Early Days of UBC Mirrored Province’s Boom and Bust Cycles

UBC students pose on the unfinished Chemistry Building during the 1922 Great Trek - photo courtesy of UBC Archives
UBC students pose on the unfinished Chemistry Building during the 1922 Great Trek – photo courtesy of UBC Archives

UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 6 | Jun. 5, 2008

By Lorraine Chan

The founding and early fortunes of the University of British Columbia closely mirrored those of the province.

Boom times and a growing population made it possible for the B.C. government to pass the University Act in 1908, says B.C. historian Patricia Roy.

Yet, it would be seven years later before UBC opened its doors in 1915. In that interim, the province had endured an economic depression and saw the start of the Great War.

“The world of 1915 was very different from that of 1908,” says Roy, a UBC alumna and professor emerita of history at the University of Victoria.

“There was unemployment. Immigration fell off. The Grand Trunk Pacific and Canadian Northern Railways were complete but bankrupt.”

In great contrast to this grim picture were the heady days when B.C. residents felt flush and exuberant over the idea of a university they could call their own.

In 1908, B.C.’s population numbered approximately 250,000 and the province enjoyed an annual output from manufacturing, forestry, fishing, mining, furs and farms totaling $60 million.

The 37-year-old premier, Richard McBride “was optimism personified,” says Roy.

“McBride and the Minister of Education Henry Esson Young had the will and wherewithal to press ahead because they knew the province needed skills to develop its resources.”

As well, says Roy, McBride knew what it was like to leave the province to earn a university degree.

At age 16, McBride completed his studies in a one-room high school in New Westminster. He decided to pursue law and moved to Halifax where he attended Dalhousie Law School, Canada’s only university-based law school.”

During 1908, B.C. had 16 high schools with about 1,400 students. Those who aspired to post-secondary education had to head south to the United States or back east.

Or they could join 48 other students at McGill University College in Vancouver or at its Victoria branch, or attend Columbian College in New Westminster, which was affiliated with Victoria University of Toronto.

On March 7, 1908, the legislature, with little debate, passed the act incorporating the University of British Columbia. The Act declared that in order to make higher education widely available, tuition would be free to all students in Arts, and women students would “have equality of privilege with men students.”

Mayors across the province immediately lobbied to locate the university in their community.

“They saw it as a surefire way to raise real estate values, promote trade, and draw immigrants,” says Roy.

Only one B.C. neighborhood spurned the idea. “The reeve of South Vancouver thought ‘the tendency of the students to tear down fences and play similar pranks’ would lower property values.”

To head off any political controversy, McBride set up a University Site Commission. The Commission conveniently recommended a site at Point Grey where the government had a large block of unoccupied land. The government organized an architectural competition to design the campus and its buildings and put money in the budget to build them.

However, UBC’s budget was continually cut and by 1913 building plans were cancelled. Yet, in September 1915, 379 students started classes at UBC in two shingled buildings on the grounds of the Vancouver General Hospital.

By 1917, returning soldiers were beginning to swell the ranks of the student body but others were still enlisting. Women students outnumbered men in the Faculty of Arts.

 Roy says that UBC was very careful in its early years to appeal to all interests in the province. For example, agriculture was one of the first faculties established and once classes were over in the spring, the professors delivered short courses at various points in the province.

“At the time, farmers were over-represented in the legislature.”

There was also a concentrated effort to make scientific knowledge relevant and available throughout the province to those who would benefit from it. “So UBC focused on mining, forestry, engineering and civil engineering.”

Construction at UBC Vancouver finally began in 1923, following the historic Great Trek of 1922 when 1,200 students marched from a temporary campus near 12th and Cambie to the Point Grey campus, urging the provincial government to continue building UBC.