View from the mountaintop

by Terence MacNamee

When I stepped off a plane in Vancouver and arrived at Simon Fraser University as a graduate student in early September 1975, the first thing that happened was that a glass of champagne was put into my hand. It was explained to the bewildered new arrival that the tenth anniversary of the foundation of the place was being celebrated. In the following week there was a lot of hoopla. There was music and dancing on the covered mall, free booze was enjoyed by us students, and fireworks lit up the night sky on Burnaby Mountain. Yes, I remember it as if it was yesterday.

Also during that week I got a crash course in the short but eventful history of SFU. There had been sit-ins and the administration had been occupied. The PSA Seven, a group of radical professors, had been fired with great éclat. In the first semester I was there, I witnessed further running battles between radicals and conservatives. Ah yes, it was a bracing atmosphere then.

At the same time, I was getting to know Vancouver, the skyscraper-studded urban sprawl that you could see from the mountaintop (on a clear day, at least, which was by no means always the case). It was hard to know what exactly the centre of things was – it wasn’t really coded like a European would expect a city to be – but I soon found Chinatown. Now here was something distinctive. Here was something exotic, to a European. And what is more, I started to get used to the sound of Chinese everywhere on the street, in the shops, on public transport. Here was a language that no white guys ever seemed to think of learning, but if they lived in Vancouver they heard it every day. They must have heard it in their dreams. I know I did after a while. Funny, I thought: a city where people can spend their lives hearing a language and die without every knowing what the other guys were saying.

Next year, 2015, it will be the 50th anniversary of my alma mater. I don’t know exactly what they are going to do up at SFU, but I take it that there will be music on the mall, fireworks in the night sky, and free booze for the students. Even for the alumni, I hope. And I intend to be there. I’m even learning Chinese, now. Because things have changed. Not just up on the mountain, where the university has no doubt become a more sedate place, but down in sprawling Vancouver, which continues to develop in ways that were hardly foreseeable 40 or 50 years ago.