Homecoming at Dalhousie University is designed to be a combination reunion, school-spirit celebration and community-building exercise—HoCo 2017 was no different. "Homecoming is all about the people," says Dal's webpage promoting the 2017 weekend. "Alumni can reconnect with former classmates and make new friends." Activities are clearly pitched at getting older, established Dal grads to come back to campus—the long game here must be increasing alumni donations—for a few days of low- impact thrills like "going 'back to class' for an expert lecture, raising a glass with former classmates to toast fond memories, or bringing your kids along to family-friendly events." That year's agenda featured "a healthy breakfast," taking in a couple Dal Tigers hockey games and "Construction Site Tours" of new buildings going up on campus.
But as it turned out, the lasting memories of HoCo 2017 involve alcohol-fueled mayhem, students having a raging blowout through a residential Halifax neighbourhood, multiple arrests—and a serious boost to Dal's reputation as a party school.
When homecoming kicked off four years ago at 7am on Wednesday, October 11, no one could have predicted that something like 2,000 students would soon make headlines for a party-turned-near-riot. While police had prepared for slightly higher activity than normal that fall weekend, student parties left neighbours fearing for their property and safety. "I went to Dal in the early '90s, and from my hazy recollection, nobody really celebrated Homecoming more than any other weekend," an r/halifax subreddit member later posted under video footage of the rager. "Times have changed, I guess."
In an effort that spanned Friday, Oct 13 and Saturday, Oct 14, students went all out to party harder than Dal ever had. They were focused on a simple, audacious goal: Earning Dalhousie a spot above its 16th-place ranking on the Maclean's magazine list of top party schools.
The HoCo 2017 parties took place a two-minute walk north of the main Dalhousie campus, in a neighbourhood of quiet streets lined with houses and trees, home to not only students but also young families and retirees. Police officers had been alerted to parties on Jennings and Larch Streets on Friday night in anticipation of Dal's homecoming football game against the University of New Brunswick the following morning. Meanwhile, residents living around Jennings Street—ground zero—said they heard students partying as they left for work as early as 9:30 Saturday morning.
Ross Andersen was on a mid-morning walk when he stumbled onto Jennings and into a sea of black and gold. While he was only there for five minutes, that was long enough for Andersen to pull out his phone and capture now-viral video footage of thousands of students, proudly decked out in their school colours, swarming lawns, patios, balconies and at least one roof.
"It was just this massive street party. There was loud music, lots of people. Dal students and King's students, and even young people standing on houses," says Andersen, who at the time was a journalism student at Dal-adjacent King's College. "If you're familiar with the neighborhood up in Halifax, you know that there was just no room to put all these people."
Another student estimates there were about 10 parties going on at once. "I personally thought it was fun and a great idea," says the former King's student. "I am not sure if the neighbours were warned, but it is close to the university, and university events should be expected to happen around that area in my opinion."
The student fears legal fallout from the events of 2017 and does not want his name used by The Coast. This is a common concern among people we interviewed.
Police began to show up mid-afternoon, arresting 23 students while others were faced with hefty fines under the provincial Liquor Control Act, the federal Criminal Code and/or Halifax bylaws. "You've got actual lives to save, but you'd rather be watching a university party," a woman can be heard saying to police in one video that circulated.
Instead of going home, many students pivoted and went even harder on Preston Street and, a block over, Chestnut Street, where a paid-admission party eventually blew out of control.
"People bought bracelets in advance and then a lot of people came to the door and a lot of people ended up showing up, and we just had to shut it down," said the host of one of the parties, a fourth-year student at Dal in 2017.
"That flooded to our place and then that got out of control," said another then-Dal student, "because obviously, we're not going to deny people."
John Bonnell, landlord of a property on Jennings Street in 2017, says his relationship with neighbours in the area suffered after the weekend. Bonnell had driven to his property that Saturday after some of his female tenants found strangers in their apartment, and had texted him that they felt unsafe.
"As far as I am aware, I was the sole landlord to personally respond to this off-campus homecoming gathering,'' says Bonnell, who says he was branded a "slum landlord" by one of his neighbours following the events of 2017. "As a result, I quickly became the focus of my neighbours' frustration and anger, even though I, like them, shared the same concerns about my property and safety."
At a community meeting held two days later, nearly 100 residents gathered to discuss the public partying. Many came forward to share their experiences from the weekend.
"My two sons came to my wife and told them that someone was in our driveway," Jan-Mark van der Leest told the community meeting. The family lived on Vernon Street in 2017. "But then when we looked out, it was two girls doing coke."
Area councillor Waye Mason, whose home is a few blocks from where the party took place, also attended the meeting.
"I don't think anyone should try and convince themselves that this behaviour was normal. I've lived here for 23 years and I've never seen 1,500 people at a party," said Mason in 2017. "This is not a student neighbourhood. It's a mixed neighbourhood...We'd appreciate it if you think about us when you're making your plans."
For almost 20 years, Dal has funded an enhanced police presence in neighbourhoods surrounding the university on weekends during the fall. Following the events of 2017, the university began to offer additional resources, expanded hours and "a proactive approach to managing concerns in the community." This included home visits from police and university officials to remind tenants about the potential fines and criminal charges that could result from municipal and provincial violations.
Social media plays a large part in why the HoCo 2017 parties were able to achieve their size. Students are exposed in real time to what's happening during homecoming at other universities, and not only do they feel left out, they want to compete. Earlier that October, police in London, Ontario responded to a street party that resulted in 37 people being taken to hospital, more than 60 charges being laid and almost a thousand warnings issued.
Last year, when in-person classes were cancelled because of the pandemic, partying Dal students again made the news, this time for breaking Nova Scotia's COVID gathering limits. Then-premier Iain Rankin called them out when he doubled the fine for illegal gatherings from $1,000 to $2,000 per person, reinforcing the perception among neighbours that Dalhousie has no control over students.
"The reality is that it is not the role or responsibility of the neighbourhood surrounding Dalhousie to find a solution to this ongoing challenge," says Bonnell, who is still a landlord in the area. "I would like to think that given COVID-19 still appears to be active...any mass gatherings might, at least for now, be cancelled."
A student who found HoCo 2017 through the Facebook group would love to see that kind of party make a reappearance, but she doesn't think the neighbourhood has reason to worry. "After 2017, Dal HoCo was non-existent, which I think is a shame," says the student. "That HoCo was one of the most fun events I attended during my time at Dal.
"Even before the pandemic, HoCo was a bust," she continues. "I don't think this year will be fun for students."