A notorious reform school and a hardscrabble childhood in Depression-era Halifax left Bill Mont with a lifetime of memories, mementos, and ambition
Bill Mont’s life is in boxes and binders.
In his closets. On his tables. Under his bed. He’s saved thousands of pictures and papers. Mementoes and memories. From his time as a flea market mogul. And owner of an island. Boiler chipper. Railway worker. Auctioneer. Castle and cemetery owner. “I have so many stories,” he says amid an empire of trinkets in his small room at Northwood Terrace.
This one is the story of a poor boy and pencils. Punishment. And a little-known Halifax reform school.
He wants to tell it, he says, because soon there will be no one else who remembers Halifax Industrial School—a “forgotten” chapter in the city’s history.
Mont is 89 years old now and has an eclectic history of his own. The self-described “entrepreneur of entrepreneurs” still has 18 tractor trailers full “of stuff” from his various ventures. He’s still “a pack rat of the first order.”
“The scrounging” began during his impoverished childhood in Depression-era Halifax. He’d steal bananas and vegetables, collect bottles and copper. He played hooky one day and a judge sentenced him to a “school” that was more of a prison.
Before Mont lived there it was also a place where staff beat, handcuffed, whipped, and otherwise tortured the children in their care, according to newspaper reports from almost 100 years ago.
Mont, although strapped, didn’t face such severe punishments. But what lead him there in 1938 is a curious mix of poverty and family circumstances that shapes his life to this day.
His father was a championship boxer who’d “ride the rods” on his way to prize fights in the United States. He died, of asphyxiation from fumes, in a boxcar coming home. Mont was five. He and his mother went to live with a couple he calls his step-parents, in the poor Halifax neighbourhood of Greenbank (near where the South End Container Terminal is now). He isn’t sure why they did that. But the mother and son “were baggage”—“a burden” in the couple’s life.
She wanted to get rid of them, he says. He believes she engineered his stint in the industrial school and placed his mother, Mary (who he reunited with later) in a mental institution. Before that, she made him go to Tower Road School (“the rich kids’ school”) where he felt like “an oddball.”
One day, when he was nine, she told him he’d have to get his pencils from school. The teacher told him to get them from home. Embarrassed, he skipped school for a day.
The next morning, a truant officer showed up and Mont went to court. A judge sentenced him to the school, a charitable institution that started in 1850 as The Ragged School and lasted until 1947 in various locations and under several names, including Halifax Protestant Industrial School.
The provincial government, which later provided annual grants per child, eventually replaced it with Nova Scotia School for Boys in Shelburne.
Initially, both genders attended. But by the late 1880s, local philanthropists funded a separate school for boys, according to documents at Nova Scotia Archives. The institution combined punishment, basic education and “training” (essentially child labour) for “wayward boys” convicted of minor crimes like truancy. Or caught begging. Or sleeping, according to school annual reports, in hollow sewer pipes, outhouses, and dog kennels.
Mont was sentenced to five years but served 2.5. “[For] no pencils,” he says. “Can you imagine?”
Many details of his daily routines have faded. But he remembers the work, the strap and the silence.
He stretches his fingers and spells his name with the sign language the boys used because their male guardians insisted on silence.
And work. In the early years, children made shoes and paper bags, which the school sold. Or they learned trades like hair-cutting and tending horses.
Mont chopped wood for kindling. One boy held the wood; another chopped. One day, he watched one child accidentally chop off the finger of another.
He doesn’t remember what happened next. But some moments remain. Like the night he got the strap. “We were in this big dormitory and they had a little light on, he could look in… to see if anything was going on …so I got up to use the bathroom and I flushed the toilet and the toilet overflowed… Four whacks on my bare behind like you wouldn’t believe with a big strap. I certainly remember that one.”
What happened to earlier generations of children was worse, according to a series of 1924 reports by the weekly Halifax Citizen, which first exposed the abuse under the headline “Fiendish Cruelty Practised Upon The Inmates of the Halifax Industrial School.”
Staff had beaten one “lad” with a broom stick while his hands were cuffed behind him, handcuffed and choked another, and scarred one boy so severely he had to be hospitalized, it reported. “Another case…is that of a young lad… said to have been so brutally handled that he became insane and was sent to the Nova Scotia Hospital.”
The paper’s dogged coverage, and its calls for the school’s closure, lead to a provincial inquiry which revealed even more horrors: boys were regularly horsewhipped, beaten with broom handles and cat-o-nine tails, and dunked in barrels of ice cold water in winter. One boy, according to the Citizen, “was forced to eat his own stool.”
They were also malnourished and “forced to toil hard and long” in dangerous conditions. One former “inmate” testified he’d lost an arm because of an unsafe circular saw. Staff took away food and beat them for talking during meals.
The province promised reforms but the school stayed open. It’s not clear if the abuse continued.
Mont can’t recall all the details. But his childhood separation from his mother and his rough upbringing left a lasting impression that ignited his lifelong gathering of things. Like the Irish castle he once owned after he tried and failed to buy Oland’s Castle—the “dream” mansion he passed every day on his way to the rich kids’ school. And the giant flea markets he operated for decades. And other acquisitions he still keeps, like Devil’s Island and Pleasant Hill Cemetery.
His mind still whirls with ideas for bargains-to-be-had and money-to-be-made.
He thinks it always will. “I’m a child of the Depression, broken home—the whole friggin’ thing. And you’re scrounging all the time… Things were so tough even today I don’t want to throw nothing away.”
Then he tells one more story about the school, the “big looming building” on Quinpool Road, and a triumph that came many years later.
During summers, staff took the boys to a farm in Lower Sackville. It eventually became Sackville Downs Race Track where Mont operated a popular flea market.
“We’d go out there and run behind this wagon and [the farmers] were throwing little candies at us…On one side, way back, I’m running behind a hay wagon trying to catch candy and then I’m coming back with 10,000 people every Sunday for years with my flea market.”
He stops. Shakes his head. And smiles. Then starts making other plans.