Contemplating Canada

    In light of Canada’s 150th, we invite you on a whistle-stop tour of three landmark years in U of A (and Canadian) history

    By Scot Morison, '80 BSc(Spec); Illustrations by Joel Kimmel on August 18, 2017


    Whether it’s big-zero birthdays or precious-metal anniversaries, milestones have a way of making us take note.

    As Canada thinks about its 150 years of nationhood, and acknowledges those who have been here for thousands of years before that, New Trail looks at three significant mileposts, each separated by half a century: 1917, 1967 and 2017.

    Where Canada has gone, so, too, has the U of A. Read on to visit three important years in the life of the University of Alberta.


    A Nascent Sense of Identity

    In April 1917, as canada neared its first half-century as an independent country, the University of Alberta was completing its ninth year of operation.

    There were just over 300 students and a few dozen staff on a small campus centred around Athabasca, Assiniboia and Pembina halls. The bestselling books that year included Sigmund Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis and Anne’s House of Dreams, written by Prince Edward Island’s favourite daughter, Lucy Maud Montgomery. The most popular song was Over There, with its opening lyrics of “Johnnie, get your gun” — a song that spoke to the central concern for most people in the country. The First World War had been raging across northern Europe for almost three years, and the U of A had already made a major and costly sacrifice relative to its size.

    By war’s end in November 1918, 484 students and staff had served the Allied side, and 82 of them did not come home.

    From a handful of buildings on one campus in 1917, the university has grown to close to 180 buildings on five campuses.

    Of the Great War dead connected to the U of A, half a dozen were killed at Vimy Ridge between April 9 and 12, 1917. The battle saw all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, drawn from across the country, fight together for the first time under the Canadian flag (at the time the Red Ensign). The Canadian troops overcame three divisions of the German Sixth Army on a heavily fortified escarpment and forced the enemy to retreat. The cost was high: 3,598 Canadians killed, 7,004 wounded.

    Some commentators describe the Battle of Vimy Ridge as the event that signalled the country’s arrival as a significant player on the world stage. But the battle did not really become an object of Canadian glory-making until many years later, according to historians like Rod Macleod, U of A professor emeritus. Macleod says those who had fought — at Vimy and at other battles from 1914 to 1918 — felt little desire to trumpet their efforts after the guns fell silent. “World War I was so horrifying that most of those who went couldn’t wait to get out.”

    The Great War did help form one important sense of Canadian identity. Serving under British commanders raised within Britain’s hidebound class system underscored some profound differences for Canadians.

    “Lack of social barriers was one of the important aspects of our participation in the war,” Macleod says. “There was this idea amongst Canadians that we were all equals.” The idea found expression in the comradely attitude of Canadian officers toward their soldiers and vice versa.

    “Lack of social barriers was one of the important aspects of our participation in the war. ... There was this idea amongst Canadians that we were all equals.” – Rod Macleod

    Reg Lister, longtime superintendent of residences at the U of A and eponym of Lister Hall, refers to the Canadian sense of egalitarianism in his folksy memoir, My Forty-Five Years on the Campus. Lister, an Englishman of working-class background who immigrated to Canada at age 19, began as a day labourer during initial construction of the university and eventually moved up to superintendent. In his memoir, Lister describes his time in France as a member of the 11th Field Ambulance Unit, a brigade filled largely with Albertan medical students. The unit was commanded by Col. Heber Moshier, an Ontario-born U of A physiology professor. Lister, who served as the colonel’s chief aide, writes that Moshier was generous with his crew. He shared his personal liquor stock, the new socks sent by his wife, even the portable canvas bath he carried around with him near the front. “While the colonel had his bath, I would rub his back; then before the water got cold I got in and he rubbed my back,” Lister wrote. Now that’s equality, Canadian-style.

    Moshier was killed during the final months of the war. His name is one of the 82 listed in alphabetical order, from Frederick Albright to Percy Young, on a brass plaque in the Arts Building that honours the U of A fallen from the First World War. It’s easy to miss the plaque, located between the lobby and Convocation Hall, but it is one of the most poignant spots on campus.

    Patriotism, Pride and Purpose

    San Francisco may have been home to the “Summer of Love” in 1967, but the entire year was a lovefest for Canada, inside and outside the country. “The most spectacular birthday party the world has ever seen,” the Edmonton Journal raved about the year-long celebration. And we invited lots of guests to the party.

    In 1967, enrolment was 16,169. Today, about 38,000 students a year attend the university.

    Expo 67, the six-month world’s fair in Montreal, featured major exhibits from 62 countries and drew more than 50 million visitors from around the world. The Confederation Train — eight railway cars filled with artifacts and dioramas depicting the history of the country, and that announced its arrival with an air horn rendition of the first four notes of O Canada — drew lineups in the thousands at stops in 60 towns and cities across Canada that year. And there was the song Ca-na-da by band leader Bobby Gimby, performed in English and French by the Young Canada Singers, with its catchy opening lines: “CA-NA-DA / (One little, two little, three Canadians) / We love thee.” The song reached No. 41 on the charts that year, sharing radio time with the likes of The Letter by the Box Tops, Lulu’s To Sir With Love and All You Need is Love by the Beatles.

    Ca-na-da? Oh yes, I remember it from Lister Hall,” says Virginia Sauvé, ’67 BA, ’82 MEd, ’91 PhD. “After supper, we’d gather in the lounge and sing. It was a great time and a phenomenally fun year.”

    Sauvé recalls the collective buoyancy around Canada’s Centennial Year. “We all had this optimism. We didn’t have a doubt that if we could complete any degree program we were in, we would get the job we wanted,” she says.

    “There was such a sense of pride and purpose. We all came home with a feeling of importance about being Canadian and telling our stories.” – Anne Wheeler

    For Neil Wittmann, ’67 LLB, who retired in May as Chief Justice of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench after 50 years in law, the year brought a sign of change in the profession that continues today: a growing number of women practising law.

    “Our class included future judges Ellen Picard [’63 BEd, ’67 LLB, ’80 LLM, ’92 LLD (Honorary)], Carole Conrad [’64 BA, ’67 LLB], and Nina Foster [’66 BA, ’67 LLB],” he notes with pride. Today, he adds, close to 50 per cent of law school grads at the U of A are women.

    Anne Wheeler, ’67 BSc, ’90 DLitt (Honorary), considers the Centennial Year profoundly formative for her. The respected film and television director finished an undergraduate science degree in mathematics that spring. She worked into the summer as a computer programmer, saved her money, and then drove out to Montreal to see the World’s Fair. “Expo 67 charged me up and I felt very patriotic,” she says. From Montreal, she flew to Europe to begin a year of travel.

    “I remember singing Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell songs all over Europe and the Middle East. Whenever I had to sing for my supper, I’d find a guitar or piano to play, or just stand up and sing.”

    Returning to Edmonton, she joined a group of aspiring filmmakers, most of whom she’d known at university. Many had been out travelling the world, too. “There was such a sense of pride and purpose. We all came home with a feeling of importance about being Canadian and telling our stories.”

    Wheeler, whose many films include A War Story, Loyalties, Marine Life and the classic Bye Bye Blues, believes the energy and spirit of the Centennial Year planted a sense of cultural nationalism that kept her rooted here. “It really charged me for my whole career,” she says. “I had a number of opportunities to go to Hollywood over the years, but always went down there and didn’t feel right about it, because it didn’t feel like those were my stories to tell.”

    Perhaps it’s the afterglow of stepping into full adulthood during Canada’s moment in the sun, but these grads of ’67 seem to have held onto their positive outlooks. “Maybe I’m mythologizing it, but I think we felt we really had the power to change the world,” says Wheeler.

    A Shifting Landscape

    If 1917 represented a burgeoning Canadian identity and 1967 was a national awakening, students graduating this year live in an era of globalism. New graduates Linda Mbajiorgu and Haya Negranza illustrate the current cultural breadth of Canada and the university.

    Mbajiorgu, who graduated with a science degree in molecular genetics and plans to work in health care, was born in Edmonton to parents from Nigeria. Her mother came to the U of A to study chemistry in the mid-’90s, followed by her father a year and a half later. “I really love what Canada stands for,” says Mbajiorgu. “Because of it, my parents were allowed to come here and make a good life for themselves, which has given me a chance to make one for myself.”

    Negranza, who graduated with an education degree and plans to teach junior high school, was born in the Philippines and moved to Canada with her family in 2008, just in time to complete her last month of Grade 7 in Edmonton. She arrived with some common preconceptions (“really cold, but with lots of natural beauty and wildlife”) but her first and lasting impression was of the people she saw. “It was definitely very diverse, all the different races. In the Philippines, I was used to everybody around me being Filipino,” she says.

    As grads of 2017, they’re entering a shifting landscape very different from that of 50 or 100 years ago. Economies, politics and people around the globe are much more interconnected, which has altered the way we work and live. Recently coined terms speak to the new vocational reality. The “gig economy,” for example, refers to workers moving from project to project on a contract basis, typically with few or no benefits. “Slash career” — referring to backslash — is shorthand for someone doing more than one job, sometimes through a kind of hybridization of skills.

    In 1917, students came to the U of A from a dozen or so countries. In 2017, they come from 143 countries.

    “We talk to students about normalizing uncertainty,” says Blessie Mathew, ’99 BSc(Psych), manager of career education at the University of Alberta’s Career Centre. In a world where, according to some predictions, people will change careers as many as five to seven times, she says students are advised to build a diverse set of skills and interests to navigate that uncertainty.

    She adds “portfolio career” to the glossary of new terms. “If students have a diverse range of skills to choose from, they’re far more flexible and adaptable to changes in the labour market and economy.” Chris Carline, ’14 BSc (MechEng), has fully bought into the idea. “I like the idea of not being pinned down by one sort of thing. I have a lot of passions and a lot of areas of interest that I want to pursue, so trying to structure my future in a way that I can have multiple things going is interesting to me.” For Carline, who earned a degree in mechanical engineering before enrolling in the Faculty of Arts’ industrial design program, that might involve selling the custom-finished cruiser skateboards that he and a business partner design, while applying some of the same technology to medical design, and even operating a climbing gym. “I don’t think there really is any kind of specific job out there for me. I’m going to have to figure out what it looks like and create it,” he says.

    Mbajiorgu says most of her classmates understand that they will probably have a number of jobs over their lifetimes.

    “It’s not really frightening, and may even be exciting.”