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The Story

Rochdale College is the University of Toronto's first co-op residence, Canada's first free university, and before long, the country's most notorious den of inequity. Rochdale opens in the spring of 1968, as an experiment in cooperative living and student-centred education. But this university offers no structured courses, curriculum, exams, or degrees. On CBC Radio, Rochdale residents and resource people still in the flush of excitement discuss what Rochdale means to them.

Rochdale is a hot bed of free thought and radical idealism. It gives birth to respected institutions like Coach House Press, Theatre Passe Muraille, The Toronto Free Dance Theatre, and House of Anansi Press. Yorkville's idealistic hippies take refuge here as their old neighbourhood changes. In Rochdale, they create a tribal community all their own, where they control what goes on. It's cooperative living; it's democracy. Some might call it anarchy. Are the lunatics running the asylum?

In 1969, a housing surplus at U of T leads to more and more varied tenants – street people, drug people – being allowed to live at Rochdale. By 1971, the press is calling Rochdale "North America's largest drug distribution warehouse." Hash, pot, and LSD are in large supply. The Rochdale security force includes members of biker gangs.

Did You Know?

• Dennis Lee - Governor General Award winner and author of Alligator Pie, a book of children's verse – was a resource person at Rochdale from 1967 to 1969.

 • Robert "Rosie" Rowbotham, who would later become a CBC producer, was one of the people who sold cannibas out of Rochdale. He was sentenced to 20 years in jail - the longest sentence for soft drugs in Canadian history. • Rochdale was a haven for US draft resistors.

• One of Rochdale's many problems was its early open-door policy. Hundreds of street people would crash in Rochdale's halls at night. The governing council decided to lock the doors and issue keys to residents. Keys to Rochdale then went on sale in Yorkville for $25 a piece.

• According to Brian J. Grieveson, former Rochdalian, police raids in the early days were sometimes met at the door with balloons and confetti and, in one case, a cake that read "Welcome 52 Division."

• Due to problems with cops and bikers, the governing council set up a paid security force to be on 24-hour alert. Ironically, some of these security people were bikers themselves. As had happened in Yorkville, an unofficial alliance with the Vagabonds motorcycle club developed.

• On July 30, 1974, a fight broke out between police and Rochdale residents. In the ensuing riot, Rochdale's rental office was trashed. A large bonfire in the middle of Bloor Street blocked traffic.

• Rochdale was eventually closed due to political pressure. On May 30, 1975, the last residents were carried from the building by police and the doors were literally welded shut. The building remained empty for years.

• The building which housed Rochdale, located on the south side of Bloor Street at Huron, became a senior’s residence in 1979.

• Although Rochdale was the most famous student co-op in Canada, it was preceded by a smaller unit at the University of Waterloo.

• Rochdale took its name from Rochdale, England, where the first successful cooperative business and the world's first attempt at cooperative housing happened in the mid-1800s.

• Rochdale became the largest co-op residence in North America and the largest of more than 300 free universities on the continent.

• In general, free universities were institutions which offered student-organized classes and did not issue degrees.

• Anyone could obtain a B.A. from Rochdale by donating $25 to the college and answering a skill-testing question, such as "What is the capital of Canada?" An M.A. was earned by donating $50. A skill-testing question still had to be answered, but the applicant got to pick the question. A Ph.D. could be had for $100. No questions asked.