McKay Avenue School lost its ghost stories with departure of staff member

There are two schools of thought regarding ghosts in Edmonton’s historic landmark on McKay Avenue.

One is that rumours of hauntings are just that and the other is that there is a resident spirit pulling pranks on the living at the Historic McKay Avenue School Archives and Museum.

Lead curator and archivist Cindy Davis and former caretaker Ron Hlady are at odds when they talk about the resident spirits that may reside within the walls of the former legislation building.

There was a sense of frustration in Davis’ voice during a November 2020 phone conversation, admitting the stories of a haunting were started by former custodian, Ron Hlady. Some of those stories had allegedly led people to believe they could contact dead relatives and explore the former legislative building and school for their paranormal whims.

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 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 the Confederation on 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,” the then 59-year-old 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 by Davis, however, is the ghostly lore. 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 upon.

She placed the blame for the tales of a haunting on Hlady.

“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 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.”

The other side

Hlady now lives in Oromocto, New Brunswick, but worked within the walls of McKay Avenue for 22 years, joining the staff in 1984. He grew up in Drumheller, Alberta.

He reached out to The Superstitious Times after reading the original article and expressed disappointment over Davis’ comments.

“There’s no way I told people you could come see me and we can talk to your dead relatives,” he said, during a February 2024 phone conversation. “That never occurred.”

During his time there, plenty of unexplainable events happened to Hlady, as well as his colleagues at the school. One experience he shared was in the one room called Grandma’s Place. The room is still used as an educational resource for Grade 4 students to learn about life in the past.

Hlady was cleaning up and watering the flowers when he heard a noise. He turned around and saw the plunger handle on a butter churn go up and down.

“I looked right at it, and it stopped,” he recalled.

Other experiences Hlady had while working at McKay included cabinet drawers opening and closing. One particular heavy cabinet in the basement gave two of the staff members a scare when they entered the room and all the drawers were open.

Hlady said he didn’t suspect a poltergeist, but he did say he felt that a former construction worker named Peter died on the site in 1912. Hlady brought in psychics to the location and they confirmed there is an entity at McKay Avenue.

“He supposedly died, and of course, he wasn’t very literate so he didn’t know his last name, so all I got out of him was Peter,” the 73-year-old said. “He was a Casper the friendly ghost, and then he played pranks.”

Photo courtesy Morgan Knudsen
Paranormal researcher Morgan Knudsen, who calls Edmonton home, has taken classes through the McKay Avenue School.

A paranormal education

Though Davis may not acknowledge any high 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 2020 interview, adding that it’s a magnificent piece of architecture.

The haunting started when custodian Hlady allegedly used an Ouija board on school property. It is alleged that the spirit Peter was behind the haunting, and that 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,” Knudsen 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 allegedly had a buddy system to lock up at night.

She further confirmed Hlady’s story 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 sounded 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 several 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 (Allen) 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 without incident.

“I think once they started to realize that their fear was creating more momentum to the situation, they were able to get a handle on that, then stuff started to settle down.”

Photo courtesy of Morgan Knudsen
Historic McKay Avenue School Archives and Museum was the original location of Alberta’s legislative assembly.

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 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 can 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.’”

Regardless of the stories circulating about the property, McKay Avenue is the oldest brick building in the province.

The archives have been updating the history on their website during the pandemic, and one detail known 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.

This story has been updated from its original February 2021 version to include quotes and details from former caretaker, Ron Hlady.

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