Today, I downloaded the Swim Guide app on my phone in anticipation of the warm weather. Summer is just around the corner and I, just like any Canadian am excited for the beach time. I have not even given it a second thought, I just assume I can go to the beach whenever I want. 80 years ago, this was not the case.
Toronto is touted as Canada’s hub of multiculturalism. The Italians, Greeks, Koreans, Indians and Chinese exist peacefully, in this megacity full of unique neighbourhoods, however in 1933, Toronto was anything but multicultural. The city was predominantly British Anglo-Saxon (81% of the population) and Jews who made up a measly 7.2%, came in a far second as the largest minority. Toronto, and Canada as a whole were not very receptive towards their Jewish co-habitants. The city of Toronto reeked with a pervading stench of antisemitic views, made only worse by the onset of the Third Reich. On August 14th, 1933 a group of young men known as the Swastika Club had an uprising at the Balmy Beaches, their sole aim being to rid the beaches of any Jews and foreigners. They wore swastikas and terrorised anyone in their path. In the Toronto of 1933, they got away with it. The mayor’s response was to make them change the name of the “club” and its mission, everything else was overlooked. Tensions kept rising and culminated in a huge showdown on August 16th, 1933 at Christie Pits, what is now known as Willowvale Park. The riot, billed as the largest and most violent in the history of Toronto, erupted when a bedsheet bearing the abhorrent swastika, a symbol of hatred if ever there was one; was unfurled after a baseball game that took place at the park. The Jewish youth who had had quite enough, naturally went to rip the bedsheet down and all hell broke loose. Hundreds were injured and trampled in the ensuing melee. The mayor’s office, shocked by the events, banned the swastika and imposed legal action on anyone seen displaying it.
When we speak about Canada to other countries, it is with an air of enviable superiority that we intone how tolerant we are, how multicultural. Yet, most do not know just how bad Toronto the Good used to be. The Christie Pits riot was buried in the annals of Canadian history and was only officially commemorated with a plaque in 2008, 75 years after the fact. Granted, we have come a long way from the antisemitic cesspool that was 1933 Toronto, but we must not forget our roots. Sweeping the bad parts of our history under the rug, while we proudly display our multiculturalism does not make us better people, it makes us hypocrites and that is one thing Canadians definitely are not.