Wherever there is an economic boom, the echo is generally a cultural one. This cultural echo has happened in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and is currently happening in Calgary. To fully appreciate cultural changes in our booming and blooming city, we have to look for culture beyond the museum and the theatre.
An important but relatively unknown cultural force on the University of Calgary campus is the community of Greek letter societies. Other Greek organizations who don’t yet have chapters here have shown significant interest in establishing chapters on the U of C campus. Although the Greek community is strongly associated with American culture, the U of C’s current Greek letter societies retain a distinctive Canadian flavour.
The North American college fraternity was founded in the 18th and 19th centuries. The first fraternity was Phi Beta Kappa in Virginia, which still pursues its original goal of advancing the sciences and arts. What differentiated these fraternity groups from other, often older societies was that these Greek letter organizations generally existed for the promotion of social goals among peers, rather than the promotion of a particular religion or trade.
Today there are over 123 men’s, women’s and co-ed North American Greek societies, with more than nine million lifetime members in total. A staggering majority of American politicians, business leaders and many well-known artists have been members of such groups. In Canada, the influence is not quite as strong, but still present. Despite the scope of Greek society influence, it is rather difficult to talk to members about their organizations, since most Greek letter societies are quite secretive.
Being a member is described as being a part of something much larger than oneself. Members gain a large personal network that can help find internships and jobs, along with being welcomed by other members internationally.
The U of C currently has four Greek societies — two women’s and two men’s. The women’s are Alpha Gamma Delta and Alpha Omicron Pi and the men’s are Phi Gamma Delta and Kappa Sigma. A prominent member of Kappa Sigma is Richard Haskayne, after whom the Haskayne School of Business is named. The men’s fraternities own properties on 24th Ave, just a few blocks from the university. The houses are recognizable by their bold colours and prominently displayed Greek letters.
Two other women’s fraternities, who asked not to be identified, are looking to become established on campus — so are two other men’s fraternities, one of them Delta Kappa Epsilon, of which both Theodore Roosevelt and Gerald Ford were members.
If these Greek letter societies become established at the U of C, the size of the campus’ Greek community would effectively double. Dr. Doug Lanpher, the executive director of DKE, stressed DKE’s interest in the U of C because of its promise and prominence. DKE has turned down several bids from other Canadian schools, but is actively seeking to establish a U of C chapter.
The Greek organizations are looking to establish chapters at the U of C because they see a lot of room for development and growth within the campus community.
Of course, the elephant in the room is the stereotypical American fraternity or sorority as shown in movies and TV. Such Greek societies are known for partying and pranks, exclusivity and hazing. Calgarian Greek society members were eager to state that this is not the truth about their organizations — and that the truth is quite a bit more prosaic.
“We place a lot of focus on academics and philanthropy,” says Samantha Taylor, president of Alpha Omicron Pi. “We require over 20 hours of volunteer work per year per member, and [we] just raised over $1,250 for arthritis at our 24-hour foosball event.”
Other U of C Greek societies have similar fundraisers: Kappa Sigma sells poppies for the Legion, Alpha Gamma Delta holds a 24-hour teeter totter in MacHall and Phi Gamma Delta runs a 24-hour relay around the rock by MacKimmie Library every September.
“We actually managed to raise over $5,000 for the Children’s Hospital with our annual Race Around the Rock fundraiser,” says Bryce Lanz of PGD, who won’t reveal his position in the fraternity — PGD is extremely secretive. “We decided on the Children’s Hospital after the nephew of one of our brothers received treatment there. The hospital staff were very kind to him, and we wanted to find a way to give back.”
In fact, it seems negative perceptions compel fraternities to work even harder to break the stereotype.
“It’s about breaking the mold,” says Stacia Jo, Panhellenic president. Panhellenic is the body that oversees the Greek women’s organizations internationally.
“We have to work hard to let people know we’re different from TV and the movies,” says Jo.
What about the fact that Greek societies are, well, American? Greek life may be a sign of a growing sense of campus community, but is the culture derived from it Canadian, or merely a colonial outpost of America?
Taylor points out the role her chapter has had not only in defining their own identity, but also in influencing the operation of American chapters.
“Our chapter has a lot more freedom with budgeting than the American ones do, and we were the first to incorporate electronic budgeting, which many of the American chapters eschewed until recently,” says Taylor.
According to the Calgary chapter’s current president, Sophie Piché, Alpha Gamma Delta was the first sorority established with the specific intention of establishing communities in Canada. The first Alpha Gamma Delta chapter in Canada was formed in Toronto in 1919. Since then, Canadian chapters have influenced American chapters. “When Canada went to war in 1939, American Alpha Gamma Deltas raised funds to support the Canadian war effort,” says Piché. This support came over two years before the U.S. officially entered the war.
Canadian organizations further differentiate themselves through naming. While women’s organizations in America generally prefer the title ‘sorority,’ the Canadian women’s societies on campus prefer the title ‘women’s fraternity’ — by choosing their own name, they are able to redefine themselves outside the American mold.
Similarly, the men’s fraternity members on campus balk at the use of the term ‘frat.’ “We just don’t like the connotation: fraternities run philanthropic events, support the arts and seek to foster friendships — frats do the stuff we see in the movies. We do throw parties, but we’re more ‘work hard play hard’ than just ‘play hard,’ ” says Sean Cook of PGD.
Another issue is that the stereotypical American fraternity is notoriously homogeneous: only the wealthy, straight and athletic are accepted, as TV and movies show. Again, the U of C Greek society members are adamant that, while their groups are linked with their U.S. counterparts, their culture is deeply Canadian.
“We draw members from all walks of life,” Jo says. “We have members of diverse sexual orientations, ethnic origins and socio-economic standings. If it’s about friendship, these differences shouldn’t matter.”
Recruitment practices vary between different organizations. There are usually tables at Clubs Week at the U of C. PGD has a continual recruitment policy, where they are always looking for members and will explain the process of joining at any of their events. They only pledge twice a year, however.
PGD selects members based on personal relationships and how well a new recruit’s values match their values.
There is the further question of sex-segregation which, to the Canadian sensibility, seems a little old-fashioned. Women are unable to join a men’s fraternity like Kappa Sigma and men are unable to join a women’s fraternity such as Alpha Gamma Delta.
“It’s a part of our tradition,” says Taylor. “That’s a part of things we don’t have freedom to change.”
Members argue that this division is not true sex-segregation.
“I think it would be a bigger problem if there were only men’s or women’s fraternities on campus,” Lanz says. “But, because we have both, there is no exclusivity from the Greek community based on sex.”
Jo makes a similar point: “The men’s or women’s fraternity is really just an administrative distinction: the Greek community mixes freely, and so we’re not members of different groups, but all participants in a larger, co-ed community.”
Yet, if the community is so open and inclusive, why is there an emphasis on secrecy? If these groups are looking to foster relationships among their members, and between themselves and the community, why do they keep so much of what they do secret? Perhaps this is why the media has latched onto Greek societies as fodder for provocative TV shows and movies — when outsiders don’t know what they do, it is easy to imagine the worst.
The response, again, is tradition, though fraternities temper the risk of becoming extremely exclusive by remaining on the lookout for new members with whom to share their secrets, as Steven Fowler of Kappa Sigma puts it. It takes about a semester before the fraternities are willing to open themselves up to a new recruit.
“Some of our secrets we share within a couple of weeks,” says Fowler, “but it’s usually about six weeks before we invite candidates for membership to share our secrets.”
I asked him point-blank about the nature of his fraternity’s secrets, and his answer was polite but evasive: “I can’t be specific, but we have a lot going on behind the scenes that unfortunately not a lot of people get to see,” says Fowler.
PGD does not make public the executive positions of its members, the times and places of its official meetings or what is discussed in them.
“Secrecy gives us a deeper and more meaningful connection with each other. We advertise publicly, and are always looking for new members, so we are really not trying to exclude people, but we want to have something special that only we share in common,” says Lanz.
Taylor echoed these sentiments: “When you join, you immediately gain a role in the society. This is not the way in other groups, where individual members have less in common with each other.”
Everyone interviewed stressed that the private knowledge of their groups deals with personal improvement and morality.
What about the hazing horror stories — the blurry videos, photos and witness testimonies — that occasionally surface? No U of C fraternity has ever been the focus of such a scandal, though one emerged at the University of Alberta just last year.
“It’s a shame people harm others’ dignity in the name of fostering camaraderie,” Lanz says. He calls such abuse of the Greek system disgusting, and points to the strict anti-hazing guidelines of PGD — along with the strict orders for following the rules of the U of C’s Students’ Union that proceed from the PGD administrative headquarters, which oversees all the PGD chapters and is located in Lexington, Kentucky.
Fowler was similarly adamant in his stand against hazing.
“Our order has a strict zero-tolerance policy against hazing, and adheres to the rules of the SU,” says Fowler. “No one should have to humiliate himself to join our brotherhood. We test our new members by looking for signs of integrity of character.”
So this is how the Canadian fraternities retain a distinctive Canadian flavour. Taylor describes it as a “tight-knit group with common experiences and concerns,” and believes in its power to positively influence its members.
“When I joined, I immediately became connected with more than 40 people, who share my interests and concerns. I don’t feel a lot of people get that from their club experiences. The friends I made include grads from years ago. I have made friends for life here,” says Taylor.
The Canadian fraternity is secretive and based largely on the improvement of its members, like its American counterparts. Fraternities focus on growing as individuals, which means improvement of leadership skills, business skills and academics, to name a few. But contrary to TV and movie stereotypes, the Greek community at the U of C is very heterogeneous and inviting to those it feels it can trust, regardless of their socioeconomic background or country of origin.
One U of C Greek society member, who asked not to be identified, asserted, “We misunderstand Canadian culture, including the Greek societies, because we look to American culture to define it.” When people expect fraternities to be like the ones in American movies, they internalize an American stereotype in a way that precludes understanding of their own Canadian campus culture.
To be sure, Canadian Greek culture is not so big as in America, nor is it so visible on campus: the Canadian fraternity seems content to work behind the scenes, preferring “quiet glory” — a favourite phrase of PGDs — to open publicity. On the other hand, it is less conservative in many respects, quick to adopt new ways of budgeting and communication. This speaks to what Canadians, on the whole, are like: we do not demand recognition, and patiently endure misconceptions about us; we have close friends, but are welcoming to outsiders; we stick to our principles, but are willing to try new ways of doing things; and we work hard, but know how to party.
The Canadian fraternity is not an outpost of American culture, but an indigenous phenomenon, which is growing at a rapid pace in Calgary — a city that is quickly becoming one of the most interesting ones on the continent. Calgary’s economic and cultural boom is reflected in the vibrant and growing Greek culture on the U of C campus.