100 Deathless Days

Front page cartoon promoting the launch of "100 Deathless Days." Vancouver Sun, 1 July 1939

Front page cartoon promoting the launch of "100 Deathless Days." Vancouver Sun, 1 July 1939

A 1939 editorial in the Vancouver Sun editorial blamed the large number of traffic accidents on the Big Bend Highway near Revelstoke on prairie drivers. “Travelling to Vancouver they have the outside of the road, theoretically,” wrote the Sun. “But in practice most of them take the middle or hug the inside. It’s the mental hazard that gets them after years of travel on the broad prairie.” The Winnipeg Tribune fired back that Manitoba drivers on BC highways “are being pushed into the ditch by erratic coast drivers.” Moreover, Winnipeg had recently gone 288 consecutive days without a single traffic fatality, despite being “over-run with goofy pedestrians who ignore all safety rules about crossing the street.”

Unwilling to play second fiddle to Winnipeg, the Sun took the Tribune’s comments as a challenge and, in conjunction with the Traffic Safety Council, launched “100 Deathless Days.” The idea was to cajole the city’s motorists to be extra cautious for 100 consecutive days beginning 1 July 1939.

On July 3, the men behind the campaign were congratulating themselves for making it through an entire holiday weekend with no fatalities and only minor traffic injuries. Mayor Telford was preparing to officially dedicate a sign that had been installed at Granville and Georgia that would countdown the number of deathless days until the conclusion of the campaign.

Carelessness shattering the 100 Deathless Days Campaign. At this early stage, one person was dead and another laying dying from traffic collisions in Vancouver. Vancouver Sun, 10 July 1939

Carelessness shattering the 100 Deathless Days Campaign. At this early stage, one person was already dead and another lay dying from traffic collisions in the city. Vancouver Sun, 10 July 1939

Later that same day, the campaign was sadly “interrupted” when 55 year-old Thomas Hatley was struck dead by a car at Main and Station streets. The Sun editorialized that only a small minority of motorists – roughly 2% – was responsible for an “orgy of lawbreaking” on the city’s streets and whose licences ought to be revoked. In other words, it was essentially a law enforcement problem.

The campaign restarted, but on 10 July, the Sun revealed that Mildred Graham was on her deathbed after another traffic mishap, causing the paper’s optimism to wane: “We might just as well have started out on a mass rocket flight to the moon,” mused the Sun, 30 years before rocket flights to the moon were possible. It wasn’t the police department’s fault, since “all the police between here and Bow Street couldn’t keep our drivers in line.” Nevertheless, Chief Constable Foster said that he would instruct the entire police force to enforce traffic laws instead of leaving it all to the Traffic Squad.

A man was thrown through the windshield of this car during 100 Deathless Days. He survived so it didn't affect the campaign. Vancouver Sun, 20 July 1939

A man was thrown through the windshield of this truck during the 100 Deathless Days campaign. He survived so it didn't affect the campaign. Vancouver Sun, 20 July 1939

Pedestrians weren’t to blame either in the Sun’s view. Sure, they do foolish things, but “so long as motorists go on assuming that the pedestrian has no rights, we might as well pack our Deathless Days Campaign away in mothballs with the New Year’s Resolutions and admit we don’t want to save lives.” Unless Vancouver drivers adjusted their attitudes, we might as well “admit that we haven’t got what it takes to stop killing people” and should just accept that Vancouverites are simply of “weaker moral fibre” than Winnipeggers.

Most of the Sun's brow beating was aimed at motorists, but their "magic eye" camera caught these pedestrians misbehaving at Granville & Georgia. Vancouver Sun, 5 August 1939

Most of the Sun's brow beating was aimed at motorists, but their "magic eye" camera caught these pedestrians behaving recklessly at Granville & Georgia. Vancouver Sun, 5 August 1939

100 Deathless Days began anew a third time after Mildred Graham succumbed to her injuries on 14 July. But when 65 year-old Edward Luff was mowed down the next day on Hastings, the Sun said it didn’t count because he was killed by a streetcar, not a private automobile. A nine year-old cyclist was also run over that day at Keefer and Hawks, but he survived. Another cyclist, 15 year-old Billy MacDonald, died a couple days earlier after being thrown from his bicycle on Gravely Street, but that one was classified as a “freak accident” rather than a traffic death, and so didn’t affect the campaign.

William Hanna forced the fourth restart of 100 Deathless Days when he crashed into a bus and died. Vancouver Sun, 19 July 1939

William Hanna forced the fourth restart of 100 Deathless Days when he crashed into a bus and died. Police tape evidently hadn't been invented yet. Vancouver Sun, 19 July 1939

The fourth restart of the campaign came on 19 July following the death of 50 year-old William Hanna when he crashed his car into a bus at Granville and 54th Avenue. The Sun’s editorial that day was less impassioned than earlier in the campaign, simply telling people to be careful and offering tips to avoid killing or being killed in the streets. If nothing else, the campaign was getting Vancouverites to think about traffic safety, the paper reassured itself and its readers.

Eagle Time bicycle messengers were among the cyclists who jumped on the traffic safety bandwagon during the 100 Deathless Days campaign by signing a pledge printed in the Vancouver Sun. On an unrelated note, Eagle Time became the Penthouse strip club in the 1940s. Vancouver Sun, 22 July 1939

Eagle Time bicycle messengers were among the cyclists who jumped on the traffic safety bandwagon during the 100 Deathless Days campaign by signing a pledge printed in the Vancouver Sun. On an unrelated note, Eagle Time converted into the notorious Penthouse strip club in the 1940s. Vancouver Sun, 22 July 1939

The police department was denied funding to beef up its traffic squad with a slew of special constables. Instead, Chief Foster put out a call for 500 citizen volunteers to monitor traffic infractions. Volunteers would submit their reports to the chief, who would then send a letter to lawbreakers informing them their behaviour behind the wheel was unacceptable. One hundred and seventy-five civic minded folks from all walks of life answered the call, and in the month of August alone, 530 violations were reported to the police, although there is no way of knowing if a letter from the police with no legal consequences to back it up influenced anyone’s driving behaviour.

Notice that we've made in 9 days without a traffic death in the city. This was the 5th try at 100 Deathless Days. Vancouver Sun, 5 August 1939

Notice that we managed nine full days without a traffic death in the city. This was the fifth try at 100 Deathless Days. Vancouver Sun, 5 August 1939

After 74 year-old J. McDevitt was run over by a motorcycle at Seymour and Smythe, the Deathless Days campaign restarted for the fifth and final time. The month of August was free of traffic fatalities, but the onset of the Second World War in September gave the Sun more important things with which to fill its pages and the campaign was “quietly dropped.” Another interpretation was that campaign organizers realized that they were asking too much of Vancouver motorists to not “occasionally hurtle another car off the highway or destroy a pedestrian wearing an offensively-hued shirt.” The Winnipeg Tribune felt its city was vindicated by Vancouver’s campaign: “It was not on account of deaths due to careless driving by the many prairie motorists then in Vancouver, but as a result of the inability of local talent to suppress their homicidal tendencies, that the campaign ended so ignomiously.”

Car wreck off the old Georgia Viaduct, 1929. Stuart Thompson, City of Vancouver Archives #99-1915

Car wreck off the old Georgia Viaduct, 1929. Stuart Thompson, City of Vancouver Archives #99-1915

Why were Vancouver’s streets so treacherous? In an article about how Providence, Rhode Island dealt with the same problem, the Sun reported that that city had virtually eliminated traffic deaths by lowering the speed limit to 25 miles an hour, which had little effect on traffic efficiency. The Sun, however, repeatedly returned to the theme of “traffic morality” in diagnosing the problem locally, using the traditional “moral panic” formula that had been successful in other campaigns such as cracking down on drugs or Chinese immigration. Victoria was demonstrating its superior morality, or “traffic conscience,” by embarking on an even more ambitious campaign of “Accident Free Weeks.” While Vancouver was “half-heartedly pretending not to KILL people,” wrote the Sun, “Victoria is determined not to HURT people.”

After the campaign was abandoned, the head of the Traffic Safety Council said he had come to the conclusion that the problem lay entirely with pedestrians. Motorists were perfectly cooperative during the campaign, but as for pedestrians, he said, “there was no evidence of any co-operation whatsoever.”

Notice from the 1956/7 80 Deathless Days Campaign. Portland & Seattle pulled it off, but not Vancouver. Vancouver Sun, 7 February 1956

Notice from the 1956/7 80 Deathless Days Campaign. Portland & Seattle pulled it off, but not Vancouver. Vancouver Sun, 7 February 1956

With no reference to the antebellum campaign, the Vancouver Police launched “80 Deathless Days” in 1955. This time it was in response to the annual “80 Dark Days of Danger” created by shorter winter days. There was also no question this time as to who was to blame: old people, out alone at night, wearing drab coloured clothing. If the city’s seniors refused to remain in the safety of their homes, the Sun suggested they should at least ask themselves “Is this journey necessary?” before venturing out onto the dark, treacherous streets.

The 1950s campaign was another big failure. By June 1956, Sun columnist Jack Wasserman mentioned seeing a sign promoting the campaign on an “ancient Dodge hearse” and wondered if that meant the 80 Deathless Days drive was dead. In 1960, a Sun reporter investigating why Trail, BC hadn’t had a single traffic death in five years reported that Vancouver had only managed 54 consecutive deathless days in the same period.

In hindsight, it seems 100 Deathless Days was an unattainable ideal in this burgh. Vancouver Sun, 14 August 1939

In hindsight, it turned out that

The 100 Deathless Days Campaign and similar initiatives weren’t unique to Vancouver, and looking back they seem to signify that moment in history when significant numbers of traffic fatalities became accepted as the cost of the (still fairly recent) transportation system centred on the private automobile. Engineering and technological innovations no doubt brought modest improvements to make automobiles and city streets safer, while other technologies, such as the V8 engine in the 30s and cell phones more recently, have posed new problems.

Traffic anarchy at Cambie & Hastings, 1896, before cars. Note the dog lying in the street, and the meandering oxen, cyclist, streetcar, and pedestrians. In the notations included with this photo, the city archivist notes "jaywalking permitted; word not known." Photo by John Tyson, City of Vancouver Archives #Str P317

Summer of Yippie!

A Yippie demonstrating to "bring an end to pig power" at the 312 Main Street police station.

Vancouver was a hotbed of social unrest in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For one thing, the city’s traditional role as the terminus for transients made it irresistible to the flood of meandering baby boomers from across the country and from south of the border, particularly draft dodgers and hippies. Of course, divergent attitudes around such things as recreational drug use, hairdos, war, authority, and sexuality fuelled the generation gap between boomers and their elders. Throw anti-hippie Mayor Tom Campbell into the mix and conflicts between “The Man” and young people were pretty much inevitable.

By the summer of 1970, Vancouver had become the protest capital of the country. Various groups were organizing protests around a number of issues, but an American import by the name of the Youth International Party, or Yippie!, stood out as ubiquitous in the activist scene. According to Lawrence Aronsen in The City of Love & Revolution, “between April 1970 and the August 1971 Gastown riot, there were twenty-five recorded incidents of youth protests in the Vancouver/Victoria area, and Yippies were either the instigators or at the centre of these events.”

Spearheaded in the US by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, the Yippies pioneered a lighthearted and often absurd approach to social activism. They looked to mass media and media techniques as a means to raise awareness about the issues they took on. For Yippies, a memorable sound-bite trumped the staid rhetoric of the traditional left.

A bleeding Campbell's tomato soup can. This image appeared on the cover of Yellow Journal #6 (July 1970). Presumably it's a reference to Mayor Tom Campbell, arch-nemesis of hippies, Yippies, longhairs, dope fiends, pinkos, etc.

Yippies attempted to appeal to both the typically apolitical middle class hippies and the hard-nosed political left. Their constituency wasn’t the proletariat or other traditionally oppressed groups, but rather the youth counterculture. Their hope was to politicize hippies and make activism fun. “Revolution for the hell of it,” as Abbie Hoffman put it.

Jerry Rubin visited Vancouver in 1968 and instigated a takeover of the faculty lounge at UBC by some 3000 students, but Yippie wouldn’t take hold here for another couple years. According to the Yippie organ, the Yellow Journal:

Yippie! formed after the March 14 street action against Repression organized by several activist groups. Five hundred people took over the streets and danced to the courthouse. One hundred and fifty carried on through the Bay afterwards and threw pies at the White Lunch store front windows. Hundreds joined Yippie! in support of brother Percy Smith at the Cloverdale Magic Marijuana Festival and later the Bay Sip-in.

Vancouver Yippies initially took their cues from American activism. In response to discrimination against longhairs at the Bay department store, for example, their “sip-in” mimicked the lunch counter sit-ins of the civil rights movement to desegregate the American south. At another demonstration, this time to “bring an end to pig power,” they planned to levitate the police station at 312 Main Street, echoing a similar effort to raise the Pentagon in the US. Vancouver Yippies changed their mind however, claiming that there was already “enough pig shit polluting Vancouver’s air thanks to the greed-creap business community.”

One thing that differentiated Vancouver Yippies from their American counterparts is that there were no charismatic leaders akin to Hoffman or Rubin in the States, which likely made it easier for them to coordinate actions with other organizations.

Ad for the "Amerikan Invasion," from the Yellow Journal, 7 May 1970.

Even though it took place during a strike that shut down both Vancouver daily papers, the most successful Yippie action in terms of the notoriety they achieved was the “Invasion of the Amerika” on 9 May 1970. Five hundred Yippies, co-organizers from the Vancouver Liberation Front, and supporters of both groups stormed across the border and marched through downtown Blaine, Washington to protest the American invasion of Cambodia and the killing of four Kent State University students by the National Guard at a rally on the Michigan campus the previous week. Protesters spray painted slogans on the Peace Arch, heckled the police, and tore down an American flag at the Blaine post office.

Invading Amerika. UBC Special Collections, Georgia Straight Collection

Some of the more boisterous of the bunch smashed windows at the Bank of America branch and engaged in fisticuffs with local patriots who attacked them. The riot police then moved in to drive back the invaders, at which point bottles and rocks began to fly. As the crowd was dispersing, a Vancouver-bound train rumbled by carrying about 100 new cars and three trucks that were damaged to the tune of $50,000 by rocks thrown by demonstrators.

Yippies marching down the main street of Blaine, Washington. Vancouver Express, 12 May 1970

Acting Prime Minister Mitchell Sharp called for a report on the action and denounced the Yippies in the House of Commons. The Blaine police chief said it was probably instigated by American draft dodgers and BC’s Attorney General called for charges to be laid against those who damaged property. The Seattle Post Intelligencer said it was “the greatest insult to the United States since the Alamo,” according to the Yippie paper, the Yellow Journal. For the Yippies, the event was a success. They could claim to have led the first Canadian invasion of the US since the War of 1812.

Oakalla Prison break-in/Be-Out. Vancouver Sun, 13 July 1970

Local mofos tearing down the fence at Oakalla. Yellow Journal #6, 16 July1970

Another issue Yippies took on was prison justice. To protest the abhorrent conditions at Oakalla, which even the Sun acknowledged was hardly BC’s greatest achievement, Yippies organized a “Be-Out” just outside the prison’s ten-foot high wire fence in Burnaby on 12 July 1970. About 300 demonstrators attended and pulled down a 200-foot section of the fence. Only a few ventured onto the prison grounds, where about 80 guards were assembled. They chanted, set off fireworks, and planted a Yippie flag on the fence, while a column of about 50 unarmed RCMP officers arrived on the scene. A couple of short-haired men came down from the crowd of onlookers, tore up some Yippie banners, and yelled: “You’re all losers. Why don’t you go home and collect your welfare cheques?” Protesters responded in kind, and the two men eventually left.

Police column at the Be-Out to protest conditions at Oakalla Prison. Yellow Journal #6 16 July 1970

Burnaby RCMP watching the Yippie "Be-Out" in Burnaby. Yellow Journal #6, 16 July 1970

The Yippies then moved to a nearby park for an evening of speeches, rock music, frisbee throwing, and other games such as Find-A-Narc-In-The-Crowd. One of the speakers had spent a total of three years in prison for two convictions of marijuana possession. “I am meaner. I am tougher. I am smarter and I am a revolutionary now,” he told the crowd.

Betty "Zaria" Andrews, Yippie mayoral candidate in the 1970 municipal election.

One of the more potent galvanizing forces of dissent in 1970 Vancouver was Mayor Tom Campbell. The media called him “Tom Terrific”; Yippies referred to him as “Tom Terrible” and ran their own candidate in the 1970 civic election, a soft spoken 23 year-old single mother on welfare named Betty “Zaria” Andrews. With silly promises such as repealing the law of gravity so everyone could be high, Zaria might easily have been dismissed as a joke candidate, except that her candidacy highlighted the almost complete disconnect of Mayor Campbell from the city’s significant population of young people. In one example, after declining her challenge to a boxing match, Campbell exchanged words with Zaria’s supporters who were armed with toy machine guns and gas masks:

“Look … you ain’t cute. How old are you? What are you carrying that toy gun for?

“I’m 24, and you have liquor on your breath,” was the reply. Campbell shot back: “What are you on … marijuana?” The Yippie replied that marijuana was not an addictive narcotic like alcohol.

Zaria lost the election, but managed to garner 848 votes.

A protester being arrested at the English Bay riots, July 1970.

One victory Yippies (and hippies generally) did achieve was in winning access to English Bay and other public beaches. The beach had become a popular place for crashing, building fires, and playing music. Taking their cue from Mayor Campbell’s anti-hippie position, the Vancouver Police cracked down on English Bay hippies, triggering a couple of riots that ended with nearly 40 arrests. Eventually the police gave up, and the assistant chief announced that “The Vancouver Police Department would allow street and beach people to take care of their own policing in order to avoid a recurrence of the past week’s rioting.”

A demonstrator trying to break the aerial off a police motorcycle at a Yippie protest. Saskatchewan Star-Phoenix, 20 July 1970

After the Gastown Riot in August 1971, the Yippie light began to fade. It was already a spent force in the US and the Yippie strategy appeared limited in its effectiveness and unsustainable, and to many activists, undesirable. Tom Campbell’s retirement from civic politics and the rise of the provincial New Democrat Party in 1972 also softened the rift between the conservative “establishment” and the more progressive baby boom generation that had been generating social conflict.

Nevertheless, the Yippies from the summer of 1970 did leave a legacy for Vancouver activism. In 1976, some of them started Open Road, an anarchist newspaper with an international audience that published for a decade, and there has been a continuous anarchist presence in Vancouver ever since. The guerrilla theatre approach to politics occasionally resurfaces, including colourful candidates running in civic elections, from Mr. Peanut in the 1970s, to Zippy the Circus Chimp in 1996. In general, Vancouver protests have had a playful aspect to them since the 1970s, in contrast to the serious and militaristic demonstrations led by the Communists in the 1930s.

For more on the Yippies, go see Yippies in Love, a musical written by retired journalist and Yippie, Bob Sarti.