Lead curator and archivist Cindy Davis wants to let the public know that there is no ghost at the Historic McKay Avenue School Archives and Museum.
There’s a sense of empathy and frustration in the 59-year-old’s voice during a November phone conversation. The allegations of a former custodian, Ron Hlady, have led people to believe they can contact their dead relatives at the former legislative building and school.
Constructed in 1904, and named for Dr. William MacKay, a physician for the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Richardsonian Romanesque style landmark was officially closed as a school in 1983. Pronounced mick-qi instead of mick-kay — the name was misspelled by stone carvers during construction — it was designated a municipal historic resource, along with the original schoolhouse (built 1882), in 2015.
It was also served as the meeting place for Alberta’s first Legislative Assembly when Premier Alexander Rutherford of the Alberta Liberal Party governed the fledgling province. Alberta and Saskatchewan joined Confederation, Sept. 1, 1905.
Every year, pre-pandemic, the archives would have 8,000 students come through to learn about the academic lives of students from 1882 and on.
The original schoolhouse, which was one of the first buildings constructed after Fort Edmonton, used to take children on a trip through history. Additionally, Grade 6 students visit the former legislative chambers on the third floor and take part in a debate.
“The whole forming of the province took place on the third floor,” Davis said. “We want to teach kids about their local history and our connections with Canada and everything we do meets the Alberta curriculum. And everything is hands-on.”
What history is not accommodated however is that of Hlady’s creation. Maybe in the 1980s it was okay to conjure up fictional tales of haunts, Davis said, but during today’s social climate, tales of the uncanny are frowned up.
“It was all made up by a custodian. Everything is connected to Ron’s birthday and Ron’s dates in his life,” the staff member of eight years said. “He made up the Ouija board. So there really isn’t anything here, and it’s just become a story.”
She added that a story published in the Huffington Post back in 2013 added to her consternation.
“Nobody talked to anybody here,” the Waterloo, Ont. ex-pat said, “and we are right downtown, and it’s an amazing building. It’s an absolute jewel with the history we have here.
“But what happens every Halloween, and those who work here don’t get it, people who are already on the edge with mental illness think they are going to find a loved one here.”
Davis pointed to one example of a young man who witnessed the death of his mother in the bed he slept in. They have an expectation, Davis added, that they are going to find their loved ones.
“I think it’s cruel what’s happened to people. It’s cruel what people live through, but that’s where I have a bit of difficulty even pretending with this.”
Regardless of the stories circulating about the property, McKay Avenue is the oldest brick building in the province.
With the pandemic, the archives have been updating the history on their website, and one detail knows for certain is there’s no evidence that a man fell off the roof during the 1912 expansion.
“It’s kind of like, we’re an archive, and we know it didn’t happen and we’re left dealing with the issues here,” she said.
A paranormal education
Though Davis may not acknowledge any strangeness in McKay Avenue, paranormal researcher and writer Morgan Knudsen has investigated the McKay Avenue School four times, and they are a location where she has filmed and held paranormal classes over the past 15 years.
“It’s probably one of my favourite locations in Edmonton for hauntings,” she said, in a November interview, adding that it’s a magnificent piece of architecture in the city.
The haunting, which started years ago when a janitor Ron Hlady allegedly followed people around the school.
“The guy started allegedly playing around with an Ouija board at the school,” Knudsen said. “But from my understanding is he was fired because they were getting complaints and he had been messing around with the Ouija board.”
That’s when instances of the uncanny started happening. And it is alleged that a spirit named Peter was behind them. Peter fell to his death from a third-floor window.
“The activity that was going on at the school did not match the story of a lovely spirit who wanted to come in and be friends,” she recalled. “There had been a lot of aggressive activity. I spoke to one witness who said they had been choked.
“There was some heavy-duty activity going on there.”
Large pieces of furniture, made from solid oak, would move around. Knudsen added that the school had a buddy system to lock up at night.
Another instance of paranormal activity was in the archive room, located in the building’s basement. The archives had large wooden tablets that were affixed to the wall. Maps and blueprints were stored on them.
“These would come out all by themselves and these things weighed a ton,” Knudsen said, adding voices were also heard in that area.
Interviews with construction crews who worked on the renovations inside McKay shared similar stories of moving furniture. Benches would be shoved in front of them at the last second causing them to trip.
When Knudsen and her team investigated, a camera crew from Shaw TV had set up microphones in one of the rooms. The cameraman heard what sounding like huffing and growling in his headset. When they ended up in the archive room, it sounded like a voice underwater.
Another instance, in 2008, had her take a class up to the third floor, where the first Alberta parliament held their sessions.
“I had a walk-in classroom go in there a number of times and one of the most interesting incidents was when she had taken everyone upstairs … and there was one fellow — I don’t know what happened — but he started to freak out. He couldn’t do it.
“The entity ended up locking us up on the third floor with the current janitor. The janitor couldn’t even get the door open with his skeleton keys,” she added. “It wasn’t until we could get the gentleman to calm down that the janitor was able to unlock the door and we were able to walk out.”
Knudsen said that she ensures everyone is in the best state of mind before entering the building because negative energy can be projected when entering an allegedly haunted location.
In recent years, the activity has died down, and Knudsen said she suspects it because the employees have changed their mindset as negative energy sets the entity off.
As for the spirit dubbed Peter, there were no records of a Peter on staff, nor are there records of a worker dying on-site.
“As far as I know, the museum doesn’t have their buddy system anymore, and the museum is a great place to visit,” Knudsen said. “But it’s got a history.”
The power of positive thinking, Knudsen said, has allowed the new staff at the public-school museum to continue on without incident.
“I think once they started to realize that their own fear was really creating more momentum to the situation, they were able to get a handle on that, then stuff really started to settle down.”
Fact or fiction?
Anton Jeremie Buchberger visited the McKay Avenue School in 2015 as part of an organized paranormal investigation for Halloween.
He joined forces with event planner Samantha Pham to dig a little deeper into the alleged story of Peter, the construction worker who fell to his death during the 1912 renovations of McKay.
One of the challenges Buchberger, lead researcher for Pandemonium Paranormal, came across was trying to distinguish between what was fact and what was fiction.
“You can try and aim your investigation towards what you find,” he said during a February Messenger video call. “We got lots of information from the staff, and we got lots of information from our research, but again online it might not be actual facts.”
Buchberger started researching the paranormal 10 years ago with the Edmonton Paranormal Society. Then after two years, he started Pandemonium Paranormal.
Which eventually brought him to McKay.
“It’s a very, very nice building. It has an imposing, old-style building, which is always great,” he said, adding he took a tour of the building with Pham. During that tour they learned about the construction worker who fell to his death, as well as the moving furniture, running water and closing doors.
The event divided guests into four different groups in four different groups and taught them how to record EVPs and use EMF detectors.
“We got a pretty intense, heavy vibe from the building,” the 41-year-old said. “It was pretty interesting for them.”
Pandemonium Paranormal roots its investigations in the greater Edmonton area, which means they are able to discuss everything from CFB Griesbach to Charles Camsell Hospital to the historic Rutherford House.
What’s important to Buchberger is helping clients process and resolve their experiences with the paranormal. Additionally, his goal is also to merge the paranormal into mainstream science.
What he learned about the activity at McKay, however, is that it’s a lot of open doors, but nothing poltergeist related.
“Most of the time it’s based on a person, someone manifesting the events unknowingly,” he said. “It’s hard to try and figure out what is fact and what is fiction.”
Still, Davis is one to be more enthused about the historical significance of McKay still standing in the heart of Edmonton, rather than the ghost stories of dubious origins from an ex-employee.
“I know at one time the ghost story was humourous at Halloween, but now, since I’ve been here, I’ve seen how detrimental it is to individuals,” Davis said, adding she had been on a ghost tour with paranormal investigator Morgan Knudsen. “(Knudsen) said, ‘If there was an entity here, it’s not here any longer.’”