Arts

This graphic novel shines a light on the Christie Pits race riots — still alarmingly relevant today

The 1933 event is a dark moment in Canadian history you might not be familiar with. Jamie Michaels and Doug Fedrau want to change that.

The 1933 event is a dark moment in Canadian history you might not be familiar with

Jamie Michaels's Christie Pits. (Courtesy of Jamie Michaels)

On August 16, 1933, in Toronto's Christie Pits Park, someone flew a homemade swastika flag during a rec league baseball game. That action ignited what to this day remains Canada's largest race riot. In a brawl that lasted six hours, some 10,000 Jewish and Italian people fought against Nazis and Nazi-sympathisers.

But you've probably never heard of the Christie Pits riots.

Jamie Michaels hadn't — that is, until someone mentioned it in passing one night at a bar. As a Jewish-Canadian, and as someone who had studied politics, he couldn't believe this was the first he was hearing of this important part of Canadian history.

"I read about it and thought, 'Oh my God, this is incredible,' so I went to the library and I became obsessed with this history," Michaels tells CBC Arts. "I wanted to feel what it would have been like to live during that time, so I got all the newspapers from those years and read about the social conditions." From that obsession comes Christie Pits — a graphic novel Michaels collaborated on with illustrator Doug Fedrau.

Archival photo of the Christie Pits riots. (City of Toronto Archives)

Fedrau, who also hadn't heard of the riots, sees this book as an opportunity to do better. "I went to the Human Rights Museum and went through the World War II section and noticed there wasn't really anything about Christie Pits," he says. "Growing up you hear that Canada is a mosaic, not a melting pot, and that everyone's history is a part of it, but then we don't hear about things like this. So there's room for improvement."

The age we live in is pretty precarious, and there are examples of hate everywhere. [The story of the riots] absolutely is as relevant today as when they transpired.- Jamie Michaels

Even with such a dark topic, a graphic novel was the only choice for Michaels. "I really believe that every story has the ideal medium through which it should be told," he explains. "Catcher in the Rye has to be a novel, The Empire Strikes Back has to be a film and Christie Pits has to be a graphic novel. The advantage of the form is I can give so much depth and background of the social climate of the time while still maintaining the story interest. I can do things with a graphic novel in one image that would take several pages in a novel."

Jamie Michaels's Christie Pits. (Courtesy of Jamie Michaels)

Michaels wanted the story to be as immersive and true to the event as possible. Through his research, most of the back story of the novel comes from newspaper articles from the time. It gives a glimpse into a time in Canada that we don't hear about.

"It was during the depression, Hitler had just come to power in Germany, and there was rising xenophobia in Canada," says Michaels. "There was also a rise in swastika clubs. There was a lot of racism we don't hear about in Canadian history: Jews can't rent property in some areas and can't join certain clubs, and universities had quotas. If you were young, there was this defiance to not be ghettoized like previous populations had in Europe."

Christie Pits launches Saturday, March 23 at McNally Robinson in Winnipeg, and in Toronto on March 31 at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue — and while Michals and Fedrau are excited, there's more to it than that.

"The excitement for us is electric, but in some ways for depressing reasons. The age we live in is pretty precarious and there are examples of hate everywhere," says Michaels. While the riots happened over 85 years ago, the story could be in today's headlines. "It absolutely is as relevant today as when they transpired. Jewish people are still the targets of hate crimes, and Toronto is the head of this. In terms of the segment of the population, it's disproportionate."

Jamie Michaels (left) and Doug Fedrau. (Courtesy of Jamie Michaels)

Although the subject matter is dark and about a specific event, Michaels sees the book as being for everyone.

"It's not just for Jewish Canadians, but for all Canadians who are trying to have a seat at the table. It's about how we treat people who we initially perceive as different — and the necessity of offering small kindnesses to strangers."