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An inside look at the “not secretive but modestly discrete” iron ring ritual for Canadian trained-engineers

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CUP Quebec Bureau Chief

An engineer sporting the sort-of-elusive iron engineering ring.
An engineer sporting the sort-of-elusive iron engineering ring.
MONTREAL (CUP) — Engineers trained in Canada tend to wear the profession on their sleeve. Or more specifically, the pinky finger of their working hand in the form of an iron ring.

“If you walk down the street people know that you’re an engineer. I’m not sure that’s good or bad but there’s a lot of recognition, ” said Robert Paknys, an engineering professor at Concordia University.

In Quebec of late, the iron ring can be spotted on the fingers of engineers as they publicly admit to participating in networks of corruption and collusion within the province’s construction industry, much to the chagrin of many who know the significance and meaning of the ring.

“It’s part of becoming an engineer. It’s another step, once you have your ring, it’s like the finale to your undergrad degree,” said Amir Essaapi, a second-year Concordia engineering student.

Though participation in the Calling of an Engineer ritual to receive an iron ring is voluntary, the longstanding Canadian tradition has become embedded in the training of engineers.

The ritual was created in 1922 when seven former presidents of the Engineering Institute of Canada approached Nobel Prize-winning author and poet Rudyard Kipling to create the ritual in order to develop a professional consciousness and sense of responsibility among new engineers entering the industry.

“They got a real literary type of person to create the ritual,” said Paknys, who serves as one of seven wardens who preside over ritual for the Montreal camp. There are 25 camps — the local posts through which the Corporation of the Seven Wardens Inc. administer the ritual — across Canada.

“This was created by Kipling and we reproduce it faithfully in its form at every ceremony. It’s the job of the wardens in each camp to perpetuate this fidelity to the design of the ritual as produced by Kipling,” he continued.

The ritual is a closed ceremony with only candidates and their mentors — engineers who have already taken the oath and received their iron ring — in attendance. The details of the ritual are kept discrete intentionally, according to Paknys.

“The objective is to produce a simple but profound ceremony, not secret but modestly discreet, in total something that agrees with its serious intent,” said Paknys, reading aloud from the warden’s handbook.

“Try to imagine in 1926, when this was first done. There were maybe 10 engineering grads in a year back then so you would have a very small and intimate group of people,” he said. “That is the kind of spirit that we try to preserve.”

The ritual for Concordia’s fall 2012 grads was held in the heart of downtown Montreal in a chapel within the Grey Nuns Motherhouse.

A chain is wound around all the pews where the new grads sit waiting for the ritual to begin. Mentors, who will later bestow the iron rings, sit on outer pews, and the seven wardens presiding over the ritual sit at a long table at the front of the sanctuary.

A new altar is at the head of the church featuring a hammer and anvil. They are used to tap out a message in Morse code to start the ritual.

“It’s three letters: S – S – T. It stands for steel, stone and time or soul, spirit and time,” Paknys explained.

A rivet from the Quebec Bridge — the two-time provincial disaster widely-rumoured to have triggered the iron ring tradition — is chained to the hammer.

The ritual is broken into three sections: the obligation, the charge and lastly the bestowing of the ring.

The obligation is read aloud line-by-line giving pause for the grads to repeat the oath they commit to follow in their future work as professional engineers. As they repeat the obligation, the grads hold the chain threaded through the pews with one hand. The chain symbolizes engineers’ obligation to help one another.

“The oath is that we strive our utmost to get it right,” Paknys said. All grads that oblige themselves receive the text of the obligation on a certificate and a wallet sized card.

Mentors formed a line at the front of the church with grads approaching them en masse to receive their iron ring.

The iron ring serves as a physical reminder of the oath the candidates have just taken and the obligation they must work by.

“It’s not like a convocation where you’re in a big auditorium, people walk across the stage and diplomas are given out. It’s kind of the opposite effect that we’re trying to achieve here,” Paknys said.

The chapel is filled with congratulatory conversation, handshakes and hugs as grads receive their rings.

Though some grads invited their professional mentors, family members or friends practicing the profession often fill the role. Paknys explained that having a mentor is not a requirement of the ritual. “Anyone who’s taken the oath and gone through this ritual can give the ring to any candidate,” he said.

“I think the value is enormous … There’s something about having a ring associated with this there’s kind of a constant reminder that you’ve done this which you don’t get from other things — like a university diploma,” he said.

Photo: Erin Hudson/CUP

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