A 1918 riot targeted Greek immigrants

About a million people turned out for the popular Taste of the Danforth festival (right) last weekend to gorge on Greek food and culture. But relations weren’t always as cordial in Toronto between Greek immigrants and the predominant Anglo-Canadian population, says history Professor Thomas Gallant. In 1918, soldiers returning from Europe led a looting mob and destroyed more than 20 downtown Greek businesses.

“On a swelteringly hot weekend 86 years ago, Torontonians took to the streets in search of things Greek, but for a very different reason than they did last weekend,” says Gallant, who holds the Hellenic Heritage Foundation Chair in Modern Greek History at York. “Over the course of three days and nights, Aug. 2 to 5, 1918, mobs of up to 5,000 people, led by war veterans returned from Europe, marched through the city’s main streets waging pitched battles with law enforcement officers and destroying every Greek business they came across.”

Left: Yonge and College, where the riot started

Before tranquility could be restored to the city, more than 20 Greek businesses, mainly restaurants and cafés along Yonge and Queen streets, were destroyed and their contents looted. Sixteen law enforcement officers were injured, 10 seriously; over 150 rioting veterans and civilians were hurt, many requiring hospitalization; 25 rioters were arrested; and over $100,000 (approximately $1.25 million in today’s dollars) worth of damage was done to Greek businesses and private property.

“The importance of the riot transcended Toronto,” says Gallant. “Ottawa, Washington, London and Athens all become embroiled in what newspapers at the time referred to as the Toronto troubles. The 1918 anti-Greek riot is one of the darkest and most violent episodes in Toronto’s history, and yet its story has never been told until now.”

Right: Yonge and Queen, the site of some of the fiercest fighting

What led to this eruption of violence and public unrest? Why were war veterans at the forefront of the rioters? Why did so much of their hatred and resentment focus on the city’s tiny Greek community? These and others are questions that Gallant has been researching.

Using a variety of archival sources, such as newspapers and court records, Gallant reconstructs what happened. The riot erupted the day after Greek waiters at the White City Café at 433 Yonge St. expelled crippled veteran Private Claude Claudernay on Aug. 1. Peace was restored on Aug. 5, after Mayor Tommy Church invoked the Riot Act and called in the militia and military police to end days of bitter street fighting.

Why were war veterans returning from the Western Front in 1918 angry at Greek immigrants? “The Greeks didn’t fight,” says Gallant. Greece remained neutral until 1917. When Greece did enter the war, it couldn’t compel Greeks in Canada to serve in the Greek army. And it had no agreement with Canada – the way Greece had with the United States – that Greeks residing in Canada could fulfill their duty by serving with the Canadian army. To returning soldiers, the sight of Greek men holding good jobs was galling. “As one veteran said, ‘they’re growing fat on our blood,’” says Gallant.

But there was also widespread anti-immigrant sentiment in Toronto, especially against southern Europeans like the Greeks and Italians, says Gallant. His students are always shocked when he shows a slide of a diner in Omaha, Nebraska, around that time displaying a sign that said “No niggers, no Greeks.”

Right: Thomas Gallant

“Let’s remember that where we are now has been the result of a long and difficult process,” says Gallant. “While we celebrate the city’s diversity, tolerance and multiculturalism, we need to appreciate that ethnic relations in the past were often far from amicable and that cultural acceptance of minorities into mainstream Canadian society came with a price. With the Athens Summer Olympic Games only days away, and as we celebrate all things Greek, we are reminded of how far we have come.”