By Sheila Nykwist
Before he jumped, Jeffrey Newmarch made a bet. Thirty dollars was all he waged in the deadly gamble, and as he climbed onto the railing of the ferry to Toronto Island for a third time amid chants of “Jump! Jump!”; this time he did.
The jubilant, drunken atmosphere of students returning from Ryerson’s traditional Frosh Week Parade and Picnic in the fall of 1984 quickly sobered. Moments before, as they peered up at the drunken teenager perched atop the ship’s railing, goading his peers to tempt him to jump over, no one stopped to consider his precarious state of inebriation — the point reached when one’s feeling of invincibility blinds any sense of judgement. They never thought he’d do it.
Newmarch never returned to collect his bet. Under the hopeful eyes of passengers above, rescuers managed to pluck his body from the Harbourfront docks, but despite attempts to save him, he had no chance. He’d struck a submerged log and died instantly.
Newmarch was among the few thousand students partying at the annual island picnic. Festivities began in the quad where many started their drinking marathon and continued down Yonge Street and over to Center Island where a concert (and beer garden) awaited them. Students were still buzzing as they boarded the ferry home a few hours later, only to be abruptly sobered with the deadly dare that played out before their eyes.
Newmarch’s tragic death was a wake-up call for everyone and the impetus of change in attitudes towards university drinking.
“Times have changed a lot,” says Crystal Adair, vice-president student life and events at RyeSAC. “Students are starting to drink more responsibly.”
This was the goal of Ryerson and other universities in the early ‘80s, which implemented a peer-based educational program Bacchus, Boost Alcohol Consciousness Concerning the Health of University Students, to tone down students’ drinking (campaigning, pamphlets, etc.).
“It’s time we realized being drunk in public isn’t right and shouldn’t be accepted as ‘normal,’” read an editorial in the Ryersonian following an inquest into the death of Newmark. He had drunk about nine bottles of beer and had traces of marijuana in his blood and urine.
The old attitude of party-till-you-puke was countered by slogans such as “Balance Booze with your Books.” In the ‘90s, university administrators began to realize the responsibilities and liabilities of organizing alcoholic events after fighting a number of civil suits involving alcohol-related injuries.
At Sir Wilfrid Laurier in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., a 19-year-old student was killed in an alcohol-related accident during Frosh Week in 1985. Another student died four years later after he choked on his vomit while partying with friends at the University of Guelph.
Excessive drinking was encouraged by ‘Century Club’ nights at universities during Frosh Week, where new students were initiated into the club after drowning 100 shots of beer each — one every minute.
Some students say nights like these may be over at Ryerson, where high tuition and professionally-driven students have taken the social scene down a few notches. Some students say that their ideas of wild keg parties and excessive amounts of alcohol have become a myth on this campus, where many students prefer to chill with friends over a couple of beers.
“I don’t think it was exactly how I thought it was going to be,” said third-year business student Michael Osti sitting in a sparsely populated Ryerson pub on Friday night. “Most people go out for a good time … They know their limits, they don’t take chances. They know their responsibilities.”
Sitting at the bar in the Ram in the Rye, Jerry Gray, a third-year economics student, takes the chance to catch up with friends. Although he enjoys socializing over a few drinks, he maintains that academics come first.
“I’m not here to party. I have priorities,” says Gray. However, special occasions may be the exception.
“We just had a guy in here who drank seven shots for his birthday,” says Michelle Ball from across the counter where she bartends at the Ram in the Rye. As far as she can see, people at Ryerson party just as hard as at the University of Windsor, where she also worked in the pub.
But not everyone feels Ryerson is on par with other universities when it comes to partying. Kristen Lake, a second-year student at the University of Toronto, thinks the atmosphere on our campus is more laid back.
“A University of Toronto party will go all out,” says Lake, noting cheap drinks draw huge crowds.
Some, like Ryerson economics student Chris Mason, are bored with the party scene.
“I’ve been there, done that,” says Mason, who admits to not being a big drinker.
Mature students are not the main concern for Ryerson and other universities in Ontario, however. The large number of underage students entering campus next year as part of the double cohort has resulted in reviews of legal and licensing issues.
“Universities in Ontario are finding themselves in a unique situation from other universities across Canada,” says Fran Wdowczyk, executive director Bacchus.
Unlike other provinces that have already implemented programs to accommodate underaged students, Ontario universities will have to make decisions such as allowing beer gardens and discuss liability issues such as penalties for providing a minor with alcohol. Policies are now being reviewed and rewritten to avoid potential problems.
Wdowczyk provides universities with materials such as pamphlets and posters to raise awareness of problem drinking on campus that could jeopardize students’ studies.
Taking advantage of these resources is Ryerson’s first Alcohol Awareness Team, led by Alison Burnett, the school’s health promotions coordinator.
“With the double cohort, we felt we needed a special team,” says Burnett. “I think there will be a great need for alcohol education.”
The new team of alcohol educators is made up of two peer educators, two nursing students and one volunteer who organize and promote events such as Alcohol Awareness Week and Safe Spring Break campaigns. Workshops teach students how to identify high risk drinking behaviours in themselves or their friends by providing clues to identify drinking patterns and distorted perception when students feel they’ve drunk far less than they actually have.
Residence facilitators at the University of Waterloo are discussing a booze ban. They expect 70 per cent of next year’s student body will be underage. Currently, alcohol in residence is restricted to students’ rooms (as opposed to the hallways) and administrators are worried that the over-consumption of alcohol may lead to students failing out of school.
Opponents of the ban feel this will only encourage students to drink off campus, use fake identification to get into bars and potentially lead to a more dangerous situation than students drinking in their rooms.
Lucy Jakupi, residence life facilitator at Pitman Hall, says a ban would be impossible to enforce because it would require more staff and less privacy for students. Instead, she feels promoting awareness is a better option.
“We’ll have to be more vigilant,” says Jakupi of the many first-year students who will be experiencing “big city living” for the first time.
Education in residence includes promoting alcohol-free social events and designing display boards to inform students. “Shar’s Board” on the 12th floor of Pitman Hall lists some of the wild misconceptions surrounding drinking: when trying to avoid a hangover. Inducing vomiting, taking a cold shower or drinking coffee are not the answers. The board reminds students that the only effective remedy is time. Shar, who is the resident don on the 12th floor, also displays mock-tail recipes, suggesting virgin alternatives to cocktails.
Compared to other universities, Jakupi thinks Ryerson has far fewer problems with alcohol. She suggests the high cost of living, tuition and expensive drinks result in Ryerson’s relative sobriety.
Kate Klein, a first-year dance student, says the campus doesn’t offer many watering holes for a thirsty student.
“I think the university is very slim compared to other universities,” says Klein, who notes there are only two bars on campus. “We’re highly restricted here.”
In a recent Maclean’s survey, Ryerson’s high-ranking reputation points to the fact that the university is professionally-oriented, which may explain the difference between Ryerson and Western.
Tanya Lewis, who works at the Access Centre, thinks that students at Ryerson are clear about where they’re going.
“Being a student at Ryerson requires you to be a professional,” says Lewis, who also thinks Ryerson’s diverse student population factors into the appeal to drink. From many different cultures and faiths, not all students are inclined to drink alcohol.
With only two known returning alcoholics to Ryerson, she is not convinced there is a big drinking problem on campus. As Ryerson accepts a majority of underage first-year students next year, she believes raising awareness of responsible drinking is the key to keeping it that way.