Book details the era Vancouver welcomed culture of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll

(Edmonton) Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll were characteristic of the 1960s, when for a brief moment everything, from ending the nuclear arms race to creating a society less mechanistic and materialistic, seemed possible, says the author of the first book that documents that decade’s counterculture movement in Vancouver.

University of Alberta history researcher Lawrence Aronsen, who wrote City of Love and Revolution; Vancouver in the Sixties, says his research shows how activists in Vancouver welcomed the California counterculture considered revolutionary at the time, despite rampant anti-American sentiment.

Aronsen says that “the historic fear was that if Canada had closer trade ties with the U.S, eventually that would lead to cultural domination and then that makes it easier for the U.S. to annex us as another state,” Aronsen said. “But the counterculture was seen as a universal progressive worldview and it didn’t matter if you were American, as long as you ‘did’ sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. We welcomed the culture without critical interpretation.”

And, in welcoming the culture, Aronsen says many Vancouverties set aside suspicions of the U.S.’s territorial ambitions and the downtown Kitsilano neighbourhood became a home and a symbol of hope, not only for Vancouverites, but also for a few thousand Canadians who moved there. They came to help create a better world by rejecting capitalism and the emerging consumerist middle-class society it was producing, Aronsen said.

“In 1966, teenage boomers from all backgrounds began hanging out in the hip neighbourhood of Kitsilano. By the summer of 1967 the area had established its counterculture reputation, and hundreds of ‘outsiders’ visited West Fourth Avenue just to ‘drive up and down to see the hippies,’” Aronsen noted. “Vancouver became a city of love and revolution.”

But unlike the U.S. where the cultural, political and social changes activists sought were met with resistance from government, Aronsen says it was different in Vancouver. He explains that mass immigration in the later 19th century had prepared the city for the newer cultural import.

“In the late 19th century, mostly from French and English mass immigration, Canada established several identities and culture,” said Aronsen. “So when the ‘60s came, because the country had this tradition of recognizing different identities, Canadians didn’t beat down the counterculture as they did in the U.S.”   

The counterculture decade, which for Aronsen’s book spans about November 1963 to April 1975, did not pass completely without violence in Vancouver, however. “The Gastown Riot on Aug. 7, 1971, when Vancouver police ran amok using the pretext of an earlier, non-violent ‘smoke-in’ at Maple Tree Square, was the closest Vancouver came to the violent confrontations that marked the era in the U.S.,” he says.

Aronsen says that during that time, Vancouverites who embraced the decade of sex, drugs, music, social and political activism, and theatre, impacted national politics on issues such as abortion, the environment and matters concerning First Nation peoples in Canada.

“The women’s and environmental movements are the two most powerful political movements that came out of the 1960s,” said Aronsen. “There has been improvement in race relations also. It’s hard to measure these things but the ‘60s accelerated the process of change.”   

His only criticism of the decade is that it expected too much from humankind.

“The bar was raised too high as to how people should behave. It was a kind of romantic enlightenment view that somehow under the right conditions humans can behave like angels,” said Aronsen. “The belief was that all violence could be eliminated in human behaviour if we remove people from materialist consumption, and somehow that would introduce a new level of authenticity in human relations.

“As the decades unfolded it has become clear that human beings can’t behave in that ideal.”

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