Christie Pits riots a reminder of Canada's dark past

Julia Barnett called in to Checkup’s show about the racial violence in Charlottesville, and reminded listeners that a similar incident happened in Toronto over 80 years ago.
The Harbord Playground baseball team in 1931. (City of Toronto Archives)

Julia Barnett is on the board of directors for the United Jewish People's Order in Toronto. She called in to Checkup's show about the racial violence in Charlottesville, and reminded listeners that a similar incident happened in Toronto over 80 years ago.

On August 16, 1933, a group of men calling themselves the Pit Gang unfurled a banner of a swastika at a baseball game at Christie Pits Park in Toronto. They were targeting the Harbord Playground team, a group of mostly Jewish men, who were playing a game that evening.

According to the Toronto Daily Star, 10,000 people were involved in the riot, "excited by cries of 'Heil Hitler.'"

The Italian team who were playing opposite the Harbord Playground helped to defend their Jewish counterparts.

Although people were using baseball bats and knives to attack each other, no one died during the riot.

Listen to Barnett's conversation with guest host Marcia Young.

Remembering the Christie Pits Riots

10 years ago
Duration 2:21
Eighty years ago, the largest ethic riot in Toronto's history broke out at a softball game.

Canada's own historical moment

I'm not sure people are very familiar with this, but in 1933 when Jewish baseball players at the Christie Pits Park here in Toronto were playing baseball with Italian baseball players, when Nazi sympathizers decided to have a banner that had a swastika. Not long after both the Italian and Jewish baseball players went to take down this banner, a fight and riot ensued.

The only known photograph from the night of the riot. (City of Toronto Archives)

So not only in our own history, not only in the United States, not only in Quebec or in Europe, but we here in Canada, in Ontario, had its own historical moment. And this is a historical moment for us because we need to make the links between the rise of fascism back in the '30s to what is the rise of fascism and white supremacy here, and making those links.

And we did that today here at Christie Pits, where many came out to support and show solidarity with different struggles against racism, against bigotry, against anti-Semitism and a whole slew of issues that are going on and can be very confusing for lots of people.

'We need to name it'

But my own organization, 90 years ago here in Toronto, when we went to buy land in Brampton — we did that as an organization to provide a summer camp for our community. We couldn't buy land as Jews. Jews and dogs are not allowed on the land, and we had to purchase this land under a different name.

Now that has changed here in Ontario for some time, and we now are seeing the different rise of racism — Islamophobia. And I think it is imperative that we be able to make these links here and elsewhere. And we're doing that, and I think we need to name it. We need to bring that out and we need to show our solidarity when and where we can. 

We hear endless stories of people who are still experiencing black racism, particularly in smaller communities, but even here in Toronto with carding and policing and shootings. We also know that the Indigenous racism occurs here throughout our country. We still have signs across this country, but particularly even in Ontario where we have colonization roads — that's nothing to be proud of, nothing to be presenting in terms of street signs. So maybe we don't have the same amount of statues, but we still have in our history, and we could still make correlations to the way racism, fascism and other forms of supremacy take place.

Maintaining diversity

I'm just pleased to see the number of people who are coming out. Young people, intergenerational, multiracial groups coming together for the first time in a long time to be able to express their opposition.

I think people who are coming from white communities need to have these conversations. Children are not born racist, they are taught how to be racist, they're taught intolerance, they're taught hatred. We live in a world of many different races, cultures, classes and languages, sexuality, and that is about what is a diverse and democratic society. And we have to maintain diversity. We have to maintain democracy and that has to get practice at home, and it has to be practiced out in the street and in our classrooms.

I have those conversations with my 17-year-old all the time. I ask questions and we think about it, and there are times we have differences of opinion, but I think that's what we need to be having at our tables at home. So that when kids are going back to school or they're out in the real world for the first time they see it, they name it and they are not just bystanders but that they actually are willing to take on and create opposition where they can. 

Watch Remembering the Christie Pits Riots from The National, 2013

Julia Barnett's comments have been edited and condensed. This online segment was prepared by Ieva Lucs on August 21, 2017.