Carleton University’s roots in the Glebe

by Joseph Mathieu

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Carleton College marching band

Landmark birthdays are the best time for reflection and, in its 75th year, Carleton University is looking back fondly on its formative years in the Glebe.

A four-year-old college named after Sir Guy Carleton moved into a five-storey, red brick building at 268 First Avenue in 1946. The move was partly thanks to the efforts of Henry Marshall Tory who in 1941 was enlisted by a committee of the Ottawa YMCA to found the college.

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Carleton’s Student Union Building on First Avenue

In his academic prime, Tory helped McGill University establish a satellite college on the west coast, which later became part of the University of British Columbia. He served as the first president of the University of Alberta in Edmonton in 1908 and as president to many organizations and societies. At 77 years of age, Tory was still an enterprising and resourceful administrator. Yet he reportedly was surprised when he was nominated as Carleton College’s first president 
in 1942.

More than 650 students enrolled in the first fall term when courses were offered only at night in classrooms of other schools and the basements of churches, including the then 
High School of Commerce, now 
Glebe Collegiate.

Part-time students paid $20 and $30 for first-year and second-year courses, respectively, and soon Tory saw the need to prepare for growth.

In Creating Carleton: The Shaping of a University, Blair Neatby and Don McEown wrote, “The end of the war created a unique opportunity, for 
the federal government was planning the transition from war to peace. Almost a million servicemen and -women had to be reintegrated into civilian life.”

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Carleton College’s second president Maxwell MacOdrum at the entrance of the
High School of Commerce (later Glebe Collegiate) where Carleton night classes
were offered

The First Avenue building had been completed in 1914 as a new home for the Ottawa Ladies’ College (est. 1869) and during the war the building served as a residence for the Women’s Army Corps.

Tory wrote a letter in November 1945 to then minister of National Defence Douglas Abbott, “describing Carleton’s eagerness to contribute to the education of the veterans, and asking the government to make the building available.”

The college had leased a former mess hall at Lansdowne Park by the summer of ’46 as they worried the move wasn’t going to happen. Luckily, they were able to secure the building for $125,000 in July and renovated it for September classes.

Three houses on First Avenue were acquired over the years under the presidency of Carleton’s second leader, Maxwell MacOdrum, to satisfy a flood of students. One caught the overflow of books and studious readers that regularly packed the college’s fourth-floor library. A neighbouring house became the nexus of student life in 1948, taking on the Students’ Union, various clubs and the weekly student newspaper called The Carleton (renamed The Charlatan in 1971).

“Carleton College in these years clearly had a sense of community which older and better-endowed institutions could only envy,” Neatby wrote in Creating Carleton. “The professors who taught at Carleton College in the early years often looked back later with nostalgia, in spite of the cramped physical conditions and the limited financial resources.”

Now a block of renovated condos, the campus at 268 First Avenue was where Carleton College came into its own. The Carleton College Act allowed it to grant degrees by its 10th anniversary. A year later the School of Public Administration was established and in 1955 the first master’s degree was awarded.

The college became a university in 1957. It served more than 1,500 students in a variety of programs including journalism, engineering, commerce, public administration and general arts.

In 1960 Carleton did what most 18-year-olds do and got a place of its own. The university’s third president, Claude Bissell, was satisfied the move to its own campus at Sunnyside and Bronson was the right decision, although he knew there had been in the Glebe “a feeling of intimacy and community that would be difficult 
to recapture.”

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Carleton College became a university in 1957.

The First Avenue campus helped Carleton become what it is today, a tightly knit community that celebrates individual freedoms. Its upbringing in the dependable family neighbourhood was truly an education.

Joseph R. Mathieu is a bilingual writer who contributes to Ottawa Magazine, Exclaim!, Mountain Life Media and Carleton University. He was raised in Nepean and lives in Oxford Mills.

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