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50 little-known facts about Canadian universities

To mark Canada’s 150th, fifty fun facts about Canada’s campuses.

BY UA/AU | JUN 01 2017

1. A fiery fate

December 2 is a day to be extra cautious at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. On December 2, 1877, Acadia’s first College Hall burned to the ground. Exactly 43 years later, on December 2, 1920, the second College Hall met the same fate. The current building on that site, University Hall, opened in 1925 and remains intact.

Photo: Acadia University

2. X-Ring investiture

One of the most celebrated traditions at a Canadian university is the investiture ceremony for the coveted X-Rings at St. Francis Xavier University, which takes place each year on December 3, the Feast Day of St. Francis Xavier. Roughly 1,000 students receive their rings annually in their senior year at the institution in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. The first X-Ring investiture took place in 1958.

Photo: Shanghoon / University Affairs

3. “Greatest Canadian of all time”

Tommy Douglas – the “Greatest Canadian of All Time,” according to a CBC contest in 2004 – was an alumnus of Brandon College, the forerunner to Brandon University in Manitoba. In 1924, at 19 years old, the budding politician and future father of socialized medicare enrolled at Brandon College to finish high school and study theology. He graduated in 1930. During his six years at the college, Mr. Douglas was very active in extracurricular activities: he was a champion debater, wrote for the school newspaper and participated in student government – he was Senior Stick, or president of the student body, in his final year.

Photo: Canada's History

4. Tropical research

Toronto’s York University owns a 145-hectare parcel of Costa Rican cloud forest called Las Nubes (“the clouds”), which was donated to the faculty of environmental sciences in 1998 by Woody Fisher for conservation and research. The rainforest preserve is home to the Las Nubes Project, which supports research in areas such as tropical deforestation, sustainable development and biodiversity.

Photo: York University

5. Preserving Einstein’s brain

Part of Albert Einstein’s brain can be found preserved in a McMaster University lab. The university acquired Einstein’s brain – actually about one-fifth of his brain in 14 pieces – from pathologist Thomas Harvey. In 1999, McMaster researchers announced that they had identified differences in the brain’s structure perhaps related to Einstein’s genius in spatial and mathematical thinking.

Photo: The Curiosity of Albert Einstein

6. Shine on!

Shinerama, Canada’s largest post-secondary fundraiser, was started in 1961 at Wilfrid Laurier University (then called Waterloo University College). Today, more than 35,000 student volunteers from 50 Canadian universities and colleges across the country participate in the day-long event to raise money for Cystic Fibrosis Canada. 

Photo: Twitter @Shinerama

7. An underground maze

Below the University of Alberta’s main campus in Edmonton, workers travel between campus buildings using 21 kilometres of utility tunnels, some which date back to the 1920s.

Photo: Twitter @UofALibraries

8. Campus workout

From the top to the bottom of Vancouver Island University’s Nanaimo campus there are 409 steps – a natural Stairmaster!

Photo: Vancouver Island University

9. A happy sight

One of the more familiar sights on the University of Victoria campus is the happy-face observatory dome on the roof of the Elliott Building. The Climenhaga observatory was named after astrophysicist John Climenhaga, founder of UVic’s physics department, who was adamant that an on-campus observatory be part of UVic’s astronomy program. Student pranksters painted the two eyes on the dome in 1969, and the smile was added later.

Photo: Rambling Artists

10. Punk’d

In 1976, students in the faculty of engineering at the University of Manitoba assembled a small car in their dean’s office. Engineering students carried on the tradition of pranks, somehow placing a car on top of Tier Building later in the 1980s.

Photo: University of Manitoba Engineering Society

11. Ready, set, row!

Few things are more stirring than a crew of Trent University rowers emerging from the silent, misty distance of the Otonabee River in Peterborough, Ontario. The university is home to one of North America’s largest single-day rowing head races, the Head of the Trent Regatta, and the most advanced indoor rowing/paddling tank.

Photo: Trent University

12. A colossal collection

The library at HEC Montréal is the largest bilingual library of management studies in Canada. It counts more than 375,000 documents and receives more than a half-million visitors each year.

Photo: HEC Montréal

13. “Bigger Digger”

In 2002, the University of Regina undertook the largest tree relocation project in North America. Using the “Bigger Digger” brought in from Colorado, the university moved 500 trees on campus in a span of two weeks, many of which were more than 30 years old and three storeys tall.

Photo: University of Regina

14. Named after a PM

Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, is the only university in Canada named after a prime minister.

Photo: The Canadian Encyclopedia

15. Canada’s only women’s university

Brescia University College, affiliated with Western University, is Canada’s only remaining women’s university. It was founded in 1919 by the Ursuline Sisters of Chatham, Ontario. Brescia’s first graduating class had seven students.  

Photo: Brescia University College


16. Two garbage cans and a football

During the late 1970s, professor Paul Antrobus and others at Luther College at the University of Regina invented Muckby, a game played in early spring when the hockey rink north of the Luther College residence had largely melted, leaving lots of muck to slog through. All you needed were two garbage cans and a football. After the event, the head of maintenance would hose down the players before they re-entered the dorms. The tradition continued for many years until the university stopped flooding the rink.

Photo: Luther College

17. “Push on!”

Brock University’s motto is Surgite! (“Push on!” in Latin). Legend has it this was the last word uttered by the university’s namesake, Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, before he was killed in the battle of Queenston Heights during the War of 1812. The university is located on the Niagara Peninsula, a short drive from the historic battlefield.

Photo: Brock University

18. Oldest English-language university in Canada

The oldest English-language university in Canada is the University of New Brunswick. It was founded in 1785 in Fredericton by seven Loyalists who left the United States after the American Revolution. UNB also has the oldest university building in Canada still in use. The Old Arts Building, officially known as Sir Howard Douglas Hall, was built in 1829.

Photo: University of New Brunswick

19. A Canadian university in the NCAA

Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, became the first university outside of the United States to participate in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, when it was accepted into the collegiate sports league in 2012. (SFU teams had played as provisional members of the NCAA the year before.) SFU sports teams play in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Division II.

Photo: Simon Fraser University

20. Oldest institution of higher learning in Canada

Université Laval was founded by royal charter issued by Queen Victoria in 1852, but its roots go back to the founding of the Séminaire de Québec in 1663 by François de Montmorency-Laval. This makes it the oldest institution of higher learning in Canada, and the first North American institution to offer higher education in French.

Photo: The Canadian Encyclopedia

21. A lesson in technicolour

Although Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, hired Herbert Kalmus to lecture on mining, his passion was movies. At night, the shy professor would retreat to his lab to test ways to improve motion pictures. When audiences gasped at the sudden switch to dazzling Technicolor from black and white in The Wizard of Oz, it was thanks to the work of Dr. Kalmus. In 1939, he received a special Academy Award for his role in filmmaking history.

Photo courtesy of

22. Introducing the “sport of kings”

Huron University College, affiliated with Western University in London, Ontario, was home to one of the first tennis courts in Canada thanks to the efforts of Isidore Hellmuth, who is credited with introducing the “sport of kings” to this country. The son of Isaac Hellmuth, Huron’s first principal and the founder of Western University, Isidore won the first Canadian national tennis championship (precursor to the Rogers Cup) in 1881, and was an inaugural inductee into the Canadian Tennis Hall of Fame.

Photo: Tennis Canada

23. A medical milestone

In 1930, with the Depression underway, three pediatricians working out of the Hospital for Sick Children – Frederick Tisdall, Theodore Drake and Alan Brown, all graduates of University of Toronto’s faculty of medicine – developed Pablum, the first precooked cereal for babies, packed with vitamins and minerals. Not only did the number of patients suffering from nutritional deficiencies fall dramatically after Pablum was introduced, but royalties from the patent helped support research at the hospital for years.

Photo: Torontoist

24. Defying a French ban

In 1916, the Manitoba government banned public schools from teaching French. As a private institution, Collège de St. Boniface (now Université de Saint-Boniface) continued to operate and even encouraged public schools to defy the ban. French continued to be taught in the province discretely until legislation reinstated French-language education in 1966.

Photo: Université de Saint-Boniface

25. Water on the red planet

In 2007, physicists at the University of Guelph led by professor Iain Campbell provided the first scientific evidence for the presence of water on Mars.

Photo: Wikipedia

26. The first degree granted to a woman in Canada

Mount Allison University was the first university to grant a degree to a woman in Canada: Grace Annie Lockhart. She was awarded a bachelor of science and English literature on May 25, 1875. (Photo courtesy of Mount Allison University Archives.)

Photo: Mount Allison University

27. A fictional sport takes off

The University of British Columbia’s Quidditch team, formed in 2010, competes internationally and is ranked number one in the Northwest. (Many other Canadian universities have their own Quidditch teams, which can be found listed on the Quidditch Canada website.)

Photo: Instagram @ubcquidditch

28. Popular moniker

Canada has three degree-granting universities with “King’s” in their names: King’s University College at Western University in London, Ontario; University of King’s College in Halifax; and The King’s University in Edmonton. BONUS: There are also two “Concordias”: Concordia University in Montreal and Concordia University of Edmonton.

Photo: King's University College

29. Famous alumni for $100

On May 5, 2015, the University of Ottawa officially opened the Alex Trebek Alumni Hall, named in honour of alumnus and Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek. He graduated from U of Ottawa in 1961 with a degree in philosophy.

Photo: University of Ottawa

30. Faculty fusion

St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, is home of The Thomists, a 21-piece big band formed in 1965 by professor and organist Harry Rigby. The band has continued to play across the Maritimes and beyond for over 45 years, and has more than 900 pieces in its repertoire.

Photo: The Thomists

31. The science of beer

Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec, has offered courses on the science of brewing for years. In September 2015, the institution officially launched Bishop’s Arches Brewery, the first academic microbrewery in Eastern Canada.

Photo: Facebook /BUArchesBrewery

32. The Pink Tie tradition

When the University of Waterloo’s Mathematics and Computer Building celebrated its official opening in 1968, a giant 85-foot pink tie appeared on the outside of the building as a tribute to professor Ralph Stanton (1923-2010), founder of the faculty of mathematics and a fan of colourful ties. The tradition of hanging a tie on the outside of the building continued for many years despite vandalism and theft by other faculties. Now, every new math student gets a pink tie to wear during orientation.

Photo: University of Waterloo

33. Canada’s first public broadcaster

The University of Alberta established Canada’s first public broadcaster, radio station CKUA, in 1927. It still broadcasts at 94.9FM in Edmonton.

Photo: Twitter @CKUA Radio

34. Accidental relic

Scholars at the University of Manitoba and Canadian Mennonite University have discovered that an old Bible donated in 1987 to St. John’s College (part of U of M) is actually an original first edition of the King James Bible. The book has engraved title pages, oak and leather bindings, ornamental woodcut borders, and an added genealogy and lineage for Jesus. It was printed in England in 1611, and a note in its provenance indicates it was used by King James I himself.

Photo: University of Manitoba Libraries

35. The world’s first organized hockey club

Students from McGill University founded the world’s first organized hockey club and played their first game on January 31, 1877. That first contest was a challenge game played between McGill and the “Victorias” – an amalgamation of members of Montreal’s old Victoria Skating Rink, bolstered with players from the Montreal Lacrosse Club and the Montreal Football Club. The historic game, played at the Victoria Rink, ended in a 2-1 victory for McGill.

Photo: McGill University

36. Speaking Kryptonian

The Kryptonian language in the Superman movie Man of Steel was developed by Christine Schreyer, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus.

Photo: UBC

37. A missing link is found

In the summer of 2010, a fossil measuring 1.6 meters was discovered at Miguasha National Park in the Gaspé Peninsula. A team led by Richard Cloutier, a professor at Université du Québec à Rimouski, authenticated this complete specimen of the Elpistostege watsoni as the missing link that testifies to the evolution of vertebrates and their passage from water to land. This fossil, about 380 million years old, is considered as important a scientific discovery as the hominid fossil Lucy.

Photo: Laboratoire de Recherche en Paléontologie et Biologie évolutive à l'UQAR

38. An eagle in flight

The current home of the First Nations University of Canada in Regina officially opened in 2003 and was designed by world-renowned architect Douglas Cardinal, who is of Métis, Blackfoot and European heritage. It is said to resemble an eagle in flight.

Photo: First Nations University of Canada

39. The origin of “stress”

In 1932, endocrinologist Hans Selye arrived at McGill University, where he coined the term “stress” and pioneered research on the subject. In 1945, he joined the Université de Montréal. Dr. Selye’s breakthrough ideas about stress helped to forge an entirely new medical field – the study of biological stress and its effects on humans.

Photo: Stock 

40. Performing Shakespeare on a summer’s day

Trinity College Quadrangle at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College used to host one of the largest outdoor Shakespeare festivals in Canada. In the summers from 1949 to 1959, the Earle Grey Players Shakespeare Festival was performed in the quadrangle. In 1951, a cutting from Shakespeare's mulberry tree at Stratford-on-Avon was planted in the quad. The Trinity College Dramatic Society student club continues the thespian tradition by performing Shakespeare in the Quad each fall in the quadrangle.

Photo: Blog UT

41. Refuge for a writer

Noted American author Joyce Carol Oates taught in the University of Windsor’s English department from 1968 to 1978, after leaving the University of Detroit following civil unrest in that city.

Photo: Biography

42. “There is nothing inherently evil about so-called rock festivals”

On September 20, 1970, The Guess Who headlined a nine-hour music festival at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. The festival drew a huge crowd – and hundreds of police. In its coverage of the event, the local newspaper reported that the event was proof that “there is nothing inherently evil about so-called rock festivals,” and that such shows “needn’t be a drug festival or anything approaching an orgy.”

Photo: Brock University

43. When women couldn’t vote

When it was established by Halifax’s Sisters of Charity in 1873, Mount Saint Vincent University was one of the only institutions of higher education for women in Canada. At a time when women could not vote, MSVU provided an opportunity for women to learn and participate equally in society. In 1925, MSVU was the only independent women’s college in the Commonwealth.

Photo: Mount Saint Vincent University

44. Why “Memorial” University?

Memorial University, the only university in Newfoundland and Labrador, was established as a memorial to Newfoundlanders who died in the First World War. At the end of 1945, the institution was rededicated to commemorate the many Newfoundlanders who died during the Second World War.

Photo: Heritage NF

45. Emily Carr’s monkey

Emily Carr University of Art + Design took inspiration from its painterly namesake in devising its heraldic symbols: the school’s official badge depicts a Javanese monkey – a reference to Emily Carr’s pet monkey, Woo.


46. Learning the tools of the trade

Kwantlen Polytechnic University has a blacksmithing workshop on its Cloverdale campus, complete with forges, anvils and equine clients. It’s all part of KPU’s advanced farrier training program.

Photo: Kwantlen Polytechnic University

47. Hollywood loves Royal Roads University

Hatley Castle, the Edwardian-style mansion housing Royal Roads University’s administrative offices, is a popular setting for film and TV shoots. It’s perhaps most recognized as the site of Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in most of the X-Men films, but also has cameos in Deadpool, The Changeling, MacGyver and the Lifetime TV series UnREAL, among other productions. The castle was built in 1908 for Vancouver Island coal baron James Dunsmuir.

Photo: Wikipedia

48. Funeral for a textbook

In 1954, Lou McGinn finally passed Math 1 at the University of Prince Edward Island after seven attempts at the course. To mark the occasion, Mr. McGinn’s classmates hosted a funeral procession on campus for his mathematics textbook.

Photo: Instagram @upei

49. Greener pastures

Before Dalhousie University was founded, land on its Studley campus in Halifax was rented out as cow pasture. From 1910 to 1920, you could tether your cow on campus for a fee. The animal had to be removed by dusk.

Photo: Wikipedia

50. Ties to Canada’s first Acadian Governor General

Roméo LeBlanc (1927-2009), Canada’s first Governor General of Acadian heritage, was a proud alumnus and long-time supporter of Université de Moncton. Mr. LeBlanc earned his BA and BEd at U de Moncton’s precursor, Collège Saint-Joseph. Following a career in teaching and educational administration, Mr. LeBlanc worked as a journalist, as press secretary for Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, and was later elected to Parliament. He served as Governor General from 1994 to 1999.

Photo: Wikipedia

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The UA editorial team.
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  1. David Hooper / October 28, 2020 at 10:45

    I think the nuclear reactor on campus at McMaster is worth mentioning… not too many universities can claim to have one.

    David Hooper
    McMaster ’90
    (BA Poli-Sci / History)

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