Names, History, and Trent’s College Culture

Ahh, yes, the Colleges issue. A tradition (it seems) for the pages of Arthur. “Trent University’s college system is based off of Oxbridge’s collegiate system.” I wonder how many times that line has been said in one way or another in this newspaper’s pages. The line, of course evokes a tradition, one that dates back to Trent’s founding, but also evokes an almost ancient notion of community, culture, and history.

This piece, and article is a celebration (I guess), an investigation (sort of), and an informative piece on the different places people live and learn on campus. We are a university paper and therefore, operating within a university, feel the need to celebrate ourselves. A little self-indulgent, no?

Maybe a bit, but Trent’s history, culture, and collegiate system is not only unique, but also immensely interesting compared to the banal residences and living situations and conditions on other university’s campuses (i.e. U.O.I.T.’s block of bullshit located at the far north end of Simcoe street in Oshawa). The shared history of the college system — from the originator Champlain, to the defunct Peter Robinson, to the (I guess I have to say it) swiss-cheese-like Gzowski — is one that many universities don’t have. Therefore this history is one that we should be proud of: a history that sets us apart, makes us unique, and is important to keep us grounded in the many communities and vibes that we have chosen to live with.

Truthfully, I’ve always thought articles like these seem like harmless, informative fluff pieces. An article so harmless that any reader can revel in enjoyment of the mutual history that many of us share in our differing journeys, memories, and educations at Trent University.

However, as seen earlier this year with the conversation on Champlain college’s figurehead Samuel De Champlain, the validity and contemporaneity of what each college represents is often a matter of opinion, which includes political, social, intersectional, and personal sentiments. That being said, this article will attempt at most points to avoid personal opinion, and delve into the history and culture of each college, as to avoid controversy and error. The Champlain name problem cannot be solved in these short paragraphs, so the conversation here will regard how we got to here today from Trent’s humble past.

As mentioned above, the college system at Trent is based off of the collegiate system of Britain’s two marquee universities: Oxford and Cambridge. The Oxbridge (a mash up of the names Oxford & Cambridge) college system has a simple premise. Students apply to a specific college upon acceptance to the university. Each college represents a small collection of buildings, with a shared culture, and the chance to cultivate a better relationship with one’s community. Members of campus — both students and faculty — must belong to a specific college in this original system.

However, at Trent, this has changed significantly from Trent’s origin. Upon Trent’s founding, the college system was created in order to foster academic life, rather than simply a place to live as it is often perceived today. Obviously, many first-year undergraduates do most of their work within their residences, but at Trent’s inception, not only could students study in their living areas, but they also had the opportunity to engage more closely with professors, as college faculty retained offices within the colleges themselves, with some even residing within the college dorms. The most prominent figures of the time were the college heads, which, differing from today, were practicing academics and professors who both taught and lived at the university.

Today, however, professors are often out-sourced, and college heads are not academic figures but outside figures challenged with cultivating college life and culture. That is not say that college heads don’t have a connection or history with their college. However, in the past academic and ollege life were tied more explicitly. Contemporarily, college heads and professors live off campus, meaning that their relationship to the place in which they teach and work often ends with the end of the working day.

This is most likely the result of growing enrollment and academic population. The off-campus aspect applies not only to academics and college employees, but to students as well. It’s hard to cultivate an intimate college community when a large portion of the student population doesn’t actually reside on campus anymore.

That being said, the individual histories of each college are just as unique as the briefly sketched general history that I relay above. With distinct cultures and differing histories, the makeup of Trent and one’s relationship to it surely changes depending on one’s affiliation.

Well, what are the differences between the colleges, you say? What makes Lady Eaton different than Champlain? What is the culture of Gzowski? And what type of history does OC have? And what the hell is Traill College? (A joke — I love you, Traill).

Champlain College

Champlain College quad.

Let’s start with the big dog: Champlain College. Last year was Champlain College’s 50th anniversary, and as you can probably guess, has probably the most complicated history.

To briefly sketch it here, Champlain is Symons’ campus original residence, and was designed by famed architect Ron Thom, whom received an Order of Canada in 1980 and honorary degrees from Trent in the early 70s. The architectural style is a combination of the modern and medieval, often being likened to, or referenced as, similar to Harry Potter and Hogwarts.

The original intent for Champlain was to design a space for students to grow and learn individually, but also to provide the opportunity to engage with professors on an intimate basis. That’s why most of the college towers at Trent include small seminar rooms and faculty offices. Students were encouraged to seek out and engage with their professors on a daily basis.

Both the common area (colloquially referred to as the Quad, that descends into the Otonabee river through a stack of stone steps) and the Great Hall are the main congregating areas for students, both living on- and off-campus. Champlain-ers often have a deep connection to their college, continually coming back to study and hang out in the familiar common spaces that defined their first year and initial experience at Trent University.

With a vegetarian-vegan eatery and annual traditions such as the Bon Temps’ and Harvest weekends, Champlain’s culture is deep, traditional, but also progressive. This makes for an interesting intersection of individuals: some of which are completely active in college life, cheering and leading Champlain; while others are reserved, completely unique or eccentric. Whoever finds themselves connected to Champlain will find a place to live, and grow, just as they are. Whether it be the vocal cheerleaders of Cabinets, to the gentle misfits that I found myself acquainted with, Champlain provides a home for anyone who wants one.

Lady Eaton College

Lady Eaton College.

Lady Eaton is the other residence on Trent’s West Bank. Founded in 1968, just 4 years after the opening of the other colleges and academic facilities, Lady Eaton resides at the base of the Drumlin which cascades around the twisting and jagged architecture of the college. Lady Eaton college sits within the natural beauty that surrounds it, and does not take away from the natural landscape, but simply sits within it, giving it reverence and respect.

Lady Eaton College was originally an all-girls college, and now houses the departments of Gender & Women’s studies, History, and Philosophy. The college itself is named after Flora Eaton, an original decision maker and player in the beginning of Trent University. Eaton dedicated her life to public service, and was involved in many organizations that advocated for the arts and for diversity and equality, such as the ROM, The Art Gallery of Toronto, The Royal Winter Fair, and the Eaton Girls’ War Auxiliary.

This history of dedication to the arts and equity continues today, as Lady Eaton continues to represents inclusivity, dedication to social justice, and passion for the arts. I’ve often heard the joke that Lady Eaton is the ‘stoner’ college, which may or may not be true, but is illuminating in the fact that the progressive and the artistic are typical descriptors of both the college itself and its inhabitants. Whether or not this has to do with any greenery is up to interpretation. Regardless, however, Lady Eaton continues on in honour of tradition, but continually pushing towards progress.

Otonabee College

Science Complex, Otonabee College.

Otonabee College is Symons’ campus third residence, but is the first to reside on the East bank of the Otonabee River. Named after the river that runs through Symons’ campus, Otonabee College is Trent’s largest college student wise, and contains Trent’s biggest lecture hall: Wenjack theatre, named after Chanie ‘Charlie’ Wenjack, and is dedicated to his story. Wenjack was a young Anishinaabe boy, who died in the cold winter running away from the residential school in which he was forced to live.

Although a tragic story, this shows that Otonabee College is connected to Indigenous history, and to a certain extent, reconciliation. As Shanese Steele commented in her piece on Otonabee College last year, the word ‘Otonabee’ comes from the Anishinaabemowin word meaning ‘bubbling like a beating heart.’ Although referring to the river itself, the word’s definition could be applied to the college itself as it represents a connection to the past, as well as growth in the future.

Otonabee is the largest residence (in terms of affiliation), but also utilized heavily for its academic facilities. As mentioned before, Wenjack Theatre is Trent’s largest lecture hall. However, cascading throughout and tucked away within, Otonabee is a plethora of lecture halls, seminar rooms, computer labs, and faculty offices, which represent Otonabee’s dedication to academic experience and growth.

Gzowski College

Gzowski College.

Gzowski College is Trent’s newest college residence, being constructed and founded in 2003. The college was constructed in response to a need for housing, which arose from the double-cohort class of 2003, which resulted from the removal of grade 13.

As I wrote last year, “… the name Gzowski comes from renowned CBC journalist Peter Gzowski. Gzowski was Trent’s eighth chancellor, and passed away in 2002. The college’s name was chosen to remember his contributions to Trent as well as to Canada throughout his work. As a journalist, Gzowski was often concerned with what it means to be Canadian, and highly analytical of Canadian identity.”

The college itself is highly analytical of Canadian identity, just as Peter Gzowski was. The college is both environmental and political, and represents a relationship to the surrounding Indigenous population. Gzowski College is co-named “Enweying,” which translates from Nishnaabewin to “the way we speak together.”

While people often joke that the college looks like cheese, the construction and architecture was deliberately created that way. Upon construction, the college was asked by the Indigenous community to be respectful and honour the land on which it resides, by “sitting gently upon the land.” Furthermore, the building’s colours also coincide with the four colours of the medicine wheel: yellow, red, black, and white.

This connection to the environment and Indigenous relations does not end with the building’s architecture, but also applies to the classrooms and academia of Gzowski itself. The college houses The First People’s House of Learning, which includes a lecture hall, a gathering space, a performance area as well as a tipi.

The college is also home to the Economics, Business, and Math departments, while often hosting many first-year arts classes due to its larger lecture halls.

Catharine Parr Traill College

Scott House, home of the Cultural Studies department, Traill College.

Traill College is the singular downtown college campus. Traill’s history stretches back just as far as Champlain’s does, as Traill opened along side Champlain and (now defunct) Peter Robinson College to flesh out Trent’s downtown presence. Traill College is named after Catharine Parr Traill, an original settler of the Peterborough area, who detailed her journey as a settler to Canada as well as being deeply involved in the area’s naturalist history and the sciences of the land.

Traill is an apt figurehead for the downtown campus, as Traill houses most of the English and Cultural Studies departments. Although connected mostly with settler literature, Traill’s concentration on Canadian identity bridged the gap between the natural history of the land, and the artistic prowess of individuals.

Traill is still trying to find (or re-find) its identity. Last year, Traill reopened as a college residence, housing tens of students. Traill is the smallest university residence, but has recently been approved for an expansion, which will include new residences, a newly renovated restaurant, two student hubs, and a new college library in the hopes of “revitalizing the traditional collegiate roots that define the College.”


Other living areas on campus include the Champlain, Lady Eaton, and Gzowski College annexes, which again were created due to an influx of student enrollment, and an increasing student population. The culture of these residences is unclear, as they are the newest buildings that students can live in. How much of a connection that a Lady Eaton College Annex student has to its namesake is unclear. However, I would hazard that due to the distance from the annexes to the colleges themselves, as well as a more formulaic construction, the annexes’ connection to the colleges themselves are less rooted in tradition and culture, and more grounded in necessity and identification. However, I may be completely wrong, and hope to see a more close connection between the new building and the older residences upon which they are named.

Well, as we have seen, each college has a unique and interesting history as well as interesting yet differing cultures, attitudes, and traits that make up unique representations of the broader Trent identity. Each college has a diverse history, one that this piece only skims over, but that can be easily accessed in the archives of Trent University, as well as the archives of this newspaper, which can be found at our website. The histories, traditions, and cultures of each college can be investigated further by taking time to spend some time within each of the colleges themselves. So, go out, hang out, and study in the building that sounds most interesting to you! Look at the different plaques and artifacts that you usually rush past! Set up a meeting with a college head and interrogate them! And mostly, just spend some time in the places that we take for granted, and the buildings in which we have the privilege to live, learn, study, and reside.

About Tyler Majer 73 Articles
Tyler works out of Peterborough, Ontario, and reluctantly attends Trent University. He loathes deeply, while drinking often. The cigarettes will soon consume his life. Read his poetry while you still can at while reading his journalistic work at this very site. I would say that he would be appreciative, but that may not be the truth.