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  • They're Both the Same Thing? Transnational Politics and Identity Performance in 1960s Toronto
  • Stuart Henderson

Yorkville had become not so much a district in Toronto as a word in Toronto's argot. It has only to be uttered. It requires no adjectives, no expanded narration to conjure all sorts of repugnant images in the public mind.

Michael Valpy, Globe and Mail, 16 December 1968

Yorkville is not a place but a state of mind.

Reverend Philip Karpetz, Globe and Mail, 25 August 1967

In Toronto's 1960s, performances of countercultural identity—an identity that was defined primarily through its youthfulness—found its expected stage in a half-square kilometer of prime real estate known as the Village of Yorkville. Indeed, for a period of roughly ten years, Yorkville served as a crossroads for young counterculturalists, as a venue for experimentation with alternative lifestyles and beliefs, and as an apparent refuge from the dominant culture and the stifling expectations it had placed upon them.1 By 1964, every young Torontonian (and many young English Canadians and Northeastern Americans alike) knew that rebellion, youth, [End Page 35] and Yorkville went together as fingers interlaced. A "hippie ghetto" to rival its American cousins, by 1965, Yorkville was home and stomping ground to thousands of young people—bikers, teenagers, students, hippies, draft resistors up from down south, and all other collaborators in this burgeoning counterculture.

Though often forgotten by non-Canadian historians, in its day it was understood to be a vital component of a hip transnational network (held together by drift ing young people, underground newspapers, and other cultural communication). As a primary destination for draft resistors upon their arrival from the United States, Yorkville developed a diverse and international community, and played host to an astoundingly varied music scene boasting such talents as Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Rick James, Bruce Cockburn, Gordon Lightfoot, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, the Paupers, Luke and the Apostles, and Sparrow (later Steppenwolf). Such countercultural luminaries as Paul Krassner, Allen Ginsberg, Richard Alpert, and Ralph Metzner passed through the Village on their travels, and pop impresario Bill Graham brought his "San Francisco Sound" (in the form of the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane) to the scene for a series of shows designed to make explicit the link between Toronto's hip community and the one in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.

In mid-summer 1967, the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) sponsored two documentary crews as they entered the Village scene, hoping to capture the spirit of this famous hippie ghetto. And whereas one of the films, the fraught and pointed Flowers on a One-Way Street, tended to emphasize the escalating conflict between youthful Villagers and aging City Hall over ownership of Yorkville Avenue, the other took a more complex approach.2 This film, the vérité-influenced Christopher's Movie Matinee, combined the expert with the amateur, intermingling professionally shot material with footage collected by a group of fourteen teenagers, the ostensible subjects of the movie.3 The result is a perplexing, at times tedious, but always illuminating representation of their world, their concerns, and their impulsive fascinations. From the outset, the film underlines the primacy of youth—the Yorkville of the film is but a synecdoche, a flashpoint for what was being portrayed as a new, embattled, and fundamentally significant transnational youth culture.4

Taking place on a crowded city bus, the centerpiece of Christopher's Movie Matinee finds a young man, bearded but not clearly a hippie by any [End Page 36] conventional definition (he is wearing a tie).5 He is interviewing an older man, the picture of establishment in his dark business suit. The young man complains to his interviewee that City Controller Allan Lamport, with whom a number of Villagers have just met, has refused to listen to the demands of the predominately white, middle-class, suburbanite Yorkville activists. And so, the young man wonders aloud, to the obvious shock of his interviewee, "What would any minority, what would the Negroes in the States do, when people refuse to take their ills seriously?" The older man, his voice inflected with a vestigial British...


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