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Revelry goes rancid in Halifax VE-Day riot

The Story

Pubs and liquor stores across the country are locked up tight on VE-Day. As much as they'd like to celebrate with a drink, most Canadians shrug and carry on. But the sailors stationed in Halifax, and not a few civilians, decide they'd like a beer with the cheer. Keith's brewery is quickly breached and, with alcohol flowing, vandalism and looting follow. Forty years later, CBC News tells the story of what became known as the Halifax VE-Day riots.

With a resident population of 75,000, Halifax played host to a transient population of up to 50,000 Canadian navy personnel during the war. The civilians and sailors often mistrusted one another. Residents resented the strain on resources wrought by the huge influx of sailors, while the sailors felt unwelcome and were often exploited when they sought housing. Long before the war was over, some sailors vowed to take their revenge on Halifax once it ended. 

Medium: Television
Program: 1st Edition
Broadcast Date: May 3, 1985
Guest: Dorothy Grant
Reporter: Jim Nunn
Duration: 3:47
For inquiries about CBC footage, contact 902-420-4160.

Did You know?

• After a fireworks display on the evening of May 7, civilians headed home. Normally, sailors were due back in their barracks between 10:15 and 11:45 p.m. But on this night, for reasons that are unclear, "open gangway" was declared and sailors were free to come and go.

• Violence first broke out later that evening aboard a tram car. Raucous sailors took over the driver's seat, broke the tram's windows and tore out the seats and lit them on fire.

• On Sackville Street, three civilians broke the window of a liquor store but ran at the sound of shattering glass. A security guard called police, and a number of constables assembled at the store in case of another attack.

• Within minutes a mob of sailors approached, tossing bricks and stones and overcoming the police. Hundreds got inside, grabbing boxes and bottles.

• A second liquor store, then a third, were mobbed and looted about midnight.

• By then the navy's shore patrol had been dispatched to find navy personnel, round them up and send them back to their barracks. Those sailors who weren't found made their way to cemeteries and other public places, where they drank their spoils and eventually made their way back to barracks, often smuggling a bottle.

•  "Open gangway" was still in force the following day, May 8. Many sailors had access to a wet canteen on HMCS Stadacona, but its supply of beer ran out by 1 p.m. Still thirsty, groups of sailors - soon joined by civilians - made their way to Keith's brewery, overpowering guards and taking case after case of beer.

• Officials had planned a parade during this time to distract sailors, but it was ignored or openly mocked.

• The mob then headed for downtown Halifax, breaking windows and grabbing whatever they could - clothes, jewelry, flags, mannequins, and furniture.

• Caught short, naval and civil authorities could do little but stand by. Police were ordered not to get involved in situations they could not handle.

• A truck convoy of the shore patrol, led by Rear Admiral Leonard Murray, was ineffective in convincing men to return to barracks. Only late that night, when 1,000 soldiers arrived, did things calm down.

• When it was all over, 211 people - 117 civilians, 41 soldiers, 34 sailors and 19 airmen - were indicted for crimes related to the riots.

• Damages to city merchants were estimated the following day at $1 million.

• The Toronto Star of May 9, 1945, reported three navy men had died, including one who drank himself to death.

• According to the report of a royal commission which was quickly called after the riots, 564 businesses had been damaged, with 2,500 broken windows and 207 looted shops.

• The royal commission report laid the blame squarely at the feet of Rear Admiral Leonard Murray, head of the Canadian navy. The report said the navy had failed to control its men after the first round of unrest on the evening of May 7.

• Rather than being congratulated for his role in the war victory, Murray was disgraced. He moved to England in 1946 and became a lawyer.



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