Gwen Davies

So, what was Rochdale College?

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When she reaches home [Rochdale College], a guy who calls himself Mother Parker is on the elevator, selling his home-brew beer from a grocery cart. Emily pushes fourteen. “Only way is up, Emily,” he says. She raises her cupped hand in a pretend toast. (from Facing the Other Way)

I’m not Emily but, in 1971, I was living the great Canadian experiment that was Rochdale College. Someone handed me the newspaper with the cartoon where Pogo says, “We have met the enemy and it is us.” We instinctively knew the truth of that. We were the people our parents warned us about.

Wait a minute – I was a nice girl. In what was then Toronto the Good, Rochdale was a free university that came out of a vision of learning from living – the vision that got away. It was too big, perhaps, to pull off the sudden switch for a building designed for 850 people to democracy and generosity. That number swelled with weekend suburb kids who came to find drugs and the meaning of life. Early on it offered a free bed for an eight-hour shift for people drifting around the streets.

Rochdale’s complex history generated institutions that were both creative and practical, that survive today: Theatre Passe Muraille, Coach House Press and House of Anansi, This Magazine (Is About Schools), the Huron Play School Collective (Acorn), the Toronto library’s Merrill Collection, and more that came and went. There was a medical clinic and pottery and yoga studios. There were drugs, there was crime, and a gang of bikers was hired to run building security. When we took our clothes to the 18th floor laundromat, we discovered that washing machines would start if you hefted one forward and dropped it back.

The 14th Floor Commune where I lived saw me through the breakdown that came between rejecting ‘normal’ and moving into a new social order. Like Rochdale, our vision was to create a world built around the search for freedom and a truth that evolved as we grew. When I had negotiated my first steps, I paid my back rent and, like characters in Facing the Other Way whose communities helped them find their feet, moved on.

*** Image used from Wikipedia under this licencing agreement

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