‘Are we over-reacting?’: Why Ottawa considered cancelling Halloween in 1982

Following poisonings in the United States and a frightening incident closer to home, the nation’s capital city debated keeping kids at home on October 31
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Oct 30, 2020
In 1982, October 31 fell on the first day after the end of daylight-saving time. (Flickr/beanpumpkin)

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“While the ultimate decision obviously rests with parents, there is something ineffably sad abut a society so frozen by fear and distrust that it dares not allow its children to participate in one of the happiest rites of childhood. The question must be asked: are we over-reacting?”

While this Ottawa Citizen editorial may sound as if it’s commenting on current messaging in some parts of Ontario, it was actually published almost 40 years ago. In 1982, in the wake of treat tampering in the United States and an incident closer to home, parents, police, and public officials in the nation’s capital grappled with a controversial question: Would it be safer to keep kids at home?

At first, the big issue surrounding Halloween that year involved which night trick-or-treating should happen. October 31 fell on a Sunday — and on the first day after the end of daylight-saving time. Communities across the province debated the merits of keeping Halloween on its traditional day or of moving trick-or-treating 24 hours earlier. Police and safety officials urged Saturday-night celebrations, as the extra hour of daylight would make it easier to see children roaming door to door. Others felt that Sunday trick-or-treating would offend those who still believed that the day should be reserved for rest, or irritate devout Christians who believed Halloween symbolism would be blasphemous on the Lord’s Day. While communities from Chatham to Cornwall — including Metropolitan Toronto — moved to Saturday festivities, Ottawa decided to stick with October 31.

As Halloween neared, a new set of concerns emerged: in the Chicago area, seven people died after taking cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules — leading to fears about the prospect of treats filled with chemical, pins, or razorblades. All it would take was a copycat to set off a wave of panic.

In Ottawa, that wave arrived on October 21, after police took a 15-year-old male into custody. A concerned friend of his tipped them off that he was planning to poison candies. At his home, they found 38 toffees whose centres had been filled with crystallized toilet-bowl cleaner. The youth, whose parents had died under tragic circumstances a few years earlier, was alleged to have been inspired by the Tylenol poisonings. Officials at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario noted that, while the chemical might leave a burning taste in one’s mouth and burn the stomach, the amount wasn’t enough to be fatal. The youth, who had also allegedly contemplated shooting kids with a pellet gun, planned to mix the candies in with those handed out by his guardians on Halloween night. According to his uncle, he was “a magician who liked to play tricks.”

Police urged parents to keep their kids home. “It’s a ridiculous idea to send young kids door to door with the kind of crime that exists in the streets nowadays,” Deputy Chief Tom Flanagan told the press. ‘With this Tylenol business in the news, there’ll be even more crazy freaks out there.” Flanagan felt that school boards should send the same message: “They’ll be abdicating their responsibilities if they don’t act.” Ottawa Separate School Board chairman Florian Carrière supported this suggestion and felt that kids would be better off celebrating in a hall or school gym; the city’s public-school system asked principals to tell students to be cautious while trick-or-treating, offering tips such as checking treats with parents and wearing reflective clothing.  

Ottawa mayor Marion Dewar urged parents to exercise caution on Halloween but thought that the public shouldn’t overreact over an isolated incident. “We shouldn’t govern ourselves by living in fear,” she told the Citizen. She disagreed with the police’s recommendation to cancel trick-or-treating, saying that the tampering case was “one bizarre incident of a child crying out for help,” adding, “We have to be very careful we don’t identify one person’s hostility and turn it into a community fear.” She advised parents to exercise their usual caution. Other regional forces declined to endorse a trick-or-treating ban; Vanier’s deputy chief did admit, however, that some officers “wouldn’t mind seeing Halloween abolished.” Ottawa did not, in the end, follow the lead of the roughly 40 American communities that cancelled trick-or-treating.

Although more fear was stoked after a boy from Gloucester sustained internal burns from lye-laced chewing gum, the general feeling among parents was that all activities carry risk and that the best approach would be to send their children only to the homes of people they knew and then to carefully check all treats. “I don’t think you can ban Halloween,” one mother told the Citizen. “It’s such a marvellous time of year.”

Other solutions were hit upon to ease concerns. Common rooms in apartment buildings turned into community party centres. Condos held flashlight parades. Applications were made to close off city blocks to improve safety. Governor-General Ed Schreyer’s family continued their tradition of handing out candy apples at Rideau Hall to local trick-or-treaters, including Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s sons (presumably including a then-10-year-old Justin). Vanier mayor Wilf Champagne suggested that people make charitable donations instead of handing out candy. In Nepean, one woman gave out bags marked with War Amps address labels. “It’s not a fool-proof method, but hopefully it will relieve some of the worries parents might have,” Terry MacIver told the Citizen. “This way they can look at the candies and have some idea where they came from.”

While most of Ontario experienced a quieter-than-usual Halloween, Ottawa police investigated six complaints about suspected poisoned candies and reports of eggings, broken windows, and flashing.

When the toffee-tampering case went to trial in mid-November, the accused’s lawyer invoked the recently enacted Charter of Rights and Freedoms to have some evidence excluded. The two investigating officers had failed to inform the youth of his rights until after they had collected damaging evidence (including the bottle of toilet cleaner) and spent half an hour questioning him. The friend who had tipped off the police testified that the accused had placed the substance in the candies with a screwdriver and planned to hand them out to small children. The officers claimed they hadn’t read him his rights because they hadn’t known whether an offence had been committed.

The charges were dismissed on November 19. Judge G.Y. Goulard believed there was reasonable doubt as to whether the youth had actually intended to harm anyone. He also felt that, because the incident had happened 10 days before Halloween, there would have been enough time for the youth to reconsider. The judge criticized police for not having reading the youth his rights soon enough. Deputy Chief Flanagan expressed disappointment with the verdict, saying, “Young people — by virtue of legal aid — can be taught that you can outwit the law as a juvenile.”

The next week, lab-tests results came back for the suspicious candies handed in to police by parents. All were negative.

Sources: the October 22, 1982, October 23, 1982, October 25, 1982, October 26, 1982, October 27, 1982, October 29, 1982, November 1, 1982, November 13, 1982, November 19, 1982, November 20, 1982, and November 24, 1982, editions of the Ottawa Citizen; and the October 1, 1982, edition of the Toronto Star.

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