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Changing times for the lettered crowd
Quick, think of the sorts of guys you would expect to encounter at a McGill fraternity. Now think again.
PHOTO: Owen Egan
At fraternity events -- more often social "mixers" and charity fundraisers than slammin' house parties -- there's nary a bronzed quarterback named Chet to be found among the lettered masses. No John Belushi wannabees in sight either.
"When I was first approached to join, I was like, fraternity ... are you kidding me? I have piercings, tattoos, a horrible attitude and I hate politics."
Meet Zak Nowakowski, the postmodern answer to the Frat Boy. He's a member of Mu Omicron Zeta -- MOZ for short.
The McGill approach to "Greek life" is laid back. Though the inevitable Animal House comparisons will be made, the fact is that the American stereotype bears little resemblance to the Montreal reality.
"It's less intrusive here," says Alpha Delta Phi member Brian Lack. "It's not a way of life, more like an extracurricular activity."
Lack is the former president of the Inter-Greek Letter Council, an administrative body that co-ordinates activities among its member fraternities and sororities. Each semester, IGLC organizes Greek Week, with activities ranging from fundraising to pool tournaments to a talent show.
With only one per cent of the undergraduate student body participating in fraternity life, McGill is seen as an anomaly by fraternity chapters south of the border. The low numbers translate into a low profile on campus.
"No one knows we exist at McGill," admits current IGLC president Miranda Gass-Donnelly. "Some campuses in the U.S. have an 80 percent participation rate. In those places, everything that happens -- social or otherwise -- takes place in the context of fraternities and sororities."
Of course, it's no secret that one of the main attractions of frat membership in the United States is the easy access it provides to alcohol. But in Montreal, where anyone and everyone at the tender age of 18 can get served, pledging for the almighty pint is a moot point.
Most fraternity brothers and sorority sisters say that they never considered joining until a friend urged them to pledge.
"At McGill, the fraternities are built up mainly by friends bringing in more friends," says Lack, a Montrealer who joined his fraternity because his current friends were already members.
McGill has a relatively large number of native Montrealers in its frats and sororities. "People who live at home with their families tend to feel isolated from the university experience," Gass-Donnelly explains. "The fraternity house can be a home away from home."
As for others, the fraternity experience is about tradition. Nick Varzeliotis is a "Deke,"aka a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon. "A lot of guys from DKE have done a lot of remarkable things. It gives me something to live up to."
With a membership of four, DKE is one of the loneliest frats on campus. An active chapter until the early '90s, DKE folded when the lease on its frat house ran out and membership dropped.
It was reactivated again last spring through the efforts of Jeff Kurzon, a recent transfer student from Bowdoin College in Maine, where he had been an underground Deke. There, membership in a single-sex frat could be grounds for explusion. For Kurzon (who escaped Bowdoin unscathed), frat life is a great way to make contacts.
"It's a huge network tool. The question is how you use it." Kurzon notes that membership in DKE has its privileges: George W. Bush is the fifth Deke to become president of the United States. So, will the law student be looking to Dubya for a job upon graduation?
"No, but there's a Deke club in New York City, and I fully intend on going to meet lots of Dekes in New York as a lawyer -- not only to meet interesting people but also to look for clients," Kurzon says.
Others were attracted to the Greek life because it helped them assimilate into McGill. Claire Owen is a member of Gamma Phi Beta who was a little daunted by the whole experience of coming to a new school. "McGill is very large. There are tons of people; it can be overwhelming. You need to find your niche somewhere, and a sorority is one way of doing that."
Fraternities and sororities still come under fire from some quarters for being exclusive and homogeneous.
Erica Weinstein, a co-ordinator at the McGill Women's Union, maintains that membership is still largely based on class standing. "They say they're open to everyone, but you need lots of money to belong, and most of the members are white. Until specific action is taken to remedy that, I see no evidence of openness."
"I understand the backlash," says Lack. "I'm Jewish, and 50 years ago, I wouldn't have been allowed to join my fraternity." He says that because McGill is such a diverse place, it's only natural that its fraternities attract different kinds of people.
Two of his Alpha Delta Phi brothers, for example, are from Africa. One of them, Ousmane Mbacke, is a Senegalese computer science student who didn't even know what a fraternity was before he came to Montreal. "I feel more comfortable with them than with other people at McGill," Mbacke remarks. "They treat everyone the same."
Gass-Donnelly points to the fact that the one fraternity whose membership was exclusive, the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, is now open to non-Jews. Ultimately, she says, the numbers are so low at McGill that pledges rarely get turned away from any fraternity or sorority. "It's more like we want them."
To be part of the club, members must pay a one-shot initiation fee (ranging between $200 and $500) to the sorority or fraternity's international headquarters for things like property management and administration.
On top of that, members must pay chapter dues to remain active each semester, and those range from $100 to $400. Dues cover expenses for chapter activities like parties and weekend retreats. Alumni associations for each chapter also help generate monies for current members.
The letter-wearing legions of McGill students continue to fight the perception that they're elitist. "Sororities are not about attending luncheons and buying pearls," Gass-Donnelly insists. "I have loans and I found a way to join. Yes, there are wealthy girls in sororities, but there are lots of wealthy girls at McGill."
Frat life at McGill hit an all-time low in the late '80s and early '90s following a pair of well-publicized sexual assault cases. Reports of a gang rape at a Zeta Psi frat party in 1988 and a charge of date rape against a member of Phi Delta Theta in 1990 were hot issues on campus.
While charges were never laid in the alleged gang rape, and the Phi Delta Theta member was acquitted of his charges, the scandals, nevertheless, were quickly followed by a sense of fear and loathing of fraternity culture.
"Anyone in a fraternity at that time was painted in broad strokes," says Ian Pilarczyk, who was vice-president of the Inter-Fraternity Council in 1990. "A lot of us were outraged too, but you'd walk into a lecture and people who knew you were in a fraternity started to treat us differently. But you couldn't blame them. Eventually, a lot of us stopped wearing our letters."
Pilarczyk, an alumnus of the now-inactive Beta Theta Pi, recounts that many fraternity members were angered by Zeta Psi's code of silence in the wake of the events.
"At that time, there was a complete lack of action and accountability. And it went beyond what was acceptable even for fraternities. There's brotherhood, and then there's conspiracy."
Fraternity and sorority membership nosedived during the 1990s at McGill and repairing the reputation of the societies has been a conscious effort.
The Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students' Society now holds workshops at frat houses on the delineation between chasing girls and sexual assault.
Most of McGill's fraternity and sorority houses have opted to become dry, meaning that alcohol is prohibited on those properties. Phi Delta Theta was given a major financial incentive to go dry.
"In 1997 we were given $20,000 by our international headquarters towards renovating our house," says current Phi Delta Theta president Brian Ker. "Every chapter had to go dry by July 2000, so by going early we were given an incentive." The changes included converting the party room into a study room. "It's a much more academic environment now."
"Frat parties now usually take place at bars," Gass-Donnelly says. "But even the parties at frat houses are no different than big house parties."
One of the most infamous parts of frat life, hazing, is largely removed from the McGill experience.
Pi Lamda Phi is the one frat on campus that continues hazing practices -- an action that has meant exclusion from the IGLC. But everyone agrees that hazing here is more about embarrassment than violence and humiliation. A member might, for instance get a pledge to go to classes dressed as a woman.
"It's not even half as bad as the initiation rituals for some sports teams at McGill," Gass-Donnelly notes. "They do so much drinking, they make people run around naked... It goes against sportsmanlike conduct."
The challenge now, especially for fledgling frats like DKE, is to leave McGill with the chapter intact. "The more popular fraternities are on campus, the better for every one," says Varzeliotis.
Sustainability aside, however, most people aren't really concerned with membership numbers. "I'd rather it always stay quality versus quantity," says Mona Nesrallah, a member of Alpha Omicron Pi. "It doesn't have to be the predominant thing on campus. People should do it if they want to do it."