School for an Immigrant Neighbourhood: Harbord Collegiate’s happy ghosts

Postcard showing a large red brick school with a square tower
Postcard of Harbord Collegiate Institute, c 1910 (Toronto Public Library PC_3539)

In June1974—for the first time in its history—the Toronto Board of Education allowed liquor to be served at one of its schools. The occasion was a bang-up homecoming weekend for Harbord students flocking back to celebrate their beloved collegiate.

A stellar barbershop quartet of Louis Weingarten and Frank Shuster (Wayne and Shuster); Sam Shopsowitz (Shopsy’s Delicatessen and Restaurant chain) and Sam Sniderman (Sam the Record Man) entertained the crowd.

Three thousand exuberant dancers formed a conga line around the school to the strains of “Hava Nagila.” The Israeli folk song (translates as “Let us rejoice”) was a special nod to the school’s 1920s to 1950s population which had at times been ninety percent Jewish. Many students were the children of recent eastern European immigrants. Tough times. A solid education was the lifeline.

The kids at Harbord had to prove something to themselves and their parents. In addition, they had to compensate for a degree of anti-Semitism that was around at that time. Many of them aimed very high and they scored. Philip Givens (formerly Givertz) mayor of Toronto (1963-1966) judge; politician; Harbord alumnus

During the time Philip Givens described, there were university quota systems for the number of Jews accepted into Canadian universities and the professions. Many businesses and organizations—including hotels and Muskoka resorts—openly or discreetly refused to admit “outsiders” into what was still a predominantly British society.

Harbord’s Jewish students learned to strive—and thrive—against the odds of the day, and to find places in the community and the world beyond.

As the 1950s drew to a close, much of Harbord’s Jewish population moved to more prosperous parts of the city.  The school then adjusted to waves of Italians, Portuguese, Poles, Ukrainians, Greeks, Asians, recent arrivals from the West Indies—in short, all cultures—becoming the no-dominant-ethnic-group mix now commonplace in Toronto’s public schools.

Cover of Harbord's magazine from 1992 devoted to the history of the school 1892–1992 "The Happy Ghosts of Harbord." Features a drawing of the school's memorial.
This special issue of the school’s magazine is available at

When Harbord celebrated its 125th anniversary in April 2017, Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee aptly described the school as “Toronto’s famous immigrant launching pad.”

Many Harbord students, whether Canadian-born or from other countries, volunteered for for king and country in their shared homeland. (Reflecting Harbord’s early years, our “Search the database” feature will show that more than half the names on the WWII memorial indicate Jewish roots.)

Thank you to volunteer Marg McCann, who made a special effort to re-take and gather photographs and arrange meetings at Harbord’s busy archives. Murray Rubin (class of 1950), Marvin Katz, Harbord alumnus and artist  who produced Harbord’s distinctive Second World War memorial, and an active group of school historians welcomed us. Harbord’s special history goes on day to day under skilled hands.

 Harbord’s “happy ghosts” of the 1974 homecoming showed future students how to cheer their old school, but look beyond their origins. To aim high and score.

For King and Country is pleased to add Harbord Collegiate Institute to our collection of Toronto schools.

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