University of Calgary education professor Lisa Panayotidis recently teamed up with Paul Stortz from the department of history to research student initiation rituals in western Canada.
Panayotidis and Stortz studied the culture surrounding student hazing from 1880–1950 at the University of Alberta, University of British Columbia and University of Saskatchewan. Their findings painted a grim picture about how hazing has affected university life in the past.
“An initiation refers to the larger process of introducing a first-year student to the university,” Panayotidis said. “It’s supposed to build class belonging and an allegiance to the university, but a lot of things that transpired in the early half of the century in western and eastern universities were forms of hazing that were sometimes out of control.”
During her research, Panayotidis discovered a case at the U of A where a student had a mental breakdown after a hazing incident.
“This really infamous case in Alberta occurred in 1932 and went to court in 1933. It was called the Powlett and Powlett versus the University of Alberta,” Panayotidis said. “In fact, the [U of A] student union moved to end it after Powlett was so harassed that he actually needed a year in, what they called at that time, a mental institution to get over some of the stuff that happened.”
According to Panayotidis, initiation crosses the line into hazing when it turns violent, becoming nothing more than student-on-student bullying.
“In the early half of the century, you were really vulnerable if you lived on campus. Everybody was picked on. Everybody was initiated in some form,” she said.
The report discovered second-year students were usually responsible for running the initiation rituals.
“If you spoke back or said something contrary to what the initiator wanted, you would be singled out for extra punishment,” Panayotidis said.
Aggressive initiation rituals also affected members of the community. University students in Edmonton frequently went downtown to have “snake parades” in their underwear.
“What they did is they linked arm in arm, sometimes 200 to 300 students and went over the bridge downtown, screaming, yelling and beating pans,” Panayotidis said. “So, the whole city was disrupted. A lot of people in the city didn’t like it. They didn’t think it was seemly. They didn’t like the way students were down there in their underwear.”
Panayotidis said the history of initiation is important today because it still goes on in Canadian universities.
“I think it’s important that [we] realize that this is part of a long tradition and history. I’m not saying that [initiations are] good or bad. What I think should end is hazing, bullying, violence and defamatory language,” she said.