The beginning of the end of frosh week

The tragic death of a Queen’s student has renewed calls for a crackdown that is already well under way
Julia Belluz and Nicholas Kohler
Photograph Andrew Tolson/ Pawel Dwulit/CP Images

Natasha Zapanta, a cheery first-year Queen’s University business student in a perfectly manicured first-week outfit, won’t be telling her grandchildren about any Old School-worthy hijinks. Frosh week for this 17-year-old involved scavenger hunts, a video dance party and “Commerce Cares”—random acts of kindness visited upon unsuspecting fellow students by commerce freshmen. “There was nighttime partying,” she admits, “but we just stayed in the residence hall.” Most of her friends are also 17, below Ontario’s legal drinking age and, while alcohol is readily available, they’ve been warned not to indulge.

For biochemistry major Connor Forbes, the week was so low-key it threatened to dampen that famous Queen’s school spirit altogether. The gloom extended even to the engineering faculty, where students were this year banned from the school’s ancient move-in day tradition, in which engineers paint themselves purple and taunt incoming freshmen. Engineering society president Victoria Pleavin, citing complaints, sent an email to all engineering students warning them that anyone caught engaged in the practice would be escorted off campus. “Move-in day was really an introduction to the fun of the school and gave you a sense of community,” says Forbes. “The event is gone and we don’t know if it’s coming back. They took it away.”

Such moves followed a raft of measures taken by Queen’s administrators aimed at taming the furor surrounding frosh week—and, it seems, everything else too. Last year, the university cancelled its infamously out-of-control homecoming event, which newspapers have become fond of noting cost over $200,000 to police. Queen’s also vowed to curb freshmen excesses by stamping out the likes of “Slosh the Frosh” and “Sauce the Boss” because, according to senate meeting minutes last year, they “put students at risk.” The clampdown is, depending on your politics, already a success. Says John Pierce, interim associate VP and dean of student affairs: “By last Thursday, I was getting reports that, ‘Well—jeez!—frosh is going better than it has before!’ ”

And yet even these stringent measures could not prevent tragedy. Last Monday, Queen’s students on their way to rugby practice discovered the body of Cameron Bruce, an 18-year-old freshman from Connecticut, on the lawn outside his residence, just hours before he was to start classes. The night before, Bruce had attended an engineering banquet—a sort of last hurrah to end engineering frosh week. After dinner, he walked back to residence with friends. What happened next is still shrouded in mystery: police suspect no foul play, and they’re investigating whether alcohol played a role in the incident.

News of the death brought the inevitable newspaper editorial: “Be it the mass drunkenness of Aberdeen Street or young people getting a dubious initiation to booze in peer-pressure-filled orientation activities,” wrote the Kingston Whig-Standard, “the greater community has long quietly wondered: what will it take for Queen’s to do something about this? Does someone have to die?” The incident’s significance was not lost on students: “I think it’s the beginning of the end of frosh week,” one told Maclean’s.

No, actually. It’s the end of frosh, full stop—not just at Queen’s, but everywhere. A generation of children raised in an era so risk-averse that schools ripped seesaws, parallel bars and fireman’s poles from playgrounds has come of age and gone to university. The halcyon days, when freshers set cars and couches ablaze and guzzled beer at university-sanctioned keggers, now grow dim and will soon become distant memories. Many schools have retired the word “frosh” altogether, preferring less festive words like “orientation”; at the University of Ottawa, freshmen are referred to by the tin-eared sobriquet of “101er.” Official first-week events are now mounted sans booze. A handful of U.S. colleges are entirely dry. The University of Guelph this year, for the first time, made residences alcohol-free zones during frosh week. It’s a revolution some students call a “war on fun.”

In Ontario the trend goes back to 2003, when the province eliminated Grade 13, sending thousands of underage students into first year. The echoes resound still. Just this year, at Ottawa’s Carleton University, administrators wrestled control of frosh from the students’ union and hired a planner from the U.S. who shifted the week’s focus away from socializing toward workshops promoting study and life skills. “If you look at it from a risk-management perspective, the university just feels way more comfortable having professional staff,” director of student affairs Ryan Flannagan told Maclean’s. Alumni “wouldn’t even recognize it” as frosh, he says. “Alcohol used to be the main feature of evening activities. Now it’s interesting to watch how serious our student leaders take the issue—there just really is zero tolerance for having alcohol as part of the activities.”

At the University of British Columbia, the RCMP have started rationing the special occasion licences they grant on a campus that’s increasingly residential, transforming what was once a paradise of autumn beer gardens into just another condo development. “These events used to be a mainstay because UBC is so isolated from the rest of Vancouver,” says Justin McElroy, coordinating editor at the Ubyssey student newspaper. More and more students are drifting off campus and into the city—often en masse, “which causes its own problems,” says McElroy, who complains there’s “less and less campus culture” as a result.

The measures have also stoked the popularity of old-fashioned frat parties. “Frats say so many people are coming to the events because there aren’t a lot of places to be social on campus,” McElroy explains. “When you have 12,000 students living on campus, they are going to look for something to do on Friday and Saturday night.”

A similar exodus in Guelph, Ont., has caused local police to target student revellers in that city’s downtown. Project Frosh, as it’s dubbed, last year saw police hand out 64 bylaw and 147 Liquor Licence Act charges in the first five weeks of classes. “People are urinating, defecating, spitting,” says Sgt. Douglas Pflug, who 25 years ago was himself a University of Guelph student. “We didn’t go downtown—there were a lot of bars on campus,” he says. After last call these days, at the historic Wyndham and MacDonell intersection, a drinking hotspot, as many as 3,000 youths can find themselves coralled by police barricades designed to manage the mob. Fights break out, attracting audiences Pflug says are now primed by the popularity of ultimate fighting. “You put enough macho guys with enough girls watching, they’re going to want to fight,” says Brandon Skarpa, 20, a third-year criminal-justice major who has videotaped the brawls, posting them online.

At Dalhousie University there’s now a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drinking games in residences.

For several years the university has put $30,000 into hiring police to patrol campus during frosh, and on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights during terms. Bonnie Neuman, VP of student services, says administrators have been debating about whether to put underage students together in residences and away from those who are of age—a sort of ghetto of deprivation.

The irony is these measures follow a period in which studies show young people are already drinking less—and more responsibly—than in previous decades. Elizabeth Saewyc, a nursing prof at UBC whose work as research director with the McCreary Centre Society focuses on youth, says fewer B.C. teens are now experimenting with alcohol, likely thanks to better education and more effective policies in high school. “If you’re going to get kicked off the sports team for drinking, that’s a clear motivator,” says Saewyc, who believes the rest of Canada is more or less in line with the B.C. trend.

She has heard anecdotally that delayed drinking among teens has meant “some of the behaviours you used to see in high school are now happening in university. I don’t know of a single university that doesn’t feel alcohol use, especially with incoming freshmen, isn’t a problem.” Still, the most recent numbers available suggest a happier picture. Louis Gliksman, acting chief of research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, says that when it comes to drinking, “for most students, it’s not a real problem.” He estimates based on 2004 data that alcohol becomes an issue—defined as binge drinking at least once a week—for 15 per cent of students in Canada. Research since suggests changes in university policy have caused those numbers to decline even further.

That’s still a good portion. But is it enough to rip the seesaws out? Perhaps not even a freak accident like Cameron Bruce’s death ought to be. Nevertheless, that’s just what some at Queen’s fear will happen there.

“What the administration needs to do is look at the root cause of the death and try to figure out if regulating frosh could prevent similar incidents,” says Connor Forbes, the Queen’s biochemistry major. “I’m worried they will continue to clamp down blindly just because it’s the easiest reaction.”