Club 70, a first in Alberta’s LGBT history

In the tumultuous year of 1969, Canadian queers suddenly found themselves in a new legal landscape. The bill that decriminalized homosexuality passed the parliamentary vote in May – in August, that bill was voted into law. No one was quite sure what it would mean as far as day-to-day life for gays and lesbians, but some forward-thinking folks in Edmonton decided that with this new legal reality, it was time to create Edmonton’s first official queer gathering place.

They chose the name Club 70, even though it was autumn of 1969. Not only was 1969 almost over, but a few of them felt that naming it Club 69 was just a bit too cheeky. And so they heralded the approaching decade by naming the bar with an eye to a new future.

The location was on 101 street and 106 avenue, in the basement of a building that still stands today. Back then, a Greek restaurant occupied the main floor. Even though the Milla Pub is still open, the building is grubby and the yellowing plaster shows neglect. But if you look at the north end of the building, there is a brightly painted door that leads to the basement. It was behind that door that a queer person would nervously descend down the stairs into the very beginnings of Edmonton’s very first official gay club.

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You may know it now as the seedy Milla Pub. But behind these doors in 1969, a queer person would nervously descend down the stairs into the very beginnings of Edmonton’s very first official gay club, Club 70.

There had always been places where the Friends of Dorothy could discretely congregate – generally in one corner of the taverns that occupied the main floor of the large, grand hotels that dominated downtown: The Mayfair, The Corona, The Royal George, and the King Edward (or King Eddie). But these gay hangouts were never official – they just sprung up out of necessity in cities across Canada. It was in these early unofficial gathering places that ‘the community’ began to recognize each other in the smoky half-light, and began to connect and communicate. Even as recently as the early 80s, a gay man could stroll into one of these smoky taverns, and once his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could find a group of men like him, taking over one corner or certain tables in the room.

None of these hotels stand today – they’ve been replaced by downtown malls, or newer high-rises. Only the Corona LRT station keeps one of those names alive. But somehow the early gay club scene’s first legal footprint has escaped the wrecking ball of progress.

Through those nondescript doors, one descended down a flight of stairs into a space no bigger than a large living room. Everyone had to sign in, although pseudonyms were the norm – people were still very afraid to be ‘outed’ and the last thing one would want was to be identified by logging into a register of a gay bar. There was hired security – a straight man who kept a scowling presence at the bottom of the stairs.

Small stage for burgeoning drag scene

The club had no liquor license, and so bringing your own bottle was essential, as the concession only sold pop and chips. There was a small dance floor, and even a tiny stage populated by the pioneers of Edmonton’s burgeoning drag scene: Grindl performed on that stage, as did Trixie, and Millie – names that, within a few years,  would become legend on the stages of the underground. Few Queens were as legendary as Millie, who in 1976 would become Edmonton’s first crowned head of state, the unofficial Godmother to all Queens who followed: Empress I of Edmonton, establishing the Imperial House of Millicent, the first in a long chapter of royal houses that still rules Edmonton through the auspices of the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Wild Rose; she was simultaneously crowned Mz. Flashback I. Millie has the distinction of being the only drag queen in Edmonton’s history who wore both crowns at the same time.

The tiny club could only hold about 50 people, and was only open on Friday and Saturday nights. The ambiance was more like a house party than a nightclub. But it was the first queer space. That meant safety. It meant being able to freely recognize and acknowledge people like yourself, to dance with whoever you wanted to dance with, or to freely cheer on a drag show.

That freedom was fiercely protected, however. Club 70 had a strict gay-only membership policy, for the safety and discretion of its members. Violating this policy by bringing a straight person to the bar would get you a 30-day suspension.

Club 70 bears the distinction of being the first official, registered-on-paper-with-city-hall, gay society in Alberta

However, it got off to a very rocky start. The location was short-lived, even though Club 70 was not. After a month of weekends of business, the owner of the building finally realized what sort of business had taken root in his basement, and when staff and members arrived for the weekend party, they found he had nailed the doors shut, seized the liquor, and whatever there was in the way of a sound system. The fledgling gay club was suddenly in a legal battle with a landlord. However, they won that battle, as their lease had been broken illegally, and were able to not only get their stuff back, but the owner of the building was forced to pay for their relocation costs.

Club 70 closed for a month, eventually finding a new home on 106 street; that building remained queer for the next 42 years. When Club 70 had run its course, it transformed into The Cha Cha Palace for a short period in 1978, then Boots & Saddles for decades, and lastly The Junction Bar & Grill. Once the 106 street location opened, that spot in Edmonton was a safe queer space from 1970-2012.

In 1969, the first step towards building a new sense of community was building a home; a meeting place or a town square, where LGBTQI people could gather, and for the first time, discover who they were in this brave but unknown new world.

Written by: Darrin Hagen, legendary playwright, actor, sound designer, composer, performer, director and TV host based in Edmonton.

Bread, salt and water: the history of Doukhobors in Alberta

Editor’s note: The following blog post is part one of a two-part series looking at the history and influence of Doukhobors in Alberta.

East of the Crowsnest Pass, nestled within the small community of Lundbreck, sits a simple white building clad in asbestos shingles and covered with metal roof. The structure looks utilitarian and spare; it could easily be mistaken for the kind of modest community halls one occasionally sees in Alberta’s small towns. While the building is almost entirely non-descript, the history that it embodies is extraordinarily rich.

The history of the Alberta Doukhobors is an essential chapter in the story of one of the largest experiments in communal living in North America. Approximately 7,500 Doukhobors came to Canada in 1899, at the time it was the largest mass migration in the country’s history. In stark contrast, at a 2018 meeting of Doukhobors in British Columbia, a grim question was posed: will there be any Doukhobors active in their faith by 2030? Between their noteworthy arrival at the end of the nineteenth century and their dwindling membership today, the Doukhobors have lived a tumultuous and compelling experience in Canada. This post attempts to explore the vision and roots of the Doukhobor community, and their early experiences in Canada.

Doukhobor Prayer Home in Lundbreck, 2013
The Doukhobor Prayer Home in Lundreck (also known as the Doukhobor Hall [dom or house]) is one of the few tangible reminders of one of the most remarkable communities of people to ever settle in this province.
Read more

The Lure of Gold in Alberta’s History: Part II

Part I of The Lure of Gold in Alberta’s History can be read here.

The Last Great Gold Rush

In 1896, gold production in Edmonton reached $55,000,[i] with local banks purchasing gold dust off miners at $15 an ounce.[ii] No small amount for a town of roughly 1200 people. However, this amount was nothing compared to the following year when parties of gold seekers, upon news of rich gold strikes in the Yukon, began outfitting themselves in Edmonton on their way to the Klondike. By the summer of 1898, the stampede was over with local merchants having taken in $500,000.[iii]

When parties slowly began arriving in Edmonton by train in the summer of 1897, the business community quickly seized upon the opportunity and began actively advertising Edmonton as the, ‘All Canadian Route to the Klondike’, ‘The Back Door to the Yukon’, and ‘The Poor Man’s Route to the Yukon.’[iv] By Christmas, there were people from Chicago, eastern Canada, the Atlantic seaboard, Europe, and Australia camped in small groups all over town. Historian J.G. MacGregor wrote that by mid-winter 1898, “…the town was knee deep in Klondikers.”[v]

HBC Stoe Edmonton
Figure 1. A storefront in Edmonton advertising supplies for prospectors (image B4424 reproduced with permission from the Provincial Archives of Alberta).

On a map, distances could be deceiving, and many lacked the experience required for such a rigorous journey. One man writing to the editor of the Edmonton Bulletin inquired as to the feasibility of travelling to the Yukon by bicycle,[vi] and two Parisians who set off from Athabasca Landing admitted to having originally entertained the idea of travelling to the Klondike by balloon.[vii] The distances alone were daunting but the real challenge was carrying with them two years of supplies. This amounted to 2500 lbs of food and gear for each individual, and, depending on the route and the season, they required horses, dog teams, sleds, sleighs, and boats. Read more

The Lure of Gold in Alberta’s History: Part I

“Having disposed of our holdings on the creeks the five of us packed through the South Kootenai Pass and soon after started for Edmonton, where we heard they were mining placer gold on the Saskatchewan River. We had no very clear knowledge of where Edmonton was, and there was no one there to tell us.”[i]

– ‘Kootenai’ Brown (1865)

Gold! It was dreams of golden wealth and the promise of adventure that drew thousands of young men west to California and British Columbia in the 1800s. Although never achieving the spectacular wealth in gold of its neighbors to the west, Alberta witnessed its own gold rush in the 1860s, and over the subsequent decades many people passed through the province on their way to other mining frenzies that swept across the northwest. Many prospectors settled in the province and became leading members of Alberta’s burgeoning communities.

The First Gold in Western Canada

The 1849 rush in California brought ‘Forty-Niners’ from the U.S. Eastern Seaboard and Midwest who traveled overland and by sea. Ocean travel also brought Peruvians and Chileans, Mexicans, Australians, Europeans, and Chinese. In the spring of 1858, the easier diggings long since worked out in California, news arrived in San Francisco of discoveries on the Thompson and Fraser Rivers – to the north in British territory.[ii]  By July, it was estimated that 30,000 “half-wild Californians” had passed through the sedate, trading outpost of Fort Victoria Read more

Blackfoot Soldiers in WWI

Tomorrow is Aboriginal Veterans Day. It is estimated that more than 12,000 First Nations members, Inuit, and Métis served in WWI, WWII and the Korean War.

At first glance, the voluntary participation of several young Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) men in the First World War appears to confirm their assimilation into Euro-Canadian culture. Recent graduates of prototype residential schools, they shunned requests by their elders to remain in Treaty 7 territory and were inspected, inducted, drilled, and disciplined. Many were sent overseas to fight for God, King, and Country. Some were killed in action. We might interpret a 1917 letter home from Siksika (Blackfoot) soldier Mike Foxhead as an indication of his acceptance of colonial values. He wrote:

I’ll stick to it until the end to put up a name for the Reserve, so they can say that they have one of their boys over here. I could have got out of it when the other boys got their discharge only I wanted to do my bit like all other Canadians. I knew that somebody had to go and fight for the Empire, and I made up my mind that I would go because it would be my duty sooner or later.[1]

Yet as historian James Dempsey has shown, there were important elements of Blackfoot warrior culture that accompanied Blackfoot mobilization during the Great War.[2] As the nineteenth-century waned, so too did opportunity for young men to prove themselves in battle, raid their enemy’s camps for horses, and recount Read more

Preserving Heritage for Future Generations: Heritage Barns of Flagstaff County

Thank you to guest writer, Sydney Hampshire, for sharing her experience of documenting built heritage in Flagstaff County.

Growing up in Northern Alberta kept myself, my siblings, and my parents a long way away from our extended family. We had only occasional visits with both sets of grandparents, which caused a disconnect between us. However, this disconnect also built a mystique around the lives of the past generation – and with it came an inherent curiosity.

My grandmother, Joy Hampshire (nee Innes), was born, and lived all her life in Flagstaff County after her mother and father immigrated from Scotland. Flagstaff County harbours an abundance of built heritage structures that showcase the region’s rich past. As a child, I was exposed to this heritage on each trip we took to our grandparents and I remember becoming terribly intrigued by this built heritage and the relics of my grandmother’s past. I remember each visit to Grandma’s farm required a visit or two to nearby abandoned homesteads. Each trek into a forgotten house, shed, or barn brought me great excitement: What would I find? What would I see? What would I infer about the people that used to live there?

I believe we all have a little bit of this adventurous spirit in us; it comes from a desire to understand the unknown and seek out answers. While exploration and Read more

Alberta’s Early Public Libraries

October is Canadian Library Month – a time to raise awareness about the valuable role of libraries in our communities. Thank you to guest writer, Erin Hoar, for this post about some of Alberta’s first libraries.

The earliest libraries in Canada were generally private collections of books and documents brought over by European immigrants. Some religious orders, fur trade and military posts would also collect books, but these were generally not accessible to the wider public. Canada’s earliest public libraries were offered by subscription only and began to appear in the early nineteenth century. By 1900 the modern public library, similar to what we would think of as a library today, began to acquire, classify and organize books, periodicals and newspapers with the purpose of providing users with access to these collections.

The idea of libraries was becoming more recognized as a public need that enriched growing communities, as was the case in Alberta. Many of Alberta’s early libraries were established because there were dedicated people who were passionate about providing accessible learning and educational services. This post will trace Alberta’s earliest public libraries in Edmonton and Calgary, and look at the people who brought these spaces to life to become valued and trusted resources for their communities. Read on to find out more!

Andrew Carnegie, 1913 (Public domain).

It was 1906 when the Calgary Women’s Literary Club formed to discuss the readings of Shakespeare, world news and current events, and it was out of these gatherings that the need for a public library grew. The women did what many others who wanted a public library did during this time – they asked millionaire Andrew Carnegie to build them a library. Carnegie, who made a fortune in the steel industry, was a strong advocate for learning and had a reputation for library philanthropy. In Canada, the Carnegie Foundation funded over 100 libraries and thousands more across the world, including the United States, England, Ireland, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Read more