Great Trek set student activist stage in 1922

As an example of student activism and serious commitment to a goal, the Great Trek is hard to beat.

But for those who were there on Oct. 28, 1922, it was also a lot of fun.

"I remember I had on a long gown," says Jean Robinson (Arts and Science '23). "I kept tripping on it all the way up Granville Street."

Friends Helen Swangard (Arts and Science '23), Muriel Ledingham ( Home Economics '30), and Robinson's sister Mary Henderson (Nursing '29) laugh at the memory.

The four were among 29 UBC alumni attending a recent luncheon held to mark the 75th anniversary of the Great Trek. Original trekkers and graduates from the years 1916 to 1930 were reunited at the event, sponsored by the Alumni Association as part of UBC's annual Homecoming Week.

"By the time we got here to UBC we had blisters, but we didn't care," says Robinson. "It was exciting -- it was fun."

The Point Grey campus was originally scheduled to open in the fall of 1913 but the government's seeming lack of commitment to the construction and the outbreak of war put construction on hold for more than a decade.

In 1915, the university opened in temporary quarters at the Fairview site of Vancouver General Hospital. Conditions were not good. Classes for 1,176 students spilled over into tents, church basements and nearby homes.

"We had Greek classes right in a hospital bedroom," says Robinson. "The conditions were terribly crowded."

In the summer of 1922, students circulated a petition to convince the government to resume construction on the university.

"All the kids went home for the summer and got signatures from every town in B.C.," says trekker Swangard. "Everybody canvassed for that petition -- it was a great success."

Students gathered 56,000 signatures that summer, an impressive total considering only 500,000 people were living in the province.

The Great Trek was the centrepiece of the students' publicity campaign.

On Oct. 28, 1922, a parade of trucks, floats and almost 1,200 students walked through downtown Vancouver to the cheers of onlookers. After a streetcar ride from Davie and Granville to 10th and Sasamat, the marchers continued on foot to the UBC site.

The half-constructed Science building, now the Chemistry building, provided a dramatic photo-op, as students perched themselves on its steel girders, waving banners and chanting slogans.

They then positioned themselves on a field to form a giant U-B-C.

Students ended the trek by depositing stones collected along the route in a cairn commemorating the occasion. The cairn still stands between the Chemistry Building and Trekkers restaurant.

President-elect of the Alma Mater Society at the time, Ab Richards dedicated the cairn as "a milestone in the history of the university and a landmark for the future. It also marks one of the greatest efforts ever put forward by an undergraduate student body in support of its university."

Richards and a student committee presented the petition at the legislature in Victoria and met with Premier John Oliver. The government responded to the widespread public support by agreeing to a loan of $1.5 million to resume construction of the campus.

The first classes were held on the UBC campus three years later on Sept. 22, 1925.

As current Alma Mater Society Vice-President Ruta Fluxgold says, "The Great Trek still reflects the spirit and pride of UBC students. We should always remember that students played a major role in building UBC and that their voices had a tangible effect on the development of the campus."