WENDY ELLIOTT COLUMN: The Fiander Fiasco

Wendy Elliott welliott@kingscountynews.ca
Published on March 27, 2016
Wendy Elliott Column

My, how things have changed

Today irreverence toward something considered sacred or inviolable is hardly rare. Television wits, like those on This Hour Has 22 Minutes, gleefully poke holes at anything held sacred. The 1950s, however, were a different time.

Feb. 7,1959, Robert Fiander, a fourth year English major with a passion for Shakespeare, was expelled from Acadia University three months before graduation for a “blasphemous” poem. His long and rather obscure poem, Paradoxically Speaking, was printed in the student newspaper, The Athenaeum.

Earlier this month, sociology students taking graduate research methods, with aid from Acadia’s Archives, gave a fascinating a presentation on their research findings on an episode they dubbed the “Fiander Fiasco.”

The presentation began with Dr. Jessica Slights, a Shakespeare scholar, reading the allegedly blasphemous poem. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was one of the Biblical figures Fiander gave voice to.

Eight days after the poem was published, he received a letter from Acadia president Watson Kirkconnell ordering him to leave campus and, indeed, to depart Wolfville itself because of his blasphemy. That was later reduced to a campus ban.

The student presenters outlined the national news attention Fiander’s banishment received. The CBC’s Frank Willis and Doug Letterman, later of This House has 30 Minutes, took up his cause. The Toronto Star weighed in as well.

The issue was dealt locally by the student judiciary council of the time and then by the board of governors. Fiander’s sentence was commuted to the completion of his degree by correspondence, which he did. Two English professors, Harold Sipprell and Keith Thomas, advocated for the student. In fact, Sipprell took Fiander into his home while he completed his course work.

At the time virtually all of Acadia’s fewer than 1,000 students lived on campus. The twin silos of town and gown were quite separate, unlike today. The drinking age was 21 and there was no liquor store in Wolfville.

While Acadia had religious tolerance at its foundation in 1838, moralistic attitudes prevailed in the post-war period. However, the student newspaper stood up for freedom of speech and was bemoaning the conformist attitudes prevalent on campus.

Fiander was an interesting character and his past had a bearing on his behaviour. The presenters determined the 26-year-old Sydney, Cape Breton man had a troubled youth. His mother died when he was seven. After that, he and his siblings had little structure in their lives. Fiander had to work for several years to afford university and he had a drinking problem.

Intelligent and theatrically bent, he was five or six years older than his cohort and rather like the returned soldiers of the 1940s who made their mark on Acadia’s nightlife. Even before the publication of Paradoxically Speaking, Fiander wasn’t keeping up with his studies and he had been prohibited from entering the students’ union building for swearing.

Was his poem blasphemous? Dr. William Brackney, a current prof in the Acadia Divinity School, spoke about the view of blasphemy current in the 50s. He said, from that perspective, Fiander did display a lack of reverence toward what was held sacred at the time.

Deceased now, Fiander went on to become a respected husband, stepfather and teacher in Lethbridge, Alt. In another era, like ours, his blasphemy might hardly have been noticed.