Waterloo, Ontario – 2016
Upwards of 30,000 revelers cram down Ezra Avenue in Waterloo, Canada every year to party in the name of Maewyn Succat – better known as St. Patrick – who wasn’t Irish, nor much of a drinker.
Partiers swarm the 400-metre-long road from across North America. Locals spill out from densely-populated student housing hoisting bagged milk containers sloshing with beer. Funnels run down walls, fueled from upper-level windows, Mud is kicked and spread by a constant moving swarm. Specks of high-vis jackets worn by emergency workers dot the scene. Paramedics part seas of green; a young woman is on a stretcher – she would be one of the 52 patients cared for by medics and transported to hospital that day. Bottles are lobbed, thrown, smashed. A young girl cries. Another laughs.
Ezra has become synonymous with controversy in the university city, where the population swells with an additional 40,000 inhabitants during the school season.
Public drinking isn’t legal in Ontario, and yet, the city of Waterloo (part of the greater Waterloo Region) allows the show to go on, closing the avenue off in an attempt to control the inevitable.
Over $767,000 was spent on city services for the notorious gathering in 2019 alone. Hundreds of charges were laid, and fines issued by police and by-law. But the divide between the city’s long-time residents and the partiers has been splitting since the '90s, when police took to the avenue with riot shields to disperse a crowd only 1,500-strong at the time.
In 2018, a "large public gatherings" task force costing $40,000 was put together aiming to drum up ideas for curtailing the unsanctioned partying. Suggestions included: rebranding the event, altering Ezra's design, stronger bylaw enforcement powers, student role models and temporary washrooms – to name some of the 41 recommended actions. The latest recommendations are a far cry from an earlier task force formed after 1994, calling for water canons, tear gas and riot dogs.
This year, Ontario's Emergency Management and Civil Preparedness Act (enacted before St. Patrick's Day) made it illegal for groups of 50 or more people to gather. Signs on Ezra read "stay away from large crowds" and "state of emergency declared." In a strange way, because of COVID-19, Ezra Avenue resembled a ghost town for the first time in decades.
In 2016, I was curious about youth drinking culture and Ezra, which is seen as a right of passage for the university crowd. I wonder what impact the normalization of drinking to excess has later in life and on our society at large?
I reluctantly waded through throngs of kids clad in green, the soles of my shoes sticky with dried beer and shards of glass from bottles crunching beneath.
The Who’s "Baba O’Riley" blared from a nearby house. "The exodus is here / The happy ones are near / Let’s get together, before we get much older / Teenage wasteland / It's only teenage wasteland / Teenage wasteland / Oh yeah, teenage wasteland / They're all wasted!"
Will the party still go on?