Monday, March 12, 2018

Hogwarts on the South Saskatchewan

Should you ever find yourself in Saskatoon you must make a point of visiting the University of Saskatchewan. It is widely considered one of Canada's prettiest universities with its leafy riverside setting and its hundred year old neo-Gothic limestone clad buildings clustered around a lovely central green. And while you're there, please wander over to the northeast corner of campus, past the Physics building, towards the College of Agriculture, where the more modern buildings squat in exile. There you'll see it. Just past the grey cement bunker of the College of Engineering you will see a castle. You will have to squint a little and you will have to use your imagination a little, but take note of the bridge, and of the turrets, and of the asymmetrical wings. It is a castle, a modern castle. And, in my view, it is not just any castle. In my view this is what Hogwarts Castle would look like had it been designed by the mid-century modernist architect, Le Corbusier*. This castle is actually the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM).

At this point in the story I should offer a disclaimer. It doesn't matter at all if you have no idea who Le Corbusier is, but it probably does matter if you don't know what Hogwarts is, in which case you should probably stop reading here as the rest of this is not going to make any sense. In fact, it will seem like the very opposite of sense - it will seem like nonsense.

I came to Harry Potter later in life than many people, courtesy of my daughter, so the resemblance between WCVM and Hogwarts only occurred to me recently. In fact, as it happens, JK Rowling had her famous inspiration on that delayed train from Manchester to London at almost the exact same time as I was graduating from vet college, so the stories weren't written yet when I was there. Once I made the connection though I realized that it's not just the vaguely castle-like exterior that evokes Hogwarts. The interior has dungeons (pathology and necropsy labs), a great hall (the cafeteria), dark labs and lecture halls, curious things floating in jars and set on dusty display shelves, skeletons mounted on pedestals, a maze-like layout, several confusing winding staircases, a remote headmaster's (dean's) office in a tower, strange smells and sounds, and a library with a separate mezzanine level that resembles the restricted section of the Hogwarts library.

As soon as I had this epiphany several other pieces rapidly fell into place. It felt a bit like looking at that optical illusion where, depending on your perspective, it can either be a young woman looking away or an old hag looking down. I had been seeing the old hag all my life and then suddenly I saw the young woman.

Pharmacology class was Potions. Animal Science was Care of Magical Creatures (Care of Agricultural Creatures), and I suppose Parasitology was also Care of Magical Creatures. Toxicology was Herbology. Small Animal Medicine was Charms. Anesthesia was Defence Against The Dark Arts. And Clinical Pathology was Divination. Clearly we had some classes that weren't offered at Hogwarts (Large Animal Surgery, Immunology, Histology etc.) and vice versa (Flying, Transfiguration and History of Magic come to mind), but the parallels are still striking given that one school was turning out veterinarians and the other witches and wizards. In retrospect, even the faculty and staff were eerily similar with their idiosyncrasies and strong personalities. And there were more than few with English or Scottish accents.

Hogwarts students (and fans...) are sorted into four houses**, while WCVM students come presorted from the four western provinces. I haven't worked out all the equivalents, but Manitoba is clearly Hufflepuff. Even the fact that the great majority of the students are from elsewhere, often away from home for the first time, sets WCVM apart from the other university colleges and puts it more in line with the Hogwarts experience. In my year only four students were from the city of Saskatoon itself. Although most students didn't actually sleep in the building (note - I said "most"), we all felt like we essentially lived there and many did live together nearby, sharing rent.

And then when you graduate you feel like you belong to an obscure and semi-secret separate society. There is an arcane lore, a special language, specific skills, weird knowledge and, at times, an air of mystery when viewed from the outside. When you meet other veterinarians there is an immediate feeling of kinship, of sharing something that outsiders will never really understand. And honestly, sometimes the rest of you seem like muggles to us. But I say that with abundant respect and affection. Most of us are far more Arthur Weasley than Lucius Malfoy...

*WCVM was not designed by Le Corbusier, but I mention him for those of you who know him so that you have approximately the right mental image.

**I am apparently in Ravenclaw.

That is the very last I will mention of Harry Potter. I promise. You can safely keep reading this blog.


  1. From our son, who graduated from U of S: "I always thought that "Care of Magical Creatures" was in the Education building up the road, but the rest rings true!"

    1. Ha! That's terrific! (Having two school-aged children, that comment makes perfect sense to me...)