THE GREAT TREK
The student pilgrimage that came to define a university
On September 22, 1925, the university held its first classes at the new Point Grey campus. The move from the site of what is now the Vancouver General Hospital to Point Grey was an important part of UBC’s history, but that was not in and of itself the story. The real story was the massive student-conceived and executed publicity campaign that convinced the government to provide funds to build the university and move it from its overcrowded facilities at the Fairview site. The campaign culminated in the Pilgrimage, or what we now call the Great Trek.
The Legislature had approved funds to clear the 175-acre site at Point Grey in 1913, and work began on the Science Building the following summer. However, the First World War began soon after the concrete and steel framework began to take shape, and with the diversion of resources to the war effort, the government stopped construction. The bare girders of the Science Building would serve as a monument to the unrealized vision of the Point Grey campus for almost a decade.
Everyone viewed the use of the shacks at Fairview as an exigency measure and hoped that work would soon resume at Point Grey. But with a depleted treasury, the provincial government did not consider the university a high priority. UBC spent its first decade at Fairview. Unfortunately, President Wesbrook died shortly before the armistice in 1918. He was replaced by Dean of Agriculture Leonard Klinck.
The inadequacy of the Fairview facilities became increasingly apparent with each passing year. Between 1916 and 1922 UBC enrolment expanded by 211 per cent (from 378 to 1,178), while the capacity of the buildings grew by only 25 per cent. The wards of a small three-floor former hospital building made reasonably good classrooms, while the rest of the facilities, including the Auditorium, offices and lecture rooms, were housed in old army shacks. Additional space had to be found as the number of students grew. Professors held agriculture classes in a private residence, French classes in the basement of a church unused by its congregation during the week, and chemistry classes in the famous chemistry tent erected on the site. Professors often had to repeat their lectures several times because not enough adequate classroom space existed and neither students nor faculty members had proper laboratory facilities. The Auditorium, used for general
assemblies, held only 650 people. But the close quarters and relatively small student numbers produced a cohesive and united student body, and a strong sense of community between students and faculty. This spirit set the stage for the events of 1922.
By the spring of 1922, students began organizing a campaign to generate support for the resumption of construction at Point Grey. Returned war veteran and AMS president-elect Albert “Ab” Richards (Class of ‘23) became leader of the “Build the University” campaign. As a first step in what would become a massive and well-organized undertaking, students were asked to take petitions back to their hometowns in the summer and collect at least 25 signatures. The petition read, in part: “... we the undersigned humbly petition the Government of the Province of British Columbia to institute a definite and progressive policy toward the University of British Columbia, and to take immediate action toward the erection of permanent buildings on the chosen University site at Point Grey.” While students collected signatures at home, the Publicity Campaign Committee consisting of Richards, Marjorie Agnew, Percy Barr, J.V. Clyne, Allan H. Finlay, Jack Grant, and Aubrey Roberts co-ordinated activities in Vancouver and organized meetings with service clubs and business leaders to promote their cause.
Students returned in the fall with 17,000 signatures on their petitions. Leaders felt that the numbers, though impressive, were not enough to convince the government to take action. As part of Varsity Week (October 22-28), the students conducted a door-to-door canvas in Vancouver to increase the number of signatures. They divided the city with each class responsible for canvassing in specific sections. Just prior to the Vancouver canvas, a special edition of the Ubyssey provided students with facts and figures they could use in promoting the cause. The instructions also made clear that the success of this exercise depended on every student doing his or her part, and reminded them that as representatives of the university their behaviour would have an effect on public opinion. At the end of the organized petition blitz, students had collected 56,000 signatures. Students also solicited support from service agencies and other organizations. During Varsity Week, many store windows included displays and posters supporting the campaign. Newspapers, too,
Students form ‘ UBC’ in front of the Science Building. All photos courtesy of UBC Archives.