Republic of Rathnelly marks 50 years since it seceded from Toronto and Canada in protest

Fifty years ago, a small Toronto neighbourhood declared independence from the city and from Canada itself in protest of the proposed Spadina Expressway. This weekend, that history will be enshrined on new laneway signs.

5 laneways will be given new names to honour the area's history

The new signs commemorating the Republic of Rathnelly were unveiled on Saturday. (CBC)

Fifty years ago this month, a Toronto neighbourhood symbolically declared its independence from the city and Canada itself in protest of the then-imminent Spadina Expressway. 

It was in a spirit of civic disobedience that the Republic of Rathnelly was established in 1967. 

Beginning this weekend, that spirit will be on display in the small forested enclave placed in the shadow of Casa Loma, just west of Avenue Road and above the railway corridor adjacent to Dupont Road.

Renowned artist Michael Snow, left, poses with his new laneway sign and city Coun. Josh Matlow. Snow has called Rathnelly home since 1984. (Michael Cole/CBC)

After a year of consultations with the community and city, five local laneways are being officially renamed to enshrine the history of the neighbourhood.

With names like Rebellion and Stop Spadina lanes, there'll be no mistaking that you've entered the republic.

The city put the new signs up last night, and they'll be unveiled at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the republic on Saturday. 

'Took my breath away'

Pym Buitenhuis grew up in Rathnelly and eventually returned as an adult. Considered the unofficial archivist of the neighbourhood, she helped lead the effort to rename the laneways and celebrate 50 years of "independence."

She got an early glimpse of the signs.

"It actually took my breath away. They are really beautiful," Buitenhuis says. "I was really deeply touched to see them."

Beyond Rebellion and Stop Spadina, two of the laneways will be named for key players in the secession saga: Robin Fraser, an agitator and organizer who led the resistance against the (now defunct) Spadina Expressway plan and Aileen Robertson, a lifetime resident who was crowned Queen Aileen the First when the republic first split in 1967. 

Republic of Rathnelly demands playground funds

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A Toronto neighbourhood that declared itself a republic as a 1967 Centennial project makes a request to the city in 1969.

The remaining laneway is named for world-renowned artist Michael Snow.

"It's a wonderful neighbourhood," Snow told CBC Toronto. "We've been here since 1984, so we're veterans. I'm honoured."

Buitenhuis says that the effort is not "about commemorating individuals" but keeping the republic's legacy alive.

"The spirit is caring for each other, trying to act as much as you can as one, as a community," she explains. "Be involved in decisions being made that impact your life."

'The city thought that nobody really cared'

That's exactly how this neighbourhood responded when the city approved plans for the Spadina Expressway. Meant to connect the downtown to burgeoning areas of north Toronto, the highway would have cut right through Rathnelly and likely led to the destruction of hundreds of homes. Part of the expressway was eventually built and was later named Allen Road. It still stands today. 

At the time, Rathnelly was, according to Buitenhuis, a "pretty scuzzy area." But the rooming houses and cheap rent attracted a young crowd of professors, architects, advertising professionals, writers and artists. 

"The city thought that nobody really cared about this area," she says.

They were wrong. Very wrong. 

In a grand gesture of defiance, the community decided to protest the proposed expressway by seceding.

Under Queen Aileen the First, barricades went up at its border. A neighbourhood constitution was drafted. A new coat of arms was drawn. Passports were distributed. Bubbles, a black poodle, was elected head of state. The republic demanded Ottawa commit foreign aid for a new playground. 

All the neighbourhood kids aged five to 14 were "conscripted" into the Rathnelly Irregulars, a broom-wielding militia. 

Buitenhuis remembers their "first act of aggression" — taking back a local park that had been blocked to all but Toronto Hydro workers. They broke the lock on the gate and renamed it Freedom Square. (The name didn't really stick, she admits.)

A taste of what to expect next time you're cruising through Rathnelly. (@JoshMatlow/Twitter)

It may sound excessive, but the eccentricity of the entire episode captured the public's imagination and brought tremendous scrutiny to the Spadina Expressway plan. 

"They did it in a very fun, cheeky, irreverent, smart and clever way," Buitenhuis reflects.

Legacy of civic involvement

In the end, the "Republicans" won out and the plans to level homes and green space in Rathnelly was abandoned only years after it was first approved by the city. 

Despite their victory, the neighbourhood has continued to mark its independence day with a summer celebration. While it may have been in good humour, the feeling of community that it seeded has never left the people that call Rathnelly home.

Toronto city Coun. Josh Matlow addresses the crowd at Rathnelly Day celebrations. (Michael Cole/CBC)

"What this neighbourhood proved was, 'You know what?' People do care," Buitenhuis says.

"You need to find a way to influence the decisions that get made around you. Otherwise you're going to get stuck with them."