“Hippies” is a term used to describe young people who participated in the 1960s counterculture movement, which originated in the United States and spread throughout Canada in the second half of that decade. As a noun, “hippie” was a play on the adjective “hip,” which was used to describe young bohemians who lived in Greenwich Village in New York City, and in San Francisco, in the 1950s and early 1960s. Hippies were part of the “baby boom” generation, born immediately following the end of the Second World War (see Baby Boomers in Canada). This demographic wave was significant enough to transform Canadian society; by the mid-1960s more than half of Canada’s population of 20 million was under the age of 25.
This generation came of age during a period of unprecedented prosperity following the Second World War. Their relative privilege led many social commentators to disparage their demands for social change as a form of decadence or moral rot. However, their influence on mainstream culture across the West was ultimately transformative. Hippie culture foregrounded the popularization of holistic health and wellness, mindfulness, and social justice, all of which went on to become cornerstones of popular culture in Canada in the 21st century.
Hippies were associated with both an aesthetic and an ideology. Long hair on men and women, untrimmed beards, unconventional clothing and occasional nudity were hallmarks of hippie style. Ideologically, hippies were interested in critiquing or dismantling conservative social conventions that governed mid-20th-century life across the developed world, including conspicuous consumption, heterosexual monogamy, respect for corporate and state authority, and repression of minority groups. Hippies were also known for embracing illegal drug use, particularly marijuana and LSD.
Photo: John Hill, Wikimedia Commons.
Draft Dodger Influence
As the Vietnam War escalated in the mid-1960s, the United States military announced the first lottery draft since 1942. Draft-resisting emigrants, many of whom were hippies and opposed the war in Vietnam on pacifist ideological grounds, began to move in significant numbers to Canada and elsewhere. These “draft dodgers” risked incarceration for failing to report for duty upon being drafted, and therefore committed to spending the rest of their lives as fugitives in Canada. (In 1977, US president Jimmy Carter issued a pardon to all draft dodgers, enabling them to re-enter the United States without fear of arrest.) This migration was instrumental in bringing the cultural influence of hippies to Canada.
The towns of Nelson, British Columbia and Wolfville, Nova Scotia, as well as a number of the Gulf Islands in BC’s Strait of Georgia, became popular destinations for American hippie draft dodgers, and their economies continue to reflect the countercultural social leanings of these settlers.
Music played an important part of hippie culture, and several Canadian musicians rose to prominence as countercultural icons. Neil Young wrote the protest song “Ohio” in 1970, after a group of non-violent anti-war protesters at Kent State University in Ohio were fired on by members of the National Guard, resulting in the death of four students and numerous injuries. Joni Mitchell wrote the song “Woodstock” in 1969. It described the music festival of the same name that had taken place in New York State that year, and came to symbolize the hippie movement as a whole.
Other notable Canadian musicians that came to be associated with hippie culture include the members of the Band, who toured and recorded extensively with Bob Dylan, and whose final concert is the subject of a documentary by Martin Scorsese entitled The Last Waltz.
Urban Epicentres and “Be-Ins”
While hippies interested in the so-called “back-to-the-land movement” sought to create utopian communities in rural areas across Canada, the neighbourhoods of Kitsilano in Vancouver and Yorkville in Toronto were urban epicentres of the hippie movement in Canada. The non-violent protests of the civil-rights movement taking place in the American South inspired forms of peaceful public protest that brought attention to the hippies in Canada.
In the late 1960s, Yorkville Avenue was home to numerous coffee houses that acted as music venues and social gathering places. In 1967, a non-violent “love-in” was held at Queen’s Park, in support of the cause of closing Yorkville Avenue to car traffic. Later the same year, protesters held a sit-in on Yorkville Avenue, during which approximately 50 people were arrested.
In Vancouver, a “be-in” was held in Stanley Park on Easter Sunday of 1967. The event was peaceful, included music and dancing, and was inspired by the “human be-in” that took place in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in January 1967.
The University of Toronto was the site of an experiment in free and communal education between 1968 and 1975, in the form of Rochdale College. Rochdale was a co-op residence and tuition-free communal space that did not issue formal degrees or hold formal classes. Residents attended and taught informal classes, and at its peak the building that housed Rochdale College contained an independent, collectively run health clinic, library, cafeteria and grocery, radio and TV stations, child care centre, and communal living spaces. Theatre Passe Muraille, a theatre based in Toronto, as well as House of Anansi Press, were both founded at Rochdale. Rochdale ultimately defaulted on its mortgage and shut its doors to tenants in 1975. Its later years were marked by social unrest including dangerous drug use, vagrancy and crime.
Media and Censorship
Vancouver’s alternative newsweekly, the Georgia Straight, was founded as a countercultural outlet in 1967, as the hippie movement was noticeably growing in influence. A week following the publication of its first issue, the paper’s editor Dan McLeod was arrested for vagrancy, a charge widely considered to be unfounded. Vancouver’s then-mayor Tom Campbell opposed the paper on ideological grounds, claiming that it would have a harmful influence on children. The conflict between the Mayor of Vancouver and the Georgia Straight exemplifies the kind of conflicts that simmered between the culture of the “establishment” and the countercultural media and commercial entities that formed throughout the hippie era. Campbell’s efforts to discredit the paper culminated in the issuance of a suspension order by the city licensing inspector. Ultimately the suspension was lifted, but Mayor Campbell continued fighting for the paper’s closure for two years, through the issuance of obscenity and libel charges against the paper and its staff.
Although the hippie movement itself fizzled out by the mid-1970s, it is hard to overstate the lasting impact that it had on mainstream culture in Canada. Environmentalism was born out of concerns brought to the fore by the hippie movement. The hippie movement popularized the fight for equal rights for women, minorities and queer people -- fights that continue to influence public debate and policy in Canada and internationally. Recycling and composting were championed by hippies long before they were adopted as part of urban waste management infrastructures. Hippies popularized several Eastern medicine and wellness practices in the 1960s, including yoga and meditation which would go on to become part of mainstream culture in the United States and Canada.