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How the 1971 Gastown Riot Came to Be

Written by Matteo Miceli

Vancouver in the late 1960s was going through a dramatic social change. There was a growing rift between the city’s youth and those in power. The hippie counterculture had migrated north over the border and become a prominent lifestyle choice among many of the city’s youth. The yippies (or Youth International Party), a political group based on hippie ideals, was becoming popular among well educated Vancouver youth. Disillusioned by the state of the city and those running it, yippies in Vancouver sought to end inequality, capitalist greed and the war on drugs through radical leftist pranks and protests. Because of their natural contempt for authority, yippies often clashed with police, sometimes peacefully, sometimes violently. This tension would eventually boil over and create one of the biggest riots our city has ever seen: The Gastown Riot of 1971.

The “good” citizens of Vancouver did not identify with this burgeoning counterculture. They saw hippies as net-negatives to society, taking advantage of its resources and contributing nothing. In 1967, Mayor Tom Campbell was elected. The old school conservative was a natural villain to the youth counterculture. He was determined to combat recreational drug use and redevelop much-loved areas of the city. So, the stage was set; for the five years, it was yippies and hippies versus the city government, the police and the so-called good citizens of Vancouver.

Hippies settled where the rent was cheap. Back then, Kitsilano and Gastown were not the highly sought after, affluent properties they are today. In the 1960s, Kitsilano was mostly home to middle and low-income families and Gastown was still part of the “skids.” When the youth moved in they came in en masse, taking over and gentrifying entire neighbourhoods.

The public was far from welcoming to their new neighbours. Residents protested the noise, vandalism, drug use, and public displays of nudity and sex. Business owners complained about groups of hippies blocking sidewalks and harassing customers. The leftist newspaper, The Georgia Straight, was the source of so many complaints that in 1967, the same year the newspaper launched, it was already under the threat of being shut down by none other than Mayor Campbell himself.

In 1968, The Hudson’s Bay Company located on Georgia and Granville became one of the first major businesses to openly oppose the counterculture when it banned hippies from its restaurant. They claimed that hippies didn’t spend enough money for how long they spent lingering in the dining area. They also suggested that the presence of hippies in their restaurant turned their regular clientele away. The response from the yippies was swift and organized, they flocked to the Hudson’s Bay store in numbers to protest the ban. Eventually, The Hudson’s Bay Company backed down and rescinded the policy. In that same year, police arrested 17 hippies for loitering around the public square in front of the Vancouver Courthouse. Once again, the yippies mobilized and 200 gathered in front of the courthouse to protest. A few days later, Mayor Campbell appeared on CBC’s The Seven O’Clock Show to defend the actions of the police and referred to hippies as “parasites on the community.”

With the coming of the new decade, tensions between hippies, yippies and the authorities were on the rise and encounters between the two groups were becoming more violent. In 1970, after being given notice to evict a temporary youth hostel at Jericho Base, hundreds of hippies remained holed up in the building, refusing to leave. The Vancouver Police came and, armed with batons and donning helmets, they forcibly removed the squatters. It was a violent skirmish leaving many injured and homeless.

Meanwhile, Gastown was seeing a troubling boom in both soft and hard drug use. But in the summer of 1971, Mayor Tom Campbell had a plan. Operation Dustpan was simple enough: increase police presence in troubled neighbourhoods and insert undercover units to bust drug users. In practice, however, dustpan was far more disruptive and invasive than on paper. In Gastown, officers cordoned off entire blocks, rounding everyone up and subjecting them to searches. Those who looked like hippies with long hair, beards and different clothing were frequently stopped when walking the streets, then detained and searched. The police considered Operation Dustpan a major success; within the first 10 days, 59 arrests had been made in Gastown alone.

Kenneth Lester and Eric Sommer, two yippie writers from the Georgia Straight, began organizing the group’s response. They would go on to arrange a marijuana “smoke-in and street jamboree” to take place at Maple Tree Square in Gastown. The hippies and yippies felt betrayed by their government and were eager to voice their dissent. The police were also frustrated; they had been on the frontlines of the “hippie problem” for four years now and they were no closer to a solution. Both groups had grown to see the other as the enemy.

The smoke-in marked the climax in a four-year struggle between these two groups. That evening, an estimated 2,000 people showed up to protest Operation Dustpan. The police were present, watching from the outside as demonstrators smoked, played music and chanted. There was a general anxiety in the air—a suspense that couldn’t hold. The past four years had been like an elastic band, slowly growing tighter to reach peak tension. On the evening of August 7th, 1971, after years of mounting tension, it finally snapped. The result was one of Vancouver’s most infamous and bloody riots.

To learn more about the Gastown Riot visit the museum’s newest exhibit, ‘Behind the Lines: A Traffic Story’.

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