With apologies to Stan Rogers and to misquote “Barrett’s Privateers”: I wish I was in Halifax, now.
For two years, I served as a don-tutor and lived at Halifax’s University of King’s College, which dubs itself Canada’s oldest chartered university, founded in 1789. Never mind that Université Laval in Quebec was founded in 1663 (the oldest university, outright) and that University of New Brunswick was founded in 1785, thus holding the title of oldest English-language university in what’s now Canada by four years. Ah, but that chartered bit. That’s King’s story, and it’s sticking to it.
King’s, were it located in the United States, would be in the running to be one of those often-quirky, student-centred schools featured in a book such as Colleges That Change Lives.
It has made its reputation in the past few decades as home to the Foundation Year Programme (yes, with “mme”, shortened to “FYP”, pronounced “fip”), where students are immersed in a cohesive study of “fundamental texts” from ancient to contemporary; or, as it was nicknamed, “From Plato to NATO”. Fyppers, as they’re known, attend three-hour lectures four days a week and then, on the fifth day, break into small-group tutorials, with papers due every two weeks. At the end, you have earned four university credits (out of a regular load of five — people take one elective course along with FYP) and made friends for life. Students go on to major in one of many arts or science programs offered at the larger Dalhousie University, with which King’s is affiliated, or to King’s-based programs in Journalism, Contemporary Studies, Early Modern Studies, or History of Science and Technology.
King’s is the kind of place where the college cat had a Latin name (the school motto is Leo, Regi, Gregi, and said large, lazy grey cat was known as “Gregi”, pronounced GRAY-gay). The King’s campus is on a corner of Dalhousie University and has stone buildings on four sides framing a central, inspired-by-Oxford quad: it’s a self-contained universe with academic space, gymnasium and fitness centre, Anglican chapel, student residences, library, dining hall, the Wardroom bar, common rooms, and a residence for the president.
The student population is around 1,000 and there are seven residence units, so the community is “extraordinarily lively”, as the current website promises, with so many students living right on campus. There are tunnels connecting most of the buildings; in my second year at King’s when I was also a student there, taking a one-year Bachelor of Journalism program, there were cold winter days where I never went outside.
Some of my King’s memories are ones I’d have if I’d gone to any of Halifax’s six universities: most students befriend late-night donairs, a shawarma / gyro variation invented in Halifax that features shaved beef instead of lamb stuffed in a soft pita with chopped onion, tomato, and a sauce made from evaporated milk.
But certain things are uniquely King’s. Back then we had a weekly “formal meal” (now held monthly) where everyone was expected to dress in academic gowns. Ritual (with doses of Latin) is big at King’s: A matriculation ceremony (more academic gowns) welcomes first-year students and graduation is a three-day event called Encaenia. And in my student days, the university hired someone to play the bagpipes in the quad every weekday morning at 8 a.m.: the weirdest alarm clock I’ve ever had.
Lest you think this sounds all unbearably stuffy, King’s can also be, shall we say, high-spirited. What other university website in Canada boasts about its school’s annual water fight? Also high up on the social calendar, in my era, was the annual three-legged race, where students, often in costumes, would join in tied pairs to run up each of the four-storey residence bays (five of them), at the top of which they would each consume a drink per bay: the winners were those who could complete this heroic task most quickly, while remaining vertical long enough to cross the finish line. I remember clearly two young women, dressed in chic matching black dresses and creamy pearl necklaces, whose perfect coifs were not ruffled by one hair during the ordeal.
The current King’s campus is actually its second location: it was founded in Windsor, Nova Scotia and remained there until 1920, when a fire destroyed the campus. With help from a grant from the Carnegie Foundation (the same one that built so many libraries), a new King’s campus was built in Halifax, associated with Dalhousie.
In the latter part of the Second World War, King’s became a base for the Royal Canadian Navy and was dubbed HMCS Kings. That part of its history lives on in The Wardroom, the student-run social hub that is a lounge by day and bar by night, decorated with mementos of King’s time as a stone frigate. Everyone who works, teaches, or studies at King’s stops by.
The school’s academic offerings have evolved over the years. For many years it had a Faculty of Divinity, which eventually spun off to the Atlantic School of Theology; the Foundation Year Programme started in 1972 and the journalism school launched in 1978.
King’s attracts an interesting mix of students: “Uppity Canadians” (from Ontario, known as Upper Canada before 1867), many graduates of private high schools, join Cape Bretonners from mining towns. By the end of first year, the Come-From-Away students can belt out the chorus of “Barrett’s Privateers”, a Down East favourite, as lustily as those to the Maritime manner born.
King’s, like most Atlantic universities, is struggling to attract enough students to keep operations viable: demographics are not on their side as the number of young people living on Canada’s East Coast declines. But I’ve yet to meet someone from elsewhere in Canada who went to university in Halifax, and specifically King’s, who wouldn’t consider moving back there, if there were career opportunities in that city. If you know someone who’s at the university-deciding stage of life, who’d like the buzz of an intensive liberal arts residential college complete with a “Great Books” program at saner Canadian tuition prizes, steer them to King’s. And make sure you send them off with a package of water balloons.
Main photo: Kelley Teahen with former King’s president John Godfrey at a 2014 reunion in Halifax to celebrate King’s 225th anniverary. Photo by Chris Moorehead.