Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Mayor Robert H. Saunders at Cenotaph at Old City Hall, January 12, 1946. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 2903.
One day in early November 1945, fifteen-year-old Harry Gairey Jr. went with five friends to the private Icelandia skating rink on Yonge Street in North Toronto, despite his father’s warning that the venue was not known to treat black customers kindly. Gairey Jr. went ahead and hoped the afternoon would provide a good opportunity to help a friend improve his skating skills. While his white companions were allowed into Icelandia, Gairey Jr. was notified by rink manager Bedford Allen that “no coloured boys can come in here.”
Harry’s friends saw what happened, turned around, and asked for a refund. Incensed by the treatment shown to his son, Harry Gairey Sr. contacted his local alderman and arranged for an audience with the city’s Board of Control on November 14. With tears in his eyes, Gairey Sr. offered apologies for taking the council’s time, to which Mayor Robert Saunders replied, “I don’t know that we have anything more valuable on which to spend our time than looking into a matter like this.” Gairey Sr. related the incident, which he found disgraceful, then offered additional thoughts that he later recalled in A Black Man’s Toronto 1914-1980: The Reminiscences of Harry Gairey:
Now it would be all right if the powers that be refused my son admission to the Icelandia, I would accept it, if when the next war comes, you’re going to say “Harry Gairey, you’re black, you stay here, don’t go to war.” But your Worship, and Gentlemen of the Council, it’s not going to be that way, you’re going to say he’s a Canadian and you’ll conscript him. And if so, I would like my son to have everything a Canadian citizen is entitled to, providing he’s worthy of it.
The Telegram also noted part of his address:
We have heard so much about democracy, and we have just gone through a war for it, but this is an example of everything not democratic. If we are to have democracy it must start in our city, in the homes, on the streets. If we are to be divided into racial and colour groups, each to receive different treatment, there is little to live for.
The picket line outside Icelandia. The Telegram, November 23, 1945.
A week later, a group of University of Toronto students with ties to the campus Labor-Progressive Club organized two days of protest outside Icelandia. The owner refused to comment, but an assistant claimed there weren’t any race restrictions. After over 150 picketers bearing placards with slogans like “no discrimination” showed up on the second day, police were called in to break it up. Southern Ontario B’nai B’rith director Al Zimmerman visited the operators of Icelandia and saw little sign of compromise, which resulted in a boycott. “We asked if the discrimination would continue,” he told the Star in 1947, “and were told that the rink would continue to bar Negroes but not Jews. But the barring of Negroes was sufficient to satisfy us that intolerance would be continued and we decided among ourselves not to patronize the rink.”
Business suffered briefly at Icelandia after the Gairey incident but the furor soon blew over. It didn’t take long for management to prove it wasn’t just blacks with whom they took issue. In early January 1947, a Jewish girl was denied entry, which revived accounts of Gairey Jr’s treatment in local papers. In his January 10 column in the Globe and Mail, Jim Coleman noted the crushing effects that being separated from their peers had on both youths and cynically wrote:
The proprietors of Icelandia are at least consistent in their attitude, and we presume that, when the occasion arises, they will bar Communists, Mennonites, Seventh Day Adventists—in fact, all those who don’t noisily swear allegiance to the most orthodox branches of the Christian faith… If you go to Icelandia, be sure to take a letter from your pastor—the gateman may look suspiciously at the curve of your nose.
Coleman soon received many letters, among which he found “a heartening percentage of readers abhor racial discrimination.” A fresh boycott against Icelandia was launched by the United Electrical Workers Union and picketers returned. Various labour and educational groups called on city council to enact tougher anti-discrimination laws. Community papers like the North Toronto Herald urged clergymen to denounce Icelandia during Sunday sermons. By mid-January, a legislation committee that included future mayor Nathan Phillips drafted an amendment to the licensing bylaws that required passage by the Toronto Police Commission.
James “Jim” A. Coleman, columnist for the Globe and Mail, 1950s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 2473.
If you thought Icelandia might have cooled it in the face of public anger, the rink’s management quickly revealed their true colours yet again. In his February 1 column, Coleman noted a fresh incident of discrimination against a Greek skater. A scuffle ensued and Coleman’s tone indicated that he was happy to hear that the rink staffer wound up splayed on the ground. The rink used its ad in the Globe and Mail two days later to threaten Coleman with legal action…which happened to be the same day city council approved its anti-discrimination resolution.
On February 22, newspaper front pages announced that the police commission approved the new bylaw. The Globe and Mail printed the new rules in full:
(1) Every license issued to the owner or keeper of an exhibition, theatre, music hall, moving-picture show, public hall or any place of amusement shall be subject to the condition that no discrimination on account of race, creed or colour shall be shown against any member of the public who seeks admission to the premises in respect to which the license is issued and every such license shall bear a written or printed endorsement to the forgiving effect.
(2) No person licensed as the owner or keeper of an exhibition, theatre, music hall, moving-picture show, public hall or place of amusement shall discriminate against any member of the public who seeks admission to the premises in respect to which the license is issued because of the race, creed or colour of such member.
Article on Harry Gairey Jr. The Maple Leaf, December 1, 1945.
In the long run, the skating deities were kinder to the Gairey family than Icelandia. Besides battles over its discriminatory practices, the rink got into trouble with the city over its attempts to facilitate hockey games on Sundays. Frustration and prodding from the press spurred efforts to build a public skating rink in North Toronto. Icelandia barely survived into the 1950s—its site at 1941 Yonge Street is now occupied by a liquor store. Harry Gairey Sr., who was proud that his speech had made officials begin to think about changing laws, received many honours for his activism and community involvement. Within three years of his passing in 1993, the outdoor skating rink at Alexandra Park was named in his honour.
Additional material from A Black Man’s Toronto 1914-1980: The Reminiscences of Harry Gairey, edited by Donna Hill (Toronto: Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1981) and the following newspapers: the January 10, 1947, January 11, 1947, January 14, 1947, January 18, 1947, February 1, 1947, February 3, 1947,and February 22, 1947 editions of the Globe and Mail; the January 17, 1947 edition of the North Toronto Herald; the November 14, 1945, November 23, 1945, January 11, 1947, March 19, 1947, and September 27, 1947, editions of the Toronto Star; and the November 14, 1945, and November 23, 1945, editions of the Telegram.