The Gastown Riot, 1971

The Gastown Riot, also known as ‘smoke-in’ and Street Jamboree, occurred on August 7, 1971 in ‘Maple Tree Square’, a popular location in Gastown, Vancouver. The ‘smoke-in’ gathering at Maple Tree Square was to be a peaceful protest involving the Youth International Party (Yippies) along with other youth living in the Gastown area. Two individuals involved in the organization and raising of awareness for the protest were Eric Sommers, a writer for the Georgia Straight and Kenneth Lester, a freelance writer (Boudreau 2012). The purpose behind the fruition of the protest was to bring awareness to the excessive and illegal use of police power and abuse along with strict drug laws youth in the Gastown area were subjected to (Boudreau 2012).

Prior to the Gastown riot, pre-existing tensions between youth and the police had been a prevalent issue throughout the sixties and years prior. In connection with the Gastown riot, the criminalization of marijuana in 1923 led to many marijuana users, predominantly youth, being subjected to the emergence of stiff drug laws and penalties (Boudreau 2012). With this, negative stigmas began to develop over the years, often deeming marijuana users as deviant, fiendish, and criminogenic individuals (Boudreau 2012). As emphasized by Boudreau (2012), the development of these negative stigmas resulted in a rebellious counter-culture in Canada that would seek out legalization of marijuana along with reducing harsh sentencing laws for minor offences such as possession. More specifically, areas such as Gastown in the 1960s experienced high levels of tension between police and the youth counter-culture often labelled as ‘hippies’ by the media and public authorities. This rise in tension would result in numerous protests illustrating the struggle for change of the accepted norms held in Canadian society. However, the counter-culture would only consist of a small portion of society as a study conducted in April 1970 found that police along with the majority of the public (77%) did not support the reduction of criminal sanctions associated with the criminalization of marijuana (Boudreau 2012). This hindered the ability of associations such as the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) and the Youth International Party to be successful in their fight for fundamental freedoms of youth in Canada.

The events on August 7, 1971 can then be understood as a culmination of recurring defeat and outrage experienced by the youth counter-culture in Gastown, Vancouver. The final straw leading to the organization of the ‘smoke-in’ was the enforcement of Operation Dustpan by the police. Over the course of ten days, this police tactic consisting of twenty undercover officers charged fifty-nine men and women with possession and trafficking of marijuana (Boudreau 2012). Ultimately, this tactic provoked immediate action from interest groups such as the Youth International Party and later the BCCLA to address the tensions building between youth and the police in the Gastown area. On the day of the ‘smoke-in’ protest, thousands of protesters peacefully took to Maple Tree Square in hopes of raising awareness towards the ongoing issues of police abuse (illegal drug raids) and strict drug laws (Clement 2008). With a few hours in of protest, false reports of vandalism relayed to Inspector Abercrombie, the officer in charge of overseeing the protest, led to the initiation of the police beginning to put an end to the protest (Clement 2008). After ignoring of a subtle police warning notifying the crowd to disperse, uncontrolled violence and pandemonium ensued, ranging from the use of police on horse to grounded officers unjustly using their batons (Clement 2008). By the end of the riot, seventy-nine individuals were arrested along with thirty-eight charged with various offences (Dohm 1971).

In the end, an immediate public inquiry of the protest was sought out due to backlash received from the public. Due to insufficient evidence and acknowledgement of wrongdoing on both sides, Judge Dohm reached the consensus that all charges associated with the riot be dropped (Dohm 1971). The riot would mark an instance of excessive police brutality during a Canadian protest, resulting from a lack of training on behalf of the police force in spite of anticipation of the protest taking place (Dohm 1971). Though the Youth International Party and BCCLA were unsuccessful in holding the police accountable after the Gastown riot, the next step in challenging laws and increasing awareness for change of police tactics/procedures against youth began.

Work Cited

Clément, D. (2008). Canada’s rights revolution: social movements and social change, 1937-82. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Boudreau. M (2012). ‘The Struggle for a Different World’: The 1971 Gastown Riot in Vancouver, pp. 117-135 in Debating Dissent: Canada and the Sixties. Edited by Campbell, L., Clément, D., & Kealey, G. S. Toronto ; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press.

Dohm, T. (1971). British Columbia Royal and Special Commissions: 1872-1980. British Columbia Royal Commission Of Inquiry Into The Gastown Riot. Retrieved October 1, 2014, from http://www.llbc.leg.bc.ca/commissions/rc_dates.asp

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