BY: ROB HOFFMAN
Canada was not a friendly environment for a Jewish person in the 1930s and 1940s. When my zayde was young, he recalled, he had to plan his route home from school carefully. Certain neighbourhoods were off limits. A wrong turn could mean getting jumped by neighbourhood kids who took great lengths to identify and assault Jews. “Other kids would watch to see if you left the house wearing a suit on Saturday. It meant that person observed Shabbat,” my zayde told me, as if recalling a childhood from the Spanish Inquisition era. But the prejudice extended further than childhood turf wars.
In Toronto and the surrounding area in the 1930s and 1940s, most public beaches, many parks and businesses hung signs that read “No dogs or Jews.” I was shocked to learn that one of my favourite childhood beaches, Wilcox Lake in Richmond Hill, used one of these signs to exclude my zayde from using the lake.
Today, Canada is observed as one of the world’s primary multi-cultural hubs. Our population brims with diversity. Still, not everyone embraces the “cultural mosaic.” Many recall the mosque that was burned down last year in Peterborough, Ontario.
It’s important to look back on instances like the Peterborough mosque, or Canada’s antisemitic history, if only to remind us that, even in Canada, prejudice can manifest in very real, and insidious ways. In 1933, antisemitism in Toronto manifested one of the cities largest and most dangerous riots.
On August 16th, 1933, the St. Peter’s baseball team, mostly protestant was playing against the Harbord Playground team, mostly Jewish, in what is now Christie Pits, but was then called Willowvale Park. As the St. Peter’s team claimed victory in the match, a group of young men from the antisemitic “Pit Gang” approached the Harbord Playground team with a white bed-sheet, revealing a large black swastika at its centre.
The prevalence of antisemitism, as well as prejudice against most other minority groups including blacks and Chinese, had long granted impunity to Canadian Nazi groups and exclusionary policy that seized public space. Fuelled by Europe’s political turmoil—six months prior Adolf Hitler officially came to power—the swastika used to antagonize Harbord Playground players and supporters that day was the final straw that broke the restraint of Jewish onlookers. Hardbord Playground supporters from the stands rushed the field to destroy the swastika-decorated sheet and confront their antagonizers. The conflict soon escalated from confrontation, to fist-fight, to riot, when supporters of both the Nazi group and Jewish men called in back up.
My zayde recalls the pickup trucks that swarmed the intersection of College and Spadina, a high-populated Jewish area, to recruit locals for the brawl. Waves of men arrived in trucks, cars and on foot. Participants used baseball bats, knives, tree branches—whatever they could get their hands on. Chants of “Heil Hitler” could be heard through the noise. This persisted for nearly six hours; nearly 10,000 Torontonians fought in the Christie Pits riot. In the end, Cyril Levitt, co-author of The Riot at Christie Pits, tells The Globe and Mail that the riot marked a pivotal moment in renouncing the impunity of prejudice in Toronto. Nazi groups could no longer antagonize Jews without consequence.
On August 16th, 2013, the United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Toronto hosted a baseball game in Christie Pits in memorial of the riot that transpired 80 years prior to the day. Then, the game had a gentle and celebratory aura. Toronto has since become an example of multicultural cohesion. A symbol of Canada’s triumphing cultural mosaic. But many recognize that celebration should be taken with a pinch of salt.
In his book Selling Illusions, Neil Bissoondath notes that in 1993, Decima Research conducted a survey in which 72 percent of respondents believed in revising Canada’s mosaic-style multiculturalism in favour of assimilation. A second poll in 1994 from the Federal Government by Ekos Research Associates concluded that 40 percent of Canadians rejected the country’s wealth of visible minorities, specifying distaste for blacks, Arabs and Asians. In Toronto, 67% of respondents believed there were too many immigrants.
More recently, in a 2007 survey, in Quebec, 41% of Francophones agreed that “The Jews want to impose their customs and traditions on others.” In Ira Robinson’s recent book, A History of Antisemitism in Canada, he draws from Statistics Canada’s 2011 calculations to demonstrate a 42% increase in hate crimes in Canada and a 71% increase in religiously motivated crimes targeting the Jewish community, perhaps attributable to turmoil between Israel and Palestine.
Evidently, prejudice has not yet faded from Canada’s social landscape or thought. Though it may have shifted target or form, or drifted out of plain sight into the shadows, it remains. Looking back on incidences from the past like the Christie Pits riot allows us to remain vigilant in demanding an inclusive society today.
Image Sourcing: theglobeandmail.com, stormfront.org, commons.wikimedia.org