"Citizens of That Mighty Empire:" Imperial Sentiment among Students at Wesley College, 1897-1902

By Heath, Gordon L. | Manitoba History, June 2005 | Go to article overview

"Citizens of That Mighty Empire:" Imperial Sentiment among Students at Wesley College, 1897-1902


Heath, Gordon L., Manitoba History


Since the dismantling of European empires in the decades that followed the Second World War imperialism" has most often carried negative connotations. Due to the recent conflicts in the Middle East, many in Canada and the West have once again taken "western imperialism" to task. Oftentimes, Canadian college or university students are some of the most vocal and passionate anti-imperialists. Yet that has not always been the case, as this study of student attitudes to imperialism indicates.

The students that this article focuses on were from Wesley College in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (1) In 1877 Methodists received a charter for a college in the recently federated University of Manitoba located in Winnipeg. However, due to the need for planning, support and finances, classes in the arts and theology only began in 1888. In 1895 the large stone building that still survives was completed near Manitoba College (a Presbyterian college, founded in 1871). (2) In 1938, these two schools merged to become United College, and in 1967 continued as a part of the new University of Winnipeg. Wesley College saw itself as having a critical role to play in the development of the church and nation, for as Neil Semple notes:

   The faculty and students saw themselves as the
   legitimate voice of the northwest. Wesley College
   reinforced this view by giving priority to training
   men and women who could fulfill the essentially
   missionary nature of much of the church's work in
   the region and assumed a leading role in dealing
   with the challenges created by the arrival of vast
   numbers of non-English-speaking immigrants. It
   helped assimilate these new Canadians into the
   dominant Protestant culture of the nation. (3)

In the closing years of the nineteenth century the college had an approximate enrolment of 130 students, and enrolment increased almost every year. (4) While not without some tensions within the denomination, Wesley College (like other Methodist schools in Canada) admitted women on an equal basis as men. (5)

The focus of this study is on the attitudes of Wesley College students to the British Empire and Canada's place within it during the years 1897--1902. The source for uncovering these attitudes is the student newspaper; the Vox Wesleyana. (6) This monthly publication began in 1897 under the leadership of Professor Riddell, and was published by students and for students of Wesley College during the academic year. (7) Its staff was comprised of seven or eight students, along with a faculty member. Like most student newspapers, the Vox had editorials on issues of the day, articles from students and faculty, articles from outside contributors, commentary on the college's sports teams and how they were fairing against their competition, details of society meetings and events, and a section entitled "Local and Personal" that included gossip and personal anecdotes from campus. Within its pages, one also finds a great deal of religious commentary and religious news (e.g., news related to missions, YMCA reports, special church services).

Before looking at the actual contents of the Vox a few comments about the potential and pitfalls of using the paper as a primary source are necessary. Glenn Wilkinson has noted that the late Victorian newspapers are an "excellent source" of information for cultural and social historians. Because a newspaper needs to connect immediately with its readership there is a "form of two-way communication" between the paper and its readers, reflecting in its pages the immediate events and perceptions of the period. (8) That is certainly the case with the Vox. Without even necessarily trying to make it so, what the editors of the Vox included (or commented on) in the pages of the Vox when they reported on the life of the college is a helpful guide to the events and passions of late nineteenth century student life at Wesley College.

Of course, there are also pitfalls to using newspapers as primary sources. …

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