Purple pedestrians pridefully parading past parliament — a familiar sight in Toronto during the first week of the school year. With students dyed purple from head to toe, Skule pride fills the air with a sense of excitement that no one can ignore.
The pride and joy of ‘painting the town purple’ was missing amongst U of T’s engineering students as the first week of September rolled around this year. The reason? A warning by Health Canada associating the ingestion of the antiseptic dye used by the students, gentian violet, with an increased risk of cancer.
While the discontinuation of this tradition was for the sake of health concerns, consequential questions of ending a rite of passage loom amongst the student body. The raving energy that was once amplified by the activity is now a ‘dyeing’ tradition among orientation festivities.
The unusual ‘un-purpled’ population of engineering students during the week of festivities was a bittersweet reminder amongst F!rosh leaders and organizers of what could have been and, most importantly, what it ended up not being. While F!rosh Week organizers put time and effort into preserving the vibrant engineering traditions, this became a challenge when those making the final decisions refute these efforts.
Though a safe alternative to the genetian dye has been found, the faculty remained set in their decision to let the ‘purple pride’ tradition die down, demonstrating not only the faculty’s passivity in keeping cherished traditions alive, but more importantly, their lack of understanding and communication with their dedicated student organizers.
Students were left to dye only a small part of their bodies, leaving many disappointed.
A dyed down spirit?
The end of the tradition has given rise to bittersweet emotions amongst engineering students who experienced the act of ‘purpling’ prior to its safety warning.
“It is the central element of F!rosh Week not just at U of T, but across engineering faculties in Canada and around the world. It is frankly sad to know that the [class of 2023] will never experience the dye because of the poor communication between U of T and the F!rosh team,” said Julien Senécal, a fourth-year biomedical systems engineering student.
From dipping one’s pinky to drenching one’s entire body in purple, the resulting purple stains around campus once acted as markers of the radiant U of T engineering pride.
The purple dye holds a special meaning for Sam Looper, a Professional Experience Year engineering student and a former leader of organizing central frosh events. “Both my grandparents were engineers in the Canadian military, and their service to our country and dedication to their profession has been an inspiration to me since I first decided I would be an engineer,” said Looper.
According to legend, “the purple dye represents the duty and sacrifice of engineers in the navy, whose purple armbands would dye their skin from the temperatures in the bowels the of ships.”
“Not only does this tradition remind me of my grandparents and the role models they’ve been for me, but also [of] a more general sense of duty and responsibility which is deeply embedded in the culture of our profession,” said Looper.
This year’s student organizers found themselves with little time to adapt to the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering’s sudden decision to ban the use of dye altogether after months of brainstorming alternatives to the original dye. With the tradition dying out, the engineering faculty at U of T failed to organize an alternative to the traditional event, leaving many students, both old and new, feeling left out.
Many incoming engineering students used to look forward to someday becoming a part of this tradition. “As an incoming first-year student, it is one of the first ways you are invited to step out of your comfort zone,” said Looper, “an exercise I believe prepares you to make the most of your time in university. It builds a bond between engineers that transcends all differences and is a first symbol of pride for your profession and community.”
“Many new students had been expecting to dye and were let down. The alternative to our traditional event was not as visible or extraordinary, which dampens some of the positive effects of this tradition, including community-building and the opportunity for new students to step out of their comfort zones.”
“I hope the faculty and student leadership do a better job of collaborating to find a new solution to the current issues surrounding the tradition for the sake of future U of T engineering students,” Looper added.
The future of Skule traditions
The last-minute ban of the traditional purple dye may have taken a toll on expectations of engineering spirit during F!rosh Week, yet despite the faculty’s apparent inability to effectively collaborate with leaders and organizers to brainstorm a viable alternative to the dye, Skule spirit remains radiant.
Looper believes “that this year’s student organizers did an excellent job of maintaining the spirit of tradition despite the restrictions they were placed under.” In reflection, a major component that keeps the engineering spirit and pride alive is the feeling of connection and support between the faculty and students.
While the faculty’s decision to end the tradition was made in the interest of student health, the abrupt nature showed a lack of proper communication with the people that make the faculty what it is: the students.
In the aftermath of such a last-minute decision, accompanied by an unwillingness to figure out viable alternatives, feelings of disconnect and disappointment can easily arise. Without effective communication between administration and students, school spirit dwindles.
Now, the future of this proud tradition is up in the air. This challenge is to be solved by strengthening communication efforts between the engineering faculty and its dedicated students. Having fallen under the scrutiny of Health Canada, the next step for university engineering societies is searching for possible alternatives to gentian violet that keep the purple spirit elevated and radiant, without posing any detrimental health risks.
Mélina Lévesque is a fourth-year Anthropology and Political Science student at Victoria College.