A Tale of Two Simon Frasers: The Invented and Contested Scottish Tradition of SFU

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Georgia Twiss is in her final semester of her undergraduate (honours) History degree at Simon Fraser University. Her research focuses on the impact of the British Empire on the urban development of Glasgow, and the legacy of imperialism within Glaswegian heritage, as well as performances of gender, culture, and imperialism in British Columbia. The basis of this research blog was a poster presentation for Georgia’s History honours seminar class in Spring 2018.

On September 9th 1965, Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat, Chief of Clan Fraser of Lovat, took to the stage in Convocation Mall to give a speech commemorating the opening ceremonies of Simon Fraser University. He began his speech with a quote taken from Shakespeare proclaiming, “I didn’t come here to talk.”[1] His choice of words rang true. He was not there to talk, but to embody an invented tradition of Scottishness, promoted by the university’s President, Patrick McTaggart-Cowan, and predicated upon SFU’s association to the Clan Fraser of Lovat. While today most people assume the university’s name and Scottishness honour Simon Fraser, the nineteenth-century imperial explorer and fur trader, McTaggart-Cowan’s invented tradition intentionally excluded him in favour of Lord Lovat. As the head of the Clan, this Simon Fraser symbolized a prestigious sense of historical continuity and heritage that was lacking in the locally-branded “Instant University.”[2] It was through this invented tradition that the early university endorsed and enforced an image of SFU as overtly Scottish. An image which, despite contestation, has prevailed through the years, but in truth has little to do with Simon Fraser the Explorer at all.

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[Figure 1] Lord Lovat bestowing the Clan Fraser Claymore (Not the mace as the caption of the photo suggests) to SFU at the university’s opening ceremonies, September 9th 1965.

The naming of SFU was a fluke by way of an acronymic oversight. The original name, ‘Fraser University’, was chosen to reflect the region from where its student body would largely derive. However, upon the realization that the school would be colloquially referred to as “F.U,” the prefix “Simon” was added, with no direct statement as to whom it was meant to honour.[3] This addition transformed the intended toponymic name to one that allowed for the forging of a relationship between the university and the Clan Fraser of Lovat, whose Chief at the time was named Simon Fraser. The relationship between SFU and the Clan began when Patrick McTaggart-Cowan, a Scottish immigrant to Canada himself, requested the use of the Clan’s motto and crest for the university’s insignia.[4] It was this relationship that underpinned McTaggart-Cowan’s invention of a Scottish tradition at SFU.

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[Figure 2] “Coat of Arms.” Simon Fraser University.

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[Figure 3] FRASER, Lord Fraser of Lovat Quarterly, 1st and 4th, Azure, three fraises (cinquefoils), Argent (for Fraser); 2nd and 3d, Argent, three antique crowns, Gules (for the Lordship of Lovat).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Invented tradition” is a concept brought forth by historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terrence Ranger, and defined as, “a set of practices…of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past.”[5] The invented tradition of SFU, through the appropriation of Clan Fraser of Lovat heritage, projects an image of historical Scottishness. The Clan’s imagery are found in SFU’s official tartan, coat of arms, and motto as well, as in the use of the ceremonial claymore and mace at formal ceremonies and events.

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[Figure 4] “Patrick McTaggart-Cowan (left), flanked by B.C. Premier W. A. C. Bennett and SFU Chancellor Gordan Shrum, delivers SFU’s opening address on Sept. 9, 1965”

The exclusion of Simon Fraser the Explorer within the construction of McTaggart-Cowan’s invented tradition in favor of Lord Lovat is clearly illustrated in the university’s opening ceremonies. While Lord Lovat was grandly standing upon the stage in Convocation Mall, Donald Fraser of Fargo, North Dakota, and great-great-grandson of Simon Fraser the Explorer, was also in attendance. Unlike Lord Lovat he received no honours, his presence was not promoted and he paid for his own way to the event.[6] While Lord Lovat embodied the invented tradition of Scottishness McTaggart-Cowan craved, the presence of Donald Fraser had no appeal. A man from North Dakota did not evoke the same esteem or romance as a war-hero and Clan chief from the Highlands of Scotland. It was Lord Lovat who personified McTaggart-Cowan’s image of Scottishness, not a long-dead imperial explorer or his American descendant.

McTaggart-Cowan’s invented Scottishness was an attempt to formulate a shared identity for the incoming student body. This identity, centred around the prestige and history of the Clan Fraser of Lovat, would allow students to feel pride in their new university. McTaggart-Cowan’s plan however, backfired when met with reality. Rather than accepting this imposed Scottishness, SFU’s new students challenged the invented tradition in order to embrace the modern and progressive identity they saw in the divergent image of the “Instant University.”

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[Figure 5] Clan Fraser of Lovat Clan Crest

In a series of “Letters to the Editor” from the university’s first newspaper, The Tartan, written in September 1965, various students contest SFU’s overt Scottishness. James Stuart Patterson writes, “Why must this university be an ethnic eyesore?” and later declares, in reference to McTaggart-Cowan, “the Scottish nut on the planning committee must be restrained.”[7] The most direct rejection of McTaggart-Cowan’s invented Scottishness comes from another student, John Cole, who argues, “We are Canadians, going to a Canadian university and to tag a Scottish label on us and our university is phoney.”[8] Evidence of Cole’s assertion is witnessed a few weeks later when The Tartan collapses and is replaced by a new paper The Peak. The new name, chosen by the students, illustrates that when given the choice they sought an image rooted in a localized identity, like that of Fraser University, rather than one steeped in the imagery and traditions of Scotland.[9]

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[Figure 5] “The SFU Pipe Band has bagged the title of world champions six times. Now it’s ready to take New York, after a stage show here at home.”

The rejection of SFU’s invented Scottish tradition continued following the collapse of The Tartan. In late October 1965, a student named Barbara Chomica wrote a passionate plea to The Peak calling for the paper to take on a hard-line and innovative approach. It was vital to her that The Peak did not become a conservative paper afraid of taking a stance on critical issues. In her concluding sentence Chomica proverbially noted, “The pen is mightier than the sword, even a claymore.”[10] Using the claymore as a placeholder for conservativeness is a clear dig at the enforced Scottishness of the university, as to her it represented an anachronistic identity she did not share. Chomica’s piece again illustrates the wide chasm between McTaggart-Cowan’s invented Scottish identity and the real, progressive, and modern identity students sought to forge in their new university.

The conflict between the two identities, apparent in the fall of 1965, was soon overtaken by more pressing issues such as enrollment fees and unionization. It would resurface again in 1968 when a student led movement to rename the school “Louis Riel University” was voted down.[11] Despite the disappearance of the figure of Lord Lovat from the university, McTaggart-Cowan’s invented Scottish tradition prevails. By exploring the construction of SFU’s Scottish image it becomes clear that the history of the university, from the beginning, has been a tale of two “Simon Frasers.” Not only the two competing figures of Simon Fraser of Lovat and Simon Fraser the Explorer, but the two divergent identities of instant and invented and the way they continue to shape the legacy and image of the university today.

-Georgia Twiss


Sources

[1] Quoted in: Hugh Johnston, Radical Campus (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2005), 113.

[2] Built in just 18 months, the local press nicknamed the then unnamed university the “Instant University” before it became Simon Fraser University.

[3] Ceremonies and Events Office Fonds, 1963-1969. F-91-1-0-0-1. SFU Archives, Burnaby, BC, Canada.

[4] Lord Lovat, 1965-1995. F-208-1-0-0-5. SFU Archives, Burnaby, BC, Canada.

[5] Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992),

[6] Johnston, Radical Campus, 113.

[7] The Tartan and SF View: Issues, 1965. F-17-6-2. SFU Archives. Burnaby, BC, Canada.

[8] Ibid.

[9] The Peak: Issues, 1965-2016. F-17-6-3. SFU Archives. Burnaby, BC, Canada.

[10] The Peak (Burnaby, BC) October 20, 1965.

[11] McLeod, Brad. “Simon Fraser vs Louis Riel.” The Peak (Burnaby, BC) January 6, 2015.

Images

[Figure 1] “Lord Lovat and the SFU Mace.” Photograph. [Untitled.] Burnaby, BC, 1965. Accessed on November 13, 2018. https://www.flickr.com/photos/sfupamr/21097595415/in/photostream/

[Figure 2] “Coat of Arms.” Simon Fraser University. Burnaby, BC. Accessed November 13, 2018. https://www.sfu.ca/communicators-toolkit/tools/brand-tools/logos/coat-of-arms.html

[Figure 3] https://www.scotclans.com/scottish-clans/clan-fraser-of-lovat/fraser-of-lovat-coat-of-arms/ <accessed 14 November 2018>

[Figure 4] “Patrick McTaggart-Cowan (left), flanked by B.C. Premier W. A. C. Bennett and SFU Chancellor Gordan Shrum, delivers SFU’s opening address on Sept. 9, 1965” [Untitled.] Burnaby, BC, 1965. Accessed, November 13, 2018. https://www.sfu.ca/sfunews/stories/2016/founding-president-patrick-mctaggart-cowans-sfu-legacy.html

[Figure 5] Clan Fraser of Lovat Clan Cresthttps://www.scotclans.com/scottish-clans/clan-fraser-of-lovat/fraser-of-lovat-crest/ <accessed 14 November 2018>

[Figure 6] “The SFU Pipe Band has bagged the title of world champions six times. Now it’s ready to take New York, after a stage show here at home.” Meadahl, Marianne. [Untitled.] Photograph. Victoria, BC, 2014. Accessed November 13, 2018. https://the-peak.ca/2014/05/sfu-pipe-band-prepares-for-the-world-stage/

 

 

 

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What’s in a Name? The Evolution of Joan Peebles

This week’s blog comes to us from Kendra Lennie. Kendra is a Vancouverite and cannot remember a time when she was not fascinated with the past, from obsessing about medieval Britain to prehistoric fossils and dinosaurs. Kendra was exposed to Scottish culture at a young age through her grandparents who emigrated from Scotland to Vancouver in the 50s. She is currently finishing a bachelors of science (in evolutionary biology and ecology) with a minor in history at Simon Fraser University.
This blog was the result of research undertaken for History 448 ‘Scots in North America’.

Angusta Peebles Jr. was a woman of many names. Born to Scottish immigrants, Angusta and Peter Peebles on January 8, 1899 in New Westminster, she was known to her close friends as ‘Brownie’. She graduated from the provincial normal school in Vancouver BC, and at the age of 15 was offered her first scholarship when her vocal ability was recognized at a church carol service. Recognition of her talent did not end there. In 1923 she won the Hudson’s Bay Company’s gold medal at the first British Columbia Music Festival, and from there her career took off.  Throughout her life Brownie made many decisions that not only appeared for the benefit of her career but also expose her as a modern woman. She never appeared to let fame go to her head, and always maintained a connection with her local community and Scottish heritage.

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“Brownie Peebles as a young woman,” item IHP14335-013.

Once it became apparent that Brownie was destined for success she decided to take a stage name. The story goes that her stage name Joan was inspired by the medieval heroine Joan of Arc, a highly intelligent and independent woman. Brownie spent time studying in Chicago as recipient of the Florence Hinkle Voice Scholarship. During her schooling in Chicago she maintained a constant correspondence with her father, receiving letters from him almost daily throughout the summer of 1923.  After Chicago she was awarded another Scholarship, this time from the Eastman school of Music in New York.  While at Eastman she met a young vocalist from Pennsylvania named Norman Oberg. The two married, but this in no way impeded Brownie’s career. She graduated from the Eastman School of music in 1927, a mezzo-contralto capable of operatic performances as well as singing independently in concert.

 

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Carmen costume with New York Metropolitan Opera “Double Portrait of Brownie Peebles,” item IHP14335-022.

Between 1927 and 1929 Brownie performed throughout Canada and the United States, both operatically and in smaller concerts. On July 16, 1929 the first concert was held in Norton Hall in Chautauqua, New York, and Brownie was there. She continued to sing at Norton Hall for 15 seasons. Throughout her career she worked with symphony orchestras and opera companies in New Westminster, Boston, New York, Toronto, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Detroit. Brownie maintained the connection to her Scottish heritage in her song choices for her independent concerts, many of which included Scottish and Hebridean folk music. She also participated for three seasons in the Banff and Lake Louise Scottish Music festivals. She was renowned for her portrayal of the lead role in Carmen, and Brownie was reputedly the first woman to play her as a clever intellectual woman rather than a feeble-minded gypsy girl. Before retiring Brownie made recordings for the Radio Corporation of America of the music in Carmen, but in no way did this signify the end of her involvement in the musical community.

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“Brownie Peebles carrying a basket,” item IHP14335-009

At the outbreak of the second world war Norman Oberg was called back to work in a factory in Pennsylvania, and in 1942 Brownie retired from opera and joined him. Norman rose to be a manager for the steel corporation he worked for, and he and Brownie remained in Pennsylvania until his death. Not content to be idle in her retirement, Brownie taught piano and vocal lessons in Pennsylvania for over 30 years. As well as teaching young people with talent, Brownie recognized the benefits of speech therapy and helped children and youth with speech impediments such as muscular dystrophy. While in Pennsylvania she maintained correspondence with her sister Jane Murie, who, upon her death, left the vast majority of her wealth and estate to Brownie. Many of the letters mention how dear a sister Brownie was and how entertaining Jane Murie found her letters. Brownie appeared to be a kind and witty individual who helped people find their voices both figuratively and literally.

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“Brownie Peebles dressed as a fairy,” item IHP14335-036.

During her life Brownie came into contact with some of the most distinguished individuals of the time both in music and in general. One newspaper article recounts a story of Miss Peebles singing for her friend Mrs Thomas Edison at her bird, tree, and garden club. Brownie’s humor comes through as she adds details about another visit to the Edison household involving her sitting on the arm of the chair while singing directly into the ears of “the great Edison” himself due to his deafness.

Not only was Brownie a local opera star, she gained fame and reputation throughout Canada and the United States for her singing and acting abilities. She was a woman who knew that women as a group were not feeble, and many who were viewed as feeble simply needed to learn to use their voice. In 1974 Joan (Angusta) “Brownie” Peebles moved back to her hometown of New Westminster. She Died at Royal Columbian Hospital in 1991 at the age of 92.

Kendra Lennie

Sources:

New Westminster Archives, Peebles family Fonds, IH 2007.151 C.2, “personal papers.”

All images New Westminster Archives, Peebles Family Fonds.