Activism Blog Canada Feature

Ottawa’s Unique 420 History

Russell Barth

The first 420 celebration in Canada was held in Vancouver in 1995, and some time shortly after that, Ottawa held it’s first informal 420 gathering in Major’s Hill Park, immediately across the street from the eyesore of a US Embassy on Sussex Drive. These early gatherings were small: a few hundred people, no advertising before the event, no posters around town, no PA system, no speeches, no bands, no activists. The crowd grew in size every year (weather permitting), and by 2002, Parliament Hill was seeing informal gatherings as well, spill-off from the crowd over at Major’s Hill.

I am not sure who did it or when it was that someone first brought a PA system onto Parliament Hill for 420, but there were several cannabis-related events on The Hill before that for Million Marijuana Marches in May, and other medical-pot-related protests during the summers of 2000-2005.

The Major’s Hill Park events, which I had never attended, were reportedly a mixed bag. The good part was, there were basically no police present at all, it was just an informal, loose gathering of stoners, which felt very free. The bad part was that, with no police presence, there were plenty of dealers and weirdos around. People got backpacks grabbed, girls were putting up with uninvited sexual touching, and every freak from The Byward Market was in there doing what freaks do in crowds.

Everything changed in 2012 when The City Of Ottawa passed a new bylaw prohibiting smoking of any kind in all parks. When I arrived at Major’s Hill Park at about 3:00pm that April 20th, there were maybe 20 attendees spread out in little groups of four and five on the lawn, and 25 cops telling them to leave. Marc-Boris St-Maurice organized that one, and it was the first time I had ever addressed a crowd that size (about 4,000).

Since then, 420 has been on Parliament Hill exclusively, and it has been a varying success every time.

The cool part about Ottawa 420 is that nowhere else on earth does a 420 event take place on the lap of the seat of power. Toronto and Vancouver might have much larger crowds and open sales, but they are not sitting right on the lawn of the federal government. Aside from bursting into the building, we cannot get any closer to the people in power.

There are many challenges to putting a 420 show together on The Hill, however, not least of which is the sound. Because of the Centre, East, and West blocks of the complex itself, and the stone, glass, and concrete across the street, the sound on The Hill is just terrible. Whether you bring a bullhorn or a stadium-sized PA system, all you get on most of the lawn is a cacophony of overlapping syllables (or music) that is really hard to put up with.

Speeches and songs become a garbled mess, audibly, if you are too far back, and making it louder only makes it worse. Like any amplified event, there is a sweet zone close to the PA where you can hear clearly without going deaf, but if you move further back it becomes increasingly messy with every step.

The next challenge is the weather. Whatever the weather is in Ottawa, the weather on The Hill will be even more so. Cold and windy? Worse on The Hill. Too hot? The Hill feels like an anvil. Also, the weather in Ottawa in mid-April can range anywhere from “parkas-and-boot-cleats” to “t-shirts-and-sandals”, sometimes in as little as 48 hours, so renting a huge PA system and stage setup for a show that could be rained or even snowed out is too risky.

The other challenge is the lawn itself. The lawn on Parliament Hill is not a lawn on the ground, like you’d find in a park, it is just several inches of topsoil and sod sitting atop a two-story building. Inside that building are (among other things) weather-avoidance tunnels connecting the East, West, and Centre blocks of Parliament to the PM and others’ offices across the street. This can make the “lawn” quite soggy in April, meaning it can be unpleasant to stand on, and impossible to sit on, even if it hasn’t rained in a few days.

The other issue is the massive police presence, which many people find off-putting and which just as many people love (because they get to toke in front of cops with impunity!). The RCMP guard the entire Parliament Hill complex year-round, so whether it is 420 crowd or a Canada Day Celebration, they have a set of protocols that says a crowd of a certain size needs a corresponding number of officers.

Organizers of any kind of event must get a permit from Hill security to hold any event, and there is a list of rules that must be followed. They can’t say no to anyone who asks for a permit, so there was some confusion in 2016 when event organizer David-George Oldham got a permit without knowing that someone else had already acquired one weeks earlier. To avoid this confusion, I acquired the permit for the 2017 in May, phoning The Hill on April 21st to make sure.

For many years, people from all over Canada have asked why Ottawa’s 420 isn’t more like Toronto or Vancouver, why the envelope doesn’t get pushed more and why people are not throwing joints to the crowd or selling edibles or giving away fancy bongs.

The answer is simple enough: This is the cops’ place, we are just using it. Well, to be more clear, it is public property but it is managed like private property. Sort of like the lawn around a museum as opposed to a public park, the whole place belongs to everyone, but we hired these people to manage it, and they are.

For example, there is no commerce on The Hill. Not just for 420, but for anything, ever. So no open sales. Next, they provide the power. If, at 3:45, someone decides to take the stage and throw a pound of joints to the audience, the power gets shut off, and the cops start dispersing the crowd, spoiling The Big Moment at 4:20pm for everyone. No tents are allowed on The Hill, so we can’t even have kiosks for activism groups to offer their services.

So, with all these challenges and setbacks, why do people come to this event? For each other. They come to be part of the crowd, to say that they were there, smoking pot on the front lawn of Canada’s Parliament.

I have not been to every 420, and even boycotted a few of them because of what I considered a far-too-cozy relationship between the organizers and the Liberal Party Of Canada. But this year is different. The event will be hosted by local activists Alex Nucombe, Shawn Mac, and Ming Saad. Mac, of course, is one of The Ottawa Nine, having the distinction of being the first person in Ottawa’s history to be cuffed in a marijuana dispensary raid, Nucombe was busted at Cannabis Culture this March, and Saad is one of the founding members of Patients’ Lives Matter. The PA system is being provided and handled by impresario Wayne Robillard (of BuzzOn and Reefer Madness fame), and local business Crosstown Traffic, THC Emporium, (and others to be named later) are sponsoring the event.

Pottawa producer Nathanael Newton is attempting an unprecedented five-part, multi-camera live stream of the entire event (with breaks), which I will be “hosting”. We are also setting up systems to record the entire event for posterity, and for the first time, 420 Ottawa will have marshals (decked out in snazzy green/white tie-dye TEAM 420 shirts). The roster of speakers is still being compiled as this article goes to my editor.

The main feature of this year’s event will be The Freak Zone. With the vastly-increased presence of edibles in Ottawa, and the surging popularity of dabbing, we are expecting a few attendees to catch a dose of the Cold Sweats. We’re planning a fenced-off zone to the west of the stage where people can bring any friends who Green Out.

Ottawa is known to be dull. Not just for locals, but for the tourists who come here and the people who travel here frequently for work. Sure, we have Bluesfest and a few other fun-ish events, but April 20th, 2017 promises to be the coolest that Ottawa has ever been.

Russell Barth
Born in 1969 in Montreal's West Island, Russell Barth was raised in Rigaud Quebec and VanKleek Hill, Ontario. He and his wife Christine Lowe became marijuana-legalization advocates in the summer of 2002, and have since appeared in countless TV, print, radio, and net articles. Co-author of the world's first children's book about medical marijuana (Mommy's Funny Medicine), Russell went on to become the most-published letter-to-the-editor writer in Canadian history, making him fourth-most- published in the world.

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