[Editor’s note: The following story includes references to adult themes and sexuality. Parental discretion is advised.]
Stone Mills Township grappled with issues of morality and safety Monday evening as they decided to support in principle a special events permit to allow Hyperborea on township property May 17-21.
In a 4-2 recorded vote, council decided to allow the event in principle at a site on Doyle Road so long as Hyperborea organizers work out a sublease agreement with the farmer currently leasing the land and enforce an 18-plus admission policy. Doug Davison and Martha Embury voted against. Earlier, councillors voted unanimously to reject a special events permit for the event at a site on Carroll Road, near Tamworth.
Organizer Dom Scott explained the second-year event has art as its core focus and takes inspiration from Burning Man, a temporary community built annually in the United States since 1986. Typically, participants create large art installations and use fire as part of their art.
“We’re taking Burning Man, which is a huge art event in the Nevada desert and making a much smaller version of it in an Ontario community. It’s for a community that doesn’t want to travel halfway across the continent to go have fun in the desert and climb big art.”
In 2017, one of the temporary installations was a giant fire-breathing dragon. Looking ahead, Scott said adding organizers are spending $12,000 on commissioning art for their upcoming weekend.
Last year, the event attracted over 500 participants to Freedom Fields, a farm and naturist ranch on Carroll Road. As the organizers, the Hyperborea Experiential Arts Team (HEAT), sought a special events permit to return to the site for the May long weekend and as the owners of Freedom Fields sought a temporary zoning exemption to allow part of their property to be used as a campground, councillors learned about public concern over noise and the scope of the activities.
On Monday, in a special meeting, councillors considered the request for a return to Carroll Road. There was some discussion about the remote, rural nature of the road and its ability to handle traffic but morality became a primary focus.
In addition to Hyperborea being staged at a nudist colony, a notion also exists that Burning Man events have traditionally taken a liberal view on matters of public nudity and sexuality as part of the festival’s stated principle of “radical self expression.” One well-known side event at past gatherings included an oral sex competition labelled by a double entendre for Canada’s national animal.
Some, including Lanark-Frontenac-Lennox and Addington MPP Randy Hillier via Facebook, expressed concern those types of events would be taking place at an all-ages event. Deputy-reeve John Wise asked Scott and fellow HEAT board member Lucas Smithen about it directly.
“There’s a fair amount of what we can refer to as moral panic surrounding your event. There seems to be an implication that there is sexual activity taking place — that minors are not necessarily taking part in it, but maybe witnessing it and that would be a concern to anyone. You should maybe address that because it seems to be a big part of the concern here.”
Smithen replied the event adheres to all Canadian laws, so no public sex would be allowed at the events. He noted that like any other large event, the organizers couldn’t control what people do in the privacy of their own tents.
Scott added nudity isn’t likely.
“Usually, silly outfits are more likely than nudity. It’s the May long weekend, it’s cold, and there are black flies. If people decide to do so, they’re welcome to, but I think maybe three people decided to take their clothes off last year. It’s not the focus of the event.”
Councillor Wenda LaLande said she went through last year’s agenda and found “at least five different activities that don’t have anything to do with art” in her opinion. Most of them had colourful names with sexual innuendo. She also was concerned with alcohol present in areas open to children.
“I have an issue with these various activities, including the ‘beaver eating’ thing. I find that offensive. I wouldn’t want to take my child there and I don’t feel anybody else should be taking their children there. It doesn’t seem to be keeping with a mostly arts event and family quality time.”
Martha Embury had several objections that she argued should lead to rejection of the initial proposal — she argued the bylaw was intended for single-day events without camping, she worried about the impact on the land, and about noise levels — but she came back to references in last year’s itinerary to rope bondage and oral sex.
“Do we want to be known as a community which endorses such activities and explicit sexual acts on display? No,” she said, adding she felt many church-going citizens would find the event inappropriate.
Councillor Kevin Richmond and Wise didn’t share that view, however.
“I don’t think this council is here to judge on what is moral and what isn’t in the eyes of different people, Richmond said. “I think everybody has their own way of life and we have to let people live their lives. It isn’t something that attracts me, but it obviously does other people.”
Richmond added there weren’t any arrests or criminal charges stemming from the 2017 event to suggest a problem.
“Bondage activity? Come on. What people do in privacy between consenting adults is enshrined in our laws, in our bill of rights. Just because you find it personally distasteful — it’s not my thing either, but we’re not asking any (church) congregation to attend Hyperborea. Let’s clear the air of this judgmental atmosphere and deal with things that affect our community in a tangible way.”
Wise listed noise and fire risk as potential concerns. He also added he was fearful for public safety.
“I think there’s a public safety concern because of the extreme hostility that’s been voiced and expressed to this event and there is a danger of confrontation from some of the more passionate members of the neighbourhood. I don’t want to see confrontation in this community.”
To that end, Wise proposed voting against the Carroll Road location and moving to a more suitable site.
Reeve Eric Smith agreed.
“There’s bad blood up there, let’s just put it on the table. I have no problem with this event, but feel it’s in the wrong area.”
After the permit for Carroll Road was denied, Smith asked Scott what he hoped to see council do. Scott replied they’d like to apply for a permit on Doyle Road to be able to proceed. The reeve asked him if he’d be comfortable with a condition restricting the weekend to adults.
Scott responded that last year there were only about 20 children at the event, all admitted in the care of a parental guardian. He noted the Burning Man organization provides sanctioning requiring all-ages events, but the HEAT board had considered the request.
“While we would prefer to have all ages, if our permit hung on being an adults-only event, it could happen.”
LaLande said she agreed with Wise’s comments about consenting adults, but added if children are involved, the township should take action.
“There’s an element where if we as a council are agreeing to bring an event into our township, we have to ensure there be some propriety in it,” she said, encouraging either the removal of children from the event or remove events that would be inappropriate if a child snuck into a tent.
Embury raised concern about impacts on the farmer who entered into a lease of the Doyle Road site and about potential liability issues, given the event would be on township property that’s currently leased by a third. Wise made a motion to support the special events approval on Doyle Road, conditional to a subleasing agreement satisfactory to the farmer and an age-of-majority designation to address the moral concern surrounding children.
“Even though I think they’re far-fetched and overblown, we have to address those kinds of issues as well.”
He also said hosting the event may offer an economic boost to Camden East.
Davison argued the event is equally unsuitable at either location.
“I think we’re forgetting one other thing,” he said. “I’ll guarantee you when word gets out there’s another community that’s not going to be supportive. They’re only a mile north of Camden East, if that. The location is easily accessible for anyone who wants to walk up to the dump and take a look. I think this event is too big for us to handle and the location is not proper.”
Embury doubted the farmer would entertain the event. She also doubted the economic benefit.
“I believe the negative social impacts far outweigh the commercial benefits,” she said.
Embury attempted to amend the motion to include right of refusal over the event’s agenda, but as mover and seconder, Wise and Richmond denied her.
“We’re not going to be the morality police here,” Wise concluded.
Deb Thompson, who received confirmation from clerk and chief administrative officer Bryan Brooks that the applicants met their insurance requirements and communicated with emergency series, felt council had to make a correct political decision based on them meeting criteria and put their personal feelings aside. She also brought it to council’s decision it can revisit approval in future years as each approval is for the basis of one event.
Scott left the meeting encouraged planning could continue.
“I’m happy we can still have our event. We have a huge amount of work to do to organize our site plan and work out a contract with the (lessee) as soon as possible.”
More information about the event is available at www.tohyperborea.ca.