The 2003 concert that rocked Toronto after SARS

Toronto's struggling tourism industry needed a boost after SARS hit the city. So the federal government put together a concert bill that included the Rolling Stones, AC/DC and Rush to bring people back.

Rolling Stones headlined Toronto Rocks event with aim of helping tourism sector

A fan holds a Canadian flag with SARSTOCK written on it at the Concert for SARS Relief at Toronto's Downsview Park on July 30, 2003. (Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press)

Toronto needed a boost in the wake of the SARS crisis.

The respiratory disease had prompted the World Health Organization to issue a warning against non-essential travel to the city, devastating the tourism industry. 

That's when an MP and a senator put together a fundraising concert for the city's health care and hospitality workers with acts including Rush, AC/DC, and Justin Timberlake.

On July 30, 2003, thousands of music fans began streaming in to the concert site. They would ultimately number about 490,000, according to the Globe and Mail.

Rob Leonard, Fiona Leonard, Larry Hilsden and Keri Austin, from Owen Sound, Ont., walk through the Concert for SARS Relief at Toronto's Downsview Park on July 30, 2003. (Aaron Harris/Canadian Press)

The "mad dash" began at 8 a.m. when the gates opened under sunny skies at Toronto's Downsview Park on July 30, 2003, said CBC reporter Kas Roussy that night on The National.

"It's like the biggest concert ever, so why wouldn't I come?" said a young man.

Asked who she was there to see, another fan said "everybody."

That made for a long list, from AC/DC and Rush down to what Roussy described as "lesser-known" Canadian acts like Kathleen Edwards and Sam Roberts.   

"Except Justin Timberlake," added the fan.

"Mr. Timberlake was booed during the afternoon when his own set was announced," noted the Globe and Mail. "But he had won the tough heart of the rock 'n' roll crowd by the time he left the stage." (Aaron Harris/Canadian Press)

A date with the Stones

Toronto Rocks concert for SARS relief

20 years ago
Duration 3:17
Headlined by the Rolling Stones, an outdoor concert attracts hundreds of thousands in summer 2003.

But it was the venerable Rolling Stones who were headlining the show.

"Eight weeks ago we were asked to do this," explained lead singer Mick Jagger at a press conference backstage with the band. "We were on tour in Europe and we had some other dates. And we moved those other dates around in Europe and decided that we would do this."

The concert, which was nicknamed SARSstock by a fan waving a Canadian flag emblazoned with the word, had been hastily put together by Toronto-area MP Dennis Mills and Senator Jerry Grafstein, according to the Globe and Mail.

"Our objective from Day 1 was to erase the negative messages with respect to Toronto," Grafstein told the newspaper.

Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, right, serves up an Alberta beef sandwich at the concert for SARS relief at Toronto's Downsview Park on July 30, 2003. (Aaron Harris/Canadian Press)

"The concert was a fundraiser for health-care and hospitality workers hurt by SARS," explained Roussy.

SARS, or Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome, had earned Toronto a spot earlier that year on the World Health Organization's list of places affected by the virus — a designation that had ended less than a month earlier. 

"I love you, Toronto," surprise guest Catherine O'Hara told the crowd, as she stood onstage alongside fellow comedy legend Dan Aykroyd. "You've been through so much, and you've come through."

Hitching a ride on the SARS relief plan was a group of Western Canadian premiers serving up beef to hungry concertgoers in an effort to combat fears about mad cow disease, which had "hurt the beef industry," said Roussy.

AC/DC's Brian Johnson, left, and Angus Young perform during the Concert for SARS Relief at Toronto's Downsview Park on July 30, 2003. (Aaron Harris/Canadian Press)

"This is a wonderful country," said Liberal MP Paul Martin, who would become prime minister later that year. "It's very important for the country to come together to really support Canadians in everything." 

Roussy explained that half of the merchandising profits for the Stones would be going to the SARS relief fund as an aerial shot of the audience showed the just how huge the concert was.

And it wasn't over yet.

"By early evening the massive crowd was taking care of business with Winnipeg's The Guess Who," said Roussy. Rush and Australia's AC/DC were up next. 

Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger (right) and Keith Richards perform at the Concert for SARS Relief at Toronto's Downsview Park on July 30, 2003. The Rolling Stones performed along with more than 15 other acts. (Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press)

"And finally, the pièce de résistance," said Roussy, as Jagger's moves and the band were shown onstage. 

As people were seen departing the concert site, Roussy said Jagger had described the concert as "the biggest party he's ever seen" and that "Toronto is back." 

"I believe that a lot of SARS-weary officials are hoping that the British rocker is truly right," she summed up.

Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips throws out a balloon during the band's performance at the Concert for SARS Relief at Downsview Park in Toronto on July 30, 2003. (Aaron Harris/Canadian Press)

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