August 16, 1933—then and now



The only known picture of Christie Pits riot

And what of the influx of multitudes of immigrants of the lower classes from southern and eastern Europe?—for the sturdier stocks of the northern European, the British and the Scots-Irish, are increasingly threatened,as, it is said, bad money drives out good.

from The Accursed by Joyce Carole Oates 2013

Today, August 16 is the 80th anniversary of the now notorious Christie Pits riot. This shameful antisemitic episode is well documented and detailed in the marvellous book of the same name by William Shaffir and Cyrl Levitt (1987).

The Toronto Star described it in these terms

While groups of Jewish and Gentile youths wielded fists and clubs in a series of violent scraps for possession of a white flag bearing a swastika symbol at Willowvale Park last night, a crowd of more than 10,000 citizens, excited by cries of ‘Heil Hitler’ became suddenly a disorderly mob and surged wildly about the park and surrounding streets, trying to gain a view of the actual combatants, which soon developed in violence and intensity of racial feeling into one of the worst free-for-alls ever seen in the city.

Scores were injured, many requiring medical and hospital attention… Heads were opened, eyes blackened and bodies thumped and battered as literally dozens of persons, young or old, many of them non-combatant spectators, were injured more or less seriously by a variety of ugly weapons in the hands of wild-eyed and irresponsible young hoodlums, both Jewish and Gentile”.

 This was legendary stuff for myself who literally grew up in Chrsitie Pits and often heard about the riot described above by the Toronto Star.

Levitt and Shaffir contextualize the incident by correctly placing it at the time of the rise of Hitler in Germany and one might add the barely hidden antisemitism in Orange and Protestant Toronto

It would be interesting to prepare the xenophobic Toronto Telegram’s coverage of Hitler’s rise with that of the Toronto Star which  had employed the brilliant Dutch-Canadian journalist Pierre Van Paasen  as its correspondent in Germany. While the Tely poo-poohed the rise of antsemitism, the multilingual former Unitarian minister laid out the severity of the problem. Most Jews (and Catholics as well) boycotted the Tely for its obvious bias.

The pot was ready to boil in the dog days of August that year. Antisemitism, as stated, was a fact of life in Toronto the Good but so was anti-Catholicism and anti anything but British immigration. Punks in the east end had already cavorted as members of the  Swastika Club.

The fuse that lit the tinder box in Christie Pits was the provocation of local working class Anglos who raised the swastika during a softball game between St Peter’s and Harbord. This is why ethnic Italians and Slavs joined the Jews to raise their voices in frustration over the Orange and Protestant stranglehold of civic jobs and lack of opportunity at huge stores like Eatons and Simpsons.

The good news is that Toronto had largely shucked off its xenophobic past and has become a successful city of inclusion and tolerance.

Bad money today  apparently lives side by side with good money.




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