The earliest fraternities in North America began to appear on American college campuses in the 1700s, possibly inspired by groups like the Freemasons. At first these secret societies were frowned upon by university administration, often with serious penalties up to and including expulsion for anyone found to be a member. By the late 1800s, however, these tenacious brotherhoods (and their female counterparts) had begun to entrench themselves into campus life, establishing fraternity and sorority houses both on and off campus, and holding student events. It was around this time that fraternities and sororities—sometimes called simply “Greek societies”—also began to appear in Canada at universities in Toronto and Montreal. While many more groups and chapters were founded across the country in the 20th century, the oldest fraternities and sororities in Canada can trace their roots back to the this era.
While fraternities and sororities are an essential part of campus life at many American universities, they maintain a smaller and more unofficial presence north of the border. There are many reasons for this, among them the notion of inclusivity and equality that’s at the heart of many student body charters in Canada. At one of Canada’s oldest universities, for example, the administration and student council have had no official relationship with Greek societies since the 1960s, on the basis that all student organizations should be “open to all members of the University community without restriction on the grounds of national origin, race, religion, colour, or sex.” Since these groups are predominantly single-gender, and sometimes religion-based, this remains an issue—and a frequent point of contention—today.
Interestingly, the difference in popularity of fraternities in Canada and the US may also be connected to a couple of important cultural changes in the 1980s. Around the same time Hollywood was celebrating the culture of frats with onscreen depictions of wild pranks and beer-fuelled hijinks, the US government raised the legal drinking age to 21, effectively putting alcohol out of reach for most undergraduate students. As a result, fraternity and sorority house parties became the easiest place for many students to get a drink, and helped these groups become central to campus social life. In Canada, where most students could (and still can) order a drink in a bar of their choosing at 18 or 19 years old, the allure of frat parties is greatly diminished.
Greek life has been controversial since its beginnings, and it has no shortage of critics today. Members, however, will happily talk about the sense of community that these groups create, the friendships that are forged, as well as the charitable works and fundraising that’s central to many of these groups’ activities. At one major Vancouver university, their network of Greek societies has been operating since the 1920s and consists of ten fraternities and eight sororities, making it one of the largest Greek systems in Canada. With over 1500 undergraduate members, they boast hundreds of campus leaders and intramural athletes, thousands of hours of community service and tens of thousands of dollars raised for charity. These groups, the members stress, are nothing like what you’ve seen in the movies.
Despite this, fraternities’ reputations for drunken parties, dangerous hazing rituals and all sorts of other bad behaviour persists. In 2018, in response to over 100 complaints to the city about noise, garbage and incidents of assault, Toronto’s city council voted to impose more stringent oversight on 19 fraternity and sorority houses operating near the historic downtown campus of one university. Earlier this year, one Vancouver university went even farther, when it permanently banned open social events for Greek groups following several incidents of drugging at fraternity parties.
Whether these incidents are the result of a few bad actors or point to deeper, more systemic issues, crackdowns on Greek life are increasingly common, both here and south of the border. One highly influential American university, which has hosted fraternities since at least the mid-1800s, recently announced that students who are members of single-gender sororities or fraternities were barred from holding leadership positions in recognized student organizations and sports teams, as well as prohibited from receiving certain scholarships. This decision will likely have far-reaching effects, but it won’t spell the end of Greek life in the US or Canada. The Greeks have been among us for more than a century, and they show no sign of leaving anytime soon.
Jeremy Freed is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto. His writing about fashion, travel, food and design appears in Sharp, Harry and re:Porter magazines, among many others.