I know – it’s ridiculous. But then so are most annual events that humans still celebrate. Easter springs to mind. How did a story about the crucifixion and resurrection of a deity’s son 2000 years ago turn into hiding coloured eggs and eating chocolate bunnies? Well, that story can also be found online. You might want to look up “The Psychedelic Origins Of Santa Claus” while you are at it.
Every year for the past decade or more, Ottawa, like many other cities around the world, has had a 420 celebration of some sort. And in true Ottawa fashion, we don’t do it anywhere near the same as any other city. Most cities have a single central location that is agreed upon beforehand. Up until last year, 420 Ottawa was an organically-formed event where the majority of participants went to Major’s Hill Park (right across the street from that eyesore of a US embassy) for the huge party/drum circle that occurs there, while another crowd would form on Parliament Hill to break the law on the front lap of the seat of power.
Both locations have their appeal. Major’s Hill is a huge park with space and trees where the Ottawa Police Service have, up until 2012, let the whole thing carry on with very little supervision. It was free, open, and loose. But Parliament Hill is where our federal government is. Toking on the front lawn, while surrounded by dozens of Horsemen and god-knows how many CCTV cameras, sends a message: “We are protesting this unjust law. And we are not afraid.” It is called “civil disobedience”.
And no other city has this distinction. Nowhere on Earth do thousands of people openly break one of the country’s most-often-enforced laws this close to their federal government’s main offices. You don’t see this in Washington, London, Paris, Tokyo, Syndey, or Berlin. It doesn’t even happen in Amsterdam, as far as I know! Only in Ottawa.
Depending on the weather, each location can have anywhere from 1,000-3,000 people, and many people would drift back and forth between the two locations, as they are only a 10-12 minute walk from each other. But it wasn’t until last year that the two crowds came together to form the biggest crowd of stoners (approximately 5,500 people) that Parliament Hill had ever seen.
Usually, this event is under or mis-reported by Canada’s “media”. In 2010, I caught Kevin Newman reporting on Global’s evening news that “a few hundred” people showed up, and that “the police dispersed everyone” shortly after 4:30pm. What actually happened was, 2,500-3,000 people were there, and the RCMP did absolutely nothing to disperse anyone. Everyone just left by 5:00, like always.
But 2012 was the first year – that I know of – that anyone took it upon themselves to attempt to organize an actual event for 420 Ottawa. There have been many organized marijuana protests on Parliament Hill over the years, but no one had organized a 420 event for Ottawa before. Posters were printed and stuck to poles around the downtown, a permit for amplification and power was cleared with Hill security, sound gear was rented and set up, the press were invited, and a Facebook page was created and managed.
On Feb. 25, 2012, before this all happened, I put up a Youtube video, urging people to volunteer, make signs, and do whatever they could think of to get everyone to avoid Major’s Hill Park and go to Parliament Hill. I talked about “achieving critical mass” with one crowd instead of two. It was, I thought, a futile effort, like herding cats (stoned cats, at that) and that maybe only a fraction of the attendees would likely ever see the video. But as it turned out, there was a spike of over 1,900 views on that video for that day alone, and over 1,200 people had seen it in the 7 weeks just before the event. As to how many of the 3,000 viewers actually attended, and how many of those 5,500 attendees saw the video, I’ll never know.
Around 3:15 on April 20, 2012, my wife and I entered Major’s Hill Park expecting to see hundreds of teens and assorted freaks of various ages gathering early for the day’s fun. What we found was about 20 very-organized Ottawa cops telling small circles of kids to leave the park and go to Parliament Hill. Maybe the police saw my video and decided that one big crowd on the RCMP’s turf was better than (yet another) messy free-for-all in a city park.
Well, we can’t thank the OPS enough, because when we got to Parliament Hill a short time later, what we found was 1,200-1,500 people sitting in groups, chilling, while throngs of people continued to stream in for the next 90 minutes. There is even a time-lapse Youtube video from The Hill Cam showing a five hour period from about 1:15 to 6:15pm on that day, not to mention countless other Youtube videos from above, beside, and within the crowd.
The most noticeable thing about the videos is the average age of the crowd. Other than myself and a handful of others, hardly anyone there was over the age of 19, from what I saw. The crowd consisted almost entirely of teenagers. Now, imagine if the police suddenly started arresting people. What do you think would happen?
Since this year’s April 20 falls on a Saturday, the event promises to be even bigger. The organizers have been busy postering and arranging guest speakers, buses full of people from other cities have been chartered, and if the weather holds, I think we can easily expect to see eight to ten thousand people in attendance.
This should not frighten parents. Their kids are probably safer in that crowd than they would be simply walking around the Byward Market. The RCMP are quick to get rid of creeps, and because of the high number of uniforms in the general area, the really bad guys seem to want to keep their distance anyway. If I had kids, I would feel a lot safer knowing my teenager was going to attend an organized and supervised 420 event on Parliament Hill, than I would be if they were just going to some gathering in a park, or a concert, or a house party.
In fact, if parents in Ottawa were smarter, they would come along. They’re the ones who are not only paying for the prohibition that their kids are there protesting, they’re usually paying for the pot their kids are smoking while they do it.
Russell Barth is an Ottawa area activist and educator.
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