by Joan Champ
Did you know that during the summer of 1971, Prince Albert had a youth hostel and drop-in centre? It was called Cool Aid and it served both local and transient youth. In the summer months of the early 1970s, hundreds of thousands of young people hitchhiked along the highways of Canada. In 1970 alone, the federal government estimated that between 150,000 to 200,000 hitchhikers – mainly white, middle-class students – travelled the roads.
Prince Albert was off the main route along the Trans-Canada Highway, but the Prince Albert Daily Herald reported on August 10, 1971 that many hitchhikers were passing through the area. By that time, Cool Aid had been established at 17 River Street West and was serving young transients from across Canada, and from as far away as California. Despite local fears of drop-outs, drugs, dirtiness and disease, the transients reportedly caused no trouble in Prince Albert. “Everything has been fine here all summer,” Police Chief Reg Brooman told the Herald. “We’ve had no problems with travelling youth.” This was due, in large part, to the services provided by Cool Aid.
Cool Aid operated with grant funding of $2,775 from the federal government and $2,000 from the City of Prince Albert. Donations were received from local supporters, including $250 from Prince Albert Pulp Company, and $200 from Sick’s Bohemian Brewery. At the end of August, the centre reported that the money had been spent on renovations to the building on River Street ($2,298), administration ($1,871), and rent ($1,047).
In the summer of 1971, the Trudeau government set up the Canadian Youth Hostel Association which funded Cool Aid and 120 other youth hostels across Canada. “These hostels,” historian Linda Mahood writes, “were run by a new breed of long-haired civil servants and hip youth workers who could refer hostellers to job banks, education programmes, family counselling, VD clinics, psychiatric centres, and the police.”
In their request for funding to Prince Albert city council on May 5, 1971, Cool Aid’s founders, Dennis Clouthier and Rick Barsaloux, both students, received a sympathetic hearing. Mayor Val Longworth stated that he felt there was a need for such a program, and invited the community at large to lend assistance to the project. Several aldermen commended the students for their initiative in organizing the program. In reply to a question from Alderman Dick Spencer, Clouthier said that although Cool Aid members did not have professional training in social work or psychiatry, “most group members have had experience ‘on the road’ which they feel will allow them to be useful as a sort of go-between [with professionals]. We all have a definite concern for young people and feel that if no one else is making this type of proposal, why shouldn’t we?”
By late May, the tri-service youth was set up on River Street. The drop-in centre was a meeting place for both local and transient young people, with a coffee house atmosphere. The drug crisis service was a bridge between the psychiatric centre at Victoria Union Hospital and “the people on the street.” The youth hostel, which accommodated male transients only, included four beds and a shower. Young women travellers, of which there were relatively few, were billeted in local homes.
Some Prince Albert residents vigorously opposed Cool Aid. Two petitions against the centre were presented to city council in May – one from businessmen in the immediate vicinity of the centre, and one representing 107 families in the city. “This hostel will only serve one purpose – to attract undesirables,” Mrs. B. wrote in a letter to the Herald. “Who wants our main streets and park cluttered up with this trash who serve no good purpose?” A member of the Prince Albert Youth Council wrote a response to Mrs. B.’s letter the following week “They are making an effort to take them off the streets and provide something with which to occupy their time. They are trying to establish a place where adolescents who are on bad trips can go for help, and where those with problems can seek counselling,” the writer stated. “This type of accommodation is something Prince Albert has needed for some time, now more than ever.”
Despite an uphill battle, Cool Aid’s founders convinced many in the community that what they were doing was worthwhile. On August 17, 1971, Barsaloux reported to city council that the centre had accommodated about 150 travellers since it opened. “The coffee shop runs full blast every night,” he said. “The crisis centre has been a vital part of our operations, whether the problem be great or slight.” Dr. R. E. Jenkins, regional director of the psychiatric centre at Victoria Hospital, told council that Cool Aid provided a positive service to the city. In 1970, he said, the psychiatric centre “had many admissions of juveniles suffering from the effects of overdoses or bad reactions to psychedelic drugs such as LSD, but that this year there have been no admissions of this nature.” Dr. Jenkins attributed this change primarily to Cool Aid.
In late August 1971, Barsaloux asked city council for a grant to continue the centre’s operations to end of year. He announced that he was leaving Prince Albert, but he was training new management for the centre. On Mayor Longworth’s recommendation, council awarded Cool Aid a monthly grant of $275 to continue operations until December 1971.
Things went downhill from there. In January 1972, Fire Chief Slater reported to council that extensive damage had occurred inside Cool Aid’s premises before its closure in December. He recommended to council that, due to the “deplorable” condition of the building, it be demolished. Cool Aid met a sad demise.
On January 15, 1972, the Daily Herald wrote that, despite the recent problems, the Cool Aid “experiment” had been worth supporting. If a similar project was proposed for the coming summer, consideration should be given to support it. “[T]he need will still remain and unless the community wishes to bury its head in the sand, some type of centre will have to be available, at least during the summer, for transient youth,” the Herald’s editorial stated. “Centres such as Cool Aid offer these students a place to sleep and may even save the life of some person who is using drugs.”