• Jared Warren

High School During World War II

Galt Collegiate Institute had experienced tremendous growth in the twenty years that followed the conclusion of World War I. Under the direction of the school’s principal, Arthur Presland Gundry, the school expanded to include vocational education programs, which required further additions to the building to accommodate a machine shop, woodworking shop, and household science classrooms, as well as a new assembly hall and gymnasia. Gundry lived to see vocational education established at the school before his untimely death in 1925. He was succeeded by Thomas Hilliard Wholton, who would remain as principal until 1959.

By September 1939, Europe was on the brink of another world war—this time, facing the aggressive expansion and oppressive policies of Nazi Germany. In consequence of the German invasion of Poland on September 3, 1939, the United Kingdom declared war on Germany, followed by a similar declaration by Canada and other Commonwealth nations. The reality of this new war became quickly apparent to GCI staff and students when on September 16th the school flag was lowered to half-mast for the funeral of a Hamilton schoolgirl who died aboard the SS Athenia, the first British ship to be torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat.

World War II affected the daily routine of staff and students at GCI, as it did for all schools across Canada. The staff and students at GCI did not shirk from utilizing their time and energy to help with the war effort by becoming involved in Red Cross work and various fundraisers. The school, for instance, raised about $1000 to $1400 from proceeds collected from bake sales, plays, concerts, and cash donations from pupils, all of which were donated towards the Red Cross and local relief programs. Not a single penny raised was spent elsewhere.

Galt Aircraft School, E.R.A. Navy Trainees, July 31st, 1943. (GCI Archives).

GCI also opened its doors to the Royal Canadian Navy. As the RCN expanded early in the war there were very few skilled machinists enlisting that could be used to maintain and operate the machinery on the ships, work conducted by Engine Room Artificers. A training program was initiated, beginning in Galt in 1941, followed by similar programs in Calgary and Windsor. The machine shop classroom at GCI was turned over to the RCN as one of various locations where this training occurred. It was also used by the Galt Aircraft School for instructional use, many of the students of which moved on to serve as mechanics in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the war.

World War II had affected attendance in Ontario high schools to some degree. As wartime industrial factories were organized and offered steady employment opportunities, a number of older students were tempted to secure work permits to be excused from studies to find jobs. Those who remained at school, on the other hand, saw the launch of a defence training course in 1942. This new health and physical education course included classes on healthy living, drill, map reading, aircraft recognition and signalling, and was made compulsory for all male ad female high school students. Cadets, on the other hand, remained as a more popular extracurricular activity, which saw a province-wide boost in its enrollment at the outbreak of the war, and which eventually replaced the new defence training course as a mandatory part of high school in September 1944. The Cadets also experienced a monumental change in the makeup of its participants with the creation of a Girl Cadets Corps at GCI as early as 1942.

The war also led to criticism of the “progressive education” movement that occurred over the last two decades. Critics looked to armed forces as evidence of the movement’s failure: for instance, recruits demonstrated a lack of basic literacy and computational skills. Consequently, there occurred a general movement towards a more conservative approach to education, which was viewed as necessary to preserve democracy. The effects of this shift towards more conservative methods of teaching and learning lasted well into the 1970s.

When Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, the day was declared a holiday. Principal Wholton used the fire alarm the day before to announce the cessation of hostilities in Europe to the entire school, amid cheers from staff and students. School was not yet back in session when V-J Day occurred in September.

By the time the war ended, about 790 ex-pupils from GCI had enlisted for service, many of whom won decorations for valour and had served in various capacities in both Europe and Asia. Out of that number, 78 men lost their lives, and their names were added to the memorial tablet in the main hallway of GCI soon after the end of World War II.


Financial statements of contributions to the war effort from GCI during World War II, MG 1, 2019.04.29.23, GCI Archives; Principal's Daily Journal, 1939, 1945, GCI Archives; John Mason, "Wartime Era Apprentices," accessed June 9, 2008,, copy available in MG 1, 2019.04.29.26, GCI Archives; Robert M. Stamp, The Schools of Ontario, 1876-1976 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), pp. 171-173, 177; T. H. Wholton, One Hundred Years: An Outline of the History of the Galt Collegiate Institute and Vocational School (1952), p. 7. Also note that the earliest mention of a corps of Girl Cadets at GCI is found in an invitation to the 32nd Annual Dance of the GCI Cadet Corps No. 21 and Corps of Girl Cadets from May 22, 1942, MG 1, Vol. 4, 2019.05.03.45B, GCI Archives.