Rochdale College: Organized anarchy
Flowers and free love. Antiwar marches and acid tests. In the mid to late 1960s, youth across North America and Europe began to "turn on, tune in and drop out." Fed up with the establishment — parents, schools, police — they went looking for a new way of life. To Toronto's Yorkville and Vancouver's Kitsilano district they came, preaching peace, love and non-conformity.
Rochdale is a hotbed of free thought and radical idealism. It gives birth to respected institutions like Coach House Press, Theatre Passe Muraille, the Toronto Free Dance Theatre and House of Anansi Press. Yorkville's idealistic hippies take refuge here as their old neighbourhood changes. In Rochdale, they create a tribal community all their own, where they control what goes on. It's co-operative living, it's democracy. Some might call it anarchy. Are the lunatics running the asylum?
In 1969, a housing surplus at U of T leads to more and more varied tenants - street people, drug people - being allowed to live at Rochdale. By 1971, the press is calling Rochdale "North America's largest drug distribution warehouse." Hash, pot and LSD are in large supply. The Rochdale security force includes members of biker gangs.
. Robert "Rosie" Rowbotham, who would later become a CBC producer, was one of the people who sold cannabis out of Rochdale. He was sentenced to 20 years in jail - the longest sentence for soft drugs in Canadian history.
. Rochdale was a haven for U.S. draft resisters.
. One of Rochdale's many problems was its early open-door policy. Hundreds of street people would crash in Rochdale's halls at night. The governing council decided to lock the doors and issue keys to residents. Keys to Rochdale then went on sale in Yorkville for $25 apiece.
. According to Brian J. Grieveson, former Rochdalian, police raids in the early days were sometimes met at the door with balloons and confetti and, in one case, a cake that read "Welcome 52 Division."
. Due to problems with cops and bikers, the governing council set up a paid security force to be on 24-hour alert. Ironically, some of these security people were bikers themselves. As had happened in Yorkville, an unofficial alliance with the Vagabonds motorcycle club developed.
. On July 30, 1974, a fight broke out between police and Rochdale residents. In the ensuing riot Rochdale's rental office was trashed. A large bonfire in the middle of Bloor Street blocked traffic.
. Rochdale was eventually closed due to political pressure. On May 30, 1975, the last residents were carried from the building by police and the doors were literally welded shut. The building remained empty for years.
. The building which housed Rochdale, located on the south side of Bloor Street at Huron, became a seniors' residence in 1979.
. Although Rochdale was the most famous student co-op in Canada, it was preceded by a smaller unit at the University of Waterloo.
. Rochdale took its name from Rochdale, England, where the first successful co-operative business and the world's first attempt at co-operative housing happened in the mid-1800s.
. Rochdale became the largest co-op residence in North America and the largest of more than 300 free universities on the continent.
. In general, free universities were institutions which offered student-organized classes and did not issue degrees.
. Anyone could obtain a BA from Rochdale by donating $25 to the college and answering a skill-testing question, such as "What is the capital of Canada?" An MA was earned by donating $50. A skill-testing question still had to be answered, but the applicant got to pick the question. A PhD could be had for $100, no questions asked.
Broadcast Date: Jan. 8, 1969
Host: Peter Meggs
Last updated: February 6, 2012
Page consulted on March 11, 2013
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A look back at the failure and legacy of Rochdale.