he forecast was for fair skies, high of 72°, as the day dawned
on Tuesday, June 6, 1911. It was an improvement from the cool
and rainy conditions that prevailed the night before, which
had kept the local crowd small for the ballgame, won by the
hometown Montreal Royals 6-5 in 10 innings against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
That morning the front page of the Montreal Gazette carried
not one, but two stories on the proposed reciprocity agreement with the U.S., foreshadowing the coming free-trade election battle
which would end the 15-year reign of Laurier’s Liberal government in
September. At present, however, all was quiet on the political front as
Parliament was adjourned for eight weeks to allow senators and MPs to
visit England for the coronation of King George V on June 22.
At home, enumeration had begun the week before for the 1911 Census, while in local news the Gazette reported on the official opening the
previous night of McGill University’s new medical building by the Governor General, Earl Grey. The ceremony was topped off by the felicitous
announcement that McGill chancellor Donald Smith, Lord Strathcona,
would donate $100,000 to finish the building.
Also in the Gazette that day, buried near the bottom of page 9, was
this small item: “Secretary of Empire Universities will confer with Canadians.” The individual in question, R.D. Roberts, university extension
registrar at the University of London, had arrived in Montreal that Sunday aboard the S. S. Megantic.
He was in town to attend a meeting of the executive heads – or, in
their stead, other senior administrators – of Canada’s universities. The
Conference of Canadian Universities had been convened by McGill
Principal William Peterson and University of Toronto President Robert
Falconer, with McGill playing host to the one-day event.
At the time, a meeting of university presidents was rare, and it is unlikely few of the attendees that day had any clear perception that they
were laying the foundations for a permanent national body representing Canada’s universities. Within the next seven years, the newly named
National Conference of Canadian Universities would meet another four
times and regularly thereafter. Renamed the Association of Universities
and Colleges of Canada in 1965 and now representing 95 universities
and university-degree level colleges, the national organization celebrates
its centenary this year.
The purpose of the 1911 conference was unique in that the university
heads had gathered to pool their ideas for topics to discuss at another
meeting, the Congress of the Universities of the Empire, to be held in
London in 1912. Dr. Roberts, secretary of the London congress, was invited to Montreal to discuss its aims and to report back to London on the
issues of importance identified by the Canadian institutions.
Nineteen colleges and universities were invited to Montreal: three
from the western provinces – the universities of Alberta, Saskatchewan
and Manitoba; seven from Ontario – University of Toronto (and its two
federated colleges, Trinity and Victoria), Western, McMaster, Queen’s and
Ottawa; three from Quebec – McGill, Bishop’s and Laval; and six from
the Maritimes – University of New Brunswick, Mount Allison, St. Francis
Xavier, Acadia, King’s and Dalhousie. Acadia and King’s declined the
invitation, and the delegates from Alberta and Manitoba were unable to
come at the last moment. In total, 18 academics attended, representing
The Canadian nation of 1911 was less than a
half-century old. That year’s census would put
the population at 7. 2 million, of whom 1. 6 million were immigrants. Eighty-nine percent of
inhabitants over age 5 reported that they could
read and write.
Around the time of Confederation in 1867,
Canada’s universities and colleges were generally small, denominational, relatively numerous and marked by financial
difficulties. Most of them had developed organically over time along the
U.K. model and retained their peculiarities if not idiosyncrasies. Yet, despite their difficulties, very few institutions failed, and by the early 20th
century many were strengthened through federation or amalgamation.
The situation was somewhat different in the three western-most provinces, whose governments had each decided to create a single provincial
university akin to the state universities in the U.S.
The early 20th century was marked as well by the passing of many
of these institutions from church to state control. The era also saw an expansion in the sciences and laboratory instruction, and the introduction
of professional fields like engineering, forestry, dentistry and agriculture.
Undergraduate enrolment in 1911 was close to 13,000, nearly a doubling
from 10 years before, and 1,775 degrees were awarded. Twenty percent of
students were female.
The reign of university presidents at that time was often long. Dr. Peterson of McGill, an Anglo-Scot born in Edinburgh, was appointed principal
in 1895 and would serve for 24 years. Dr. Falconer, born in Charlottetown
the year of Confederation, became president of U of T in 1907 and would
serve for 25 years. It is unclear, however, if many of the university presidents knew each other personally or had ever met prior to Montreal.
The conference began with a statement by Dr. Roberts, who outlined
the subjects to be discussed at the London congress the following year.
In Dr. Roberts’ view, the most vital concerns of the British and colonial
universities at this time were “a uniform matriculation standard [i.e.,
university entrance requirements], in so far as this might be possible,
the interchange of professors, and the comparison of and equalization
of standards.” He concluded by stressing the tentative nature of the pro-
posed agenda and noted that “it was open to any university or group of
universities to suggest other questions than those mentioned in the pro-
gram for consideration.”
In the discussions that followed, the university heads identified ma-
triculation standards and facilities for graduate studies as the two most