Graphic novel illustrates 'depressingly topical' history of Canada's largest race riot

Christie Pits, a new graphic novel by Winnipeg author Jamie Michaels and illustrator Doug Fedrau, tells the story of the 1933 riot of that involved 10,000 people in Toronto, and the climate in which it happened.

Christie Pits centres on 1933 riot in Toronto that involved 10,000 people

Christie Pits, a graphic novel by Jamie Michaels and illustrator Doug Fedrau, tells the story of Canada's largest race riot in 1933. (Submitted by Jamie Michaels)

On August 16, 1933, a group of Nazi-inspired men flew a homemade swastika flag at public baseball game at Toronto's Christie Pits Park. They were targeting a group of mostly Jewish men, who were playing a game that evening.

This sparked a massive riot involving 10,000 people, the largest race riot in Canadian history, not unlike the violent clash between white supremacists and counter-protesters in city of Charlottesville in 2017.

Christie Pits, a new graphic novel by Winnipeg author Jamie Michaels and illustrator Doug Fedrau, tells the story of that riot, and the climate in which it happened.

Michaels said the book is as much about the riot as the the history and social climate that sparked it. (Submitted by Jamie Michaels)

Michaels has been working on the book for three years, during which time, he says the subject matter became "depressingly topical."

"We certainly don't live in the same hateful conditions of 1933, but I believe that there are lessons to be gleaned from the Christie Pits riots that are as relevant today as when they occurred," he said.

The book is about the social conditions at the time as much as the riot itself, when the world was witnessing the rise of Hitler's Nazi Germany and the resulting human rights atrocities. It was also a time that was rife with anti-Semitism, Michaels said.

"The conditions, I feel, were the tinder and the swastika flag was the spark," Michaels said.

"And from there, we witnessed the 10,000-person race riot, the largest in Canadian history, about what it means to be Canadian and who is a Canadian."

Despite centring on a violent episode in Canadian history, Michaels said the main themes he wanted to get across were to be kind, and understanding of other cultures and values.

"I think when we look back on this history, it almost seems — to many who were unfamiliar with it — incongruous. How could such a thing happen in Canada?" he said.

"Whereas when we were enacting the same uncertainty and the same vitriol to new immigrant populations today, I think that that will be looked at with a similar lens in the future."

This is Michaels' second graphic novel, published out of Dirty Water Comics, which he also owns and operates. (Submitted by Jamie Michaels)

Michaels himself is the son of a Jewish immigrant, and points out that anti-Semitism is not a distant memory for many people, but a lived experience.

"He came over when he was young with his father and he grew up in a Canada where at the time, Jews couldn't join country clubs, Jews were prohibited from certain private foundations," he said, adding that Jewish people are still one of the largest targets of hate crimes in the country.

Last November, Statistics Canada released a report that showed that police-reported hate crime in Canada rose sharply in 2017, up 47% over the previous year, which was largely the result of an increase in hate-related property crimes, such as graffiti and vandalism.

Incidents targeting the Muslim, Jewish, and black populations accounted for most of the national increase.

"So although the conversation is moving forward, the question is at what speed?" he said.

The Christie Pits riot was sparked by a homemade swastika flag flown at a public baseball game. (Submitted by Jamie Michaels)

Christie Pits is Michaels' second graphic novel, out of his publishing company, Dirty Water Comics.

Michaels said he was drawn to the visual medium because of the long legacy of Jewish comic book and graphic novel writers.

"There's a lot of these anti-Semitic tropes embedded in literature and that's the unique thing about comics is, because it's got such Jewish origins, it's kind of one of the first modern mainstream mediums to be free of those stereotypes," he said.

"So it was meaningful on both levels, it was a correct medium. But also the history around that medium."

The Winnipeg launch for Christie Pits will take place on March 23 at McNally Robinson Booksellers in the Grant Park Shopping Centre, starting at 7 p.m.

A Toronto relaunch is also taking place at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue on March 31.

About the Author

Sarah Petz

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Sarah Petz is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. She was previously based at CBC New Brunswick. Her career has taken her across three provinces and includes a stint in East Africa. In 2017, she was part of a team of reporters and editors nominated for a National Newspaper Award for a feature on the Port of Saint John in New Brunswick. She can be reached at sarah.petz@cbc.ca.