A secular beginning

What were the dreams of Dr. Henry Marshall Tory and Alexander Rutherford, who founded the University of Alberta over 100 years ago?

Let’s look through the University’s centential archives and history to find out.

Before I answer that, let’s look at Fredrick Haultain, the premiere of the North-West Territories (which Alberta was a part of until 1905) wanted to establish:

in 1903 Haultain introduced a bill to establish a university. Although his bill was not enacted, it did identify the importance of establishing a secular, centralized university. [emphasis added in all quotes]

But after Alberta and Saskatchewan were established, that bill died. So what did the premier and his friend (who became the first president of the school) want?

During a visit to Strathcona, Tory attended a meeting of the McGill Graduates Society of Strathcona and Edmonton. Tory and Rutherford were introduced at this meeting and they immediately recognized their shared convictions about how a centralized, secular university could be and should be organized in Alberta. Following this serendipitous meeting, Tory and Rutherford stayed in contact.

Both men felt their envisioned university should avoid religious affiliations and it should be centralized or risk having numerous religious colleges scattered throughout Alberta—each claiming they had university powers. Although Rutherford and Tory were devout Christians, they agreed that an overriding religious focus for a university could impede unbiased educational growth. Removing denominational strictures would provide university researchers and thinkers with a wider scope of exploration. Additionally, financial opportunities could be expanded because public funds would not be used to support and advance a particular religious organization.

Now, these are the words of the University’s historians, not Dr. Tory or Mr. Rutherford, but they do speak to their dream.

The chaplaincy, in its arguments, described the dream of a “non-creedal” university (with the words taken from the founding documents). But I think a stronger message is clear from the historians perspective (and since when do we take a priest’s word on history over a historian?).

I can imagine in 1905-1908 the word “secular” may be different than it is now. Then, there was little standing for the aboriginal cultures and religions, and likely no recognition of religions outside of Christianity. So likely to them, “secular” and “non-creedal” were equivalent.

But in desiring to found a university that was separate from faiths or denominations, the two (religious) men understood that to be equitable and just, the school must abstain itself from giving any religious preference over any other.

I think it’s fair to say that given a more diverse climate, the two men would be amenable to the idea that the University of Alberta should drop it’s charge to “the glory of God” in favour of something that reflects and respects the diversity of its student body.

And that is the argument against tradition.