n August 14, 2003, a software bug plunged 55 million people into darkness from New York City to Windsor, Ontario. Over four million people alone were affected by the mid-afternoon outage in Toronto.
Twenty years later, Torontonians still gather to commemorate the spirit of community that existed after the sun went down and the city truly went dark.
On Monday a group of roughly 1000 people gathered in Grange Park and marched along the super-secret Blackout Party parade route to Philosophers walk on the University of Toronto campus. Since 2005, the yearly tradition has brought Torontonians together to relive conversations, cookouts, music and moments that made August 14, 2003 a night to commemorate.
Led by an improvisational jazz band, drummers and neon bike riders, stilt walkers and people from every part of the city took over the streets on Monday evening.
Winding north through side streets, the procession stopped to occupy the intersection of Spadina Ave. and College St. for about 20 minutes. Music, drums and people filled every corner of the intersection as a group of performers took turns spinning and breathing huge fireballs into the air.
One of the truly magical aspects of the Blackout Party is the event’s seamless spontaneity: arriving at any intersection might mean the addition of a contingent of drummers, neon clad bikes or other artists. When the march continued, it wound through the University of Toronto campus, ending at the afterparty location of Philosophers walk where more music (and of course fire) greeted everyone.
In a final homage to August 14, 2003, the lamps in Philosophers walk were darkened, plunging the afterparty into almost total darkness, and the void of light was filled with the atmosphere of music and community that made the blackout such a memorable experience.
Peter Sabatini was 23-years-old and living downtown in 2003. What he remembers most vividly about that night is a single light in his garage. “This battery powered light that was at our parking garage, it just kept blinking,” Sabatini shared. “I’d never noticed that parking sign before the blackout, suddenly that became the only light I saw.”
Suddenly the city was a surreal scene; confusion was everyone’s shared state, the electricity was out, food became scarce fast, random citizens directed traffic, and the only electricity in the city was that of chaotic energy.
In Oshawa, Cheryl Duval was working at General Motors throughout her second semester of university. On the day of the blackout in 2003, Duval wasn’t looking forward to her shift. As luck would have it, the power went out right before she started, allowing Duval and her friends to wander the streets partying until they found the only light in town, a chip truck.
“I remember the youthfulness of all of a sudden being off work,” Duval said, “of not having to slog away at a car plant and suddenly just being with friends.”
Though neither Sofie Whiteley or Nara Yoon remember the blackout (Whiteley was seven-years-old in Alberta in 2003 and Yoon lived in Korea), friendship and a sense of the wider community of Toronto is what brought them both to the blackout party. “The concept of remembering the blackout is unique, it’s not something that would happen in Korea,” said Yoon.
“Earlier they were talking about community, and the bonding that happened, so I think it’s pretty cool,” Whiteley said. “That people are still celebrating how they were together supporting each other twenty years ago is really heartwarming.”
Nick Lachance is a photojournalist and occasional writer in Toronto, Ontario.