Toronto Freedom Festival

Toronto Freedom Festival 2009

The 3rd annual Toronto Freedom Festival engulfed Queen's Park this weekend, marking a rainy success for the evolutionary endpoint for the city's 11th annual Global Marijuana March. With the recent Supreme Court decision on Bill C-359, which rejected the Canadian Government's monopoly over the sale of medical cannabis, this year I actually felt a bit of the activism bug... but not enough to actually march through the city in the rain, of course.

Instead I grabbed festival organizer and co-founder Gavin "The Gerbz" Bryan for an interview, skipped the March altogether, and headed straight to the giant party at Queen's Park.

While I heard the march was a success - about 20,000 in attendance, no arrests made and no incidents to report - I didn't go because I'm just not much of an activist. And it's not as though I don't support the cause! The Kindred Cafe closing got my back up, and I am outraged over the continued criminal aura cast over pot smokers. But in typical Canadian fashion, I'm too passive to pick up a placard to wave around... like many Freedom Festival patrons, I'd rather sit back with a joint and be entertained.

Luckily, some people are VERY active on the marijuana decriminalization front, and I'm proud to say that Toronto is home to some of the biggest names in the call to decriminalize marijuana. The Gerbz, who is probably one of the most vocal advocates on the front, was more than willing to answer my questions to help me fill in the informative part of this article; the part that actually educates people and calls them into action vs. just showing off how chronic Toronto can be.

So Gerbz, why did you personally become involved in this cause/event?

I had a desire to expand on festival production and have always been a lover of expressing my personal freedoms. I have been involved with the event from 2006 and seen its evolution each year taking on more and more. I love the energy of the people I work with on this project and we are all in it for the RIGHT reasons. We are onto something BIG and its exciting.

How has the public's attitude surrounding the march changed over the years? Are people more or less receptive?

It's become way more acceptable. People in general are supportive of the Festival and have become more and more accepting of it's flagship event the Global Marijuana March. We have a peaceful gathering a being the largest of 250+ cities in the world is something to be proud of to certain people. Toronto always supports winners.

What is the biggest challenge in pulling off this event?

Weather and finances. We are at the mercy of mother nature and last year she was harsh and washed us out. This year we are looking at 15 degrees and sunny so no problems there. We get no traditional sponsorship or support from government so building a safe, secure, and clean event means we have to rely heavily on vendor sales and doing our own donation and vendor sales drives. We all come together to give 30,000 people a great time.

Toronto is an internationally known city as possessing a certain open minded, liberal approach to life. This festival completely embodies those characteristics. We play host and organize the largest music tours and have internationally known festivals like Caribana and PRIDE to give us inspiration to continue to push forward.

Are there any government officials/representatives who are not supportive of your efforts?

No not really any publicly. We are really working hard to make things better for a lot sick people and we do get support from City Councillor Kyle Rae.

With the change in marijuana farming laws (Bill C-359), how do you see the legalization situation changing in the near future??

We have a long road ahead to full legalization but 'decriminalization' is within reach in the near term with a focused effort coming from supporters of Bill C-359. It would replace criminal charges with fines for small amounts of cannabis (under 30 grams). Join the "BILL C-359" FACEBOOK group as STRENGTH in NUMBERS is the only way to be heard.

What outcomes do you hope to see emerge from your continued efforts with the freedom festival?

It is the goal of our team to build a festival with events leading up in a similar fashion the other larger cultural Toronto festivals attracting hundreds or thousands of people from around the world. We know we have a long way to go but we are pun intended :-)

What would be a good theme song for the festival?

I would have to say being bias to the electronic music culture I would have to say Danny Tenaglia's 'BE YOURSELF', the motto for this year's 3rd annual Toronto Freedom Festival. We want everyone to come out and to enjoy their freedoms through voices, creative arts and tastes and this song would cover the voices element.

If nothing else was accomplished by over 20,000 weed-smoking citizens marching through the streets, the crowd definitely had a good time. The culmination of the Global Marijuana March was a giant party which took over Queen's Park for much of Saturday afternoon.

There were 3 stages of rock, jungle/dnb and house/techno music, beat boxing and drum circles, tons of cannabis-culture vendors and endless munchie options. Though there was a small police presence, it was hardly noticeable through the thick clouds of smoke surrounding the park. They did cordon off the King Edward VII on horseback statue to avoid any ambitious climbing feats, and had paramedics onsite in case of emergencies... the only one I witnessed was "alcohol related" according to one of the ambulance attendants (who had a small weed leaf sticker on his sleeve).

My friend from Calgary who was experiencing her first Weed March was absolutely astonished to see so much public marijuana consumption. It's always nice to hear an outside reaction... living in Toronto, one can get used to be able to spark a J in public; but this is still unique to our city, and in most places (even in Canada) will at least raise sharp suspicion and distrust. Toronto really is at the forefront of promoting individual freedoms.

The biggest surprise for me was the proliferation of seed bank vendor booths - having only just recently heard of Toronto's seed bank, it was encouraging to see so many would-be cultivators shopping for seeds. Until the government decriminalizes marijuana, this is the best way to flood the market (thanks Marc Emery!)

Each year the Marijuana March (now part of the Toronto Freedom Festival) seems to grow not just in size, but also in popularity and acceptance. With Bill C-359 and Canada's continued vocal support of decriminalization, it also seems that we're helping relax attitudes south of the border. There's definitely been a shift with the Obama government taking control and dissolving the DEA, and for the first time I see real hope for decriminalization on at least a State/Provincial level.

Though about 20,000+ emerge each year for the March, perhaps someday weed smokers can come out of the closet for good. Then the Freedom Festival will be able to drop the activism and simply celebrate all the good things brought by adopting Toronto's liberal attitude towards individual freedoms. Of course, barring that, we'll always have the spectacle of the Marijuana March to look forward to!

Photo by Neal Atienza on Flickr

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