Homecoming: Looking back on a 91 year tradition

A brief look at the most antipicated weekend of the year

While street parties and pancake keggers have now become a staple for Homecoming, the original ‘alumni weekend’ — as it was called until the 1950s — was a nostalgic reunion of friends and a passing-on of traditions to a younger generation.

The Homecoming tradition at Queen’s emerged at a time of significant change across the continent. According to Queen’s historian Duncan McDowall, the dawn of the 20th century saw an unprecedented movement of people across the continent, thanks to the booming industrial revolution. 

At the time, Queen’s was attached to its Eastern-Ontario locality, but as greater opportunities emerged in growing cities, graduates began to move farther away. 

The question, for both administration and alumni, became one of how Queen’s would maintain a bond of loyalty with their alumni? 

Although they started in the United States, Homecoming came informally to Queen’s at the beginning of the 20th century. Typically not extending beyond a group of friends, they used this time as an opportunity for people to reminisce about their days at the school and reconnect with their peers. 

According to McDowall, informal reunions were planned around a Queen’s annual football game against their rival at the time, the University of Toronto Varsity Blues. 

On the advice of a Montreal fund-raising consultant, the alumni reunions were formalized in 1926. The day would change based on the Queen’s football schedule, but would always be close to October 16 — University Day — which commemorated the creation of the Queen’s Charter. 

The first ‘alumni weekend’ was held the third weekend of November in 1926. It attracted 870 graduates from the classes of 1874 to 1926.

Following its initial success, McDowall said alumni weekend in the 1930s and 40s grew to include tea services, deans’ receptions, faculty talks and a Sunday church service. With very little alcohol present and a containment to campus, early alumni weekends were well-controlled. 

“From our modern sensibilities, I don’t think it could’ve been all that much fun,” McDowall said. “Sure there was a football game and this nice sense of nostalgia, but that’s what it was meant to be, an inter-generational passing of the Queen’s spirit.”

In the 1970s, Homecoming changed with the addition of the alumni parade around Richardson Stadium, quickly becoming a highlight for many people. The parade served as an opportunity for alumni and current students to showcase their school spirit. Year floats in the parade gave students an opportunity to make some naughty jokes, but all was in good fun. 

While Homecoming was a relatively controllable event up until the 1980s, things changed in the middle of the decade. Students began to lose interest in meeting with alumni and the event was slowly becoming a bigger and bigger student party. 

As the student population exploded, student housing expanded into what’s now known as the University District. In 1985, spontaneous street parties started popping up in the evening on Aberdeen St. and University Ave. Furthermore, as more and more students participated, it became much more challenging for students and alumni to intermingle meaningfully. 

At the same time, the passing of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms made it clear that legally, students were just as much adults as the administration. This gave students an independence they didn’treally have before. 

According to McDowall, pre-Charter, the University was a parental figure for students, telling them what they could and couldn’t do. Post-Charter however, this was very different. It was finally acknowledged that “[Students] are citizens and what [they] do on Saturday nights is [their] business and it’s not the University’s in any direct way.”

For many alumni, this was an alarming change. They came to Homecoming expecting to mingle with the younger students and increasingly, students couldn’t care less. For students, the weekend was a great opportunity to party, let off some steam before mid-terms and enjoy some time with their friends. 

From the mid-1980s to 1990, there emerged two completely different Homecomings: one that was organized by the school for the alumni and one for the students which involved quite a bit more alcohol.  

McDowall argues that at this point, the central issue of Homecoming emerged — how do you reconnect the event with its initial purpose without becoming killjoys? 

In 2005, things changed for the worse. Described in a Journal article as a “celebrity riot,” approximately 7,000 people gathered on Aberdeen and cheered as a car was overturned and set on fire in the street. Not only was KGH emergency room packed with dangerously intoxicated students, but Kingston Police distributed over 350 liquor offence charges and 18 criminal charges.

The reaction to the incident was overwhelming. Not only did media outlets across the country take notice, but a Journal article reported the Aberdeen street party even “prompted some alumni to decrease their contributions to the University.” Despite the fact that many of the people directly involved in the incident had no direct connection to Queen’s, the 2005 Homecoming left a dark spot on Queen’s reputation. 

Over the next couple of years, efforts were made by the AMS and the administration to control the event. Police presence was increased, volunteers patrolled the student district and the principal openly appealed to students to show some restraint. 

After four years of attempts to rope in the students were deemed unsuccessful, Homecoming was cancelled in 2009. The hope was that if the event was cancelled for a few years, the cycle of students who had experienced these wild street parties would graduate and the fresh cohort wouldn’t repeat the incidents of the past. Homecoming was supposed to be reinstated in 2010, but Principal Woolf extended the ban for an additional three years. 

Students and alumni were understandably outraged. In a Letter to the Editor published in The Journal, Haley Rose, ArtSci ’05, BEd ’06, wrote that students from other universities had no place at Queen’s Homecoming but that the tradition was important to the students that do attend Queen’s. “We work hard to get into Queen’s. We work hard when we get here. Homecoming is our reward for that, as well as the chance to revel in what it means to go to Queen’s University.”

When Homecoming finally returned in 2013, it was spread over two weekends. Principal Woolf made the decision after thorough consultation with student leaders and administration, as well as supportfrom the city. 

Then-City Councillor, Bill Glover, attributed the return of Homecoming to the significant improvement of town-gown relations since 2008. 

“There has been a sea of change in the University’s administration since Principal Hitchcock refused to acknowledge any ownership of the issue and that was a big contributor to the standoff,” Glover said in a 2013 Journal article. 

While the return of Homecoming was tentative, the tradition is slowly regaining its strength. Despite an incident last year that involved a girl slapping a police horse, the Kingston Police in a 2016 Journal article dubbed the event to be “busy, but not overly troublesome.” 

Homecoming is not what it once was, but as a new tradition emerges, students, alumni and administration alike are all learning to adapt.


All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

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