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Part of UVic’s campus at Gordon Head used to be a Military camp. Reminders of the campus’ previous military incarnation can be found in several army huts located on campus and a memorial commemorating the Queen’s Own Rifles, located at the Finnerty Road entrance, which includes the pillars that marked the camp’s entrance. The army huts are single-storey wood-frame utilitarian Second World War buildings. Known as the “huts,” there are currently seven army huts on campus serving as space for storage and departments.
The Military History of UVic’s Campus
Before UVic moved to the Gordon Head campus, the land was held by the Canadian military. Originally, Gordon Head was used as a signals station, but when World War II broke out, the military built the Gordon Head Barracks on the land. The camp was used for a variety of military purposes and contained over 50 buildings including sleeping quarters, mess halls, officers’ huts and a drill hall. During World War II, volunteers both recruits and officers were trained at the camp. Quarters were provided for the rehabilitation of casualties and for prisoners of war returning from Japan. With the housing crisis in 1946 to 1950, the huts served as homes for soldiers and their families. During the Korean War, 1950 to 1953, the camp reverted to military training use.
In 1955, the 2nd Battalion, the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada moved into the camp on return from Korea. They were the last Canadian Army unit in Korea and the last to occupy Gordon Head. Ron Werry recalls a spectacular incident after the unit moved to Gordon Head: “I was the assault pioneer platoon commander, [and] this RCMP constable brought in an unexploded shell some kids had found and he brought it in from up Island. It was unexploded and I said well can’t be harmful because you drove it for so long a space of time rolling around in the car. So I took it out and I exploded it over here [at the barracks] and it was the naval star shell and it made such a bright light and a nice crack that everyone was worried that the war had started.”
The Queen's Own Rifles departed Victoria in October 1957 for NATO service in Germany. John Doerksen, who served with the unit, remembers, “we had a parade downtown in the park, [Beacon Hill] and a lot of people turned out and I turned over the keys. I had locked the gate here [Gordon Head Camp] and then I turned the keys over to the mayor.” In May 1967, the UVic’s Centennial Stadium was officially opened By Her Royal Highness, Princess Alexandra of Kent. As HRH was the Regiment's Colonel-in-Chief, the 1st Battalion of the Regiment provided a 100 man guard of Honour and the Battalion Bugles for the event. HRH also spent time with her 1st Battalion then stationed in Work Point Barracks in Esquimalt. 2010 was the Queen’s Own Rifles’ 150th year of continuous service and they held a week-long celebration, which included unveiling a plaque at UVic commemorating their time at Gordon Head.
Purchasing the Gordon Head Army Camp
In 1959, with the wheels in motion for establishing a university in Victoria, two pieces of land were bought for the university’s location: the Gordon Head Army Camp and adjoining property from the Federal Government for $115,500 and 141 acres from the Hudson's Bay Company in Oak Bay for $438,235.
When UVic first opened its doors in 1963, the university was initially split between two campuses: Victoria College’s old campus at Lansdowne and the new Gordon Head campus. Whilst new buildings were under construction at Gordon Head, many academic units and classes were moved into the huts. For example, the Old Phoenix Theatre used to be in Hut Q. These “split-campus” years are often remembered fondly, despite the difficulties they caused. Charles La Vertu, alumni, recalls, “half our classes were at the Lansdowne Campus and the other half in old unheated and unlit army huts at the new Gordon Head campus. The gym was an old Second World War air force hangar.” By the end of 1966, the move was finally complete and Gordon Head became UVic’s sole campus.
Army Huts Today
The Army Huts that remain on campus are recognized in the Saanich Heritage Register. Over the years, several huts have had to be dismantled due to the effects of age and weather. Currently, five huts are used by UVic departments: Huts A and B are used by UVic Facilities Management Department, Hut E houses CanAssist, Hut Q is the site of the Green Vehicle Research and Testing Centre and Hut R houses UVic Industry Partnerships (UVic IP). Y Hut which was formerly a Maritime Naval Communications Centre is used for storage.
The university is currently discussing approaches to the recognition of the Gordon Head Military Camp with the District of Saanich and the Saanich Heritage Foundation.
More on the Army Huts:
- UVic Archives contains wonderful resources, including the archived exhibition, “A History of the Gordon Head Campus Land from 11000 BC to 1970;” the curator of the exhibit, Claire Heffernan, found out that the campus was once used by “a daredevil flying club.”
- The Queen's Own Rifles of Canada Celebrates 150 Years Images
- Map of huts
Credits: Many thanks to Mr. Neil Connelly, Mr. Herb Pitts, Saanich Archives, particularly Caroline Duncan and Dr. Jim Wood for their contributions to this piece.
Mystic Vale, 11.6 acres of natural coniferous woodland, can be found in the south-east area of University of Victoria’s campus. Much of Mystic Vale comprises a steep-sided gully with slopes of 20-30º and belongs to the Hobbs Creek Watershed. The university campus is part of the Straits Coast Salish peoples’ traditional homeland. For thousands of years, Mystic Vale was utilized for harvesting plants, hunting and fishing.
The “sensitive eco-system” of Mystic Vale features over 75 native plant and wildlife species including oceanspray, snowberry, Indian plum and sword fern. In fact, some species, such as rattlesnake plantain, stink currant and vanilla-leaf, are seldom found anywhere else around Victoria. The oldest recorded trees in Mystic Vale are approximately 100 to 150 years old but some trees are likely between 350 to 500 years old.
A wide-array of mammals inhabit the ravine including black-tailed deer, raccoons, eastern cottontail rabbits and bats. River otter tracks have been spotted along the creek bed and there was a rare cougar sighting in 2005. Birds found in Mystic Vale include Bald Eagle, Cooper’s Hawk, Great Horned Owl and five species of woodpeckers.
People often wonder where the name “Mystic Vale” came from. One suggestion is that the name originates from the legend of the mystic spring. In 1904, local author D.W. Higgins gave his version of the mystic spring legend, relating how the Vale was once home to a huge maple tree beside a spring of pure water; the maple tree was a god that guarded the spirit of the spring. The following quote is from Higgins’ version of this tale:
‘If a woman should look into the water when the moon is at its full she’ll see reflected in it the face of the man who loves her. If a man looks into the water he will see the woman who loves him and will marry him should he ask her. If a woman is childless this water will give her plenty. The tree is a god. It guards the spirit of the spring, and as long as the tree stands the water will creep to its foot for protection and shade; cut down the tree and the spring will be seen no more.”
It is worthwhile to note that Higgins’ tale romanticizes the Indigenous peoples’ ancestral use of Mystic Vale as a sacred site, as Mavis Henry explains, “the … mythology and legend attached [to Mystic Vale] goes beyond fable and represents real use and real belief systems at work.”
In 1993, during UVic’s 30th anniversary celebrations, UVic purchased Mystic Vale for $2.7 million with help from the provincial government and the Municipality of Saanich. For thirty years, UVic sought to buy Mystic Vale from shareholders. In the early 1990s, when residential development threatened the land, UVic utilized local support for the conservation of Mystic Vale.
Mystic Vale’s protection was achieved through many people’s help, such as the Friends of Mystic Vale; the Mystic Vale Action Committee, whose membership included former UVic Chancellor Dr. Bill Gibson; Saanich Mayor Murray Coell and Saanich council and Hon. Tom Perry, Minister of Advanced Education, Training and Technology.
UVic is committed to protecting Mystic Vale for the entire community and the land is secured from development in perpetuity. The beautiful, serene area remains a popular community spot for walkers, joggers and anyone with an appreciation of nature.
Mystic Vale adds significantly to the campus with its natural beauty and UVic frequently utilizes Mystic Vale for teaching and research. As Mystic Vale is extensively used, UVic’s Facilities Management has developed long term plans for environmental protection, streamside remediation, and community education about the area.
In 1974, the University Gardens were created after a gift of one of BC’s largest rhododendron collections from Mrs. Jeanne Buchanan Simpson’s estate. Approximately three acres of land were set aside for the new gardens. Initially, several local rhododendron enthusiasts were asked to help plan and develop the Gardens and this group formed the Friends of the University Gardens (now named the University of Victoria Finnerty Garden Friends). They and their successors have continued to guide and finance the development of the Gardens.
The gardens were planned to bloom all year round and grew with hundreds of donations of azaleas, rhododendrons, magnolias and other plants. In 1988, the rhododendron collection had begun to suffer inside Ring Road and a better soil solution was found outside Ring Road. In September that year, over 300 rhododendrons, shrubs, and trees were moved to the nearby wooded space. The 100 rhododendrons left inside Ring Road thrived with more space and better drainage.
Finnerty Gardens continue to flourish today. The gardens house more than 1,500 rhododendron and azalea plants and a large collection of companion plants. There are 4,000 different trees and shrubs recorded in the collection. The rhododendrons flower from mid-January until late June and perennials flower from July onwards. Other plants, like Mahonia and Garrya, are in season throughout most of the year. The gardens are open daily to all and take approximately an hour to tour. See the Finnerty Gardens’ website for more information about the garden’s fabulous collection.
|Finnerty Gardens quick facts|
|Curator: Bentley Sly|
|Open daily during daylight hours|
|6.5 acre site|
|4,000 trees and shrubs|
|1,500 rhododendrons and azaleas|
|200 rhododendron species|
|Best time to view the rhodendrons: April to May|