Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Ubyssey marks a checkered past

Forty years ago this week

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 22, 2008


Any newspaper celebrating a birthday these days is cause for celebration, even if the survivor is a “vile rag.”

The Ubyssey student newspaper is 90 — “old enough to be John McCain’s dad,” as the paper noted in an editorial — but behaves like a cheeky twentysomething.

For nine decades, the paper has upset, outraged, infuriated, and, on occasion, amused.

So much for the staff. Who knows what the readers have made of it?

To mark the occasion, a few dozen stalwarts gathered at a modest party on the campus of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver on the weekend. Cake was served. A Queen tribute band performed the group’s bombastic songs, which means cheese was also on the menu.

Kellan Higgins, the 23-year-old coordinating editor, offered guests a tour of the newsroom in the Student Union Building. In the old days, the paper’s offices were located in a corner office on the top floor, where the walls were papered by faded political posters (“Free Yako Tiefenberg!”). In the old, old days, pubsters, as they were called, produced the rag from the basement of Brock Hall.

As though suffering from the subterranean homesick blues, the newspaper’s quarters are once again below ground in a windowless room. “It’s depressing, because there’s no light,” Mr. Higgins complains. The proximity to the campus pub known as The Pit is offset by the proximity to a campus pub that is known as a pit.

The Ubyssey missed a year of publication before being revived in a referendum as an independent business funded by students. Eviction followed autonomy.

The weekend party honoured 15 years of editorial freedom instead of celebrating the paper’s rich history. Imagine the documentary series “Canada: A People’s History” beginning with the patriation of the constitution in 1982, or the Bible opening not with Genesis but the Resurrection. Backstory matters.

The 13 paid staff and 40 volunteers who produce the 24,000-circulation tabloid twice weekly have little time to contemplate what came before.

“The newspaper’s very now,” the editor said. “We’re doing this (itx)now(enditx).”

Not that all are ignorant of the history.

“We have bound volumes going back to the Sixties,” he said, emphasizing the decade as might an archaeologist speaking of the Mesozoic era. “It’s cool looking through them.”

The Ubyssey was Maoist in the late 1960s and Groucho Marxist in its best years. Times have changed. The newspaper praised Stephen Harper before endorsing Stephane Dion in the recent federal election, a shocking display of responsibility.

For generations, the newspaper was a playground for students seeking adventure. The Ubyssey produced poets (Earle Birney, Tom Wayman, George Bowering) and pundits (Marcus Gee, Vaughn Palmer, Bill Tieleman) and novelists (Lesley Krueger, Lawrence Hill) and authors (Pierre Berton, Allan Fotheringham) and humourists (Eric Nicol, Hymie Koshevoy, Mark Leiren-Young) and radio hosts (Lister Sinclair, Norman DePoe) and television reporters (Hilary Brown, Morley Safer, Joe Schlesinger) and judges (Les Bewley, Nathan Nemetz) and senators (Pat Carney, Ray Perrault) and a prime minister (John "Chick" Turner) and more than a few dipsomaniacal newsroom hacks (guilty as charged).

It has less of a sterling record when it comes to producing academics, a notable exception being former arts dean Patricia Marchak.

The inaugural edition rolled off the presses on Oct. 17, 1918. The banner headline read, FRESHMAN RECEPTION. Other stories included the summertime drowning of a popular student. The Ubyssey had a military editor — the Armistice halting the Great War would not be reached for another 25 days.

An editorial declared “the main aim of the paper is to print the news while it is ‘hot.’ ”

For many years, the old papers were available only in dusty bound volumes in the stacks of the campus library, or on microfilm at such institutions as the National Library of Canada in Ottawa.

Four years ago, the university library began a project of digitizing the pages of the student newspaper. More than 37,000 pages were scanned and made available online.

A reader can find much to admire in the pages. In the early days, the Ubyssey argued for the hiring of a dean of women, supported the demands for the building of a campus at Point Grey, and crusaded against the brutality of fraternity hazing, which was banned on campus in 1924.

The newspaper defended the right of Canadian-born students of Japanese descent to continue their studies after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In the 1950s, Mr. Fotheringham exposed the racist policies of some fraternities. Keith Bradbury exposed the activities of the RCMP on campus in the early 1960s.

While the commercial press timidly obeyed the dictates of Ottawa during the October Crisis of 1970, the Ubyssey staff and other student journalists risked arrest by publishing fuller accounts of events in Quebec.

Irreverent by nature and often puerile in practice, the Ubyssey was known for an annual hoax story (a classic being a Patty Hearst sighting on campus in 1974), as well as a goon issue in which popular magazines were parodied as Maclown’s, Torts Illustrated, Rolling Clone, and Scientific Armenian.

As unlikely as it seems, the paper has been a training ground for reporters covering the God squad (Doug Todd of the Vancouver Sun and Michael Valpy of the Globe).

The photographer Jeff Wall went from the Ubyssey to having his images displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. The photographer Norm Betts went from the Ubyssey to having his images of scantily-clad Sunshine Girls published in the Toronto Sun.

Peter Ladner, a Vancouver city councillor now running for mayor, was on the staff when his grandfather donated $150,000 for the construction of a 121-foot-tall (36.9-metre) concrete clock tower. The paper described it as “Ladner’s Last Erection.”

The younger Mr. Ladner became associate editor on a staff including Tony Gallagher (the Province sports columnist), Paul Knox (chair of the journalism school at Ryerson University in Toronto), and a city editor named Nate who these days is addressed at work as Mr. Justice Nathan H. Smith of the Supreme Court of British Columbia.

The newspaper generated much criticism. A letter writer in 1920 called the Ubyssey “a glorified gutter newspaper.” Crusty, upcountry newspaper editor Margaret (Ma) Murray declared the paper “a flithy rag”in the 1960s when it published four photographs from Playboy magazine deemed obscene by the local constabulary. She demanded it be closed down “fer damshur.”

Mr. Bewley, a jurist and former staffer, suggested the paper be “drenched in Lysol.” The most cutting criticism came courtesy of Mr. Koshevoy, who once pronounced it “drab.”

It was back in 1955 when Rev. E.C. Pappert flipped through a copy of the Ubyssey before declaring it to be “the vilest rag you can imagine.” The clergyman’s critique delighted the staff, which has used the slur as a recruitment come-on to this very day.

The first 80 years of the Ubyssey are available online at:

1 comment:

Bill Tieleman said...

Thanks for the 90th story Tom - though I note that both my name and Ladner's erection were absent from the Globe version! Ha-ha.