The first Ruined Dinner party — which I helped ruin

Was it really 50 years ago?

Couldn’t be.

It was a time when important men brought their Mrs to dinners.

It was a time when women wore long formal gowns and white gloves.

It was a time when iceberg lettuce salads  and Thousand Island dressing ruled (as you’ll read).

It was the night of Feb. 1, 1973.

The unionized University of Toronto groundskeepers were picketing because of U of T’s plan to contract out their jobs.  A number of us decided to picket with them in front of the main administrative building, at 215 Huron St.  Some of us were students, like Pete who was at the business school. Myron, was a social work student. Others, like Larry, were alumni.  I was neither a student nor a graduate—I was living on UI (the old term for Unemployment Insurance or EI) and working full time for the Canadian Liberation Movement, which was left-wing and pro-Canadian union.

In Nov. 1972 at Queen’s Park, Jack McNie Ontario’s minister of Colleges and Universities tries to address student protesters. The Tory government increased tuition fees by $100 a year. 500 students protested, many came in busloads from outside Toronto (credit: Frank Lennon, Toronto Star)

The university’s board of governors decided to put an end to the picket.  They called the campus police who basically encircled us picketers and began to beat them.  A couple of us saw a police phalanx marching up Huron St. so we ran off and hid, but those left behind were punched, kicked and then arrested.

Those arrested and held in police cells came up against a worrying situation that, in an entirely unrelated incident, someone – a real baddie – had killed a cop that day.  So the police were on high alert and acted more violently toward our people than we had expected. 

Gathering at 4 pm that frigid and snowy day, the rest of us realized those men arrested were still in jail, at the #52 division cop shop on College St.  It was notorious for being a violent and merciless place.  How serious could the charges be anyway we wanted to know?  We wanted the arrested released. 

Former downtown Toronto police station, #52 division. Built in 1894, before it was a cop shop it was a men’s athletic club, featuring Toronto’s first indoor swimming pool.

Six women left behind.  We made a plan. 

The Dinner Party at Toronto’s Hyatt

For that evening, Jack McNie, the Minister of Colleges and Universities had invited all the Ontario university and college presidents (and their wives) to an annual dinner to celebrate something or other.  Of course what they were celebrating had nothing to do with the rout and arrests at the U of T earlier.  Still they were our targets.  In our big winter coats and boots, six of us rode the glittery escalator up to the ballroom on the second floor of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, what was at the time the first towering hotel in Yorkville. 

We wore scarves and mittens.  When we entered the room we women didn’t look like banquet servers, but we did look out of place.

One of us, Denise, went to the standing microphone just to the side of the dais.  I saw the amused looks of the diners wondering if this was going to be a stand-up comedy routine, or some college kids playing a prank.

And to find out how to set a table for a formal dinner watch this hilarious video

Denise read a long speech, which all six of us had had a hand in writing.  We demanded the men be let out of jail, the charges be dropped and that U of T reverse its decision on contracting out the groundskeeping.

At first we just stood near to Denise to get our bearings. Then we fanned out into the ballroom, our coats open and scarves flying and we tore the white linen tablecloths off the round banquet tables like magicians.  But there was no trick – the wine glasses, the soup bowls, the plates and cutlery went flying – mostly onto the diners’ laps.  Women guests jumped up and hollered when dinner got dumped in their laps.  But we pressed on.  At one table I saw David Archer, the president of the Ontario Federation of Labour and his wife—who had a bouffant hairdo.  They looked scared.  There was the former city mayor—the first NDP mayor since 1935, Bill Dennison and his wife.  I also saw my alderman Fred Beavis and his missus.  There had to have been 25 tables so we had to work fast. 

Soon no one was paying the slightest attention to Denise who continued to speak.  Men shouted to drown her out—one tried to grapple the mic away. Women were crying about their stained dresses—their white gloves spotched pink with spilled wine.

Credit: Freepik

Finally security came. The half a dozen men, each as big as a door, grabbed us in their giant paws and half-carried us out through the swinging doors into the kitchen.  Once in the kitchen, we pushed the dozens of individual salads off the trays placed on metal racks; chopped lettuce and quartered tomatoes flew everywhere.

Iceberg lettuce and Thousand Island dressing

The back door of the kitchen was the door to the fire escape.  The bouncers  pushed us onto the outdoor landing, a couple of us tripped down a few stairs at the top.  The men yelled, “We’re calling the police.”  But they never did.

We marched down the slatted metal stairs to the ground – I remember there being a lot of snow on the ground.  It was still freezing.  We laughed and laughed.  We found out the men had been released, but the charges were steep—with months of preparation for trials ahead of us. 

Featured image above: The Dinner Party is an installation artwork by feminist artist Judy Chicago (US artist) depicting place settings for 39 mythical and historical famous women. It was first exhibited in 1979. Although initially galleries would not show it, ultimately it toured to 16 venues in 6 countries on 3 continents to a viewing audience of 15 million. A bit dated now, today’s critics said the place settings reveal too many vaginas,

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