Nova Scotia

'It was terrifying': Halifax woman had a window seat for VE-Day Riots

After the Germans surrendered in Europe during the Second World War, Halifax erupted into a celebration. After years of living under strict wartime conditions, the city was ready to party. But things turned ugly on May 7-8, 1945.

Halifax erupted into a celebration that turned ugly 75 years ago this week

A crowd loots a store in Halifax during the VE-Day Riots on either May 7 or 8, 1945. (Halifax Regional Police Museum/Halifax Municipal Archives)

Dorothy Grant was just 10 years old when Halifax erupted into a celebration that turned sour after the Germans surrendered in Europe during the Second World War.

After years of living under strict wartime conditions, Halifax was ready to party.

But things turned ugly. The city was bursting at the seams with an influx of military personnel in the critical port city.

"It was terrifying," said Grant, who lived in an apartment on Barrington Street and had a front-row seat to the destruction.

Known as the Halifax VE-Day Riots, the days of May 7-8, 1945 — 75 years ago this week — saw more than 200 people arrested after over 200 shops were looted and 500 businesses damaged. Three people even died.

This tramcar was set on fire during the VE-Day Riots. It's unclear whether this was the vandalized tramcar that helped kick-start the riots. (David Hall Nova Scotia Archives)

Looking out from their third-floor apartment, the Grant family saw a steady stream of people walk by who had too much to drink, as well as people with stolen goods.

Grant, a former CBC journalist, said her parents wouldn't let her or her two siblings go outside because of what was happening.

Raucous crowds on Barrington Street celebrate the end of the war. (Halifax Regional Police Museum/Halifax Municipal Archives)

The celebrations began innocently enough — there was a fireworks display on the evening of May 7 — but sailors who normally had to return to their barracks that evening were free to come and go after "open gangway" was declared.

That evening, raucous sailors took over a tram, broke its windows and set it on fire.

At a liquor store on Sackville Street, windows were broken by three civilians. A security guard called police to help protect the establishment, but a mob of sailors soon tossed bricks and stones, overcame police and stole booze.

Other liquor stores were then looted.

A large crowd is shown on Hollis Street outside a liquor store during the VE-Day Riots. (Halifax Regional Police Museum/Halifax Municipal Archives)

Open gangway was still in effect the following day and after the wet canteen on HMCS Stadacona ran out of liquor, sailors headed to the Alexander Keith's brewery to get suds. There, they were joined by civilians and after overpowering guards, took case after case of beer.

The mob then turned its attention to other downtown Halifax businesses, vandalizing and looting them for things such as clothes, jewelry, furniture, flags, and perhaps most oddly, mannequins.

"My favourite story is that a man went by and he dropped two shoes," said Grant. "They were quite nice and my father waited till there was no one around and he said, 'Go get them.' They were two left feet, so we couldn't use them."

Why did the riots happen?

There were several factors behind the riots.

Jonathan Vance, a history professor at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., said Halifax — like other Canadian cities — had been living under a host of restrictions for many years, including food rationing, price and wage controls, travel restrictions and even gas rationing, which led to the slogan "A gallon a day keeps Hitler away.'"

Revelry goes rancid in Halifax riot

37 years ago
Duration 3:47
A near-riot breaks out as sailors and civilians burglarize a brewery and loot local shops on VE-Day. 3:47

"So you get an enormous amount of pent-up energy and people just waiting for an excuse to release it," he said.

A royal commission later assigned blame for the riots on the navy for not controlling its personnel.

Jeff Noakes, a Second World War historian at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, said another factor was that liquor stores were closed on both May 7 and 8, as were many restaurants and cafés.

"You get tens of thousands of people in downtown Halifax and in some cases, they just want to be there to celebrate," said Noakes.

Dorothy Grant, shown in this photo from Christmas 1944, was just 10 when the VE-Day Riots happened on May 7-8, 1945, in Halifax. (Submitted by Dorothy Grant)

"In other cases, they're there looking for food because they're living in an attic room and don't have their own cooking facilities and a lot of them are looking to get a drink to celebrate."

With little for the masses to do, things got unruly.

Noakes said poor planning was another factor. Even though it was apparent for some time that the war was coming to an end, officials didn't develop a well co-ordinated plan for the inevitable victory celebration.

He said riots also happened in Sydney, N.S., and New Waterford, N.S., but they were nowhere near on the same scale as Halifax.

A man carries an armful of suits during the VE-Day Riots. (Halifax Regional Police Museum/Halifax Municipal Archives)

Looking back on the victory celebrations, Grant said even without the riots, she would have had some apprehension about going out because of the threat of contracting diseases like polio and measles.

The situation reminds her somewhat of COVID-19 today.

"We were terrified of getting diseases and there were no vaccines then, so it's kind of a parallel," said Grant.