Vancouver Grasstown Riot of 1971

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Video retrieved from CBC Archives

Canada first criminalized drugs in 1908 when the federal government passed the Opium Act, which made it an indictable offence to manufacture, posses, or sell opium for non-medical purposes. Marijuana was added to the list of illegal substances in 1923. Under the Narcotic Control Act, which replaced the Opium Act in 1961, anyone convicted of possessing marijuana could face up to seven years in prison. This relatively stiff penalty for what some Canadians considered to be a minor offence highlights the moral tone that permeated Canada's drug laws. By the Second World War, alcohol had gained widespread social and cultural acceptance, but drugs were deemed to be a direct threat to the moral fibre of Canadian society. Drug users were depicted as deviants, 'fiends', and criminals. In this sense, drugs have long been encased in a discourse of 'moral panic' in Canada, a panic that reached its nadir in the 1920s, when many of the country's stringent drug laws were crated, and then gradually subsided. But the fear and the stigma that were associated with drugs never disappeared.

The debate in Canada over drug use resurfaced in the 1960s. Many young Canadians, notably 'hippies', publicly flouted and mocked the counterculture and the social rebellion that it encapsulated. The federal minister of health declared in the early 1970s that marijuana was representative of youth 'alienation' across the country. As 'weed' gained popularity in the 1960s, so too did the call for its legalization. Those who advocated legalizing drugs, or at least reducing the penalties for possession, argued that marijuana was a harmless recreational drug similar to alcohol. Canadians should not have to endure the burden of a criminal record for using a small amount of marijuana.

A majority of Canadians, however, especially the police, opposed legalization. A public opinion survey in April of 1970 revealed that 77 per cent of Canadians did not support the removal of criminal sanctions against marijuana. They believed that drugs were a threat to users' health and would lead to a breakdown in social order. The RCMP and municipal police force in Toronto and Vancouver cracked down on drugs and drug users. Beginning in 1965, the number of arrests under the Narcotic Control At for possession, cultivation, and trafficking, increased dramatically: 162 people were charged in 1965, 398 the next year, 1,678 in 1967-68. Most of these arrests, which resulted in prison sentences for those convicted, occurred in southwestern Ontario and British Columbia. It would not be until 1969 that the penalties for possession were reduced, which mean that by 1972, 95 per cent of those who were convicted of marijuana possession paid fines instead of being sent to jail. But the police efforts to rid Canadian society of drug continued into the 1970s, as did the backlash against their actions and the demand for legalization. The tensions that arose from this situation, at times, led to clashes between hippies and young people and the police. One such clash, which turned from a peaceful protest, against police enforcement of drug laws into a violent affair, was the 1971 Gastown riot in Vancouver. This riot, along with public's reaction to it and the resulting public inquiry, is the subject of this chapter.

One of Vancouver's most controversial protests was the 1971 'Gastown Smoke-In & Street jamboree'. Organized by the Yippies- the Youth International Party- the Jamboree took place on Saturday, 7 August 1971, in Vancouver's Gastown district. The Smoke-In was intended to be a public display of civil disobedience by Vancouver's 'hippies' and disaffected youth against Canada's drug laws, as well as a forum to denounce the police department's crackdown on 'soft' drugs. But as a result of the intervention by the police to break up the demonstration, this largely peaceful gathering quickly became a violent riot, leaving several people severely hurt, dozens arrested, and thousands of dollars in property damage in its wake. A public inquiry was quickly covered to investigate the cause of the riot and the allegations of police brutality. In the end, the Gastown riot eroded the already limited trust many young residents of vancouver had in their police force. It also exposed the growing chasm between a segment of the city's population, primarily the young, who supported legalizing drug use, and the city's advocates of 'law and order'.

pp. 117-119, The Struggle for a Different World: The 1971 Gastown Riot in Vancouver by Michael Boudreau Debating Dissent: Canada and the 1960s (2012) edited by Dominique Clement, Lara A. Campbell, Gregory S. Kealey