I got married this past weekend at an extraordinary place called Sadleir House. It’s a red-brick mansion built in the 1890s by a local businessman on the then-edge of town; after a few owners and an added carriage house, it was purchased by the fledgling Trent University in 1962 as the core of one of two “downtown” colleges (Peter Robinson College, to be specific, the other being Catherine Parr Traill College, built around a core of the old tuberculosis hospital on London Street.) Trent established six “sub-colleges” over the years, with four being on the Symons Campus north of the city, and the two original “downtown” colleges keeping the city and the university connected.
In 1999, the university administration announced it was closing the downtown colleges in order to cope with the “double-cohort”, that is the huge, one-time surge in first-year enrolments which was expected when the province of Ontario discontinued grade 13 in high schools, combined with the self-lobotomizing funding cuts to education under the Mike Harris government. Don’t ask me how closing buildings was supposed to help deal with added-students situation but that was the stated reason and the students of Trent fought like hell to prevent it. We partially succeeded: despite the closure (and hasty sell-off) of Peter Robinson College, Traill college was eventually saved, albeit reborn as Trent’s “graduate college.”
That’s a fairly short synopsis of two years of protests, upheavals, arrests and vicious, underhanded bullshit… and it doesn’t even scratch the surface of how very formative that time was for me, personally.
One particularly appalling example of the awfulness of those days is how the Trent administration treated the campus newspaper. At the time the Arthur maintained an editorial policy opposing the closure of PRC, and in response the administration withheld their funding… completely illegally. Trent students pay a fee with their tuition every year to support their campus newspaper, and at the time that money was deliberately withheld by the university. The editors were told, specifically, that until their editorial policy changed they would not receive their funding; I have no idea how they kept the campus paper going, but the editors refused to buckle to the pressure, and begged and borrowed, scrimped and scratched… and continued to serve as a focus for resistance even while pursuing legal action to get their funds released.
That’s one of the more extreme examples, but every single student organization that spoke out was put under that kind of pressure, especially the threat of losing their office space. OPIRG, the Trent Queer Collective, the Trent Women’s Centre, all vital organizations helping to keep the students organized and educated, were in danger of being unceremoniously evicted from their offices at a moment’s notice unless they publicly supported the administration’s plans to downsize. None of those organizations buckled. Eventually, the University administration was so frustrated, angry and embarrassed at the resistance from the students and community, that they sold off Peter Robinson’s assets for a fraction of their value just to get it over with. Sadleir House was sold to a local developer… who then didn’t dare do anything with it because he feared (and rightly so) student protests.
Sadleir House was locked for a year and seemed doomed… until a handful of very bright student activists engineered a solution. Working quietly, so as not to attract the attention of the administration (who by then now trying to pass a “student code of conduct” which would make any protest — or even vocalized dissent — punishable by expulsion) they got a student levy approved. Every year each Trent student would pay about $22 on top of their tuition for the creation of a “student and community centre”… and with that guaranteed income the PR Community Student Association was able to get a mortgage approved and bought Sadleir House from an increasingly nervous developer. By the time the university administration figured it out, the purchase as a done deal… the best the administration could do to stop it was to sue the student association over their use of the words “Peter Robinson”, since that was apparently the intellectual property of the university — the PRCSA is now simply the “PR” Community Student Association because of that. Ironically, their embarrassment over the whole fiasco has caused the administration to purge, as far as possible, any mention of the former Peter Robinson College from Trent’s official history.
The best part of Sadleir House is — at least for me — the fact that the old professors’ offices were converted into offices for all those student organizations which suffered under the administration’s threats of eviction… especially the Arthur. Never again can the university try and stifle dissent by threatening student groups with the loss of their facilities because now their facilities are completely out of the administration’s control. For the past decade, the PRCSA has maintained and restored Sadleir House. Four decades of use as a university building was pretty rough on the place, but with love, care and patience (plus the occasional heritage grant) it’s been turned into an absolutely beautiful building. When we were looking for a venue to host our wedding, we didn’t have to look very far, because it was an ideal location and beautiful to boot.
But I had a few odd moments during my wedding. The ceremony was held in the loft of the old carriage house, which was converted into a cafeteria during the university years, and is now a pretty acceptable reception hall. I remember eating bacon and eggs in that space… and participating in the plans for an occupation of the offices of the VP of the university in that space. The Senior Common Room, where my family gathered to get ready for the ceremony (and where my sisters organized an impromptu euchre tournament during the reception) used to host a men’s discussion group I was involved with, as well as a number of Trent Pagan Circle ceremonies. The caterer set up in the old Hobbs Library, which is now an bright and airy set of rooms without any bookshelves whatsoever. We posed for photos on stairs that I once rushed up and down to get to class or catch a bus.
I guess the biggest sense of strangeness was the overlap between my “old” life and my “new” one. It’s not that new a feeling: I work in the same neighbourhood where I used to live a decade ago, for example. In fact, when our company moved to its new offices a year ago, I had a good laugh: we’re located kitty-corner from the wretched, falling down old townhouse that several of us spent a few years leasing during University; every morning at the office I get out of my car and look up at my old bedroom window. What a shithole that place was: Pretty much only difference between that townhouse and a squat is that we were paying $800-a-month plus-plus for the privilege! (I’m happy to say that the entire row of townhouses are now under new ownership and in considerably better condition, although I’m sure that the rent has increased commensurately.)
But its odd, very odd, to look back on such an important time in my life and to contrast it with this important time in my life. David Mitchell once wrote “England could easily hold all the happenings in one humble lifetime without much overlap – I mean, it’s not ruddy Luxembourg we live in – but no, we cross, crisscross, and recross our old tracks like figure skaters.” It’s not England, but living in the same city for more than a decade (I arrived in 1999 and except for one hiatus I’ve lived here ever since) you do just that. I walk the same streets, go to the same stores and bars, see many of the same people. This is the longest I’ve stayed in one place since I became an adult… and it’s only now that I’m really starting to feel like I’m putting down roots.
Or maybe I put down roots a long time ago… and it’s only now that I can feel them underfoot.