Marking 150 years of universities in Canada

By Dale Johnson Posted: July 1, 2017 6:00 a.m.

President Timmons spoke about the history of universities in Canada at Spring Convocation.
President Timmons spoke about the history of universities in Canada at Spring Convocation. U of R Photography

As Canada marks its 150th birthday this year, President Timmons spoke at the Spring 2017 Convocation about how universities in Canada have changed during that time. Here is what she shared with the audience.

Our annual spring convocation is particularly noteworthy this year, because 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation.

Of course, the country we now call Canada existed long before 1867. For thousands of years it was the traditional home of First Nations people. In the centuries just before Confederation, it became a new land of opportunity for British and French settlers. And it also became home to the Metis people, as well as settlers from other parts of the world.

Confederation means something different for various groups in Canada, and indeed it means something different to every individual.

But no matter what Confederation means to you, it is a historical fact and a date that in one way or another connects all of us in this country.

The 150th anniversary of Confederation provides an opportunity for us to look back and think about what life was like in Canada in 1867.

It gives us an opportunity to see how much progress we have made, and, in some cases, how little progress we have made.

Universities are always on my mind, so I did some research on what Canadian universities were like in 1867.  

Overall access has increased dramatically in the last 150 years. In 1867 there were 15 universities in Canada. Today there are approximately 100.

There were no universities west of Manitoba in 1867.

University enrolment was a few thousand students in 1867 and now it is more than one million.

In 1867 there were no women graduates. Grace Annie Lockhart, in 1875, became the first woman to earn a Bachelor’s degree in the entire Birtish Empire. She graduated from Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. That’s also the university that I graduated from.

Now, women make up about 60 per cent of graduates at Canadian universities.

Access for Indigenous students has improved. There is no data from 1867 about Indigenous university students, but I think it’s safe to say that there were few if any at university at that time. Until 1950, Indigenous people had to give up their status if they wanted to attend university. Can you image having to do that?

There’s still a long way to go, but in 150 years we have made tremendous progress. The First Nations University of Canada, a federated college, has been part of our university for the past 40 years. Now, 13 per cent of university of Regina students self-declare as aboriginal, and we are so proud of that number.

Today’s universities would not be recognizable to those who attended them – and those who were not allowed to attend them – in 1867.

But for all the changes they have undergone in the past 150 years, I believe that the hopeful spirit of our universities have remained the same. They are places of optimism, where students find the best in themselves and in find ways to make our world a better place for all of us. I am proud to see that again today.

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