If Circa survives it has the potential to be a massive landmark on Toronto’s cultural and geographic cityscapes. Part nightclub, part museum, part screening lounge, the 3,000-person-capacity venue’s impact is expected to be so great that owner, club mogul Peter Gatien, boasts that it will earn a place as one of the city’s top tourist attractions.
“I was reading the other day an article – totally unsolicited by us – that said if you go to Toronto you’ve got to see two things: one is the new addition to the [Royal Ontario] Museum, the other is Circa nightclub,” Gatien told Xtra on Aug 23.
It’s easy to dismiss Gatien’s words as mere bravado but he may be correct. In the year since he first applied for a liquor licence from the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) Gatien says he has racked up letters of support for his venture from many of the city’s leading cultural institutions, including the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Ontario College of Art and Design, the Toronto Arts Council, The Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, Spin Gallery, City TV and many of Toronto’s leading promoters, artists and designers.
Gatien says he has invested more than $5 million in the club, which he hopes will attract a diverse section of Toronto’s party scene and where he says he is planning to host semiregular queer events. A stroll through the club – still under construction at press time – reveals kinky, sexually charged themes in many of the temporary exhibits. Among them is a photo exhibit by queer filmmaker Bruce LaBruce.
With all that cultural clout behind him and an official city plan to “live with culture,” why, after an extraordinarily long 11-month investigation followed by a six-day hearing and an eventual decision to grant the club a liquor licence, has the AGCO decided to appeal its own decision to provincial court?
Circa is scheduled to open for a Toronto International Film Festival event on Fri, Sep 7 but the commission asked the court to order a stay of the decision which would have revoked the licence pending the appeal. The move would have effectively shuttered Circa until at least later in the fall after the appeal was heard. That request was denied by the court on Aug 24.
The AGCO registrar argued then that the board, which granted the licence, erred in its premises that the AGCO is not responsible to limit the number of clubs in the entertainment district and that Gatien’s past legal imbroglios should not factor into his application for Circa.
“We wanted the court to reexamine the way the board members examined the public interest component and the past conduct of the applicant in other operations,” says Richard Kulis, AGCO’s deputy director of legal services.
Essentially, opposition to Circa’s licence stems from wider complaints about rowdiness in Toronto’s downtown entertainment district and the fear that a new monster club in the area could only exacerbate any policing problems.
City councillor Adam Vaughan, whose ward includes the entertainment district, says that his opposition to the club stems from those safety issues rather than specific complaints about the club.
“Circa is just one of about a dozen nightclubs that has had opposition shown to it to the AGCO,” says Vaughan. “Every single liquor licence application from this community has been opposed by this office. Quite frankly I can’t honestly say the city has the capacity to protect a nightclub in that neighbourhood.”
While Vaughan has taken on would-be club operators directly, he also rails against both city council and the AGCO for creating the conditions that have led to the safety issues in the club district.
“We’ve created the situation in the city where virtually the only neighbourhood where you can have nightclubs is one neighbourhood and that’s absurd,” he says. “Residents have a very high tolerance for nightclubbers but at a certain point it reaches a tipping point.”
In fact, many in the queer community argue a similar point because the existence of the entertainment district has been used to rationalize the rejection liquor licences for any new dance clubs in the Church St neighbourhood. Church St clubs and bars are relatively trouble-free while clubs in the entertainment district seem to operate with impunity regardless of what happens.
“Right now AGCO hands out licences to everyone [in the entertainment district] and pulls them from no one,” Vaughan says. “When it’s possible to pull back the licences of bad operators, people who recycle beer or sell drugs on the premises, we’ll have more confidence in handing out licences. If we could get rid of the bad players, Circa would be open and we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”
Calls to the AGCO registrar were not returned before press time, but questions remain about the commission’s handling of Circa’s application. Over an 11-month investigation in which a US Department of External Affairs agent was flown in to give testimony, how much money was spent to oppose the application? Why the extraordinary step of requesting a stay? What message does it send to the business community that the government has attempted to shut down a multimillion dollar club even when the owners behind it have so far played by the rules and are supported by leading cultural institutions?
Gatien remains indignant about the AGCO’s efforts to shutter his club.
“Whoever is opposing this is doing a civic injustice, that’s been the frustrating part of this whole thing,” he says.