The March to Pride

Originally published on Torontoist on June 20, 2014.

Gay Pride march, 1972. Photo by Jearld Moldenhauer. The Body Politic, Autumn 1972.

It was a simple poster, one that asked people to bring food, drink, and music to Hanlan’s Point on August 1, 1971. Around 300 people followed the poster’s directions to what was billed as “Toronto’s first gay picnic”—the first of a series of events held throughout the 1970s that served as precursors to the current annual Pride celebration, established in 1981.

The organizing of the picnic grew from the gay liberation movement that was rapidly developing in Canada during the early 1970s. As Tom Warner notes in his book Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada,

In the short period between 1970 and 1974, the new ideology blossomed on several fronts; breaking through isolation and loneliness; rejecting the notions of sin, sickness, and criminality that previously defined homosexuality; fighting against oppression, discrimination, and harassment; asserting pride in same-sex sexuality as good and natural; engaging in aggressive public advocacy for social and legislative reform; and building both a community and a culture based on a commonly shared sexuality. Visibility and organizing became the objectives through which liberation would be attained. “Out of the Closets and into the Streets,” “Gay Is Just as Good as Straight,” and “Better Blatant Than Latent” were among the rallying cries. It was an amazing time of exuberance, optimism, astonishing innovation, and sometimes breath-taking courage—characterized by impatience and a willingness to confront all oppressors.

One of the first catalysts for the creation of this movement was the decriminalization of homosexuality for adults 21 and over under a reformed federal criminal code. Introduced by Minister of Justice Pierre Trudeau as part of an omnibus bill in December 1967, the reforms were among those that provoked his famous quote: “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” Two months after the legislation came into effect in August 1969, an ad placed in The Varsity by Jearld Moldenhauer resulted in the formation of Toronto’s first post-Stonewall homosexual activist group, the University of Toronto Homophile Association. The group’s constitution stated that it was “dedicated to educating the community about homosexuality, and bringing about social and personal acceptance of homosexuality.”

The Body Politic, July-August 1972.

Over a year later, the Community Homophile Association of Toronto (CHAT) formed to provide social services to the gay community. It also offered assistance to anyone arrested or harassed by police, who still viewed homosexuals as “incipient criminals.” Groups with a stronger activist mandate, such as Toronto Gay Action and the Gay Alliance Toward Equality, soon emerged. While male-dominated groups tended to focus on human rights issues, female-dominated associations looked more at creating spaces free of homophobia and sexism. This period also saw the fall 1971 launch of The Body Politic, a publication whose collective (which evolved into Pink Triangle Press, which later published Xtra) aimed to mobilize the community to fight its oppressors.

The first Toronto event dubbed “Gay Pride Week” occurred from August 19 to 27, 1972, and was timed to coincide with the anniversary of decriminalization. Based out of CHAT’s office at 58 Cecil Street, the festivities were listed in the Globe and Mail’s “Around Toronto This Week” section. On opening night, CHAT director George Hislop read supportive letters from Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis and City alderman William Kilbourn. He also read a note from an aide to Mayor William Dennison indicating there would be no official declaration. “Since the mayor refused to acknowledge 10 per cent of the citizens,” Hislop told his audience, “I’ll do it for him.” Film screenings included Kate Millett’s documentary Three Lives, which bored Star critic Clyde Gilmour; he declared that the film proved women had “as much right to make a dull, amateurish movie as any group of males” (the New York Times was much kinder). Other events included panel discussions, a picnic, and a 200-person march to Queen’s Park to demand recognition under the Ontario Human Rights Code (which wasn’t achieved until 1986). The week was, according to the Body Politic’s Hugh Brewster, “a greater test of our gay pride than one could have possibly foreseen.”

The Gay Pride Week of 1973 coincided with similar events across the country. All called for the various provincial legislatures to protect sexual orientation in their respective human rights codes. “By publicly demonstrating pride in our sexuality we assert our right to live that lifestyle we choose,” observed a Body Politic editorial, “not as a grant of liberal largesse, but as a matter of course.” Two months later, Toronto’s city council became the first in Canada to ban discriminatory municipal hiring based on sexual orientation.

“About 500 pickets from Toronto’s homosexual community turned out yesterday to protest the visit of Anita Bryant, known for her Florida orange juice commercials and her crusade against homosexual rights. The pickets, armed with a permit for their demonstration, gathered across from the Peoples Church, where Miss Bryant spoke to overflow crowd of more than 2,500 people.” Photo by Frank Lennon, Toronto Star, January 16, 1978.

Pride-style events continued off and on throughout the rest of the 1970s. The largest was 1978’s Gaydays, which was conceived as a positive celebration of the community after a series of controversies, heightened by a 1977 tragedy. In July of that year, the sexual assault and murder of 12-year-old Yonge Street shoeshine boy Emmanuel Jaques by three men contributed to a hostile climate for homosexuals. An article in the Body Politic’s December 1977 issue, “Men Loving Boys Loving Men” also prompted an increase in mainstream media articles equating homosexuality with pedophilia, and prompted a police raid on the Body Politic’s office, the aftermath of which kept lawyers busy for years. Newspaper editorials argued against “aggressive homosexuals.” An article that appeared in the Star in July 1977 argued that “homosexuals should be guaranteed full civil rights, but with reservations to guard against the promotion of homosexuality.”

And a visit by American anti-gay activist Anita Bryant to the Peoples Church in North York—organized by Christian fundamentalists Renaissance International—prompted North York Mayor Mel Lastman to consider a councillor’s suggestion that Bryant be given an honorary medal for her activism, but the idea was vetoed. The gay community rapidly organized a rally at St. Lawrence Market on January 14, 1978 (the eve of Bryant’s appearance), and a march to Nathan Phillips Square that drew around 1,000 people. As one marshal put it, “Anita Bryant probably doesn’t know it, but she’s doing us a favour.” The next day, a group protested outside the Peoples Church.

In April 1978, representatives from several gay organizations formed a group called Liberated Energy to run Gaydays. The aim was to appeal to a broad range of people by marketing it as a social event instead of a political one, and to demonstrate that gays and lesbians could mix together. “I wanted any half-closeted lesbian wandering through Queen’s Park to feel that she had something to come out for,” noted organizer Val Edwards, who also belonged to the Lesbian Organization of Toronto. “Liberated Energy drew out a lot of people who have never been politically involved … It especially got people to do a lot of public things, leafleting, postering—things which can be considered pretty daring for people just coming out.” Promotional efforts spread as far as New York City, where flyers were passed out during that city’s Pride celebrations.

A crowd enjoying Gaydays. The Body Politic, October 1978.

Running from August 23 to 27, 1978, Gaydays included an opening gala, panels, concerts, and a picnic at Hanlan’s Point. A day-long fair at Queen’s Park featured booths for 35 local gay organizations. People who had arrived early to set up booths but then planned to leave to avoid being seen at the event wound up staying the entire day. St. Lawrence Market hosted what was billed as “The Biggest Gay Dance in the History of Toronto,” which drew 1,400 people and turned more away. The dance’s drawing power was demonstrated by a midnight raffle for a trip to San Francisco, which was won by a guy from Detroit.

Gaydays received little coverage in the mainstream press, apart from a vicious piece by Sun Queen’s Park columnist Claire Hoy. The tone of the piece was set by its title (“Fight this perversion”) and subhead (“Gaydays are sad days for Metro”). Hoy, who was never kind to homosexuals at the best of times, lashed out: “Why they would celebrate their degeneracy is difficult to ascertain, unless perhaps you feel that if you surround yourself with sick people you may begin to convince yourself that you’re normal.”

Asked if Gaydays would return the following year, organizer Gordon Montador reflected, “We didn’t want to create an institution, we just wanted to have a festival.” Another organizer, Harvey Hamburg, believed the event made “our community’s mental health much better than a year ago.”

“Anti-cop protests now a gay habit?” The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence participate in the 1981 Pride parade. Photo by Chris Schwarz, Toronto Sun, June 29, 1981.

The good feelings were short-lived. The community was the target of anger and ridicule from social conservatives during the 1980 municipal election—Mayor John Sewell’s support of the gay community proved a factor in his loss to Art Eggleton. The next year was marked by an event sometimes called Toronto’s Stonewall—the police raids conducted on four bathhouses on February 5, 1981. The outrage over the 286 men charged during “Operation Soap” provoked angry protests that demonstrated the community wouldn’t accept any more abuse. Further raids in June 1981 prompted violent clashes between protestors, police, and harassers. Calls for an end to police bigotry and intimidation grew louder.

In the midst of this, a Lesbian and Gay Pride Day was arranged for June 28, 1981. The date was chosen to be more in line with international celebrations. Held in Grange Park, the six-hour event was advertised as “an afternoon of fun and frolic.” Though lingering fears caused by the raids made some entertainers shy away, around 1,000 people showed up for music and dancing. The accompanying march, led by the Amazon Motorcycle Club, drew 500 people. During a brief pause in front of 52 Division, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence performed an exorcism on the station, drawing looks of disbelief from the guards. Thanks to the decision of the event’s organizers, the Lesbian and Gay Pride Day Committee (LGPDC), to proceed with annual celebrations, 1981 is currently treated as the first official edition of Pride.

The Body Politic, July-August 1981.

There were complaints from neighbours around Grange Park when LGPDC sought a permit for 1982. One letter sent to city council noted that participants were “too noisy and their actions are confusing our children who are at a learning age of what’s wrong and what’s right.” Alderman John Sewell briefly wavered in his support for the location, arguing that Pride, being a regional event, deserved a larger space like Queen’s Park. “One does not win friends by foisting on a community an event which is too large for the facility,” Sewell wrote in a letter to the Toronto Gay Community Council. In the end, Sewell and fellow Ward 6 alderman Gordon Chong supported the permit, which was approved by council in a 14 to 6 vote. Attendance for the June 27 event doubled.

Pride continued to grow, moving to King’s College Circle in 1983, and then to its current heart on Church Street in 1984. The fight for equal rights was far from over, but Pride had arrived as an annual Toronto tradition.

Sources: Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada by Tom Warner (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002); the November-December 1971, Autumn 1972, Autumn 1973, February 1978, October 1978, July-August 1981, September 1981, and May 1982 editions of The Body Politic; the August 21, 1972 and January 16, 1978 editions of the Globe and Mail; the August 24, 1972, June 15, 1977, July 22, 1977, May 21, 1982, June 21, 1998, and June 16, 2005 editions of the Toronto Star; and the August 25, 1978 edition of the Toronto Sun.


The classified section featuring the ad which led to the establishment of the University of Toronto Homophile Association

The Body Politic, Autumn 1972.

A double-page spread covering 1972’s Gay Pride Week.

It’s easy to understand why, beyond the standard negative attitudes towards homosexuality during this era, the mainstream press may have felt a little queasy about an earlier BP article mentioned here about same-sex attraction to youths. As more revelations emerge from various quarters about past abuses, regardless of sexuality, penning lines treating eroticization of children as “revolutionary activity” feels even more disturbing and unsettling today.

Toronto Star, January 4, 1978.

Anita Bryant’s appearance at the People’s Church in 1978 will probably receive its own post at some point – it was one of those stories that I had enough material filed away to potentially use for a Historicist column.

As for Bob Yuill, his well-annotated Wikipedia entry lists off all sorts of things that may induce groaning among some readers.

Yuill was a fiscal conservative. He opposed plans for Metro Toronto to provide financial aid to university students, and once described a proposed 34% raise for Metro managers as “baloney”. He also supported an extension of the Spadina Expressway to downtown Toronto, arguing “Suburbs were designed for cars”. He also held socially conservative views on some issues. During the 1970s, he recommended that North York Mayor Mel Lastman give a Mayor’s Medallion to anti-gay rights advocate Anita Bryant during her visit to the city. Lastman declined. In 1985, he tried to convince Metro Council to cancel its grant to the Toronto Counselling Centre for Lesbians and Gays. Yuill also supported an early workfare scheme in 1979, which was rejected by the Metro Council. In 1988, he supported a ban on Now Magazine from parts of city hall as a response to the journal’s adult-themed personal ads. He also argued that Toronto’s police should be allowed to use “strong-arm tactics” to combat the city’s drug problem. He opposed the extension of Sunday shopping, and was skeptical of affirmative action. In 1986, he was one of seven Metro Councillors to oppose a boycott of goods from South Africa. Yuill opposed the construction of the Skydome in downtown Toronto, arguing that its location would lead to increased traffic jams.

Body Politic, September 1981.

Burning Down the Jailhouse

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on January 10, 2009.


Don Jail, 1860s. Wikimedia Commons.

It was 2 a.m., Sunday, January 19, 1862. Cooney, the caretaker for the soon-to-be completed new city jail overlooking the east side of the Don River, was awakened by the reflection of light on the window of his cottage near the building site. Rushing over to the jail, he noticed that the lock on the main entrance had been violently removed. Pushing the door open, he attempted to run up the stairs but was stopped by a cloud of dense smoke. He rushed away from the building and, in the midst of heavy snowfall, ran towards the city, yelling, “Fire at the new jail!” as he made his way to the fire station on Berkeley Street.

Bad luck plagued the construction of the Don Jail from the time it was commissioned in 1857, as if, in the words of the Leader, “a strange fatality” had attached itself to the building. It was intended to replace a prison that had operated at the southeast corner of Front and Berkeley since the late 1830s, which had quickly become run down and overcrowded—the facility was designed by John Howard to hold 40 inmates, but held 180 by 1857. The design contract was given to William Thomas, whose other notable buildings around the province include St. Lawrence Hall and Guelph City Hall. The original contractors, said to be favoured by Mayor William Henry Boulton, proved inept and tried to cover their behinds by having Thomas replaced with a friendlier engineering firm, a move that failed. With Thomas retained and a new set of contractors, the cornerstone was laid on October 29, 1859. Further design changes and delays ensued over the next three years, including cost overruns, the elimination of two of the four proposed wings and Thomas’s death in 1860. By January 1862, all that remained to be done was minor touch-up work, mostly plastering in the staff offices and quarters. Officials were confident that the first prisoners would arrive within two months.

Accounts of the fire-fighting effort once Cooney alerted the fire officials sound like a comedy of errors. The chief fire engineer initially turned back a steam engine dispatched to the jail around 3 a.m. when he was unable to observe any flames rising from the site. An hour later, the engine went back out, only to have a slow trudge eastward due to the snowstorm. Attempts to cross a bridge across the Don River were stymied when the engine lodged itself in the snow, which required a team of horses to tow it out. Once it reached the jail along with smaller hand-pump engines, firefighters discovered they did not have enough hose to reach the jail from the pumping site along the river. By the time intense hosing of the fire began at 7 a.m., the centre block was considered a lost cause and all efforts were focused on preserving the outer wings. A backup steam engine had to be brought in when the first one broke down after a few hours.

By the time the fire was extinguished at 1 p.m. the roof and upper stories of the centre block, including the chapel, were destroyed. The concrete and stone construction of the wings prevented heavy structural damage in those areas. Damage was estimated at thirty thousand dollars. The Leader praised the efforts of the firefighters, though it was noted “that some of them got intoxicated during the afternoon and behaved in a rather unruly manner.”

Theories on the cause of the blaze ranged from arson to careless workmen who had not fully extinguished fires lit to keep themselves warm during the working day. One bone of contention was Cooney’s assertion that the chapel floor was strewn with wood shavings, which prompted a letter in the Leader two days after the fire:

SIR – In your report this morning of the fire at the New Jail, you state that “the flames had apparently commenced in the chapel on the second story, and were fed by the large quantity of shavings the workmen had strewn about the room.” Permit us, through the medium of your journal, to inform the public that we were the last persons to leave the chapel on Saturday evening, and there were not any shavings on the floor at that time, because all the shavings had been burned about four o’clock the person appointed for that purpose by Mr. Walsh, the contractor.

Patrick Egan, John Reilly, Thomas Sayer

Construction resumed after the fire and the Don Jail housed its first prisoners two years later.

Sources: the January 20, 1862 edition of the Globe, the January 20, 1862 and January 21, 1862 editions of the Leader, and Toronto Observed by William Dendy and William Kilbourn (Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1986).

Bonus Features: “The Streets Belong to the People” (Cancellation of the Spadina Expressway)

Before diving into this post, check out my TVO story on Premier William Davis’s decision to suspend the Spadina Expressway in June 1971.

“The Spadina is stopped: Unpaved roadbed waits for some kind of use between Lawrence and Eglinton Avenues.” Photo by Reg Innell, 1971. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0115089f.

Let’s dive into the June 3, 1971 listing in the Ontario Hansard for Davis’s full speech and the opposition’s reaction:

Globe and Mail, June 4, 1971.

Cartoon by James Reidford, Globe and Mail, June 4, 1971.

Globe and Mail, June 4, 1971.

“Toasting the victory, architect Colin Vaughan, the mastermind of the Spadina Review Corporation, hoists a stein of beer with his wife, Annette, last night on the Yonge Street mall after hearing that the Ontario cabinet had rutled against continuing construction on Metro’s controversial $237 million Spadina Expressway.” Photo by Frank Lennon, originally published on the front page of the June 4, 1971 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0087522f.

The Spadina Review Corporation was the entity established by the various anti-Spadina groups to represent their views at the OMB hearings earlier that year.

Star reporter Margaret Daly asked Vaughan for his thoughts on the decision:

It’s clear that there was a great deal of technical input to the cabinet, and of course our own case was based totally on presentation of factual information. But I believe a major factor in the decision was that the cabinet did recognize that a majority of people did not want the expressway. That is the change I see this decision as signifying. Governments in the future are going to have to be totally representative. At one time people may have been content to send their elected representatives off and let them make all the decisions and vote again in three years. But no more. You have a better educated, better informed public. People will want to be part of government; they will insist on it.

On the other side, Metro chief planner Wojciech Wronski wrote an op-ed in the Star blasting the decision, believing the province had dissolved its partnership with Metro and created a vacuum in transportation planning. He felt that building the subway line through the Cedarvale and Nordheimer ravines would cause as much damage as the expressway and required an accompanying Queen Street line. “The Ontario government’s apparent support for a comprehensive subway network,” Wronski observed, “not only disregards actual needs, but is based on the mistaken assumption that such a network would contribute to the stability of neighbourhoods.” He also worried that widening other north-south arterial roads to handle more traffic would worsen air pollution.

Toronto Star, June 4, 1971.

Toronto Star, June 4, 1971.

The tent city referred to at the end of this article was an idea to temporarily house youth expected to drift into the city over the summer of 1971. It’s one of many side stories that I fell into a research rabbit hole while working on this story, and will probably cover at some point.

Windsor Star, June 8, 1971.

Something else for a future time: coverage from the Telegram, due to COVID-related closures of archival resources. They published Dalton Camp’s thoughts on Davis’s decision (his involvement in which was not publicly known for a year), which also appeared in other papers.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 4, 1971.

This piece from south of the border provides more hints about the Tely‘s coverage. George McCue was the Post-Dispatch‘s art and urban design critic; later that month he wrote a piece which offered deeper analysis of how Metropolitan Toronto, which was comparable in size to the St. Louis area, was organized, governed, and funded.

Cartoon by James Reidford, Globe and Mail, June 7, 1971. Left to right: North York councillors Irving Paisley and Bill Sutherland, Toronto mayor William Dennison, Metro Toronto chairman Albert Campbell, Toronto councillors David Rotenberg and Fred Beavis.

A week after the decision, during the annual meeting of the Central Ontario Regional Development Council, Metro Toronto chairman Albert Campbell outlined a series of controls he felt were required to prevent traffic chaos and “make car ownership in the city a burden.” Among these were a hike in the provincial gas tax, closing some streets to traffic, higher parking fees, restrictions on the number of parking spaces at downtown office buildings, special vehicle taxes, permits for use downtown, and checkpoints on the edge of the core, and a stiff tax on all car sales.

What these ideas really translated into: build Spadina.

Weston-York Times, June 10, 1971.

Some thoughts on the decision from Donald MacDonald, who had retired as provincial NDP leader the previous year.

Richmond Hill Liberal, July 8, 1971.

Out in suburbia, a pro-Spadina view from Liberal Don Deacon, who represented York Centre from 1967 to 1975. In later life, he was a major proponent of the Trans Canada Trail.

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, June 20, 1971.

Rochester was wrestling with its own expressway controversies. In 1973, in the wake of cancelling a planned extension of the Genesee Expressway (I-390) into Rochester’s core, the Democrat-Chronicle published a three-part series on the aftermath of Spadina’s demise, which included plenty of shots of the Spadina Ditch.

The Canadian, September 4, 1971.

A sampling of ideas from across the country on what to do with the Spadina Ditch…

The Canadian, November 6, 1971.

…and a few ideas from the public.

Regina Leader-Post, October 15, 1971.

While the anti-Spadina protests spawned or furthered plenty of political careers and became, as the Star‘s Edward Keenan observed in 2015, a “founding myth of urbanist politics,” the pro-Spadina side created its own figures. One of the most determined was Esther Shiner, who became politicized after traffic began congesting by her home on Wenderley Drive near Lawrence Avenue after the first phase of the expressway opened in 1966. To Shiner and her neighbours, the cancellation meant years of traffic nightmares to come. “It’s sickening,” she told the Star after the decision was announced. “My family are all disillusioned that politicians can do something like this.” Soon, she was participating in pro-Spadina demonstrations.

“Traffic jams give drivers plenty of time to study a billboard on Keele St. near Wilson Ave.; one of two put up by Esther Shiner’s Go Spadina Committee to catch the eyes of the Italian-Canadian construction workers. Mrs. Shiner; a North York alderman; says the area has traffic jams all day long; not just in rush hours.” Photo by Don Dutton, 1974. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0003801f.

Elected to North York council in 1972, Shiner continued her pro-Spadina crusade, which included buying billboard space to remind drivers that Davis deserved the blame for the constant traffic jams. When the Spadina Ditch opened to traffic on September 8, 1976, Shiner’s Ford Galaxy was the first vehicle to use the road. Later that night, she held a celebration in her backyard. By the 1980s, her obsession with reviving the expressway seemed comical, as time and time again she failed to secure public plebiscites she was convinced would lead to its completion.

Toronto Star, October 28, 1986.

Today, Shiner’s name lives on via Esther Shiner Boulevard, which connects Leslie Street to the North York IKEA. When it opened in 2008 her son David, by then a Toronto city councillor, told those assembled for the opening ceremony that “it’s not a small little road. It’s a beautiful new road that is wonderfully landscaped.” The old Ford Galaxy was brought out to mark the occasion.

Sources: the December 5, 2008 edition of the National Post; and the June 5, 1971, June 10, 1971, and April 16, 2015 editions of the Toronto Star.