Although they largely go unnoticed by McGill students today, McGill’s Greek-letter societies are among some of the oldest student groups on campus.
The first fraternity at McGill, Zeta Psi, was established over a century ago in 1883. Chapter histories and mandates state that the societies were founded on ideals of friendship, philanthropy, scholarship, and leadership.
Decades ago, however, McGill’s fraternities and sororities were perceived as elitist groups where foolhardy behaviour flourished. From as early as the first half of the 20th century, illustrations in Old McGill yearbooks indicate negative perceptions of Greek life, with images denoting the societies’ secretive natures, traditions like paddling and excessive alcohol consumption.
To better understand McGill’s Greek life today, the Tribune looks back to the 1980s, when a series of contentious events changed the way sororities and fraternities exist at McGill.
The ’80s were a period when sororities and fraternities flourished at McGill. For cross-country and track and field head coach Dennis Barrett, who was a graduate student at McGill in the ’80s, their popularity was tied to a student body that was generally more engaged in a much more active university sports culture.
At the time, Barrett worked at Gerts (then known as Gertrude’s), which was located where La Prep and the student lounge are in the SSMU Building today.
“Gerts was jam-packed every weekend from Thursday, it was just crazy,” Barrett said. “[Afterwards], staff would head out to a frat party [….] You can bet almost every weekend there would be a frat party.”
According to Barrett, each McGill sports team associated themselves with a fraternity house. These buildings were owned by McGill and scattered throughout the Milton-Parc Community.
Sororities and fraternities also encouraged philanthropy and extracurricular involvement on campus, such as highly publicized blood drives. In this manner, Greek societies and McGill created a stronger feeling of community within a big city like Montreal.
“There’s a line by Gordon Lightfoot that says: “The city that you live in may be quite large, but a circle is small,” and that was the circle at McGill,” Barrett said.
By the end of the ’80s, the parties escalated. McGill fraternities acquired a negative reputation and were losing support from the university community.
“You get an inch; some people take a foot, and some people take a mile,” Barrett said. “It just got too crazy after a while.”
In 1987, the Tribune reported tense relationships between the Montreal police (SPVM) and fraternities due to unruly parties and the sale of alcohol without a liquor licence.
Barrett recalls one particular incident where one of the last fraternities threw a beach party in their McGill-owned house with sand lining the floor. When the tenants forgot to clean up the sand after the party, the floors were destroyed.
“I think it was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Barrett. “There were some incidents that happened in a couple frats, [and] McGill started to really clamp down.”
On Feb. 2, 1988 the Tribune reported that, with the housing leases of Delta Kappa Epsilon, Psi Upsilon, Delta Upsilon, and Phi Delta Theta ending in 1988 and 1989, the university’s Board of Governors decided to end McGill’s role as landlord for the fraternities.
“The need for more residence space (to attract the best students); the poor return on McGill’s investments (only two per cent) and fraternity problems (liquor law infractions, bad house conditions) [are] reasons for the decision to evict the fraternities,” the article states.
Perhaps most significant among the incidences was the sexual assault of a student by fraternity members at a frat party in 1988. The event spurred sexual assault awareness campaigns on campus and led to the creation of the student-run McGill Sexual Assault Center, the predecessor to the Sexual Assault Center of the McGill Student’s Society (SACOMSS).
The incident provoked major criticism of not only fraternities, but also the prevailing culture at large, although the woman who was assaulted said she did not blame the fraternity but rather the individuals.
“[It was] not [the fault of] the fraternity, […] not the building, not the institution,” she was quoted as saying in the Tribune. “I can’t blame an entire house for something that occurred with three individuals and a handful who watched.”
Additionally, changes to SSMU’s equity policy led SSMU to cut ties with the Greek societies in 1989 by revoking the Inter Fraternity Council’s SSMU club status due to their gendered and exclusionary nature.
Since the ’80s, Greek life at McGill has dwindled, with societies remaining unaffiliated to McGill until the Inter Greek Letter Council (IGLC) became a SSMU club in 1999. Currently,there are four sororities and eight fraternities in the council.
According to Brendan Edge, IGLC executive of fraternities, Greek societies today struggle to have students understand them as groups that do more than just party.
“That stereotype still persists—thanks, Animal House— and that’s something that we’re working really hard to counteract,” Edge said.
Unlike in the United States where the legal drinking age is 21 and campus social life is dependent on fraternities, sororities, and school athletics, Montreal has more than enough to keep students busy.
“When I joined two years ago, I didn’t join to get with girls or party hard,” Sigma Chi President Christopher Peake said. “I joined specifically for networking purposes. I knew it was an international fraternity with over 300,000 initiates who could help me in the future.”
Another important part of Greek life is philanthropy. Peake’s fraternity recently held a gala to raise money for the Huntsman Cancer Institute. The fraternity invited New Democratic Party political figures to the event, which honoured deceased Sigma Chi member Jack Layton.
“It’s nice for the McGill campus to be brought back into a smaller community through Greek Life and be able to get together and give back as one entity,” Ali Bethlenfalvy, IGLC president, said.
Peake said that misconceptions prevail with respect to initiation rituals. Fraternities and sororities at McGill have been actively taking a stance against hazing for more than three decades, including a “no-hazing” policy that dates back to the 1977 National Panhellenic Conference.
“Because [initiation] is shrouded in secrecy, people think it’s something really bad,” Peake said. “The whole process was really inspirational and it focuses you to be introspective and reflect upon yourself and what kind of man you want to be.”
While Peake said he thinks issues such as sexual abuse and excessive drinking are endemic to society and not just Greek life, he sees the societies as environments in which these issues can be addressed.
“When I joined, there were huge parties and the cops would come and shut [them] down because of noise complaints—our house is right next to Greenbriar—but this semester we’re running a dry house,” he said. “We’re promoting responsibility towards drugs and alcohol; there’s a zero-tolerance policy.”
While this policy is part of a probationary measure dictated by the Grand Chapter, the international governing body of Sigma Chi, Peake also emphasized his fraternity’s strong stance on promoting respect for women and building leadership qualities.
Edge said he views the evolution of Greek letter organizations as necessary in a society that is changing quickly. Edge’s own fraternity, Delta Lambda Phi, is designed for gay, bisexual, transgendered, and progressive men.
“We are [a] very special form of organization,” Edge said. “Most of the fraternities in Canada and the United States are open to gay and bisexual men and transgendered as well. But they weren’t originally and that was why we were created.”
In addition, Cyrena Gerardi, IGLC executive of external affairs and Kappa Kappa Gamma member, noted the sororities’ tradition of furthering female empowerment.
“For sororities, we like to promote a lot of women in leadership opportunities and philanthropy that has to do with women empowerment,” she said.
These days, McGill’s Greek letter societies are on the rise, particularly for the sororities, who have doubled their recruitment from last year and have their highest retention rate for members.
“The more consistency we have with large sorority recruitment, the more possibility there is of us adding on a fifth sorority,” Bethlenfalvy said. “[The Greek-letter community] is ever-growing and it’s ever changing, so it’s exciting.”