MONTREAL — A literary battle of sorts between those in favour of naming a proposed new high school in Côte St. Luc after Mordecai Richler and those stumping for Irving Layton has taken on unexpected intensity.
The name-calling erupted after the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) launched a public contest to name the former Wagar High School, which it hopes to reopen for the 2014-2015 academic year.
The EMSB suggests Côte St. Luc Parkhaven (the street the school is on), Wallenberg, after the Swedish diplomat credited with saving tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, or going back to Wagar.
However, www.NameTheSchool.com allows for other suggestions, and Beverly Akerman, a research scientist, author and mother, fired the first shot by making a case for Mordecai Richler, who died in 2001.
Layton’s oldest son, Max Layton, who lives in Ontario, is dead-set against this, and wants the school named for his father.
The naming contest closes on Nov. 30.
Akerman, who thinks Richler was “the greatest English Montreal writer of the 20th century,” is running a campaign on Facebook. Notables who agree with her include Gazette cartoonist and Richler friend Terry Mosher (Aislin), Richler biographer Michael Posner of Toronto, and Mordecai’s cousin, Howard Richler.
Max Layton, a retired high school teacher, pointed out to The CJN: “Our family lived in Côte St. Luc throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. It was during this time that Dad wrote many of the signature poems for which he later became famous.”
Montreal writer Glen Rotchin, winner of two Canadian Jewish Book Awards, is in the Layton camp.
Max Layton continued: “In fact, some of these poems specifically refer to Côte St. Luc, and it is at our little house, at 8035 Kildare Rd., that poets such as Dylan Thomas, Al Purdy, Milton Acorn and Leonard Cohen often met.
“Mordecai Richler had nothing to do with these gatherings or with Côte St. Luc.”
Max Layton suggests that Richler would be more suitably memorialized by naming something for him in the St. Urbain Street area, which he made famous.
“Naming a high school in Côte St. Luc for Mordecai Richler would be as completely inappropriate as naming a high school in the St. Urbain area for Irving Layton.”
After much public discussion, the City of Montreal last year, on the 10th anniversary of his death, decided to renovate and rename the gazebo on Mount Royal for Richler, a project that has yet to get underway.
The elder Layton, who died in 2006, also spent his final years in Côte St. Luc as a resident of Maimonides Geriatric Centre. The city already commemorated him. In 2007, Côte St. Luc named a street in a new development Irving Layton Avenue.
One EMSB commissioner, Julien Feldman, has proposed that the Bancroft campus on St. Urbain Street, near the former Baron Byng High School, be renamed for Richler. It currently houses both Bancroft Elementary and MIND High School, and enrolment is growing because of the influx of young people into the Plateau.
The Côte St. Luc EMSB campus is currently called the Giovanni Palatucci Facility for an Italian policemen who rescued Jews during World War II. It houses John Grant High School for children with special needs, Marymount Adult Education Centre and the EMSB’s book processing centre.
Whether there ever will be a mainstream EMSB high school in Côte St. Luc again still remains to be seen.
Two years ago, the board failed to garner much parental support for the project, despite having the backing of the city of Côte St. Luc, which is eager to attract young families.
Among its special features would be Jewish and possibly other heritage programs, as well as a sports concentration and enriched science curriculum.
Wagar High School, whose enrolment was at one time solidly Jewish, closed in 2005. In addition to the general decline in the anglophone population, the trend toward private education was cited as a major factor in its demise.
The EMSB plans to hold a public information meeting next spring for parents. The high school would only open if a “critical mass” of students register by that fall.