The first incarnation of the Debating Society was at the then-new Vancouver College in 1902. Our founding president, Desmond Bailey, wanted the students of the province’s first public, post-secondary institution to “readily have the skills of rhetoric, oratory, and argumentation at their disposal – giving our province the leaders that it deserves.”
In 1906, Vancouver College was absorbed by McGill and renamed the McGill University College of British Columbia and in 1908, the Vancouver College Debates Union was rechristened the Undergraduates’ Literary and Debating Society.
Women had a prominent role in this new Society, which had a woman as its first Vice-President. In 1910, female members of the Society broke off to form the Ladies’ Literary and Debating Society. “The Ladies’ Lit”, as it came to be known, was a major venue for political dialogue and was very involved in the progress of roles for women at the university college.
When the new University of British Columbia opened in 1915, the Ladies’ Lit and the Undergraduates’ Lit were remodeled as the Women’s Literary Society and the Men’s Literary Society to allow the two sexes to be “on equal footing”. However, this separate-but-equal model of organization failed to gel with the student population and served to only deepen gender rivalries at the expense of improved discourse in the Society.
The next stage in the evolution of the Literary Societies sought to rejuvenate an unpopular structure and contend with declining levels of interest. In order to reverse a downward trend in student involvement, leadership proposed the reorganization of the Society into a new literary club–the Literary and Scientific Department–open to both men and women but “limited to students who were willing to take an active interest in the society”, who made a concerted effort to recruit a new group of energetic participants in order to fulfill the society’s first objective in “a province deficient in public speakers.”
Beginning in 1917, the Department quickly expanded to include the Player’s Club, the Musical Society, the Chemistry Society, Sigma Delta Kappa Society, and the Agricultural Discussion Group with the then university president, Dr. Sedgewick, as Honourary President. By 1955, the Literary and Scientific Executive, as it came to be known, changed its name to the University Clubs’ Committee to focus exclusively on the governance of the different clubs and the new Debating Union was formed. In 1976, the Society once again refocused, and was renamed the UBC Debating Society—revised again to today’s UBC Debate Society.
Throughout the history of the Society, numerous personalities have shaped the culture of the oldest student group at UBC. Oliver Bailey, the president of the Society in 1939, was one such individual. Son of founder Desmond Bailey, Oliver became president in the spring of 1939, with his first act being a public debate, “This House believes that Munich was right”, referring to the outcome of the Munich Conference of September, 1938 in which Neville Chamberlain negotiated for peace in Europe with Adolf Hitler. Although Mr. Bailey won the debate that day, when history proved him wrong in 1939, he became a leading advocate for taking up arms against Nazi Germany, and in 1941— after completing his degree in engineering— he became a captain in the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps. He died at Dieppe on August 19, 1942 and, as tribute for years afterwards, members of the Literary and Scientific Department would say that any person debating alone was debating with Oliver Bailey.
Another influential debater was Nora Coy, a charter member of the Women’s Literary Society who became the first female president of the Alma Mater Society. She was a strong speaker but did not come into her own as a debater until after her presidential term, when campus debates on coeducation were reaching their zenith. The debate raged in the student newspaper, the Ubyssey, including one letter signed by “L’Homme Indigne” that declared, “we have put up with coeducation, why should we allow so many of our societies to be diluted with the weaker sex.” At that year’s Closing of the House, Miss Coy found herself arguing for coeducation and integration of the male and female debating societies. To protest the letter, she replaced the traditional glass of water for herself, and her competitors, with a glass of gin. When her male opponent paused to drink from his glass and choked in surprise, she cried out, “There are worse things diluting society than women, monsieur!” The audience was so amused that the common toast amongst members of the debating societies became the simple phrase, “To Nora.”
Today, many members of the UBC Debate Society achieve successful careers in business, politics, science, and law. The UBC Debate Society is now a constituted student club of the Alma Mater Society of the University of British Columbia, where we run a competitive debate programme, attending tournaments across Canada and internationally. We also bring debate to campus through our workshop program, Debate 101, regular show debates, and free debate training and tournaments for new members.