Usually in my columns I visit a locale in Nelson and tell stories about its past and present. For this column, however, I time-travelled to a place that no longer physically exists, but remains very alive. I journeyed back 40 years to the David Thompson University Centre (DTUC). It was a short-lived experiment at the Tenth Street Campus, a collaboration between Selkirk College and UVic. Notre Dame University had closed in 1977 and DTUC opened in 1979, a fresh new way to keep a university in town. A lot of people wanted that.
The DTUC creative collaboration happened at the institutional level and also permeated the faculties, creating a dynamic blending of theatre, writing, visual arts, music, education (teacher training) and academic courses.
In early 1980 I took my one and only DTUC course, creative writing with the late poet David McFadden. It was my first such course and I was scared. But I was nurtured by a small, supportive class environment. Or maybe it was just that I was pregnant and my classmates thought they should be kind to me!
Despite a favourable review of DTUC in 1983, recommending a five-year extension, the Bill Bennett government in January 1984 rang the DTUC death knell. It was a major shock, so unexpected. Why it happened could be the subject of a PhD dissertation. The community, including city council (Mayor Maglio) and the labour council, were outraged. Their response included petitions (a scroll with 15,000 signatures), pilgrimages to Victoria, protest plays and national media coverage. A prominent doctor even tied herself to a cross in front of the legislature with a sign saying: “Stop the crucifixion of education in the West Kootenay!”
Unfortunately the government ignored it all, and DTUC closed. Hearts were broken, anger stoked, and the fight changed course to protecting the DTUC library collection. The successful 96-day library occupation is another dazzling story. I missed all this because my family and I were living overseas in the mid-1980s. I think I also missed really understanding DTUC and why it’s so important that it existed. Attending last week-end’s 2023 DTUC reunion of instructors, staff and students helped me get it.
It took my breath away to be in the same room with so much talent and accomplishment. Books, sculptures, paintings, weavings, photographs and the creators thereof, fascinating panel discussions, and moving and beautiful readings by former students and instructors. I couldn’t stay away from the exhibit by local photographer and teacher Jeremy Addington. His black-and-white photos of staff and instructors, and their families, with their comments on the closure, were stunning.
They expressed their DTUC joy and the pain of its closure. One of the most cutting was from the late Andrew Inglis, music instructor: “I find it amusing that the skills and values I teach are considered impractical by people I consider useless.” Ouch. The board of post-it notes was also revealing. “DTUC was a serious and successful institution murdered by a soulless gang. I still lament that barbarous attack.” “DTUC changed my life. It’s a crime that it was closed. A genuinely special place.”
The campus, owned by the City or Nelson, is now primarily occupied by Selkirk College and there’s no question we appreciate their presence. And yet that old dream of having a university of some sort persists. One question discussed at the reunion was why this unique experiment called DTUC happened here. I think it was one of many accomplishments over the years, not the result of something in the water or the crystals in the mountain.
From day one, Nelson folks of all persuasions have created what was needed, from theatres to ice rinks, from airports to hydro-electric plants. And the more we do, the more confident we become – in ourselves and in this community. And so, DTUC asks us to consider what we as a community need. And maybe, given DTUC’s impact, a homegrown university is still on that list.
Donna Macdonald has lived in Nelson since 1972, and is the author of Surviving City Hall, a memoir of her 19 years on Nelson City Council. Her column appears monthly.