In 1982, I moved away from my childhood home in a town of approximately 20,000 people, to a city of over 2 million. There were many aspects to living in a city like Toronto that took some getting used to, but one of the biggest for me was the sheer volume of people everywhere you went. There was no getting away from the hustle and bustle of city life…the noise of a thousand conversations, the heat from too many bodies in too small a space, the smells from food vendors and garbage bags and heat grates in the sidewalk.…Life was on a so much bigger scale in Toronto. But one of the most surprising things about being surrounded by so much “noise” all of the time was the anonymity that such an environment presents. I may have never been alone, but at the same time I was rarely seen. Because there is so much going on, even when all you are doing is something simple such as walking down the street, most people in bigger cities develop defense mechanisms that involve tuning out the external stimulation that is all around them. A form of social blindness envelops you as you race from here to there. Consequently, it is easy to move about unseen and unnoticed…just as easy as it is to not see or notice what is going on around you, too.
While I was attending university in 1984, a controversy arose in the local political arena regarding the nature of policing in Toronto. The concerns being expressed revolved around accusations of police brutality, and more specifically, that the Toronto Police had an unwritten policy of racially profiling certain socio-demographic groups which resulted in a spike in the number of arrests for members of those groups. Needless to say, the Toronto Police Dept. vigorously denied that any such practices went on. The debate ended up breaking down along political lines with left-leaning factions demanding a complete overhaul of the Police Department and right-leaning groups demanding even bigger budgets and more manpower for the Police. In the midst of all of this back-and-forth, a song began receiving airplay in Toronto, especially from Alternative radio station, CFNY. It was a song from a local band named The Pukka Orchestra called The Cherry Beach Express. Being relatively new to Toronto, I didn’t know where Cherry Beach was or what the song was referring to. However, the Toronto Police Department certainly knew what the song was referring to, and immediately set about getting it banned from the local airwaves. The reason for this was because The Cherry Beach Express was, in reality, much more than just a fictional song about a fictional place that existed in some songwriter’s mind. This song was, in fact, revealing one of Toronto’s dirty little secrets…that not only did police brutality exist, and not only did the police target certain minority groups more than others, but they had been doing it out in the open for years…at a place called Cherry Beach, on the shores of Lake Ontario.
The Pukka Orchestra consisted of three men named Graeme Williamson, Neil Chapman and Tony Duggan-Smith. The Cherry Beach Express, along with their cover of Listen To The Radio, were the band’s biggest hits. The word pukka is a Hindi word that means genuine or authentic. When Duggan-Smith thought of forming a band, his grandfather told him to form a pukka orchestra or to not bother wasting his time at all. Duggan-Smith and the rest of the guys liked that phrase as soon as they heard it and used it to name their band. In the early 1980s in Toronto, music as politics was a very real thing. Between radio station CFNY and upstart television station, CITY-TV, there was a great push to promote local talent, especially if the artist or band had something political to say. As a result, singers such as Carole Pope (from the band Rough Trade) became figureheads of a musical movement within the city to shine a light on the underbelly of “Toronto the Good”, as it was often referred to. CFNY even started up their own music awards show called the U Knows, which later became known as the CASBY Awards (Canadian Artists Selected By You). This awards show was in direct contrast to what was viewed as the corporate nature of the national awards show in Canada known as the Juno Awards. In any event, The Pukka Orchestra were voted as Group of the Year at the CASBY Awards in 1984, which was the entertainment scene’s way of publicly endorsing their exposure of Toronto Police tactics in their song, The Cherry Beach Express.
The song describes the practice which saw the Toronto Police pick up suspects and take them on a drive to the lake shore…to Cherry Beach…where “interrogations” would take place. In many instances, confessions would be extracted through physical beatings, sexual favours would be extorted from those women accused of prostitution and so on. Cherry Beach is located in an industrial area of Toronto just south of where the Gardiner Expressway turns into the Don Valley Parkway. As beaches go, it is actually not a bad spot to bring your family on a warm summer day. But at night, Cherry Beach was not the safest place in the city, especially if you were a racial minority who found yourself riding on the Cherry Beach Express in the back of a Toronto Police cruiser. As the popularity of The Pukka Orchestra’s song grew, stories began to emerge from other places in Canada where the local police were being accused of brutality. One of the most notorious of these stories was the infamous Starlight Tours from Saskatchewan. In these cases, police would drive intoxicated Indigenous men and women to the edge of town in the dead of winter and throw them out of the car and into the snow, forcing them to find their way home in sub-zero conditions. Many Indigenous people froze to death as a result of being forced to walk many kilometers without shoes or proper coats, all the while under the starry prairie sky.
The story of what was happening at Cherry Beach…in the very city I was living in…was an eye-opening experience for me. At that time, I had been in the city for two years and was beginning to think that walking through life with my head down, never making eye contact, keeping my mouth shut at all times in public, was merely how one lived in a metropolitan setting. But songs like The Cherry Beach Express by The Pukka Orchestra caused me to re-evaluate how I was living my life. I won’t say that this one song led directly to me becoming a teacher, but it was a factor in my wanting to be someone who actively made things better for others. Those initial feelings of wanting to make a difference in the lives of others were built on a foundation of moments of personal and political awakening from songs such as The Cherry Beach Express by The Pukka Orchestra, Sunday, Bloody Sunday, by U2, Biko, by Peter Gabriel and even, YMCA by The Village People. The desire for social justice and a more equal and fair society causes some people to go into politics. For me, it provided an impetus to become a teacher. Whatever the case, the biggest lesson of all is to not walk through life with your head down because there is so much out there to see.
Without further delay, here is The Cherry Beach Express by Toronto’s own Pukka Orchestra. Enjoy…and learn.
The link to the video for the song The Cherry Beach Express by The Pukka Orchestra can be found here.
The link to an article containing more information about The Pukka Orchestra can be found here.
The link to the video recorded on Cherry Beach by the comedy group Kids in the Hall can be found here. ***The video opens with two KITH members dressed as police officers. While no mention is made of the scandal that was ongoing at the time, the mere fact that this segment aired was a big political statement by the group.
The link to the video of the song Wild Things by Alessia Cara can be found here. ***Parts of this music video were shot at Cherry Beach, including all beach/waterfront scenes and all scenes that look as though they are in a factory setting. This will give you a good idea of how Toronto Police were able to “hide in plain sight” and do what they did without being seen.
Finally, the link to a story about Saskatchewan’s Starlight Tours, as written about in Maclean’s Magazine can be found here.
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