Major James Skitt Matthews, courtesy of The City of Vancouver Archives

Tuum Est It is Yours

The Great War has ended and Canada now faces significant post-war challenges — thousands of restless veterans searching for work, another recession, and the ravages of the deadly Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1917-1920 that will claim the lives of tens of millions worldwide.

Despite the adversities, the post-war UBC student population continues to grow, helped in no small part by five years of free tuition. In 1920, beset with its own post-war budget woes, the BC government introduces student fees. Somewhat dismayed, UBC concedes that it needs help.

While central Canada focuses on industrial manufacturing, British Columbia — and UBC specifically — looks to agriculture as a core research area and academic focus. Researchers at UBC begin to conduct applied research related to local crops, cheese production and livestock management. Meanwhile, Faculties in Chemistry (which include chemical engineering) provide important research to BC’s chemical, mining and smelting industries.

Beyond the classroom or laboratory, faculty are busy building UBC’s reputation in the broader community, teaching vocational courses for returning veterans, providing commentary to local newspapers and media, and developing new curriculum and courses. The number of faculty publications increases and topics range from local ocean issues to the vexing orbits of the helium atom.

Yet, the physical environment no longer matches the bold optimism of the faculty, staff and students. Under the leadership of President Klink, the young university now has a student population of around 1,200 and has easily outgrown its humble beginning in the ‘Fairview Shacks’. Construction of the new and long-promised Point Grey campus has long stalled, with only the abandoned frame of the Science Building to show for all the political promises and stated intentions.

Great Trek

Tuum Est begins to take hold as more than just a motto. The student body organizes, powers up the “Build the University” campaign, gathers 56,000 signatures on a public petition and alerts the media.

Tuum Est begins to take hold as more than just a motto. The student body organizes, powers up the “Build the University” campaign, gathers 56,000 signatures on a public petition and alerts the media. On October 28, 1922, students take to the streets in what appears to be a massive public relations stunt that would later mark one of the most defining moments in the university’s history.

The ‘Pilgrimage’, later known as ‘The Great Trek’, winds its way through the streets of downtown Vancouver with students walking, riding on parade floats and piling aboard streetcars to the end of the line at Sasamat Street and 10th Avenue. Determined students (and a few bold professors) walk the remaining distance to the abandoned Science Building and climb up the skeletal concrete structure, waving campaign banners and cheering for the news cameras.

BC Premier John Oliver is presented with the petition. Mindful of the broad public support, the BC Liberal government swiftly acquiesces and the Point Grey campus development truly begins.

The Point Grey campus is built between 1923 and 1925 and celebrates its opening with an inauguration ceremony that bestows its first honorary degrees. With just three permanent buildings — Science Building, Main Library, and the power plant to supply steam for heat and electricity — it’s a modest start. The rest of the original grand plan to create a “monumental university of collegiate Gothic design to proclaim the glories of Great Britain” is reduced to a handful of semi-permanent frame buildings. Still, it’s a vast improvement over ‘the shacks’ and is, finally, a proper home for Agriculture, Forestry and others.

The next few years bring modest growth in student numbers — from 1,453 undergraduates in 1925 to around 1,800 five years later — and they now come from as far away as Norway, Australia, Japan and the small towns in the interior of BC and Vancouver Island. These students’ parents, who largely have modest incomes and working class jobs, want more for their children and UBC is the place for their hopes and dreams to unfold.

It has taken decades for UBC founding President Wesbrook’s vision to finally be realized: create a “university for the people” and one that is supported by the people. Faculty positions grow, course offerings expand beyond the initial three core degrees and into commercial programs such as a social work diploma in the newly formed Department of Economics, Sociology and Political Science. Development of this more ‘practical’ education helps provide much-needed jobs for students across the province and in doing so, enriches the post-war province and the nation.

Although UBC is years away from its future focus as a major research centre, funding for research is slowly increasing from both the private sector and government agencies such as the Research Council of Canada. As a result, UBC begins to graduate relatively few, but accomplished Masters students more frequently.

Then, in 1929 the Great Depression hits BC, Canada and the world. The Conservative Party of British Columbia cuts operating costs for higher education and research funding is swiftly curtailed.

Just five years after its auspicious start on the Point Grey campus, UBC faces a perilous future.

1920–1929: Timeline

Explore the era

  • Students gather to protest and begin a pilgrimage from downtown Vancouver to Point Grey to ‘claim’ their new campus site. It would later be known as The Great Trek.

  • UBC’s faculty and their spouses pose outside of the Arts Building on the Fairview campus.

  • An interview with Rona Wallis, the first woman to graduate from the Faculty of Applied Science at UBC with a degree in chemical engineering in 1922.

President Quote

“First and foremost, never to forget that a University is an educational institution ministered to by a company of scholars. Being what it is, its administration, aside from finances, cannot be modeled on the methods and ideals of an automobile plant or a company engaged in international trade. The fundamental difference between the scholastic and the administrative points of view must be recognized and ever kept in view. Executive ability must not be exalted over teaching ability, productive scholarship or research attainments.”

Leonard S. Klinck
President, 1919–1944



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