Cleaning Up Freedom's Mess
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Cleaning Up Freedom’s Mess

Photo by Joel Charlebois/Torontoist.

Each year, on the first Sunday in May, the Ontario Police Memorial Foundation holds its annual Ceremony of Remembrance, to honour officers killed in the line of duty. The Ceremony consists of a procession, to bagpipe music, south along Queen’s Park Crescent, to the lawn in front of the Provincial Legislature. Hundreds of police from all Ontario jurisdictions participate. It’s a solemn occasion, but it’s only one of two events that takes place annually in Queen’s Park on the first weekend in May. The other, on the Saturday, is the Toronto Freedom Festival, where the freedom most enthusiastically fêted by attendees is the freedom to smoke marijuana, in public, under the watch of police officers.
Because it always falls on the day after the Toronto Freedom Festival, the Ceremony of Remembrance is a major concern for the Festival’s organizers. “No one else has to deal with that,” said Gabe Simms, manager of operations and logistics for the Festival, in a phone call prior to this year’s event. We were talking about the Toronto Freedom Festival’s post-event cleanup planning. Simms stressed that restoring Queen’s Park to respectable shape by the following day is always top of mind. “What we do is kind of above and beyond,” he said. “They take it for granted that our waste plan is solid.”

Estimates of total attendance at past Toronto Freedom Festivals vary widely: police observers pegged 2009’s crowd at roughly twelve thousand, while the event’s organizers claimed well over thirty thousand. What’s certain, at least, is that the Festival attracts one of the largest crowds of any annual event that takes place on the north lawns of Queen’s Park. Some attendees come to raise awareness for civil liberties causes; some come for a good time; and many come for some combination of those reasons. It’s hard to say how effective the Festival and the associated Marijuana March are at driving societal change, but, empirically speaking, they do have two very palpable outputs: smoke, and trash.
The smoke dissipates of its own accord, but the trash, which by Simms’ reckoning amounts to about three or four tons over the course of the event’s eight hours, well…dealing with it adequately to avoid besmirching the dignity of the police ceremony requires a little more finesse.

Photo by Ryan Walker/Torontoist.

For this past Saturday’s Toronto Freedom Festival, organizers supplied two forty-yard dumpsters and sixty large plastic trash bins as receptacles for the litter produced by Festival-goers. This was in addition to the roughly fifty city-owned trash bins already scattered around the north lawns of Queen’s Park. The Festival also employed its own private cleaning crew of about twenty people. Their leader was Paul D, who, for professional reasons, did not want his last name or the name of his employer included in this article. He told Torontoist over the phone that “I’ll look just like an undercover police officer.” He was kind of right.
During an interview on Friday, he discussed his strategy. “At around 11 a.m. on Saturday morning we’ll start distributing the totes,” he said, referring to the plastic trash bins supplied by the Festival’s organizers. “Usually we try to concentrate around the stage area, because that’s obviously where people gather the most…But we try to stay away from the crowds, because, you know, they’re having their moment.”
Organizers estimate that about forty thousand people turned up, this year, to have their respective moments at the Freedom Festival. (The police estimate will probably be lower.) The majority of those who stayed throughout seemed to be in their early twenties, or younger. Thunderstorms had been predicted for later in the day, and many people had brought umbrellas.

Photo by Miles Storey/Torontoist.

Early in the afternoon, partly because a large contingent of attendees were participating in the Global Marijuana March around the downtown core, the park wasn’t extremely crowded, and the grass was relatively free of debris.
By 6 p.m., two hours before the end of the festival, the marchers had fully reintegrated into the Festival, Queen’s Park was packed, and the trash accumulation had reached epidemic proportions. Chips lay scattered on the grass, next to paper plates, takeout containers, discarded packages of blunt wraps, and marijuana seed catalogues.
There were many concession stands at the Festival, and each one seemed to be supporting its own blast radius of associated debris. After wandering for some time with eyes on the ground, it became apparent that there was one kind of litter more pervasive than any of the rest: little green foil wrappers for pizza-flavoured “Pringles Stix.” The wrappers were not clustered around a particular concession booth, and they stood out among the other detritus. Where were they coming from?
After some investigation, we found a woman working at one of the Freedom Festival’s sanctioned snack stands, who was in the middle of eating a packet of the Stix. She said a pair of Pringles representatives had walked through all of Queen’s Park, handing them out for free to the hungry crowd. They’d done a thorough job, these Pringles Stix slingers, because the wrappers were now scattered all throughout the area, like an unwanted growth of some nuisance weed. Gabe Simms, the operations and logistics manager, later told us that Pringles wasn’t authorized to be at the Festival. “I plan to follow up with them,” he said.
A member of Paul D’s cleaning crew, a harried-looking man named Jorge, was working nearby, using a rake to sweep takeout food containers and empty beer cans into a trash bag. His walkie-talkie crackled: it was Paul D, with instructions to muster at the operations tent in the southwest corner of the park at 7:45 p.m., fifteen minutes before the end of the festival. Reinforcements had arrived, and there was to be an initial top-to-bottom sweep of the park before the heavy cleaning began. Some of the crew would remain until three or four in the morning.

Photo by Ryan Walker/Torontoist.

When the crowd began to dissipate, a little past 8 p.m., Queen’s Park was in shambles. Entire picnic sites had been left behind intact, complete with garbage-strewn blankets and tents. The cleanup crew was attacking the problem as though it were ordinary yard work, raking the trash into piles. A Freedom Festival staffer walked by, murmuring into his walkie-talkie something about “the blower.”
The next morning, during the Ceremony of Remembrance, the police marched, in their dress uniforms and white gloves, through the rain showers that had been predicted for the Saturday of the Freedom Festival. The trash on the north lawns had been carefully deposited at the northeast and southwest corners of the park for pickup, but there was still a film of smaller items―empty dime bags and Pringles Stix wrappers―on the grass to stand testament to what had happened the day before. Enough had been done that the park looked pristine from a certain distance. A lone contractor on the south lawn, which is maintained by the Legislature and not the City, was picking up individual pieces of trash by hand. He said the amount of litter was normal for an event as large as the Freedom Festival, but he was wistful for last spring’s Tamil protestors, who were “spotless.”
The police didn’t seem bothered. They were enjoying an opportunity to worry about bigger things, for the second day in a row.