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How The Students Built The Campus

After the success of the Great Trek in 1922, construction finally resumed on the Point Grey campus, and it was ready to welcome the students in September 1925.

However, it was not the campus we know today. There was a library, what is now the neo-Gothic core of the I.K. Barber Centre, but there was no I.K. Barber Centre around it; there was nothing around it, just cleared land.

There were some academic buildings too, and an auditorium and an administration building, but little else. And what was most noticeably absent was anything extra-curricular. There was no student union building. Also no gymnasium. There were some rudimentary playing fields, built in part by the students themselves with money they raised, but mostly as far as sports were concerned, UBC’s teams had to play elsewhere.

By: Sheldon Goldfarb

Students on frame.jpg

So the students set to work. This became a tradition at UBC: students raising money to build things, so much so that a later UBC President, Norman MacKenzie, said: “No university in the world I know owes as much to its students as does the University of British Columbia.”


One of the first things talked of was building a Women’s Union, a place of refuge for women students, but it didn’t come to fruition. Money raised for it, though, later got repurposed to a general students union building. And the students embarked on fundraising campaigns. In later days AMS Council would just call a referendum asking students for a new building fee, but back then they put on events. When they raised money to build the War Memorial Gym, there was a roller skating event which one club promoted with the slogan “Break a limb! Support the Gym!”


The War Memorial Gym went up more than 70 years ago, in 1951, thanks to the student funding, but it wasn’t the first gym on campus. That gym (which became the Women’s Gym when the War Memorial opened) went up in 1929, again thanks to student fundraising, in this case through a bond issue created by the AMS.


After raising money for the gym, the AMS also raised money for a stadium that opened in 1937, and then came the first student union building, Brock Hall, in 1940. Before 1940 there was no dedicated building for the students; the AMS and the Ubyssey newspaper had offices in the old Auditorium building, and the students used rooms in various buildings on campus. But sometimes that led to booking conflicts, and by the 1930s the student population had grown to 2,000, and people said it was time for a student union building.


Planning for such a building got underway in the mid-30s, and there was more fundraising activity: dances, sports events, etc. The Engineers held a lottery for a puppy, and there was another bond issue. Fundraising and construction took four years, but eventually Brock opened, with $50,000 of its $80,000 cost paid for by the students. Noted Canadian writer Pierre Berton, a UBC student at the time, wrote of the newly finished Brock Hall that it was a “monument to the initiative of the students of the University of British Columbia.” 


Brock Hall served the students for 28 years, despite a fire in 1954 that caused its roof to fall in: the students raised money to repair that, and also raised money for an extension of the building in 1957.


Despite the extension, by the 1960s the student population had grown again (to 10,000), and it was decided that a bigger building was needed. This time the AMS called a fee referendum, and the students approved funding that covered $3.5 million of the $5 million cost. This building was simply known as the Student Union Building, or SUB (a proposal to call it the Thunderbird Union Building was rejected when people realized this meant the acronym would be TUB).


The new SUB had all kinds of facilities for students, even a bowling alley and a games arcade. When the AMS started opening food outlets in the 90s, it also featured a pizza parlour, a coffee shop, and eventually a sushi place. There was even a movie theatre and a special Council Chambers for Student Council.


What there wasn’t at first was a pub. That had not even been thought of in the plans or in the survey the AMS put together to ask students what they would like to see in the new building. The AMS had long been a dry organization, forbidding liquor at its events, and there was even a rule to this effect in its Code of Procedure.


However, this was the 60s, a time of protest, and some students protested the lack of a pub by staging a “pub-in” on the day the SUB opened. At the same time, David Suzuki, then a young UBC professor, published an article in the Administration’s newsletter saying “What this Campus Needs is a Pub,” where students and faculty could socialize together. The AMS leadership agreed, and eventually the iconic Pit Pub appeared.


The Pit and the rest of the SUB served the student body into the 2000’s, but then once again it was thought the students needed a bigger building. At the same time the University was making plans for the centre of campus, hoping to develop what it called a University Town. It talked of putting 18-storey highrises around the old SUB, prompting objections from the AMS and more radical protests from groups like the one centred on the Knoll, the publication of the activist Student Resource Groups.


The name Knoll was deliberately chosen to evoke the grassy mound beside the SUB, which was threatened by the University’s development plans. An occupation took place in the parking lot beside the old SUB; there was even a concert. There was also a bonfire, which led to a confrontation and arrests, including the arrest of a recently elected AMS VP External.


Finally, a compromise was reached when the AMS put forward an alternative to commercial development. Instead of highrises and retail, the centre of campus would become the site of a new and much larger student union building (also a new alumni centre). The University Administration expressed interest in the idea, especially when the AMS said it could contribute $80 million towards construction. And indeed, under the leadership of AMS President Jeff Friedrich, the AMS launched a referendum in which students agreed to a new fee to fund the new student union building, which would eventually be named the Nest.


After the referendum in 2008 there were some conflicts with the University over who would manage the project, but in 2010 there was agreement, in 2012 a ceremonial groundbreaking, and on June 1, 2015 the AMS Student Nest opened to the public, to much acclaim.


And the students still were not finished. In 2017 they voted Yes in a referendum to provide part of the funding for a new recreation facility, and construction on that will be getting underway in 2022.

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