Laying the Foundations

On Campus News, 26 January 1996

Preparations for constructing the University's first building were not going smoothly. "The building is the first one," the architects, Brown and Vallance, observed, "and for many years will occupy the place of honor." From President Walter Murray's perspective, however, much more was at stake: integrity. "As far as possible we wish to put the University in such a position that every fair-minded man will say that the University has acted with the utmost consideration for all interested." Another obvious concern with the tenders was that "Western firms must have equal chances with Eastern." As far as this went, Brown and Vallance were petulantly obtuse, deeming the matter evidence "of the petty jealousy amongst those connected with building matters in the West." Of more concern to them was an ominous article about Saskatchewan in the Montreal Gazette: "Province Also Said to Be in Bad Shape Financially and There Are Other Questions." "We would esteem it a favor," they wrote, "if you would advise us of the true state of affairs." What a delicate way of wondering if the University's cheque would bounce.

Meanwhile, Premier Walter Scott had discovered Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier would likely be in Saskatoon at the end of July, 1910. Construction had just started; the contractors bluntly stated "the building will not be in very good shape." Nevertheless, the Board of Governors, with an obvious eye for the occasion, felt a ceremony to officially lay the corner stone was in order. "Kindly let me know what your feelings are," A.F. Angus wrote Murray, "as I will have to notify Scott to ask his Nibs to perform the laying." Murray had just over a month's notice to prepare.

A special platform had to be built; etiquette had to be observed ("it seems to be the general feeling that silk hat and frock coat will be imperative"); and suitable material found to be placed in the corner stone. Angus suggested to Murray a relatively small hole in the corner stone "would be large enough, unless you wish to place one of the Governors under."

"I find great pleasure in being able to take part in so important a ceremony as this," Laurier told the crowd. "It has been a proud privilege to lay this stone. Let a university arise here which may be a worthy disciple of Oxford, Cambridge, and other universities which have done so much for mankind."

With much less fanfare, Laurier may have symbolically inaugurated much more than a new University. Documented primarily in memory and on the corner of 22nd Street, Laurier met with another individual with an eye for the occasion. Was the torch passed that day from one Prime Minister to another? John Diefenbaker didn't refer to Laurier as "his Nibs," but neither could he afford much diplomacy. "Sorry, Prime Minister," Diefenbaker said, "I can't waste any more time on you, I've got work to do."

Cheryl Avery