By: Sheldon Goldfarb
Let the students drink!
The Pit turns 50-years old November 2023. Happy birthday to UBC’s student pub.
Sometimes the toughest battles are against oneself. The struggle for a student pub on campus was one of those, pitting certain students against others, all against a backdrop of government control and archaic liquor laws.
British Columbia had experimented with prohibition between 1917 and 1921, and even though it was repealed after that, what replaced it was a strict system of government regulation. How this translated into life at UBC was that the campus was dry, at least for the students. The AMS even had a bylaw prohibiting alcohol consumption and enforced it at a ball in 1929 when three Agriculture students were fined simply for showing up under the influence of alcohol.
By the 1940s the bylaw was a matter of dispute: members of Student Council debated whether it should be enforced, repealed, or just discreetly ignored. Students drank, of course, sometimes in their cars outside official AMS dances, sometimes at drinking competitions organized by the Engineers (who prided themselves on being able to “demolish forty beers,” as the Engineers Song put it), sometimes at the Hotel Georgia (UBC’s downtown campus, some called it). People talked about hypocrisy and about the health hazards of forcing people to drink secretively (and thus often to excess). There were calls for a pub on campus, as early as the 1950s, but nothing happened until the radical Sixties, in particular 1968.
In that year the culture of protest collided with prohibition in a number of ways. First of all, there was the occupation of the Faculty Club by 2,000 students urged on by US radical Jerry Rubin, who called on them to liberate something. The students stayed overnight, and one of the things they liberated was the professors’ liquor cabinet.
A month before that the AMS opened a new student union building, the SUB, only to find a protest being held there by some of its members, including even some AMS Executives. The protesters were objecting to the lack of a pub in the new building, and were drinking illegally. AMS President Jack Zirnhelt said he sympathized, but added that an illegal “pub-in” as it was called could not be tolerated and might jeopardize AMS attempts to obtain a liquor licence.
Obtaining a liquor licence was quite difficult under the restrictive liquor regulations of the time, and the AMS in fact submitted a brief to the government committee looking into revising the regulations, but even under the existing regulations it turned out to be possible to get a licence, and a pub was announced for November 1968. This was what became the famous Pit Pub, so named, the story goes, by David Suzuki, a UBC professor at the time, who waded into the liquor controversy by publishing an article saying that a pub was exactly what the campus needed to facilitate interactions between students and between students and professors.
Suzuki, who was known for convening classes at the Fraser Arms pub on Marine Drive, said a pub on campus would remove the need to go drinking off campus and would produce revenue to support academic activities. The AMS promptly added him to its committee looking into creating a pub, and he was one of the first attendees when the Pit finally opened, as a beer garden rather than a dedicated drinking establishment, on November 28, 1968.
For the next five years the Pit became a successful, regular beer garden, where according to the Ubyssey, one could “relax, have a few beer, eat a sandwich and talk about the revolution.” But the plan was to let it have a place of its own instead of forcing it to set up shop in various different rooms in the Student Union Building. This meant a major renovation project because there had been no thought of including a pub in the original plans for the building.
The renovation project took five years, but by November 1973 the new Pit was ready and the culture change was complete. No longer was the AMS an organization that prohibited drinking; it now became the proprietor of the iconic Pit Pub in the basement of the SUB, and when the AMS moved to the Student Nest, the Pit moved with it.