards in the field of target shooting: the Province of Ontario Shield, the cross-Canada Duke of Devonshire Trophy, and the Imperial Challenge Trophy as the top-ranked cadet shooting squad right across the British Empire.
At the annual cadet inspection in May came another boost to the group’s profile—a documentary film, produced as a co-operative effort by the Strathcona Trust and the Ontario Ministry of Education. As a special highlight of the day, the Avonmore cadets received a visit from the Governor-General’s Foot Guards, who paraded down Avonmore’s Main Street.
The day’s activities—including the march, demonstrations of various types of cadet training, and a mock battle—were captured by Frank “Budge” Crawley, who would go on to become one of Canada’s best-known film-makers. (Crawley produced several army cadet films, but the Avonmore documentary cannot be located at this time). The following year, Powell arranged a special trip to Ottawa through Stormont MP Lionel Chevrier. As much as this trip was to be a reward for their work, it was also a visit intended to showcase local cadets to Canada’s federal leaders. The Avonmore cadets—joined by a smaller number of cadets from Aultsville and Wales high schools—visited Parliament Hill and the Mint, and met a variety of prominent politicians.
The group was given remarkably open access to political leaders, including meetings with Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent on steps of Parliament’s main entrance and with Leader of the Opposition George Drew in his office. Other stops included the Parliamentary Library, the Senate Chamber, and—in keeping with the cadets’ close association of civic duty and military service—at the Books of Remembrance in the Memorial Chamber at the Peace Tower.
The Ottawa trip concluded with a formal dinner hosted by Chevrier. As recognition of their achievements, and as a lesson in the nation’s civic institutions and traditions, it is difficult to imagine a more rewarding day afield. There were other army cadet corps in area high schools, and all offered similar opportunities to their students. But the Avonmore cadets were an exceptional group, and they offer us a clear view of how one individual created an educational program that reflected Canadian values of the day while equipping its members for future success.
That era ended, and so faded away high school cadet corps in Avonmore and beyond.
William Powell moved on to Richmond, Ontario, to finish his career at South Carleton High School. Over the span of 1957-1958, Avonmore High School closed and merged with students in Finch at their high school, in the newly-formed North Stormont High School. A cadet corps at North Stormont continued on, and then they and other cadet programs encountered the headwinds that ended their presence in Canadian schools — the 1960s.
Canada entered an age in which the passage of time was rendering the personal impact of the Second World War more distant. Young people who might have been attracted to cadet participation now lived in a society that offered a greater number of distractions. And that decade brought a new and different war, one that changed how young Canadians viewed military service. The American disaster in Vietnam was broadcast worldwide, and there and elsewhere young people started to question the very idea of military service. By the latter half of the 1960s, as anti-war protests gathered steam, interest in all branches of the Canadian military started to wane. Cadets groups in Canadian high schools simply faded away, victims of generational disinterest and perceived obsolescence.
There is no more Avonmore High School cadet corps; it is as gone as the school that disappeared so many years ago. But the images of their brightest moments provide a remarkable view into what education was and could be, within and beyond a small school in a small eastern Ontario community.
With thanks to Marion (Powell) Conroy, who provided the photographs that her father collected while Principal of Avonmore High School.
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