Curious about Yonge Street in the 1970s? Or like dirty pictures? I’m giving a talk at the Deer Park library next Wednesday evening about my research on the Yonge’s Sin Strip.
Read more about it here.
Curious about Yonge Street in the 1970s? Or like dirty pictures? I’m giving a talk at the Deer Park library next Wednesday evening about my research on the Yonge’s Sin Strip.
Read more about it here.
Every Torontonian has a story about Yonge Street. For nearly a century it was the city’s unquestioned commercial and entertainment hub, the place to go for everything from window-shopping and people-watching to a Saturday night out on the town. Even in today’s diverse, dispersed Toronto it remains our most iconic street. Love it or hate it, like Montreal’s rue Sainte-Catherine or Manhattan’s Broadway, it is hard to imagine the city without it.
It makes sense, then, that there has always been public interest in celebrating (and sometimes criticizing) Yonge Street. In this post I introduce an exciting new public history project organized by the Toronto Public Library, called youryongestreet. Dedicated to bringing together Torontonians to tell their stories about Yonge, the project includes four public talks this fall about Yonge’s history, as well as the creation of a website where people can share their own memories.
First surveyed in 1794, Yonge Street has been the primary north-south axis for development in the Toronto area for more than two centuries. By 1900 it had emerged as the main street of a booming industrial city: important civic and commercial buildings dotted its downtown blocks, while to the north it pointed the way to a series of growing streetcar suburbs. For Toronto’s growing middle class, Yonge was the natural place to go to take part in the burgeoning consumer economy. And for those with less means, there was always window-shopping at Eaton’s and Simpson’s.
Over the next few decades, downtown Yonge Street became known as much for its bright neon lights, theatres and taverns as for its shops. Patrons of music halls and cinemas could stop into any number of fancy restaurants, not to mention Toronto’s first cocktail lounges. The area’s traffic jams were famous too. As Toronto’s population growth showed no signs of slowing—quadrupling to nearly 1 million by the 1940s—politicians and planners began to search for better ways of moving citizens in and out of downtown. Naturally their first choice for an underground transit route was Yonge. In the first youryongestreet lecture earlier this month, transit historian Jay Young discussed the construction of the Yonge subway from 1949 to its opening in 1954 and the important effects underground transit had on Toronto’s built landscape and the lives of Torontonians.
With the new subway, a number of areas north of the central core along Yonge were made much more accessible, expanding the downtown and giving the suburbs better access to it. Increased accessibility helped transform the neighbourhood of Yorkville, north of Bloor St. off Yonge, which in the 1960s became the centre of Toronto’s bohemian counterculture. For a few years, young people from across Canada congregated in Yorkville to “make the scene,” whether that meant demonstrating their rejection of mainstream values or simply searching for a good time. On November 7th at 6:30pm, historian Stuart Henderson will give a talk at the Yorkville public library about the politics and culture of this hip rebellion. Needless to say, Torontonians at the time — many of whom were nostalgic for the supposed respectable bustle and family orientation of Yonge Street of old — were opposed to the hedonism they saw operating in Yorkville during the 1960s.
One of the more far-reaching consequences of the new permissive morality espoused by 1960s hip youth was a relaxation of Canadian obscenity law. By the late 1960s the police and courts in Toronto to a large degree accepted—or at least tolerated—nude entertainment and the open sale of pornography. This change led to dramatic changes along Yonge between Gerrard and Queen, the heart of the city’s entertainment district. Taverns became strip clubs, bookstores branched into adult materials, and entrepreneurs opened erotic massage parlours and sex cinemas on the upper floors of run-down buildings. Landlords found attractive the higher rents these businesses could pay for unimproved properties, particularly since the growth of suburban entertainment and shopping complexes were more than ever giving downtown a run for its money. For a few years in the 1970s, Yonge was famous as Canada’s “sin strip,” a playground for heterosexual men, until public outrage led to a police crackdown. On December 4th at 6:30pm, I’ll be speaking at Deer Park library about the rise and fall of sinful downtown Yonge Street.
Attempts to use police powers to “clean up” the downtown Yonge Street area were not limited to body rub parlours and peep shows. In the 1970s, Yonge Street’s St. Charles Tavern was a gathering place for gay Torontonians, as were nearby bathhouses that acted as safe social spaces. In 1981, Toronto police launched “Operation Soap,” a series of massive police raids that took over 300 men into custody. On November 21st at 6:30pm, a panel discussion at the Yorkville Library featuring historian Tom Hooper will discuss Operation Soap and the protests it sparked from the gay community.
All four talks will be complemented by materials uploaded to youryongestreet.omeka.net. The site is an attractive, easy-to-use addition to the growing amount of user-generated web content that focuses on Toronto’s past. Naturally, Yonge has inspired more than a few. The Toronto Star’s “Oral History of Yonge” facebook page is one, although it seems to have lost momentum. On a more whimsical note, check out this exhilarating stop-motion tour of Yonge from Aurora to Lake Ontario. Along the way, there are vivid reminders of a number of historical processes, including the growth of the suburbs, the construction of the subway, and the continued development of the downtown entertainment zone.
Although it was launched just a month ago, youryongestreet is already home to dozens of photographs and memories shared by users. For example, just in time for Hallowe’en, one visitor has posted an image from 1856 portraying a human (ugh) dissection at the Toronto School of Medicine at Yonge and Richmond. As the site becomes better-known, we’ll be sure to see more stories and media appear on its handy Yonge Street map. Projects like youryongestreet confirm that, whether celebrated as the vibrant heart of city, or reviled for its associations with sex and danger, Yonge has always been an important part of Toronto’s sense of itself as a city.
Further links and information:
The schedule for the remaining youryongestreet talks is here.
Magel, Ralph. 200 Years Yonge; A History. Toronto: Natural Heritage Books, 1998.
Meyers, Jay. The Great Canadian Road: A History of Yonge Street. Toronto: Red Rock, 1977.
Originally posted at activehistory.ca
Beginning before Confederation—but especially since the mid-twentieth century—political policing has been something of a growth industry in Canada. As a landmark new book on the subject makes clear, over the past century the federal state has devoted considerable resources to spying on its populace in an effort to find and contain “the enemy within”. Its targets have been a varied, but mostly left-leaning, bunch, ranging from Fenians to Quebec nationalists, labour organizers to gays and lesbians. By the late 1970s, the RCMP security service had files on 800,000 individuals, among a population of just over 23 million. An enormous secret archive, and a potential treasure trove for historians.
In a previous post I discussed how security services on both sides of the Canada-US border spied on countercultural communes like Tennessee’s The Farm in the 1960s and 1970s. Some interesting information about the Canadian side of that story came to light through a series of access to information requests I made for files about “hippies”. That experience got me thinking: why aren’t more historians—and especially graduate students—working with the files of CSIS and the RCMP? I asked the authors of Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada from the Fenians to Fortress America about the researching and writing of their book. Their answers highlight both the possibilities and problems of digging into the secret archive.
What led you to the researching and writing of Secret Service?
Reg: A long-standing interest in the area of security and intelligence in the Canadian context, and in particular an attraction to tackle a hard scholarly target, one surrounded by a decades-long wall of secrecy, one that thus appeared more resistant than most to the production of primary source material.
Greg: After working on materials surrounding the Labour Revolt of 1917-21 in Canada and then doing extensive work for Volume 3 of the Historical Atlas of Canada on strikes and other manifestations of social movements in twentieth-century Canada, I became fascinated with the evidence surrounding political policing of labour and the left. The exposés of the MacDonald and Keable Commissions fueled my interest in the RCMP Security Service as did evidence of curious behaviours re: the relationship between the RCMP and the then National Archives of Canada. Finally the passage of the CSIS Act, access to information legislation, and the new National Archives of Canada Act all made it possible to pursue archival materials that would not otherwise have been available.
Andy: I was conducting research on labour law in British Columbia for my Master’s degree at Simon Fraser University, and came across countless examples of state surveillance of labour unions and organizers. That surveillance was conducted by municipal, provincial, and federal authorities – sometimes in combination with private detective agencies which were hired by employers. The more I looked, the more interesting and historically significant this activity appeared. This was also a time when the anti-globalization movements were really getting active. And questions of civil liberties were being debated. Later, when I relocated to Memorial University to work on my PhD with Greg, I was hired as a research assistant on a book project that Greg and Reg had started on the history of the secret service. Over the years, my role expanded – eventually becoming a co-author.
What are some of the main benefits of working with the files of security services?
Reg: Security service records may reveal a perspective on the relation between state and civil society that is not reflected fully in other, more open sources. Sometimes this casts light on events that have been understood, or in some cases misunderstood, in terms of public discourse. An example is the experience of political violence in the name of Quebec secession (FLQ, the 1970 October Crisis and the 1970s era of RCMP “dirty tricks” in Quebec). There are conventional, even quasi-official, interpretations of these events that reflect partisan and ideological perspectives of the main participants, but a close to look at declassified security service records cast these events in a somewhat different light, allowing for a revision of the conventional narratives.
Greg: The Secret Service files provide an inside view on the activities and ideology of the RCMP from the ground up. They also provide a vast array of information on the massive data gathering operation of the state regarding the Canadian left and its presence in labour, peace, women’s, student, aboriginal, and almost every other progressive social movement of the last century.
Andy: Security service files tell us a lot about politics and policing. But when read “against the grain,” they also tell us a lot about the social and cultural history of Canadian workers. As I worked on the book, I was struck time and again by the amount of quotidian detail contained in the surveillance reports: what people looked like; where they worked and lived; what they read and what they ate; who they hung out with. All of this stuff and more was contained in the files.
Describe the research process that produced Secret Service over the past sixteen years.
Reg: Some of the research rested on previous work done by each of us. Many people contributed over the years, including research assistants at our respective institutions, archivists, journalists, and even some old security service participants who pointed us in the right direction from time to time.
Greg: The research in archives in Canada, the USA, and the UK was extensive. Much of the research involved extensive use of the Canadian ATIP legislation and some use of the American Freedom of Information Act. This, of course, made the research particularly cumbersome. In addition to the three authors an array of research assistants, primarily from the Memorial and later University of New Brunswick graduate programmes in History, participated over the years.
Andy: This research took me across the country and back again – from archives in British Columbia to Nova Scotia. It also meant working in the British Library in London, where copious records related to the early years of state security are located. In the early years, Canada’s security concerns and the means to monitor them were intertwined with broader imperial questions. Reports about South Asian radicals in Vancouver and San Francisco, produced by a Canadian agents working across the border, were circulated among officials in London and in India.
What are some of the difficulties you encountered accessing RCMP and CSIS files?
Reg: The main difficulties lie in the Access to Information Act, and specifically the exemption clauses. Protection of the privacy of third persons is a particularly attractive loophole for the censors; another is the protection of information received in confidence from foreign governments or agencies. The exemptions are not unreasonable, in theory, but the devil is in the details of how successive governments have interpreted them. It is interesting to note that even official commissions of inquiry, such as the O’Connor inquiry into the Maher Arar affair, have run into the heavy hand of the censors and had to contest exemptions in the federal court. Individual researchers cannot usually afford the costs in money and time associated with challenging ATI decisions through the Information Commissioner into the courts. There is another, unexpected consequence of ATI that is potentially negative for future researchers. ATI requests in effect create new records according to the terms of the requests. These ATI-generated records may be misleading in terms of how the agencies actually created and used their records in their own work.
Greg: It was a complex quagmire in which we were constantly breaking new ground and pushing the limits of the legislation. One needed to be persistent and absolutely ruthless in insisting that time limits were met and then one ALWAYS complained to the Information Commissioner about deletions. Those complaints ALWAYS led to the release of additional material. In many ways we were pathbreakers and not only were we learning how to use the legislation but the other side was also learning how to respond and the Information Commissioner’s Office was learning how to respond to researchers in this particular area. We came close to legal action on more than one occasion.
Do you have any other advice for researchers, including graduate students and non-professionals, who are interested in working with restricted files?
Reg: A key point is to know what you are looking for, precisely. Agencies can claim innocence if a request is not very specific. Scatter-gun approaches will likely yield little, and may well generate intimidating estimates of costs that are passed onto requesters. You have to be knowledgeable to approximate precision. Archivists’ advice can be helpful in this regard and even more is interviews with actors in the process you are studying.
Greg: Be persistent. Do not believe the people you are dealing with are friends. Being nice will only lead to further delays. Instead insist on your legal rights. Always push the limits. And be imaginative in your requests. Try to decipher how the bureaucracy works and follow up accordingly. Often it is like trying to put together a jig saw puzzle which has no straight edges and from which key pieces have been locked away.
Andy: Patience and persistence.
A huge thanks to Reg Whitaker, Greg Kealey and Andy Parnaby for their cooperation.
Andy Parnaby and Reg Whitaker discuss their book for the Federation of Social Sciences and Humanities
Access to information requests can be made in writing directly to institutions at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels. This includes archives like Library and Archives Canada or the Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec (BANQ), but also record-producers (for example, police forces or universities) in cases where documents have not been transferred to an archive. There is a nominal fee of $5 for each request (more for reproductions), and while laws vary, typically institutions must respond to your query within 30 days. For examples of requests, see the monthly reports on access requests made by the LAC here. Remember than any material released after a request is available to other researchers, so this also acts as a list of some of the restricted documents that are entering the public domain each day.
Government of Canada, Access to Information Act.
David Johansen, Federal and Provincial Access to Information Legislation (Government of Canada, 1997). A comparative overview of the different layers of access to information legislation.
Gary Kinsman, Dieter Buse and Mercedes Steedman, eds., Whose National Security? Canadian State Surveillance and the Creation of Enemies (Between the Lines, 2000).
Larry Hannant, “Using the Privacy Act as a Research Tool,” Labour/Le Travail, 21 (Spring 1988), 181-5.
Patrizia Gentile, “Resisted Access? National Security, the Access to Information Act, and Queer(ing) Archives,” Archivaria, 68 (Fall 2009), 141-58.
For a while now, my fellow Activehistory.ca contributor Sean Graham has been discussing matters historical in his podcast History Slam. We met in Victoria in June, and Sean interviewed me about my work with the Canadian Historical Association’s Graduate Student Committee.
What is it like to attend the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences and the annual meeting of a professional association as a graduate student? What is the grad student committee working on? And just what is the point, in this digital age, of schlepping all the way to Victoria for a conference? We chatted about those points and more…You can listen to the podcast (episode #23) here.
In March Toronto’s Kensington neighbourhood was abuzz with worries about a huge Loblaw’s supermarket planned for a site near College St. and Spadina Ave. Residents organized to oppose the development, arguing that it would push the area’s small food shops out of business and change the market forever. I wrote about the anti-Loblaw’s campaign on this blog and on activehistory.ca, exploring how it fits into the area’s nearly fifty-year history of citizen engagement in planning.
Flash forward to the present. As market residents try to stay on top of the Loblaw’s issue, a new, and potentially larger threat has emerged. At a public meeting last night developers Rio-Can faced tough question from hundreds of citizens who turned out to discuss their plans to build a mini-mall–in which the main tenant would be a 12,000 square foot Walmart–on Bathurst between College and Dundas Sts. Over 70,000 have signed a petition against the development on Change.org.
Walmart has often faced opposition when moving into communities in Canada and elsewhere in the world. The company’s labour practices, opposition to unions and reputation as a killer of independent businesses have made it an unpopular neighbour. But has it ever faced a community as organized and sure of itself as Kensington Market? We’ll find out over the next few months as this issue develops. Stay tuned.
Since Sunday I’ve been in Victoria for the annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association (CHA). Yesterday I took part in a panel presentation that brought together scholars from western, eastern, and central Canada to discuss the different ways that citizens have engaged in planning their local communities since the 1950s. Often their engagement took the form of pushing back against plans to dramatically redevelop urban space to accommodate car traffic. I presented research on 1970s Montreal cycling advocacy group le Monde à bicyclette. It was fun and really interesting to connect with other scholars interested in cities, politics, and the management of urban space. A summary of the panel is below.
Our City, Our Voices: Citizen Activism and Urban Planning in Canada, 1950-80
Sponsored by the Political History Group
Facilitator: Nicolas Kenny (SFU)
Liam Haggarty (Mount Royal) and Jesse Salus (Independent Scholar): “Calgary’s Ring Road Controversy: A History of Community and Environmental Activism in Alberta”
Andrew Nurse (Mount Allison): “Pyrrhic Victory: Opposition to Freeway Development and the Crisis of Civic Activism, Halifax 1971-73”
Valérie Poirier (UQAM): «L’autoroute est-ouest, c’est pas le progrès!»: environnement et mobilisation citoyenne en opposition au projet d’autoroute est-ouest à Montréal en 1971
Daniel Ross (York): “’Vive la Vélorution!’: Le Monde à Bicyclette Imagines a Bikeable City, 1975-80
In the post-WWII era, Canadian cities followed the example of their American neighbours in embracing modernist planning as a solution to the infrastructure needs created by postwar prosperity and population growth. The new planning paradigm relied on experts to formulate large-scale plans for improving the functionality and efficiency of cities. One of the principal concerns of planners was accommodating the private automobile through the construction of wider and better-maintained roads, new expressways, and parking.
This expert-led, auto-centric trend in planning aroused its share of opposition. Citizens in affected communities expressed anger at being ignored by their elected officials and excluded from the planning process. They mobilized to oppose the perceived social and environmental costs of this kind of development: the destruction of housing, neighbourhoods, and communities; a decrease in the quality of urban life; and increased traffic, accidents, and pollution. Instead, these citizens proposed a different vision of the city, one that promoted community over efficiency and favoured alternative modes of transport, including public transit, cycling, and walking. In many cases, they saw their own political mobilization as a reaffirmation of the importance of participatory democracy: of people having a say in the planning and governance of their own communities. The four papers that compose this panel focus on citizen mobilization both against auto-centric urban development, and for a more organic, bikeable, or walkable city. They document a fascinating moment in Canadian history, and one that is very relevant to current debates.
“The rise and fall of America’s largest socialist utopian experiment”
-Program blurb from the 2013 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival
This post, inspired by the documentary film American Commune (2013) by Rena Mundo Croshere and Nadine Mundo, takes two different looks at the history of a 1970s countercultural commune located in the southern US. The first is a broad reflection on how we frame the stories of utopian experiments, while the second explores how communes were the subject of special scrutiny by the North American state.
“DOOMED TO FAIL?”: HOW WE REMEMBER UTOPIAN EXPERIMENTS
It is a standard to describe the history of utopian communities as involving a “rise and fall.” In fact, what often makes utopian experiments so appealing to writers is their fall, the result of disastrous, wooly-headed dreams that could not adjust to the realities within which the communities were located. The very idealism that underpinned their foundation, and led to their “rise,” also ensured their inability to survive. It is a tidy narrative, where the utopians’ hubris guarantees their downfall. But is it too tidy? Maybe utopians fail for the same mundane reasons that the rest of us do.
This compelling documentary film tells the story of two sisters who come to terms with their childhood. Born on “The Farm,” the archetypical hippy commune of the 1970s, Rena Mundo Croshere and Nadine Mundo left the community as their parents’ marriage disintegrated, an event which seems tied chronologically and causally to the end of the utopian phase of “The Farm.” They weave home movies shot on The Farm, contemporary news reports of the famous (and infamous) commune, and family photos with recent footage of a reunion and interviews with their family and many former adult and children members of the community.
(For access to a gallery of historical photographs from the farm, click here)
Founder Stephen Gaskin looms large in American Commune, a religious inspiration, solver of community discord, and occasional authoritarian. The film states that he forbade birth control on The Farm, and hence the eldest daughter was conceived and the family was formed. On this remote acreage in Tennessee, firmly in the Bible Belt – though Gaskin is a compelling spiritual leader in his own right – the sisters, and their brother (who appears only briefly), spent their early years in the isolated, safe, treed environment, surrounded by children their own age and a large community of adults who shared a counterculture dream.
Family structures could be fluid, though the filmmakers’ parents apparently remained together until their acrimonious divorce. Members of the community contributed their labour to the collective good, and cash was almost entirely absent. The Farm attempted to reach the goal of self-sufficiency that many 1960s and 1970s back-to-the-land readers of Thoreau’s Walden believed they could attain. Members swore an oath of poverty and turned over their wealth to the whole. The Farm epitomizes many of the standard features of a utopian settlement: separation from whatever is deemed the “mainstream,” a charismatic leader, communal property, an overarching goal of bettering the world. In one key way it was different. Gaskin did not exclude anyone who wished to join The Farm, regardless of whatever wealth they could contribute. There were no metaphorical gates on the farm.
As a result, The Farm could not last, the film states. Early in the film we see the ramshackle huts in which the early families had lived being torn down; the buses on which the founding members had travelled from California to Tennessee in 1971 were rusting. The Farm of the women’s childhood was no more. However, an interview partway through shows that it shifted from a commune to a decollectivized intentional community after its crisis in the early 1980s. The film ends by commenting that the The Farm was the longest utopian experiment in American history. This detail is not true – a number of other communes have lasted longer. The Oneida Community lasted from 1848 to 1881, New Llano in Louisiana from 1917 to 1939, and various Hutterite colonies in the United States and Canada dating back over 80 years are still going strong. But the film also accepts that The Farm experiment continues into the present. After all, there was a place in which to hold the reunion, and Stephen and Ina May Gaskin still live on the land. And poignantly, the former members rally around one of filmmakers at a time of personal need. The spirit of the community transcends the decades.
A few events led to the end of Gaskin’s leadership in the early 1980s: an FBI raid in search of a marijuana plantation (they found milkweed patches instead), the limitations of self-sufficiency, and bank decisions to call in loans, which were supposedly linked to the police raids. I think that here the filmmakers may have touched on a key moment for a variety of utopian settlements in both Canada and the United States. Undercapitalized in general, communes depended on cheap land. Land was often cheapest when it was rather unproductive. And it was easiest to live on cheap, marginal land when the financial costs of remaining there were lower. By 1981 and 1982, interest rates neared 20% in the United States and Canada. Few utopians, or non-utopians for that matter, were prepared for such an increase in borrowing costs, and particularly for those who believed in self-sufficiency and cashlessness, the costs were too burdensome. I would suggest that the historical context of utopias must be acknowledged as well. Utopias are not ipso facto fated to fail, any more than any attempt at agrarian settlement or business creation is fated to succeed.
But to tell the story of the fall of the utopian experiment is to reassure ourselves that, as wonderful as the dreams may be, they really are not practical. We don’t really have to bother with such reveries. But sometimes the historical contingency of a mundane issue like high interest rates can actually influence the rise and fall of utopia.
HARMLESS HIPPIES OR DANGEROUS SUBVERSIVES? NATIONAL SECURITY AND COUNTERCULTURAL COMMUNES
In retrospective, utopian experiments may appear as beautiful but necessarily ephemeral experiments. From the point of view of the state, this was not always the case. Before nostalgia for countercultural living, there was anxiety, particularly on the part of the Cold War-era state. Considerable government resources were devoted to the surveillance of the seemingly harmless Farm residents in the United States, and, it turns out, in Canada as well.
Over the past twenty years, scholars have documented amply how agencies like the FBI in the United States, and CSIS and the RCMP in Canada devoted considerable resources to policing political dissent in the 1960s and 1970s. Surveillance and undercover operations produced information on, and directly influenced the fate of groups ranging from the Black Panthers (see my previous post here) to Canadian hippies. As persistent use of access to information legislation on both sides of the border has demonstrated, it was a rare non-conformist who did not have a file with the RCMP or FBI – or both. Recently, for example, it has come out that both singer Rita McNeil and father of Medicare and former premier of Saskatchewan Tommy Douglas had extensive RCMP files.
Stephen Gaskin and The Farm were no exception. From 1970 until well into the 1980s, the FBI generated reams of reports on the commune and its residents, investigating whether their socialist lifestyle, drug use, cultish behaviour, and links to the peace movement made them criminals or threats to national security. Farm resident Albert Bates has documented how agents followed Gaskin and his fellow communards on their trek east looking for land, and surveilled their activities once they were established in Tennessee. At least one agent seems to have infiltrated the community, and Gaskin was interviewed on several occasions by the agency (who referred to him as a “very reliable source”). Yet these investigations seem to have turned up little that could harm The Farm, although Bates and other long-time residents maintain that the FBI had a hand in the unfavourable loan renegotiations that eventually bankrupted the community in the 1980s.
The story does not end there, however. An access to information request made earlier this year reveals a Canadian dimension to state concern with The Farm and its projects. In the late 1970s—if not before—the Intelligence Division of Canadian Immigration had its own file on the commune. Heavily redacted and in part destroyed, the file remains interesting reading for its insight into state methods and concerns.
In 1977 two groups of communards from The Farm crossed the border north into Canada, settling in rural Hampton, Nova Scotia and Lanark, Ontario, where they established branch offices of the commune’s international aid NGO, called PLENTY, and began fundraising. Since 1974, PLENTY had been involved in providing aid to disaster victims around the world, mostly in the form of food and reconstruction projects. In 1976 and 1977 PLENTY volunteers from The Farm were working hand in hand with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) providing earthquake relief in Guatemala.
The Farm residents who moved to Canada in 1977 were quickly flagged by Immigration Intelligence officers for further investigation. It was the communards’ international aid activities—as detailed in an article in the local Perth Courier—that originally brought them to the attention of immigration, but it is not clear why they merited investigation. Immigration status may have been an issue for the group that settled in Hampton, but it was not for the couple who moved to Lanark, Canadian Allan Brown and his American wife Susan, who was a landed immigrant. Instead, it is likely that the PLENTY activists were targeted in the context of a larger investigation of American immigration to eastern Ontario communes: authorities seem to have seen the Browns as part of a potentially dangerous chain migration of radicals and long-haired do-gooders from south of the border. One label applied to associated records was “Non-Immigrants – Vagrant Control,” suggesting their potential to be a burden on the state or to attract other unproductive (and illegal) immigrants.
Officials in both Nova Scotia and Ontario created files on the PLENTY organizers. Investigators reported to Ottawa that “PLENTY claims to be a non-profit charitable organization with headquarters in Nova Scotia. They claim they are engaged in raising money for Guatemala relief.” However, they raised doubts as to where the money being raised was actually going, arguing that controls on CIDA programs were “very lax and a group such as PLENTY could use funds for their own purpose”. In the 1960s and 1970s a number of government efforts to build infrastructure and civil society—including the Company of Young Canadians and the Local Initiatives and Opportunities for Youth programs—raised similar doubts from security services and conservative politicians, who felt that taxpayers’ dollars were being used to fund dissent. The press often echoed this concern, or at least played upon the incongruity of state funding of so-called “shit-disturbers”. In the case of PLENTY, a 1977 Toronto Star article mused that Canada was “giving U.S. hippies $70,000 to rebuild Guatemala town”.
Background checks revealed that none of those concerned had criminal records in Canada, but the investigation did not end there. Officers communicated with authorities in the United States to learn more about The Farm and Stephen Gaskin, receiving in response newspaper clippings about the commune as well as a copy of a detailed file on Gaskin, produced by the Tennessee Department of Corrections following his 1974-5 imprisonment on marijuana charges (received for growing plants at The Farm). The report describes Gaskin as intelligent, energetic, and responsive to counselling: an ideal prisoner, apart from the fact that the main entry under his “Interests and Activities” was the growing and use of marijuana.
For the moment it is impossible to say what, if anything, was done with this information. The file does not seem to have been widely read: it was checked out seven times over the course of 1977, and then just once more in 1979. What is clear, however, is that the Canadian security services, like their American counterparts, were invested in keeping an eye on those citizens who had decided that the best solution to a society they did not accept was to build a better one. If the goal of many countercultural utopias of the 1960s and 1970s was to escape from an oppressive and unjust system, the suspicions generated by that ideal ensured that back-to-the-landers never strayed too far from the watchful eye of the state.
American Commune reminds us of the optimism and idealism that underlay this attempt to create a different way of living, just as the state-produced records underscore the obstacles that faced those who wished to imagine alternative futures.
Timothy Miller, The 60s Communes: Hippies and Beyond (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999).
Reg Whitaker, Gregory S. Kealey, and Andrew Parnaby, Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada from the Fenians to Fortress America (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2012).
Ivan Greenberg, Surveillance in America: Critical Analysis of the FBI, 1920 to the Present (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2012).