Historicist: Hustle, Bustle, Rush, and Roar

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Historicist: Hustle, Bustle, Rush, and Roar

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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Still from Goin’ Down the Road (1970).

In the summer of 1970, Torontonians lined up around the block to see Goin’ Down the Road, the low-budget feature debut by Toronto-born director Donald Shebib. Between its July 2 premiere at the New Yorker Cinema to the end of the summer it grossed over $150,000—perhaps the first time English-Canadians were eager to go see an unmistakably Canadian film.
Goin’ Down the Road follows Pete and Joey (played by Doug McGrath and Paul Bradley respectively), two under-educated Atlantic Canadians who leave Cape Breton for the bright lights and perceived economic opportunities of Toronto. For a while, they live it up by drinking, carousing, and carrying on at night, but eventually they’re laid off from their manual labour jobs, and they head west.
The film has been seen as, Katherine Ann Roberts writes in the American Review of Canadian Studies (March 2009), “both a film of its time—a portrait of 1960s urban in-migration coupled with changing sexual attitudes and social freedoms—and a quintessentially Canadian story of regional displacement motivated by economic inequalities.”
As the oral histories documented by Gary Burrill in Away (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992) attest, Goin’ Down the Road closely mirrored the real life experiences of many working-class Atlantic Canadians who migrated to Upper Canada. “The basic premise,” Shebib explained to Motion magazine in 1973, “was to make a film about people that most others would not like. The young twenty-five-year-old hip kids that went to see the film wouldn’t spend the time of day speaking to those [Atlantic Canadians] and neither would I, but they like them in the film.”
In addition to being an evocative portrait of this little-noticed underclass in the Toronto of the 1960s and 1970s, the film is also a postcard of a bygone age, capturing aspects of the city that have since disappeared.


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Still from Goin’ Down the Road (1970).

After enrolling in film school at UCLA in 1961, Shebib gained early experience working on Roger Corman productions, then made his reputation as a documentary filmmaker who examined little-noticed urban communities, including First World War veterans, street corner preachers, and suburban bikers.
By the time of Goin’ Down the Road‘s release, Shebib was thirty-two and had seventeen documentary films under his belt. In the book This Is Where We Came In (McClelland and Stewart, 1977), critic Martin Knelman called Shebib a filmmaker with a “highly developed gift for sociological detail” who imbued his material with an “authentic flavour.”
Shebib originally conceived of Goin’ Down the Road as an hour-long CBC-style documentary looking at the dimensions of internal migration from Atlantic Canada to Ontario in the post-war period.
Between 1961 and 1965, a net migration of seventy-four thousand people left the Maritimes (or an estimated 150,000 over the entire decade). Essentially at the wrong end of the a core-periphery relationship since Confederation, as D.J. McDonald put it in a 1968 report for the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, the east coast’s economic development had “been thwarted by policies designed to promote the interests of the region at the other end of that relationship, Central Canada.” Many Atlantic Canadians were lured west by Ontario’s booming economy and the surging manufacturing industry in the Golden Horseshoe. One easterner explained his preconceptions of the big city to Burrill: “Toronto was just hustle, bustle, rush, and roar.”

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Still from Goin’ Down the Road (1970).

The movement, in fact, included bank executives, lawyers, businessmen, and one future Ontario Lieutenant Governor—as New Brunswick transplant and Toronto Star journalist Ned Belliveau put it in an essay in My Toronto (Macmillan of Canada, 1970). However, Shebib wanted to tell the story of average, working class folks for whom the migration didn’t always work out as planned.
“It was really based on an experience of my cousin on my father’s side of the family—my father is from Cape Breton—who came up to Toronto when I was still in college and stayed with us for a month or so,” Shebib told Toronto International Film Festival director Piers Handling in a 1978 interview. “It was in part based on problems he had existing. He ran into the same story as those guys right down the line. The film was based upon that experience, of observing him.”
Work on the script began as early as December 1967 with “no conscious design in what I wrote whatsoever,” Shebib later said. After failing to fully develop the project with a couple of writers, the young director collaborated with screenwriter Bill Fruet, with whom he worked on the CBC’s The Way It Is. From there, the script seemed to naturally evolve from documentary to dramatic feature.

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Article from the Toronto Star, August 14, 1970.

With a final script completed in 1969, Shebib’s project was granted nineteen thousand dollars by the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC), a recently created federal agency mandated with offering subsidies towards the production of feature films with “significant Canadian creative, artistic, and technical content.” By Christmas 1969, after eight weeks of shooting, Shebib had exhausted the CFDC grant and his personal savings. He’d even sold his Morgan Plus 4 sports car.
During the film’s development, Shebib admitted to Handling, he hadn’t made any effort to secure distribution arrangements. Only after he saw some of the early rough cuts did he think: “Gee! Maybe I can find someone who’d like to screen the film.” He did. In February 1970, Bennet Fode, head of Phoenix Film and owner of a small theatre chain (including the New Yorker Cinema in Toronto) threw his support behind the project. The film was completed for a total budget of eighty-five thousand dollars. It was shot on portable 16 mm equipment and later blown up to 35 mm.
Shebib’s four-person crew—which also included cinematographer Richard Leiterman, soundman James McCarthy, and assistant camera operator Ted McGhee—shot the film by the seat of their pants, often improvising according to unplanned situations that arose. “Filming in an era before the city did a multimillion-dollar trade as a generic urban setting for Hollywood movies,” critic Geoff Pevere writes in Toronto on Film (TIFF, 2009), “Shebib didn’t require licenses or permission to wield a camera on Toronto streets.” They’d simply shown up on the streets, or at a restaurant or tavern with lights and wheelchair (their low-tech solution for dolly shots), and hastily worked out permission with the proprietor.
Apart from a few odd archival reels or news footage of the 1950s or 1960s, there are few moving images from this period in the city’s history. But with locations throughout the city providing the background scenery Goin’ Down the Road was a travelogue of 1969 Toronto, and among the first films to give the city a distinct cinematic character.
After steering the car off the Don Valley Parkway, the pair’s early exploration of the city, as they wander the streets and shops, is presented almost without dialogue. The pair share a bottle with a wino at Allan Gardens, and take a couple of women they pick up for a picnic on Toronto Island. In addition to walking the Yonge Street strip at dusk and browsing the LPs inside Sam the Record Man, the film takes the viewer inside the city’s taverns. The domestic scenes in a run-down apartment were filmed on location in a real Cabbagetown flop house. “When we walked past that house, we almost passed out,” Shebib told Kaspars Dzeguze in the September 1970 issue of Macleans. “I’ve never smelled anything so foul in my life.” The documentary-style and “rough, anti-slick texture,” Knelman argues, added authenticity, making “the material seem ‘caught’ rather than contrived.”

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Still from Goin’ Down the Road (1970).

Many contemporary critics responded to the strong sense of place in the film and gushed that the film’s setting was unmistakably Canadian. One said that Goin’ Down the Road “has included enough familiar hangouts from over the tracks in his Toronto sets to pad out the seedy-slice-of-life aspect of the film.”
Much critical ink was also spilled to discuss the film’s representation of gender and the characters’ presentation of masculinity, particularly in relation to the French-Canadian sexpot at the bottling plant (played by Nicole Morin) and Joey’s pregnant girlfriend (played by Jayne Eastwood).
Other critics, including Margaret Atwood, felt Shebib’s movie was part of a larger trend in English-Canadian films dramatizing failure with male protagonists who are “born losers” or victims. But in reading Pete and Joey as representative of a standard masculine type, these critics downplayed the central Canadian real-world conflict the characters reflected.
They are not simply naive “victims of the rainbow”—as one of Bruce Cockburn’s folk songs on the film’s soundtrack describe them. “Peter and Joey are victims not of illusions but of the hard facts of modern urban life; and they are victims, also, of specific people and institutions,” Robert Fulford correctly notes in an article (penned under his pseudonym, Marshall Delaney) for Saturday Night in July 1970. Their struggles reflect the real world economic, class, and cultural effects of regionalism within Canada. And, to a reasonable extent, their experiences mirror those encountered by those interviewed by Burrill.

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Article from the Toronto Star July 3, 1970.

Pete and Joey’s arrival in the city is anything but rosy. Leaving behind the tight-knit sense of community of the east coast, they figure they can count on staying with east coast friends who’d arrived in Toronto earlier. But their first lesson is that Toronto is cold and isolating. When friends turn their back, the pair spend their first nights at a Salvation Army hostel with the homeless and down-and-outs. They later end up in a skid-row apartment in Cabbagetown—where it was common to overhear drunken domestic disputes and to see policemen in the hallways.
Many real life Maritime migrants ended up in the same run-down district. Bruce and Molly Greenlaw arrived in Toronto from Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, in the 1960s, and bounced around Cabbagetown apartments including one above Parliament and Gerrard. The neighbourhood was so rough that, instead of watching television, the Greenlaws would just watch the action outside. “We’d seen guys come through that plate-glass window on [the Gerrard Hotel] so often,” Bruce Greenlaw told Burrill, “I wondered why they even put the glass back in.” Once, they even saw a cop get beat up on the street.
Seeing pages and pages of jobs ads in the newspaper, Pete figures they can simply pick and choose. “It’s all right here—all you have to do is go out and get it,” he says, dreaming of “a job in an office, some chick for a secretary, company car, and my name on the door.” He applies for an office job at an advertising firm. But at the job interview, he’s questioned on his lack of credentials and education. “What’s the sense of getting an education?” Pete asks at the job interview. “I mean, do you need an education to work on the docks, or in the mines? There ain’t a hell of a lot to choose from in the Maritimes, you know.”

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Still from Goin’ Down the Road (1970).

Pete and Joey end up settling for manual labour jobs, working for eighty dollars per week at the Wilson soft-drink bottling plant. It frustrates Pete, who figures that since their arrival they’ve piled about a quarter million crates but accomplished nothing. “Everything keeps going around in a circle and you can’t see what you’ve done,” he complains. “I wanna do something that matters, that says Peter McGraw was there.” He tries to move up by teaching himself to drive the forklift—even after a supervisor dismisses him as not smart enough for the task—but it ends in disaster.
As Maritimers in Toronto, Pete and Joey are constantly reminded that they are from somewhere else. As Shebib explained to the Montreal Gazette, the two were as much foreigners in Toronto as Italians.
Spending most of their evenings on the streets and in taverns frequented by other Atlantic Canadians, Roberts writes that Pete and Joey used “their regional ‘otherness’ as a consolation, and [found] a limited sense of community through drinking and dancing to eastern music and carousing with others to a [live] performance of…’My Nova Scotia Home.'” But even here, they are reminded they’re different, when the bartender vocally objects to the raucousness of their step-dancing and their use of the Lord’s name in vain. For Burrill’s subjects too, such clustering with easterners and fraternization often turned raucous. The Greenlaws recalled that they and “a bunch of down-easter friends” would host parties every couple of weeks. “This Saturday night it might be at our house, and we’d have spaghetti or whatever, and they’d bring their own booze, and we’d party from eight o’clock until daylight.”
As Burrill makes clear, many Atlantic Canadians—well-known for their strong ties and allegiances to home—did eventually return to the coast. However, that wasn’t to be the fate of Pete and Joey. Laid off from the bottling plant and facing mounting debts, Pete and Joey decide to rob a Loblaws supermarket. The desperate act ends in the violent beating of a clerk and the pair take off for Alberta, abandoning Joey’s pregnant wife.
Although the film was quickly enshrined in the pantheon of Canadian cinema in the 1970s, Pevere has more recently questioned its lasting legacy. “Goin’ Down the Road is a Canadian benchmark more referred to than actually seen,” he wrote in a Summer 1995 article in Take One. “Had it been released at another time or in another country, one wonders whether it would loom in quite the same way.” He added that SCTV’s hilarious send up was probably better known for many years than the film itself, which was long out of print until being re-released on DVD.
Yet the film still stands up as a document—a postcard of Toronto in the late 1960s and early 1970s—and a reasonably accurate portrayal of how the city was experienced by those carried along the massive influx of internal migration from Atlantic Canada in that era.
Other sources consulted include: David K. Foot and William J. Milne, Public Policies and Interprovincial migration in Canada (Institute for Policy Analysis, 1981); Review by Arlene Gould, Performing Arts in Canada (Volume VII, No. 3); Piers Handling, The Films of Don Shebib (Canadian Film Institute, 1978); Robert D. Hiscott, “Recent migration from Ontario to Atlantic Canada,” Canadian Review of Sociology & Anthropology (24.4, 1987); Ted Magder, Canada’s Hollywood: The Canadian State and Feature Films (UTP, 1993); D.J. McDonald, Population Migration and Economic Development in the Atlantic Provinces (Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, March, 1968); Christine Ramsay, “‘The Nation’ and Masculinity in Goin’ Down the Road,” in Gene Walz, ed., Canada’s Best Features: Critical Essays on 15 Canadian Films (Rodopi, 2002).

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