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For St. Francis Xavier University, the annual giving of X-Rings is a storied tradition – and not even the debut of Omicron could stop it. Now students and townies alike are living with the consequences

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X-Ring motifs decorate the floor and ornamental fixtures of Cameron's Jewellery in Antigonish, N.S., which has made the iconic rings for St. Francis Xavier University students since 1942.Photography by Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

They came by the carload to this small town in northeastern Nova Scotia, parents, students and alumni crowding onto campus for an annual celebration that has always been bigger than graduation. But this gathering, one of the largest ever held here, would be memorable for all the wrong reasons.

At St. Francis Xavier University, an undergraduate school on a hill above Antigonish, the X-Ring ceremony has long been a symbolic rite of passage. Every year on Dec. 3, fourth-year students are given a square-faced gold ring with a distinctive black X, in a tradition many feel grants them membership into a coveted club of alumni that outsiders say has an almost cult-like loyalty.

As the population of Antigonish swelled by several thousand, this December’s X-Ring celebrations also brought something else – COVID-19, at a time when Nova Scotia had yet to experience the fury of Omicron. Within days, an outbreak would cripple the community, emptying campus, shutting down businesses and forcing layoffs, while unleashing a wave of infections that exploded across Nova Scotia and the rest of the region.

“It was like a tsunami that washed over town,” said Chris Frazer, an associate professor of history at St. FX, as the school is commonly known, and member of the faculty union. “There were a lot of people who were hurt by this, and I think it’s going to take some time for them to get past it.”

Nearly two months later, people in Antigonish are still trying to repair the damage. As the Omicron variant continues to devastate the country, the St. FX outbreak has exposed deep rifts in the college town, and has many demanding more accountability from the university on the hill.

The economic toll on the community has been significant, and hundreds of people are still without work because of the outbreak. Just weeks before Christmas, Antigonish’s Main Street was left looking like a ghost town, as shop owners shut down out of fear of the virus, or because of confirmed exposures.

Restaurateur Mark Gabrieau says the outbreak devastated his business during what’s normally one of the busiest months of the year. A little over two weeks before Christmas, his walk-in freezer was stuffed with 50 frozen turkeys, his restaurant’s reservation book was filled and his staff were preparing for the usual holiday rush.

Then, as news of the outbreak spread, one after another, customers began cancelling their reservations. Company parties that would have filled his bistro suddenly vanished, leaving his tables empty and his employees without work. Mr. Gabrieau, whose upscale French eatery has been a destination in Antigonish since 1998, estimates he lost $40,000 in bookings in the span of a few days.

“It’s like someone kicking you in the gut, and then kicking you over and over again. It absolutely makes you feel sick to your stomach,” he said. “By the end of the week, everything was gone.”

The university, which was operating within provincial guidelines for large gatherings at the time, has since apologized for the outbreak. Mr. Gabrieau doesn’t begrudge St. FX for trying to celebrate its famous ring, but says the university’s overconfidence in its ability to keep COVID-19 at bay has become a costly tale of hubris. “Sometimes smart people do dumb things,” Mr. Gabrieau said. “There was a lack of prudence that could have mitigated some of the damage.”

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Mark Gabrieau owns and operates a French bistro in Antigonish.

Some Nova Scotians criticized the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Robert Strang – who last spring was awarded an honorary degree from St. FX – for what they saw at the time as a lenient response to the outbreak. The province’s Department of Health and Wellness said Dr. Strang was not involved in planning for the event, and the school was not required to consult with him. After an investigation, both St. FX and the student union were fined $11,622.50, the maximum penalty that can be handed out, for failing to comply with the province’s COVID-19 restrictions on masking.

This December’s celebration was to be especially significant, after 2020′s X-Ring ceremony was held virtually because of pandemic concerns. At a time when most universities in the region were still using virtual grad ceremonies, St. FX opted for a bigger, in-person celebration to give out its special ring. Students who didn’t get an X-Ring ceremony the previous year were also invited back this year, and dozens of them came.

About 1,020 students packed into the Keating Centre, the university’s hub for trade shows and concerts, to receive their rings. St. FX says another 1,350 parents and guests filled four viewing rooms to watch a livestream of the ring ceremony – although the university’s website also says more than 2,000 spectators were registered in the days leading up to the ceremony. All participants were required to show proof of vaccination and wear masks.

St. FX president Andy Hakin told The Globe and Mail the school was confident in the precautions it had taken. In early December, Nova Scotia seemed to have COVID-19 under control and no one was prepared for how quickly the Omicron variant would change things, he said.

“At that time, in the province, there were sporting events, there were gala events happening that had similar numbers of people attending,” Dr. Hakin said. “What went wrong was the appearance of Omicron, uninvited, into our community. ... We were working with the assumption we were primarily dealing with the Delta variant, and its low transmissibility rates gave us some confidence it could be controlled.”

While the university believes it did everything it could during the official ceremony, things got out of hand when people went to other events on and off campus. At some of those gatherings, there was little compliance with public-health guidelines, including at a concert in the student union building, where it’s estimated well over 1,000 tickets were sold.

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On St. FX's campus, X-Rings are traditionally given out on Dec. 3, the feast day of the saint the school is named for. At Cameron’s Jewellery, co-owner Patricia Hawley shows one of the rings.

The cult of the ring

The X-Ring has powerful connotations for those who wear it, including a former prime minister, premiers and cabinet ministers. It’s been a symbol closely associated with the university since the Second World War, when senior class president Willie MacDougall created a grad ring inspired by another student’s design from 1928.

Although the X-Ring ceremony, with its candle bearers and black robes, may feel connected to ancient times, it’s actually a much more recent creation. While unofficial X-Ring celebrations organized by students were held as far back as the 1950s, the university didn’t start holding annual X-Ring ceremonies until the 1980s. As a nod to ring ceremonies that used to be held in the campus chapel, graduating students still tap their new rings on a wooden kneeler from the chapel as they exit the Keating Centre.

St. FX graduates pay upwards of $3,100 for their X-Rings. For some, it’s seen as membership inside an influential circle of political and business elite and other notable alumni, or a ticket to a job. The ring ceremony, and the celebrations that go with it, have long been the most important event of the school calendar and for many the highlight of their St. FX experience – bigger, they say, than convocation, or even their degree.

In Antigonish, with its tidy rows of 19th-century wooden homes and quiet downtown where a United Church built in 1804 is still the tallest building outside of campus, X-Ring week has always been impossible to avoid. The celebrations start days before the ring ceremony, and the parties go all through the weekend, filling restaurants, hotels and campus with out-of-town visitors.

Frank McKenna, the former diplomat and premier of New Brunswick, graduated from St. FX in 1970. There wasn’t a formal X-Ring ceremony in that era, but students still wore their rings with significant pride, he said. “I haven’t taken my ring off in 50 years,” he said. “It’s not just distinctive, it’s the envy of pretty much every university in the world. It’s just a piece of metal, but it has a cult following because of all the good associations we have with the university.”

The X-Ring has opened doors in the political and business world for him, he said. It helped him lure Xerox – and 2,000 jobs – to New Brunswick because the CEO was a fellow alumnus, he said. In 1987, Mr. McKenna says the ring helped him form a bond with then-prime minister and St. FX grad Brian Mulroney, during heated negotiations for the Meech Lake Accord to amend the Constitution of Canada. “He just laid his hand out in front of him with the X-Ring on it, and I did the same, and we just kind of winked at each other,” he said. “We became fast friends after that, and stayed that way.”

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St. FX's famous faces: Former prime minister Brian Mulroney in his 1959 yearbook, St. Francis Xavier in a statue on campus.

The X symbolizes membership in the Xaverian family, and celebrates the legacy of Francis Xavier, the European missionary who travelled throughout Asia in the 16th century converting many thousands to Christianity.

For decades, the X-Ring has been handed out to senior students on the Feast of Saint Francis Xavier, a day in the Roman Catholic calendar named after the university’s namesake saint and Jesuit missionary. Those religious overtones remain a key part of the ring ceremony.

For a lot of grads, it’s about being a part of something larger. Some 90 per cent of eligible seniors, Dr. Hakin said, choose to buy a ring that forever “binds them to the institution and each other.” Many of them are following in the footsteps of their parents, and grandparents, who also attended St. FX.

“There’s a special bond that comes with that ring,” said Patricia Hawley, co-owner of Cameron’s Jewellery, the 100-year-old Antigonish shop that created the original X-Ring in 1942, based on Mr. MacDougall’s design. “There are people who’ve gotten jobs because of it. ... You could be on a bus in Toronto, and if you see another person wearing their X-Ring, it sparks a conversation.”

The ring, Mr. McKenna says, comes with a “sense of social responsibility and community,” and the university takes those values to heart. He said he believes the school took all the necessary precautions in organizing its ring ceremony this December and can’t be faulted for the timing of a highly transmissible new variant that was just beginning to spread.

“It was just an unfortunate coincidence,” he said. “It coincided with the arrival of the Omicron variant in Canada, and St. FX is not the only victim of that.”

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Mr. Gabrieau, shown in the kitchen of his French bistro, estimates a loss of $40,000 in bookings that were cancelled after the outbreak began. At one of the tables, a handmade sign reads 'closed for COVID-19.'

Repairing the damage

Weeks after the St. FX outbreak, the town is still reeling. Business owners including Mr. Gabrieau, the restaurateur, say they’ve had to lay off staff, cut employees’ hours and are trying to convince customers it’s safe to return. Many older residents are still hesitant to go out into the community, he said.

“People are afraid. There’s a whole hidden side to this that no one sees,” he said.

All of it, Prof. Frazer insists, was avoidable. The administration was intent on acting as if the pandemic was over, he said, and although Nova Scotia remained in a state of emergency in December, the school would not let its ring ceremony be interrupted. Two weeks before the event, the faculty association’s request to extend an agreement that would have allowed for a number of campus-wide safety measures, including virtual office hours, was denied, although the school eventually relented the day before the X-Rings were bestowed.

The student union, with the university’s blessing, sold well over 1,000 tickets to a concert and dance at the Bloomfield Centre, the campus student union building, according to people working the event. People who attended the celebrations said few were wearing masks or keeping their distance as the crowd partied late into the night.

“It was a recipe for a super-spreader event,” Prof. Frazer said. “It was a time bomb. ... And none of it needed to happen. This was supposed to be a really celebratory moment. Instead it put a bunch of people’s health at risk.”

Dr. Hakin says St. FX was closely following provincial guidelines and took no unnecessary risks. He suggested rules that allow people to drop their masks if they’re eating or drinking are a “grey area” that helped fuel the rapid spread of the virus. People who attended the concert say most partiers weren’t wearing masks, and crowded shoulder to shoulder inside. Student union president Jack Irvin did not respond to an interview request.

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The St. FX campus cancelled in-person classes within days of the X-Ring ceremony.

By Monday morning, students began testing positive on rapid antigen tests and started informing their professors they wouldn’t be in class. The following day, with cases growing, the university cancelled in-person classes. By Thursday, all in-person exams were postponed. Three days later, the virus had spread to the university’s top officials, infecting Dr. Hakin and three other senior administrators at the school.

After the celebrations on and off campus, infected students, staff and parents fanned out in all directions, attending hockey games, gyms, cafés, hair salons. Prior to the X-Ring celebrations, the pandemic’s fourth wave had barely touched Nova Scotia, with just 20 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Dec. 3. Within a week, it had climbed to 123. A week later, on Dec. 17, there were 394 confirmed cases.

Thousands of cases have since been linked to the X-Ring celebrations, as people returned home and brought COVID-19 to other communities and provinces. Students in St. FX’s education and nursing programs continued their practicum work in local schools, hospitals and long-term care facilities for days after the X-Ring ceremony.

Even Signal Hill, the band that played to the packed house at the student-union organized party on the Saturday night, confirmed a member was infected after that concert. That wasn’t discovered until after the band played another show, at Halifax’s Lower Deck Pub, which itself became an exposure site.

The university is still dealing with the fallout. It extended its Christmas break, and many of its facilities are still closed, as students adjust to virtual learning.

Prof. Frazer said responsibility for the outbreak lies with the university, not the students, since the administration set the tone for a campus-wide party in the face of a pandemic. He believes the outbreak was made worse because of a slow response by the university to acknowledge there was a problem.

“The response at first was just to do damage control. Instead of trying to limit the spread, it was just denial,” he said.

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Downtown Antigonish. Acrimony toward the school has been rising in the town.

Criticism has come from both on and off campus, and there have been calls for resignations at the highest levels of St. FX leadership. Jay MacDonald, a second-year student and Antigonish native, said the university’s “self-righteous” pledges to serve the community amount to “little more than lip service.”

“The damage that this university has caused is not only limited to people living in this county, but also to the businesses which have already been subject to the woes of recovering from the effects of this pandemic,” he wrote, in an open letter to Dr. Hakin. “Many of these small businesses, run by local entrepreneurs, have decided to close. They have done so for the safety of themselves, and for the safety of the people of Antigonish, and in response to this university’s poor choices.”

A week after the ring ceremony and after insisting all public-health rules were followed, Dr. Hakin apologized in a statement to the people of Antigonish. St. FX is now working with the Chamber of Commerce, raising money for gift cards as compensation to businesses and people who were affected by the outbreak, Dr. Hakin said.

The school also delivered hot meals to workers in local nursing homes where cases connected to the celebrations have spread.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Dr. Hakin told The Globe. “We know we need to build back the trust of the community, and we’ve got a long way to go.”

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