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Founding the University (1908–1911)

The establishment and organization of a university is a great work in which only few can participate. We are not called upon, fortunately, to re-organize some old, disrupted institution, but we are laying the foundation of a university which will be for the benefit and upbuilding of the province as a whole. We can congratulate ourselves on the fact that we are not called upon to deal with religious strifes of any nature, but are starting the work as a united body. We ought to realize that we cannot cut loose from tradition. We must use tradition as a guide and take from it the best that it contains as a lead for us in our work.

– Dr Henry Marshall Tory, March 30, 1908

Premier Alexander Cameron Rutherford (also Provincial Treasurer and Minister of Education) and educator Dr Henry Marshall Tory shared a common dream of starting a modern, centralized, and secular university in the province of Alberta.


Rutherford’s savvy political manoeuvres paved the way for the creation of the University of Alberta. He orchestrated the 1906 University Act, arranged the purchase of land for the university site in the City of Strathcona, and hired Dr Henry Marshall Tory to be Alberta’s first university president.

Tory, a respected professor of mathematics and physics at McGill University in Montreal, declined an offer to become McGill’s Dean of Arts and Science to take up residency in Alberta and to become the first President of the University of Alberta. As indicated by his 1908 speech, he was enthralled with the idea of organizing a university from the ground up.

The University of Alberta was planned according to an American model, with some influences from eastern Canadian university organization. There were to be three lectures a week in each course; student attendance and note-taking were expected; and there would be final examinations based on reading and study material. As in eastern Canadian universities, students were expected to wear gowns while attending classes.

According to the University’s first calendar, classes began September 23, 1908, and students were permitted to “…enter upon the courses of the First and Second Years in Arts, leading to the degrees of BA and BSc in Arts, and of the first year of applied science, leading to the degree of BSc in applied science.”

Premier Alexander Rutherford chose, as the perfect location for the University, River Lot Number Five, 250-hectares of uncultivated land set on the southern bank of the North Saskatchewan River in the City of Strathcona. It was purchased by the Alberta government from two Ontario women in 1907 for $150,000.

In the fall of 1908, the University of Alberta went from a dream to a reality. Until buildings could be constructed on the university site, the first term was held at Duggan Street School, now known as Queen Alexandra Elementary.

Arts foundation

The University of Alberta consisted of President Henry Marshall Tory; a Senate; an elected Chancellor (Mr Justice Charles Allan Stuart, 1908–1926) on the formation of the Senate; 45 students (of which seven were women); and five professors.

During a ceremony on May 9, 1909, Rutherford and Tory turned the first sod for the erection of the University's buildings. For many years, the University celebrated Founders’ Day Tea with Mr and Mrs Rutherford playing host to the graduating class.

In 1910, Rutherford resigned as Premier because of his alleged involvement in a railway scandal. Rutherford’s government had signed an agreement with Kansas City railway promoter G.W. Clarke to construct the Alberta and Great Waterways Railway Company line from Edmonton to Fort McMurray. The scandal ensued when it was alleged that promoters and certain cabinet members made quick profits from the sale of government-guaranteed bonds, with few signs that the railway was being constructed. Calgary’s R.B. Bennett, leader of the opposition, jumped at the chance to discredit and potentially topple Rutherford’s Liberal government.

When a Royal Commission was established to investigate these allegations, Rutherford resigned. The Liberals remained in power and chose Arthur Sifton as Rutherford’s successor. Notably, the judicial committee censured the government for some of its actions, but Rutherford was personally exonerated. Rutherford remained a University Senator and became a University of Alberta Chancellor in 1927.

Tory served as President of the University of Alberta between 1908 and 1928, successfully guiding the University’s development and growth. One of his most important tasks was to secure funding and political goodwill for the University’s construction and development—especially after his ally Rutherford resigned. Tory produced the 1910 University Act, which proved to be an enduring document that guided the University’s governance and structure for decades.

By 1911, the University's Arts Faculty boasted departments in English, Classics, Modern Languages, History, and Philosophy; while the departments of Mathematics, Physics, and Chemistry made up the University’s Science Faculty. The Municipal and Civil Engineering Department was the first in Applied Science. Biology, Geology, and Education were added in the 1911–1912 term.

Rutherford and Tory created a university, which from its onset, was successfully planned to become a leading North American university.

The Founders' Day Tea

Feature Video

Alexander Cameron Rutherford, first premier of the province of Alberta and founder of the University of Alberta, and his wife, Mattie Rutherford, opened their home near the University of Alberta campus to the graduating class of 1912 for an afternoon tea. This tea, called the Founders’ Day Tea, became a tradition for graduating classes of the University of Alberta every year until 1938.

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