Nov. 10, 2022

Great War marked end of great dream for Calgary’s first university

For 3 years, Calgary’s doomed post-secondary captured city’s imagination
Calgary Public Library
The first classes were held in the Central Public Library, shown here in this 1915 colour postcard. University of Calgary archives

Loss is the measure of war — and while human lives are the paramount sacrifice, the residual cost of conflict can run deeply in any society that takes to arms.

For Calgary, one such blow was the demise of the city’s first university, a little-known institution established in the heat of bitter provincial rivalry, and ultimately doomed to fail, in large part due to the financial uncertainty and distraction of the First World War.

“The war certainly did play a role; it was one of a number of things,” says Dr. Norman L. McLeod, PhD, who in 1970 wrote his UCalgary doctoral thesis on the short-lived institution, which closed its doors in 1915.

Battle of Alberta begins

McLeod, a lifelong school teacher who at the age of 92 is enjoying retirement on Vancouver Island, focused his thesis on the little-known history of Calgary’s first university in a paper entitled Calgary College 1912-1915: A Study of an Attempt to Establish a Privately Financed University in Alberta.

The basic narrative of the short-lived institution is rooted in Calgary’s fury over Edmonton being named both the capital of Alberta, and thanks to the partisan meddling of Premier Alexander Cameron Rutherford, also home to the University of Alberta.

“It was one the fights that went on when this province was created,” explains McLeod, reached by phone at his home in B.C.

“There was a tacit understanding when the province was created that one city would be the capital, and the other would get the university. But that didn’t happen.”

Cranky Calgary plots its own university

And so in 1908, when it became clear Calgary would be neither capital of the three-year-old province or its seat of higher education, the mood in Alberta’s largest city was exceedingly bitter.

While some Calgarians wanted to separate from Alberta and start Canada’s 10th province, a number of prominent citizens instead pushed for a privately funded university.

If Alberta’s government was clearly pro-Edmonton, Alberta’s money was in Calgary, and it didn’t take long for that wealth to champion the idea of a private post-secondary, to be named the University of Calgary and constructed in the northwest area of the booming young city of 23,000.

Perhaps the most important endorsement came from the city’s mayor and council, and with promises of financial and political support, Calgary’s first university opened its doors in 1912.

Calgary's first university

Architect's rendition of the original Calgary University.

University of Calgary archives

Solid plan, at first

Looking back, the university appears healthy enough, and certainly on par with its provincial government-backed rival up north: four full-time professors teaching 24 regular students and 101 part-time students, in two faculties, Arts and Law.

The first classes were held in the Central Public Library, while grand architectural plans were being drawn up for 160 acres of donated land in the Rosscarrock subdivision near Old Banff Coach Road.

Eastern architects Dunington-Grubb sketched out a Gothic European-style college, complete with a stadium, gymnasium, armory, medical building, library and museum, along with faculty space for agriculture, science and law.

That impressive vision, along with $150,000 in promised funding from city hall and a deep well of funds from Calgary’s elite, pointed to a very secure future for the new school, and it seemed every citizen and newspaper editorial was speaking out in support of Calgary University.

Problems started right away

The fact Calgary’s first viable university (the current University of Calgary) didn’t actually open until 1966, and only then after serving as a satellite branch of the University of Alberta from 1944, shows that all the financial promises and pretty architectural drawings for Calgary University were misleading.

The problems started right away, when the province refused to grant the institution degree-granting powers, saying the financial burden of running two universities in one province would doom them both.

It was assumed Calgary would eventually manage to convince the province (three applications for degree status were made, in 1911, 1913 and 1915), and in the meantime, the school would be renamed “Calgary College.”

Another time, another era, and the first university might have succeeded — it certainly had the vision, leadership and community backing to overcome growing pains faced by any new institution.

War the nail in the coffin

But the world was rapidly changing around Calgary College, first with an economic slump and slow of immigration in 1913, and then with the nail-in-the-coffin outbreak of war, starting in 1914.

The long-anticipated grant from a suddenly cash-strapped city hall was no longer possible, and the enthusiasm Calgary’s elite had for a local university (along with promises of financial support) was immediately refocused on the war in Europe.

Without financial backing, Calgary College was unable to start construction on promised buildings, and those working at the school were often left unpaid as the university fought to stay afloat.

With the province’s latest refusal to grant degree status in 1915, and a new provincial report suggesting Calgary would be better off hosting a technical college (the future SAIT), Calgary’s first university simply fell out of public favour. Closure soon followed.

Interesting educational experiment

In his thesis paper, McLeod says the demise of Calgary’s first university in 1915 was perhaps inevitable.

“Calgary College was an interesting educational experiment and its founding was a tribute to the idealism of those who sought to establish a flourishing institution of higher learning. There is little question that in the capital-university controversy the legislature treated Calgary most unfairly,” wrote McLeod.

“However to have attempted to found a privately endowed university in Calgary in 1912 given such as the economic, political and population situation in Alberta at that time was to put zeal before understanding.

“Perhaps the most amazing thing is the fact that Calgary College was able to operate at all for a three-year period.”

Sign up for UToday

Sign up for UToday

Delivered to your inbox — a daily roundup of news and events from across the University of Calgary's 14 faculties and dozens of units

Thank you for your submission.