“I am totally shocked that something of this sort could happen in Canada”: Vancouver’s Gastown Riot Fifty Years Later

Undercover Vancouver police officers arresting a “long hair.” Vancouver Police Museum & Archives P00881.

Michael Boudreau

Fifty years ago, on Saturday, 7 August 1971, Vancouver’s Gastown district erupted into chaos as police, some on horse-back and many wielding batons, waded into a throng of “hippies” who had gathered for the Gastown Smoke-In & Street Jamboree. Approximately 2000 people attended the Smoke-In to call for the legalization of marijuana. According to the Georgia Straight, Vancouver’s first “underground” newspaper, the Smoke-In was intended to be a “peaceful…, and joyous high-energy event aimed at making the marijuana laws irrelevant.”[i] Many of the young people who had attended the Jamboree also did so to publicly denounce “Operation Dustpan” which the Vancouver police had launched in July. The focus of Operation Dustpan was Gastown, the so-called “soft-drug capital” of Canada, and the “long hairs” (hippies) who called it home. This was an effort by the police to clean up the city’s drug and hippie problem. But critics argued that Operation Dustpan, and the arrests for drug possession and loitering that resulted from it, amounted to police harassment and intimidation. While the Smoke-In did not immediately lead to a reform of Canada’s drug laws (that would have to wait until 2018, when cannabis was legalized), it was an important moment in the debate over the efficacy of criminalizing weed. Moreover, some of the police tactics that were used to suppress this “riot” are still utilized by some police forces, despite calls, then and now, for their curtailment, if not elimination.

Gastown was named after Gassy Jack Deighton who opened Vancouver’s first saloon in the late 1860s. It is located in the city’s downtown core (bordered by Water, Alexander, Powell, and Carrall streets) and in the late 1960s and early 1970s Gastown was home to an eclectic mix of restaurants and bars that catered to middle-class residents and tourists, alongside “freak bars” (the Alcazar) and groovy stores like Junior Jelly Beans for Jeans. Gastown attracted some of Canada’s “disaffected” youth who had travelled to the west coast in search of new experiences and employment. While some may have found Gastown to be culturally vibrant, many soon joined the ranks of the unemployed, homeless, and marginalized (including Indigenous peoples) who struggled to eke out a living in Gastown. The area remains a trendy tourism destination, while still grappling with poverty, which is most evident a few blocks away in the Downtown Eastside.

In the years immediately prior to the Gastown riot, young people had staged demonstrations against what they believed to be the “growing power of Fascism” in Vancouver. They held sit-ins against businesses that had implemented “no hippies allowed” policies and they protested the use of land for commercial development that could have been used as campsites for the homeless. Between August of 1970 and August of 1971, seventy social protests occurred throughout the city, some of which involved clashes with the police, over the lack of public housing and need for a solution to youth unemployment. Some also called for the legalization of cannabis. Leading the charge on this front was the Yippies; the Youth International Party. The Yippies helped to organize the Smoke-In, which they hoped would be a forum to condemn Canada’s archaic drug laws and the “Gestapo practices” of the police. In particular, the Yippies demanded an end to the “physical brutality currently used by Vancouver police against long hairs in Gastown, Native People, Hip People, and poor people generally.”[ii]

By most accounts, the Smoke-In was a peaceful event. The music of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Led Zeppelin blared throughout Gastown, people ate ice-cream sandwiches, and smoked marijuana. The high point of the festivities was when a ten-foot joint was paraded through the crowd. However, Inspector Robert Abercrombie, who was in charge of the officers who were monitoring the Smoke-In, believed that the event was spiralling out of control. He had received reports of fights breaking out between “long hairs” and “straights”, and of local businesses being vandalized. He felt that these actions, coupled with the obscenities that some “weirdos” had shouted at the police, was a threat to law and order and to “Decency – the way I like to see it”[iii], and so he instructed the revellers to disperse. When they failed to do so, he ordered his officers to clear the area.

Twenty-eight riot police, equipped with helmets and riot sticks, charged towards the crowd. At which point, so one witness remarked, “Pandemonium broke loose.” Shortly after the first charge, it became evident to the police that they needed reinforcements, so an additional thirty-six officers were dispatched to the scene. In the words of one person who had attended the Smoke-In, the police “were brutal…They came in swinging. They didn’t ask people to move.”[iv] Some of these attacks were carried out by undercover police officers who were on hand to infiltrate the crowd, identify the leaders of the protest, and arrest them if necessary. After the dust had settled, seventy-nine people had been arrested, thirty-eight of whom faced charges ranging from causing a disturbance to obstructing a police officer. Most of these charges were later dropped. Ironically, no one was arrested for illegally possessing marijuana. The shock that was felt over the police’s actions was captured by Allan Fotheringham in the Vancouver Sun: “Pigs is a dirty word and no one likes to use it, but there were some pigs loose in Gastown on Saturday night.”[v]

Responding to the public outcry that followed in the wake of the riot, the province convened a public inquiry, which was chaired by Justice Thomas Dohm of the British Columbia Supreme Court. The inquiry found that the police had used “unnecessary, unwarranted, and excessive force” against the people who had assembled that night in Gastown. This included police on horseback who had corralled individuals in the entranceways of stores and restaurants. This practice, now known as “kettling”, is still used by many police forces in North America and is widely condemned by protesters and human rights advocates as an excessive use of police force. Despite the Inquiry’s conclusion that the actions of the police had undermined public safety, Dohm ultimately exonerated the police department and the Attorney General did not lay any criminal charges against the officers who were involved in the melee (although one constable was reprimanded). Similarly, Dohm dismissed the organizers’ claim that the Smoke-In was meant to be a peaceful display of civil disobedience against unjust marijuana laws and police practices. In Dohm’s mind, civil disobedience was tantamount to “anarchy” and the only way to change unjust laws was through formal legal channels.[vi] But as the Yippies, and other social justice champions have long argued, discriminatory laws and state oppression can only be squashed through persistent acts of civil disobedience.

Since Gastown, Vancouver, and Canada generally, has witnessed a plethora of protests and riots. For instance, the Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver on 15 June 2011. Police in riot gear clashed with hundreds of hockey fans and bystanders who were caught up in the mayhem. This riot paved the way for the Federal government in 2013 to outlaw wearing a mask, or any other form of face covering, during an unlawful assembly or riot. A person who commits an offence during a riot while concealing their identity, “without lawful excuse”, could face up to ten years in prison, or a maximum of five years if they commit an offence during an unlawful assembly while concealing their identity. But those who opposed these measures have argued that not every protester who wears a mask engages in violence. The law and the police, however, assert that wearing a mask implies violent intent.

The G20 Summit protests in Toronto in 2010 resulted in one of the largest mass arrests in the country’s history, with over 1100 people held in detention. After the summit, many of the criminal charges that stemmed from these arrests were withdrawn or stayed without explanation. Only thirty-two cases resulted in guilty convictions. In 2020 a $16.5 million class-action settlement was reached. Those wrongfully arrested will receive compensation of between $5,000 and $24,000, depending upon their experiences, and they will have their police records expunged.[vii]

Fifty years on from Gastown and what lessons, if any, has Canada learned? In terms of cannabis, its legalization in 2018 was long overdue. And with the rising number of overdose deaths in Vancouver in particular, it is time for this country to end the demonization of drug users and decriminalize all forms of narcotics. Moreover, with the increasing militarization of protest policing, it seems that some police forces have learned little from the mistakes that were made during the Smoke-In, especially because this event only became a “riot” when the police intervened to end it. The Gastown Smoke-In & Street Jamboree also underscores the continued need for civil disobedience (as represented now by Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, among other social movements) to achieve social justice.

Michael Boudreau (mboudreau@stu.ca) is Professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice at St. Thomas University. He has published two articles on the Gastown riot and teaches a course on social protests and social movements in Canada.

Further Reading

Michael Barnholden, Reading the Riot Act: A Brief History of Riots in Vancouver (Vancouver: Anvil Press, 2005).

Michael Boudreau, “Hippies, Yippies, the Counter-Culture, and the Gastown Riot in Vancouver, 1968-71”. BC Studies, 197 (Spring 2018): 39-65.

Michael Boudreau, “The ‘Struggle for a Different World’: The 1971 Gastown Riot in Vancouver”. In Debating Dissent: Canada and the Sixties, Lara Campbell, Dominique Clement, and Greg Kealey, eds. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 117-133.

Michael Boudreau and Sarah E. Hamill, “`The kids are alright’: Reflections on two years of legal cannabis in Canada”. The Hill Times, 28 October 2020.

Canada’s Human Rights History: https://historyofrights.ca/.

CBC Archives, “Marijuana `smoke-in’ turns violent in Vancouver’s Gastown Riot”: https://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/1971-gastown-riots-over-vancouver-smoke-in

Dominique Clement, Canada’s Rights Revolution: Social Movements and Social Change, 1937-82. (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008).

Stan Douglas, Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971. (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011).

Linda Mahood, “Youth Hostels and Hostile Locals: Vancouver’s `Battle of Jericho’, 1970”. Urban History Review/Revue d’histoire urbaine, 48 (1): 43-65.

Marcel Martel, “`They Smell Bad, Have Diseases, and Are Lazy’: RCMP Officers Reporting on Hippies in the Late Sixties”. Canadian Historical Review, 90, 2 (June 2009): 215-245.

Robyn Maynard, Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present (Halifax & Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2017).

Daniel Ross, “Panic on Love Street: Citizens and Local Government Respond to Vancouver’s Hippie Problem, 1967-68”. BC Studies, 180 (Winter 2013/14): 11-41.

Lesley J. Wood, Crisis and Control: The Militarization of Protest Policing (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2014)


[i] Georgia Straight, 6-10 August 1971. The Georgia Straight began publishing in 1967.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Vancouver Sun, 24 September 1971.

[iv] Report on Gastown Inquiry, 4.

[v] Vancouver Sun, 9 August 1971.

[vi] Report on Gastown Inquiry, 13.

[vii] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/settlement-class-action-g20-summit-1.5689329

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