London

How Ontario university towns are trying to get their wild street parties to sober up

A coordinated province-wide effort is starting to emerge among Ontario's university towns when it comes to the growing problem of large-scale unsanctioned street parties that attract thousands of students and often end up sending dozens of people to hospital. 

Ontario college towns are sharing knowledge and teaching each other best practices

A lone reveller is silhouetted by a fire as he prepares to throw a glass bottle at police during a riot on Thurman Circle in London, Ont. in 2013. (Mike Maloney/London Community News/Canadian Press)

A coordinated province-wide effort is beginning to emerge to deal with the growing problem of recurring unsanctioned street parties.

Upwards of tens of thousands of drunken students have descended upon Ontario college towns for unsanctioned all-day benders that officials have warned could one day end in someone's death.

For years, wild, out-of-control student street parties such as those on London's Broughdale Avenue, Waterloo's Ezra Avenue and Aberdeen Street in Kingston have stretched the patience and resources of city officials, who have struggled to control the large crowds and keep a lid on often destructive and dangerous behaviour.

In the worst cases, students have been seriously hurt performing Instagram stunts, pelted police with rocks and bottles, and even set fire to a TV truck as officials' calls to students to get their own parties under control seem to fall on deaf ears. 

Now Ontario's post-secondary communities are starting to do what they do best: share their knowledge and teach each other what works and what doesn't when it comes to taming these sometimes ferocious blowouts.

Best practices

An ocean of purple-clad students sweeps over Broughdale Avenue in London, Ont. for fake homecoming, or foco, one of many large unsanctioned street parties that have made headlines in Ontario in recent years. (London Police Service)

"We're looking to develop best practices from the local level and share those across the province," said Alexander Wray, the president of the Town and Gown Association of Ontario (TGAO), an organization dedicated to helping the province's 54 college towns share knowledge and resources. 

Wray said by working together, organizers have found there are a number of commonalities that link Ontario's largest and wildest street parties:

  • They often happen in a medium-sized city that's a regional centre, such as London, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton, Kingston.
  • They often happen on a quiet residential street in close proximity to the college or university campus.
  • Many students will travel from out-of-town to attend the event.

Wray said what officials hope to do isn't stop the street parties from happening, but rather create a safer environment for students, their neighbours and first responders.

Here are four best practices according to the TGAO:

Remind students what's at stake

Students pair up with city officials or police to knock on doors in Waterloo ahead of the annual unsanctioned St. Patrick's Day street party on Ezra Avenue. (Shawn Cruz/Laurier Student Union)

Students are always looking to save money and sometimes it's as simple as a friendly reminder of how much havoc a heavy fine can wreak when you're on a student budget. 

In Waterloo, where Ezra Avenue was swarmed by 22,000 partiers for St Paddy's Day this year, police went on a door knocking campaign before the big day. 

Instead of telling students not to show up, officers and students reminded residents of the risks if they party too hardy, including stiff fines for littering and public urination.

In nearby Guelph, university officials have created a party registration system that's seen some success. Students are required to share their party information with police and the city and in exchange, are taught how to throw a safe and responsible party.

If they don't, they risk a $650 fine.

Create some competition

Western University and its student union have begun programming 'Purplefest' a free concert featuring big name acts to force students to choose between the school's sanctioned and unsanctioned gatherings. (University Students' Council)

One of the reasons the gatherings on Broughdale Avenue in London and Ezra Avenue in Waterloo attract upwards of 20,000 people is because many travel from other cities just to be there. 

Because of that, Wray said universities in close proximity have begun scheduling their homecoming weekends at the same time to encourage people to stay put, rather than take a road trip. 

"If you consolidate it all on one weekend, that discourages people. They have to pick one," he said.  

"Waterloo, Laurier, Western, McMaster and Guelph have all decided to consolidate their games' homecoming events into one weekend." 

Universities have also started programming alternate events, such as Purple Fest, which is scheduled on the same weekend as fake homecoming and forces students to choose between an official gathering and an unofficial one. 

Organize post-party cleanup groups

Sara Pijanowski, fourth year Western University student, lives on Broughdale avenue. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Because universities can't prevent large street gatherings from happening, they can at least help soothe the hangover. 

Wray said if they do, it can help forge stronger ties between town and gown and create a silver lining for a party that many see as a dark cloud hanging over their community. 

In London, students, university officials and local businesses rebuilt an 87-year-old woman's garden after it was trampled by the drunken mob that swept over her street. 

Wray said instances like that can help a school create an opportunity for positivity out of something many people see as negative. 

Use a soft touch

When police take a soft approach, like these two officers during London's 2018 Pride parade, the public is less likely to react aggressively. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Wray said the most important part of all is how the town reacts to the crowd. Officials have learned that large student gatherings usually go off the rails when police come down hard on the crowd. 

"As soon as you crack down, that's when destructive behaviour starts to occur," he said. "The way to manage these things is to let them die out on their own and not crack down."

Wray said authorities have found that if officers appear friendly and even wear some flair such as shamrocks for say St Patrick's Day, they'll get a better response than if they show up in riot gear. 

"It's making sure the response that police have doesn't result in an equal or even greater response from the crowd," he said, noting Canada's Pride parades are an example of a successful way of policing a large celebration. 

"At the Pride parade you see police getting involved in the celebration of it," he said. "If the street is properly closed, properly managed, I think you can have a safe and positive experience for everyone involved."

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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