Campus roots: How students built UBC Point Grey

All throughout last year, a long-running joke among the student body of UBC was the length of the administration’s multi-season effort to repair the famed Martha Piper Fountain that graces the cover of every school brochure. However, the current student grumblings of the lack of progress pale in comparison to the struggle UBC’s earliest classes undertook merely to establish a campus where they could study and learn. It took decades and a massive student revolution to get the Point Grey campus built here — on land that was only available because it was stolen from the Musqueam people.

The story began in 1877 when it became apparent that British Columbia would start a university, inciting the first school plan to be drawn up and introduced to the provincial government. In 1899 — after much bickering over the location and funding — it was decided that Vancouver College would run a few first-year arts courses that were partly administered by McGill University.

This was a band-aid solution to a much more deeply rooted problem, as students had to go to McGill after their first year to acquire a degree — not to mention there was only one faculty member. In response to this issue, McGill took advantage of the lack of provincial leadership and opened McGill University College of BC (MUCBC) in 1906.

BC residents were still not satisfied with this solution. In 1910, plans were finalized to allocate 175 acres to the founding of a university in Point Grey.

The unofficial University of British Columbia ran out of a hodgepodge of locations in Fairview — right next to where the Vancouver General Hospital now stands — on the intersection of Laurel Street and 10th Avenue. Classes took place wherever a learning space could be cobbled together, from people’s houses to church basements to, infamously, a tent for the chemistry laboratory. The only permanent building was on loan from the hospital, while the hasty construction of the rest of the campus prompted the nickname the Fairview Shacks.

According to some students, the university was about 60 per cent over capacity in 1921, leading to overcrowded conditions and often forcing many professors to give their lectures up to six times a day.

The wait time between the initial declaration of the university’s creation and subsequent construction of the campus lasted for about 30 years, which increasingly infuriated the student body.

In 1921, the relatively small size of the school population and its tight-knit community life turned out to be beneficial in rallying the vast majority of the school together when student leaders started to take up the cause of getting a better campus.

Over the summer of 1922, students worked to sign a petition for funding from the government to begin the immediate construction of the long-promised campus. When the initial 1,014 student signatories came back for the 1922/23 school year, they returned with 17,000 signatures.

Unsatisfied with only a petition, the students planned a Varsity Week as a last-minute push to collect even more signatures. By week’s end, they had garnered not only the support of the city but an impressive total of 56,000 signatures. At the time, that number was greater than a tenth of British Columbia’s population.

Varsity Week culminated in the petitions’ grand finale: the pilgrimage now known as the Great Trek.

Students borrowed over a dozen trolleys from the city, decorated them as makeshift floats and marched through the city, from East Georgia to the bare bones of the Science Building, singing this song:

“We’re through with tents and hovels,

We’re done with shingle stain,

That’s why we want you to join us

And carry our Campaign.

The Government can’t refuse us,

No matter what they say,

For we’ll get the people voting

For our new home at Point Grey!”

The pilgrimage crossed what would soon become University Boulevard, through fields and past acres of land and Musqueam territory, until it finally reached the hollow structure of the future Science Building.

The students then famously climbed up the structure, which was four storeys above ground, waving signs and chanting UBC songs. This show of school pride fraught with indignation prompted the government to dedicate over $1 million in funds towards campus construction to have UBC Point Grey in place by 1925.

As an eternal reminder of the assiduous efforts of the students and to commemorate the Trek, a Cairn was built outside the Chemistry Building. It was composed of stones representing the ones that the students used in their protest.

The incredible capacity of our predecessors to coordinate such a large-scale and successful campaign to push for their rights is admirable and should not be left in the past. They fought for privileges that we enjoy without a second thought.

The next time you walk down Main Mall past the Chemistry Building, stop to read the message on the Cairn and ask yourself this question: Would you be willing to stand with your fellow students should you feel that injustices have been leveled against you?

This article has been updated to correct a mistake made in how the history of UBC Vancouver was described, which erased the Indigenous history of the land. A full apology from our editorial can be found here.