In our Dancing vs. The State series, THUMP explores nightlife's complicated relationship to law enforcement, past and present.
In the late 1990s, the rave scene was huge in Toronto, and had become so big that it couldn't stay under the radar any more. What started as a small underground scene of warehouse parties in the downtown core had blown up to a point where promoters were taking over sites including the CN Tower and the Ontario Science Centre, attracting thousands of partiers. Larger events were pulling in crowds of over 10,000, and organizers were increasingly turning to city-owned properties like the Better Living Centre on the Canadian National Exhibition grounds to accommodate the massive events.
In 1999, three drug-related deaths at raves led to increased media scrutiny of the scene. A 20-year-old student named Kieran Kelly died in July at a three-day rave in Sauble Beach, and another 20-year-old man overdosed at a party at the Warehouse club in August. The most high profile tragedy was 21-year-old Ryerson University student Allan Ho, who died at a happy hardcore party in an underground parking garage after ingesting MDMA. This spurred a coroner's inquest, and also led to a charged political debate at city hall about whether Toronto should continue to permit all-night dance parties on city-owned property, and how to regulate these events on private property.
Rave promoters and harm reduction organizations like TRIP came together to represent the community and to help guide the creation of safety protocols. Unfortunately, police chief Julian Fantino and mayor Mel Lastman were both pushing for a harsher response. Rather than simply implementing the recommendations that came out of the Allan Ho inquest, the politician put forward a complete ban on raves on city property, as well as a city-wide ban on all electronic music events after 3 AM.
Lastman was the kind of wacky, right-wing populist leader that Toronto's infamous crack-smoking mayor Rob Ford would later model himself after. Some of his many foibles during his career included calling in the army to cope with a heavy snowfall, and making a joke to the press about ending up in "a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around" before a trip to Kenya. He made it his mission to crack down on the rave scene, positioning himself against left-wing councillors like Olivia Chow (wife of late NDP leader Jack Layton), who attempted to stand up for the scene by comparing it to previous youth culture movements such as hippies in the 60s.
"They started a very public media campaign smearing raves, calling them havens for drug use," recalled Will Chang, a corporate lawyer who ended up acting as a spokesman for the underground party scene. "There was one press conference I remember, where Fantino stood in front of a table covered in guns and knives, and tried to claim that this was what you found at raves." (It later turned out that the weapons had actually been seized at an illegal after-hours bar.)
At the time, Chang was a young raver who had just started his law career, and was close with several event production companies. These organizers had begun turning to him for advice as they dealt with authorities, and he became involved in a loose collective of promoters, harm reduction advocates, and activists called the Toronto Dance Safety Committee. Attempting to push back against the sensationalist narrative coming from the media and politicians, the group's goals were to head of the impending crackdown through self-regulation and changing the media narrative.
"We were trying to become more legitimate, at the same time as the city and the authorities were seemingly trying to make it more difficult to do so," remembers Ryan Kruger, a member of the committee, who ran production company Destiny Events. "We were going into city-owned properties and working with the police for paid duty officers, working with the city on getting permits. We wanted to go legit, because our parties were getting big enough that we needed to.
While Kruger welcomed the support of Councillor Chow, he recalls having reservations about trusting any politician, despite the logistical help her office was providing to the TDSC. The idea of working with the authorities was still controversial in a community that had flourished while operating in legal grey areas. "It was a high-profile situation, so for politicians it looks good to be involved, whether they're on one side or the other," says Kruger. "At the end of the day, I think Olivia Chow's intentions were correct and her heart was in it, but a politician is a politician, so you've always got that in the back of your mind."
Chow's support became crucial once the ban passed. The councillor had managed to attach an amendment to the resolution calling on city council to revisit the issue in a few months, and actively worked with the TDSC to hone their strategy. "Olivia and her office helped us with the press releases, and [gave us advice on] how to deliver the message properly," says Chang. "They told us to slow down and feed our arguments to the media one piece at a time, so that we could stay in the news over a period of months, instead of just putting it out all at once."
The collective decided that the best response would be to throw a protest party outside of city hall at Nathan Phillips Square where, coincidentally, ravers had traditionally congregated to board rented school busses to take them to parties at secret locations across Toronto. The event was named iDance and scheduled for August 1, 2000.
When it came to planning and executing the rally, the TDSC built on what they'd learned throwing parties, with DJs, sound, lighting, and security companies donating their services for free. There were some key differences between throwing a conventional party and organizing a protest of course. For one thing, raves were still outlawed at the time.
"If I remember correctly, there was a loophole that allowed us to move forward because it was designed as a protest and not a for-profit event," Kruger explains. "One of the key aspects is that we had a lot of speakers, and it wasn't just DJs all day long. The whole point was showing a bunch of people having a great time because they love the music, and not because they're drug addicts."
The event drew a massive crowd of approximately 20,000 people, and went off without a hitch. The lineup included international house DJs Derrick Carter, Miss Honey Dijon, and Bad Boy Bill, as well as drum and bass representatives like Ed Rush & Optical and Jumpin' Jack Frost. They also booked local heroes Kenny Glasgow and Dr Trance, and suspended a giant disco ball over the square.
Speeches between acts not only featured representatives from the scene, but also former mayors Barbara Hall and John Sewell, who were both anti-ban. City councillors who pledged to vote against the ban were given the opportunity to speak as well, while those who supported it had their names projected on screens all day. Other than some dancing in the fountain, the ravers were on their best behaviour, likely a result of community peer pressure to put forward a good image and combat perpetuating stereotypes.
As a result of the protest and the media campaign, the ban was overturned at council by a massive margin of 50-4 the next day, and the rally went down in history as one of the biggest protests ever at city hall. The following year, the TDSC organized a iDance sequel at Nathan Phillips Square, but it was very different from the first. Activist group Party People Project weren't involved this time, and it was criticized for being sponsored by Microsoft and the Toronto Star. The event drew a big crowd, but the moment of urgency had passed.
Meanwhile, the rave scene was changing dramatically—promoters were dealing with increased regulations and the big profits of the 90s were no longer as easy to achieve. Police began demanding a higher number of paid duty officers at events, which became a major expense for promoters. Venue owners also started hiking their rental fees, after realizing how much money some raves were making. There were also a lot fewer empty warehouses available, as the condo boom ate up those spaces.
Regulations weren't the only thing making raves less lucrative: tastes were changing too, and clubs had started absorbing the music and energy of the underground. "The reason the ban happened in the first place was that we got to a size where we were on the radar," Kruger recalls. "A lot of the time, when things get big and popular, that doesn't last very long. Kids' tastes and desires move on, and typically the next generation doesn't do what the previous one did."
While the Toronto rave scene was massive in 1999, it had peaked in popularity. Over the next few years, parties became much smaller, and no longer attracted thousands of kids every weekend. The ravers had won the right to use large city-owned venues, but the crowds just weren't big enough to need them anymore.
The 2000 iDance Rally had been a major victory, but in some ways, it was also the beginning of the end for the rave era. The scene had already splintered into many different factions, many of whom didn't even want to be associated with the word "rave." While they temporarily put aside their differences to fight the ban, once that battle was over, the culture went back to splitting itself into smaller sub-cultures.
Nevertheless, it proved that by working together as a community, they could have a very real political impact. Subsequent attempts to halt EDM-era events on city property have been blocked without any need for large-scale protests. "It wasn't until a decade later that the pendulum would swing back again and dance started getting big again," points out Kruger. "But when it came back as EDM, it was a different kind of thing. It wasn't independent promoters trying to claim legitimacy this time—now it was the major corporations becoming involved and bringing with them automatic legitimacy."
Benjamin Boles is on Twitter.