The Christie Pits Riot occurred on 16 August 1933 in Toronto, Ontario. It remains one of the worst outbreaks of ethnic violence in Canadian history with over 10,000 participants and spectators. The riot was sparked by Nazi-inspired youth flying a swastika flag at a public baseball game to antagonize and provoke Jewish Canadians.
(City of Toronto Archives/Fonds 1266, item 30791)
In the first half of the 20th century, anti-Semitism was a socially acceptable, inseparable part of mainstream Canadian society. Jewish Canadians were relegated to second-class citizenship. Businesses refused to hire them, universities restricted their enrolment, and entire neighbourhoods prohibited the sale or rental of housing to Jews.
During the Great Depression, some Canadians looked for scapegoats to blame for their economic hardships. Anti-immigrant sentiment intensified. Adolf Hitler rose to power in 1933 and the Nazis’ violent and racist policies against the Jews appeared across Canadian newspapers’ front pages. The symbol of the swastika and what it stood for quickly became common knowledge.
In 1933, Toronto was overwhelmingly British. The Orange Order was a major social force in the city. The organization promoted a British loyalism that was both anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic. Jews were the largest minority group in Toronto and found themselves subject to verbal and physical attacks.
Tensions between Jews and Anglo-Canadians were especially high at Toronto’s eastern beaches. Local residents resented the Jews, who they viewed as outsiders. (See alsoPrejudice and discrimination). These residents were especially upset at Jews leaving what were perceived as “Jewish neighbourhoods” to enjoy the public beaches and recreational areas during the hot summer months. Some residents requested separate leisure spaces for “Gentiles only.”
In early August, headlines about the formation of “Swastika Clubs” at the beaches appeared in major papers across the city, shocking the Jewish community. Members of these clubs publicly flaunted the swastika to antagonize Toronto’s Jews. Violence erupted between the two groups. Swastika Club spokesmen declared their intentions to keep the beaches clean of “obnoxious visitors.” The tensions from the eastern beaches soon spilled over to the rest of the city. The swastika appeared throughout Toronto sparking spontaneous outbreaks of violence.
On 14 August 1933, the mostly Jewish Harbord Playground baseball team took the field at Christie Pits against local rivals St. Peter’s. Provocateurs unaffiliated with either team took to the field waving an improvised swastika banner. That evening, they returned to paint the swastika alongside the words “Hail Hitler” on the roof of the clubhouse. They then informed the Toronto Daily Star that they wanted “to get the Jews out of the park.”
The Christie Pits Riot
Two days later, on 16 August, supporters of both factions arrived in force for the series’ follow-up game. Fights erupted in the stands and were broken up by police. As the game ended, members of a local anti-Semitic group flew a homemade swastika banner to cries of “Heil Hitler.” Violence broke out. The Jews battled members of the Swastika Club and other Anglo-Canadians of similar disposition for control of the swastika banner. The brawl soon escaped the confines of the ballpark. Improvised weapons, baseball bats and lead pipes were used. Truckloads of reinforcements arrived from surrounding neighbourhoods to support both sides. Italians and other immigrants long persecuted by the Anglo majority fought alongside the Jews. The Toronto Daily Star reported that the fight drew in over 10,000 people.
(Illustration from Christie Pits by Jamie Michaels and Doug Fedrau)
The Toronto Daily Star painted a vivid picture:
“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 [Christie Pits] last night, a crowd of more than 10,000 citizens, excited by cries of “Hail 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.”
Jewish combatants eventually gained possession of the swastika banner and tore it to shreds. Despite this, the violence continued unabated in the surrounding streets. The handful of police on duty were initially overwhelmed by the scale of the riot. Uniformed reinforcements arrived on both horseback and motorcycle. By the early morning, the violence was quelled.
No one was killed during the riot. The following day, dozens of the walking wounded trickled into Toronto’s hospitals to receive medical attention for injuries of varying severity. Only a few arrests were made, speaking to the police’s indifference towards the persecution of minorities. Two people were charged, but only Jack Roxborough was convicted. He had been seen standing over a prone man with a raised club and was thus sentenced to two months in prison or to pay $50. Three members of the infamously anti-Semitic “Pit Gang” were also eventually arrested. They were accused of bringing the swastika flag that incited the riot at Christie Pits.
The riot at Christie Pits was a sign that Canada had a serious problem with race relations in general and anti-Semitism in particular. Due to the unprecedented level of violence, Toronto mayor William James Stewart promised to prosecute future displays of the swastikas. This was one of Canada’s first policies prohibiting hate speech. The riot was, however, largely forgotten until 1987 when the book The Riot at Christie Pits was published and brought attention to the incident.
Other lessons from the riot would take longer to learn. Of countries that took in refugees during the Second World War, Canada accepted one of the fewest numbers of Jews fleeing Nazism. (See also Canada and the Holocaust.) Hate crimes against Jews remain shockingly common in Canada today.
Certain people have interpreted the song “Bobcaygeon” from The Tragically Hip as being a partial reference to the Christie Pits riots.
In 2008, Heritage Toronto unveiled a plaque to commemorate the riot at Christie Pits. The events were also explored in the Canadian Journeys gallery at The Canadian Museum of Human Rights.