Why Did New Brunswick Pull The Plug On An Epic Rock Concert In August 1970?

Photo courtesy of Atlantic Records
Photo courtesy of Atlantic Records

Long before the Rolling Stones graced the stage at Moncton’s Magnetic Hill Concert Site in 2005, a concert that would ultimately usher the Hub City into a new era of hosting some of the biggest names in music, the city had earned a reputation as being a concert hub.

Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Moncton Coliseum played host to a who’s who of international pop stars, including Tina Turner, Cher, Rod Stewart, Iron Maiden, David Bowie, Huey Lewis & The News, and Shania Twain.

Meanwhile during that same timeframe just up Highway 15 in Shediac, that seaside community was making waves, albeit somewhat smaller ones, on the concert scene itself, hosting a select group of pop and rock acts including the Beach Boys, Milli Vanilli and Bryan Adams.

Arguably lesser known among many New Brunswickers, however, is the folklore around the Strawberry Fields Festival, which had been scheduled to take place in Barachois, just outside of Shediac, from Aug. 7 through 9, 1970.

The lineup for the festival, which was slated to include Led Zeppelin, Grand Funk Railroad, Leonard Cohen, Sly & The Family Stone, among others, reads like a classic rock dream come true.

So just how close was Led Zeppelin to performing in southeast New Brunswick? Closer than you might think.

Had it not been for a dose of festival phobia for residents and interference from the provincial government of the day, Strawberry Fields might have established the region as a major concert centre long before it would earn the title nonetheless.

To uncover the origins of the Strawberry Fields Festival, and how southeast New Brunswick missed out on such a significant opportunity, one needs to look west to Toronto.

The Toronto Peace Festival

In September 1969, Toronto played host to the Toronto Rock & Roll Revival. Headlined by the Doors, the concert was a cultural phenomenon, earning its place in the history books thanks to a little help from John Lennon, who used the occasion to perform without the Beatles for the first time.

Together with his business partner Kenny Walker, John Brower was one of the brains behind the historic festival. Although Brower and Walker’s partnership dissolved shortly after, Brower, a Canadian concert promoter, had struck up a friendship with Lennon, who agreed to come on board for Brower’s Toronto Peace Festival, which was to be held in July 1970.

“Together with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, we announced the Toronto Peace Festival to great fanfare in December 1969 at the city’s Science Centre,” Brower tells us from his home in Los Angeles.

“We had just finished doing the Toronto leg of the War Is Over campaign, which turned out to be the largest exposure of associated billboards, handbills and posters of anywhere in the world.”

Shortly after the announcement of the peace festival, Lennon and Ono, together with Brower and a select group of others, travelled from Toronto to Ottawa via private train. Once in the nation’s capital, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau met with the Beatle and Ono in what was supposed to be a 15-minute meeting.

“They were originally scheduled to meet for 15 minutes and ended up talking for an hour,” Brower says, furthering the notion of Trudeau’s progressively liberal approach.

It wouldn’t take long for external powers to quash Brower’s best-laid plans, however.

“The Toronto Peace Festival became a target for the (American President Richard) Nixon administration, which was terrified of the notion that John Lennon was going to participate in a peace festival on the July 4th weekend. They were sure he was going to lambaste the U.S. government and the Vietnam War, among other things. Although I can’t say anything for certain, I feel relatively confident their hunches were right.”

It wasn’t just the Americans who were concerned about the Toronto Peace Festival, however.

Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government was also opposed to the festival, putting it in an awkward, direct conflict with the federal government under Trudeau, which indirectly supported the gathering.

The Toronto Peace Festival was scheduled for the weekend of July 4, 1970, and within weeks of its unceremonious demise in the first half of 1970, some good luck finally came Brower’s way. The promoter was introduced to William Webster, whose family had assumed ownership of The Globe and Mail in the early ‘50s.

“William indicated to me that he would be willing to underwrite a pop festival if I was looking to put one together. We knew from experience that we weren’t going to get anywhere trying to do a festival in Ontario … because of their concern over John Lennon’s political influence,” Brower says.

It was at this point that his attention turned toward New Brunswick.

The Strawberry Fields Festival

“We had some friends that had a beautiful farm in Shediac, so it was suggested that we go there to see if they would be interested in letting us put on the festival there.”

After determining the site, approximately eight acres of land, to be more than ideal to host a music festival, Brower obtained preliminary permits from the local authority, which allowed him to move forward with booking the acts.

“I ended up going on a shopping spree in New York City, booking Led Zeppelin, Eric Burdon and War, Alice Cooper, Ten Years After, and the other artists that were scheduled to play the festival.”

By the time Brower left the city, he had spent upwards of $500,000 — equalling about $3.1 million today.

Festival preparations seemed to be proceeding smoothly. Advertisements and posters decorated newspapers and bulletin boards in Canada and south of the border. “Strawberry Fields” the ad declared, “an international carnival of sound and freedom visit free North America,” accompanied by an image of a strawberry with a dove nipping at its top. The ad touted three days of “love, sun and sound” on “virgin beaches surrounded by wild strawberry bushes.” A scrawled map on the bottom of the poster showed obscure directions from Chicago, New York City, Montreal, Boston and Toronto all heading to Moncton.

Contrary to the notion that the Strawberry Fields Festival took its name from the Beatles’ 1967 song “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Brower says the festival earned its moniker as organizers had heard that Shediac was deemed the strawberry capital of the province.

“I realize there is a certain synchronicity with the Beatles song, but that is not where the festival took its name.”

In an interview with the Telegraph-Journal approximately one month before the show was due to descend upon Barachois, promoters said they anticipated upwards of 60,000 attendees, thanks to an extensive advertising campaign undertaken in both Canada and the United States.

Jerrold Kushnick, a New York-based attorney for the festival, told the paper that co-operation with the provincial government had been “satisfying,” and noted the Barachois site had been chosen specifically because of the beach facilities and everything the area had to offer. He shared that approximately 100 washroom facilities would be brought to the festival site, and would be complemented by food and medical facilities.

It didn’t take long for things to begin falling apart for Brower and his team, however. As news of the festival spread like wildfire throughout Canada and the U.S., estimates on concert attendance ticked higher and higher, raising concern at both the municipal and provincial levels.

An informal opinion poll undertaken by local media showed residents were concerned that a “major invasion” of “young rock fans” could cause trouble for the community. Shediac business owners talked about closing up shop for the duration of the festival.

“Shediac depends on tourism as a great part of its livelihood,” an unnamed official with the local police force said at the time. “Stores are geared to service…a population of 15,000. They couldn’t possibly handle a crowd of 50,000. That’s big city stuff.”

Even Shediac’s “Lobster Queen” at the time, Violette Richard, chimed in on the matter, saying, “Personally, I think it is the worst thing that could happen here. Everyone is afraid of it.”

As fear and misunderstanding over the festival continued to spread, with many people associating big rock concerts with riots, drugs and vandalism and fearing the “Picture Province’s” reputation could be ruined, it didn’t take long for the provincial government under Premier Louis J. Robichaud to step in.

The government said that on June 15, the promoters of the show were given a “travelling show licence,” which would have been sufficient had they not been selling tickets.

After determining the show and its $15 ticket would instead fall under the Provincial Amusement Act and be subject to taxes, members of the provincial government met to discuss the festival’s future, ultimately determining the show would not go on in Barachois. This was just weeks before the concert was scheduled to take place.

Robichaud said the decision was based on the government’s concern that the promoters would be unable to meet the necessary standards for security, hygiene, food and water.

“It is the opinion of the government that the promoters cannot guarantee the protection of the public interest,” stated a press release from the premier’s office.

Moncton resident Denis Marquette was a 15-year-old teen living in Shediac in the summer of 1970. Although he and a group of friends had hoped to find temporary work with the festival, he recalls the sense of disappointment that the festival’s cancellation had upon area music fans.

“Woodstock had taken place in the U.S. the year before,” Marquette says. “A lot of people saw Strawberry Fields as our chance to join the history books, so to speak.”

While a palpable sense of relief permeated some parts of the community, not everyone was pleased with the government’s decision. In Moncton, up to 500 protesters took to the streets, marching to City Hall demanding the decision to cancel the festival be reversed. In Saint John, police questioned two teens after the burning of a New Brunswick flag was done to protest the government’s decision to axe the festival.

The music moves back west

With a half-million dollars tied up in entertainment and nowhere to put on a show, Brower and his team looked west to Ontario again. While the move might have seemed pointless on the surface, given the opposition that faced the Toronto Peace Festival, Brower says they had a bit of an ace up their sleeves.

“This is where the story takes on an interesting political twist,” Brower says. “There was an RCMP liaison with ties to the Prime Minister’s office that also had close ties to the hippy community in Toronto. He never tried to hide his position from anyone, and had been tasked with watching for American draft dodgers. Anyway, he was good a friend of ours and, when Strawberry Fields was axed in New Brunswick, had advised with us to meet with a specific attorney who would be able to counsel us on how to make the festival happen in Ontario.”

He says that, on the advice of their new attorney, he and his team were told to rent Mosport Park, located just east of Toronto, for the weekend in question and to bill the event as a motorcycle race with “added entertainment.”

“Of course, there was no description of what the ‘added entertainment’ would entail,” Brower says with a laugh.

With that, the Strawberry Cup Trophy Race was confirmed to take place on Aug. 7, 8, and 9, 1970. While specific details on the entertainment would entail remained intentionally vague in Canada, Brower says advertising in the U.S. showed the acts that had been slated to perform in New Brunswick would be appearing in concert.

“It took a few weeks for the connection to be made, but eventually, Ontario’s attorney general went to court, alleging the Strawberry Cup Trophy Race was a fraud, because in the U.S., we were promoting all of the acts that were going to appear. The Ontario government was determined to stop the festival in its tracks,” Brower says.

The case was eventually brought to Ontario Supreme Court, with the provincial government charging that Durham County, the jurisdiction where the Strawberry Cup Trophy Race was to be held, could not provide the necessary medical services for the 150,000-plus people they anticipated would attend the festival.

The Ontario government was dealt a serious setback when it was revealed that a Montreal-based company, one that was allegedly formed specifically for the purpose of signing the lease at Mosport Park, was putting on the Strawberry Cup Trophy Race.

“Our lawyers knew this was the case. They intentionally let the Ontario government waste weeks of time to get the matter to court, only to find out they would have to move the case to the Supreme Court of Canada,” Brower says.

And so, just two days before the festival was set to begin, amid allegations from the Ontario attorney general that the promoters were flagrantly manipulating the law, the case was heard before the Supreme Court of Canada.

“At this point, there were already 30,000 people gathered at Mosport Park in anticipation of the festival. The Ontario attorney general brought the same argument to the Supreme Court: there was no way the festival site was equipped to handle the necessary medical facilities required to accommodate the anticipated crowds.”

Brower says what happened next took even him by surprise.

“One of our lawyers hauled a letter out of his pocket from the Addiction Research Foundation, who confirmed they had a 150-bed field hospital, complete with necessary medical facilities, already established on an airfield adjacent to Mosport Park. The judge looked at the attorney general and said that if the availability of medical facilities was the basis of wanting to have the festival shut down, there was, in his opinion, no reason for the festival to be stopped.”

‘You had to be there’

The green light given to the festival caught virtually everyone off guard. The province of Ontario attempted to close the border, and enacted a requirement that all those attending the festival have $50 in cash on them. Although thousands were allegedly refused admission to Canada, some concert patrons successfully passed through customs by stating they were going camping at Algonquin Park.

Brower recalls that the owner of Mosport Park held food rights to the festival, but had not anticipated it was going to happen and had not purchased supplies necessary to feed the immense crowds.

“If you go on YouTube, there is footage of helicopters dropping packages of bread, bologna and cheese for the concert goers. That’s all people ate for three days,” Brower says, laughing. “There was no other way to get food in there; the roads leading into the park were absolutely jammed.”

While the show went on for the bulk of the performers who had originally signed on to perform when the festival was due to take place in New Brunswick, Brower notes a number of acts, including Led Zeppelin, Leonard Cohen and Buffy St. Marie did not end up performing at Mosport Park.

“The bulk of the artists that didn’t end up performing had been staying current with the legal developments around the festival. By the time we received the green light to go ahead with the festival, it was just too late to make the necessary arrangements to get to Toronto.”

Toronto resident Sean Gadon was one of those in attendance at Mosport Park for the Strawberry Cup Trophy Race for those three nights in August 1970. An ardent music fan that had already seen the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Miles Davis and others perform in Canada’s biggest city, he simply knew there was no way he could pass up taking the festival in.

“I was 16 years old at the time. My friends and I heard about the festival on FM radio the night before it was to begin. If it hadn’t have been for that, I don’t know that we would have known about the festival at all as there really wasn’t much advertising being done in Ontario,” Gadon says, adding he and his friends hitchhiked to the festival with only the clothes on their backs.

Although the Ontario Provincial Police expectedly issued a number of citations for various infractions during the course of the festival, Gadon insists the Woodstock spirit of peace and love dominated the overall feeling of the Strawberry Cup Trophy Race.

“It may sound ironic or cliché, but it was a transcendent few days, a real coming of age kind of event. The spirit of peace and love, combined with the music instilled a real sense of community among all who attended. It was one of those ‘you had to be there’ kind of moments, and I am so glad that I was.”