Waves of new immigrants after the Second World War led to rising xenophobia.
Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.
In August 1918, Canada was still in the midst of the the Great War, which dragged on for four long years. Over a hot summer weekend, tensions in the city boiled over in nights of violence and destruction as Torontonians rioted against Greeks.
It all began on August 1 when Private Claude Cludernay had dinner at a Greek restaurant on Yonge Street. He was allegedly drunk and aggressive while eating at the White City Cafe and was kicked out after hitting a waiter. The rumour spread that Cludernay (which the Star later spelled “Cluderay” and the Globe spelled “Cludray”) had been assaulted by the staff. His fellow veterans took offence and then took to the streets on Friday, August 2, provoked by anti-Greek and anti-immigrant sentiments.
The Greek population in 1918 Toronto was small, and immigration from Greece didn’t take off until after the Second World War. Greece had remained neutral during most of the war, entering the conflict in June 1917. Canada did not recruit Greek-Canadians to the military, although some did serve, apparently worrying that they would be disloyal to the Allied cause. In British, Protestant Toronto, support for the Empire and the war was high, and society looked down on those who hadn’t served. As veterans returned from the front, many with horrific injuries (including Cludernay), there was a rising sense of bitterness, and some veterans were resentful of immigrants.
Veterans were arriving in town that August day for a meeting of the Great War Veterans Association on Friday, August 2. Many vets lived in the area around the White City Cafe, which was at Yonge and Carlton and close to other Greek-owned businesses. It all boiled over Friday night as over 1,000 people trashed restaurants and stores all the way on Yonge, from Bloor to Queen Street. By around 1 a.m., the crowd had made it all the way over to Roncesvalles. Police stood by as the crowd, made up of both returned soldiers and civilians, rioted throughout the downtown. Police trying to stop looters from attacking the Colonial Cafe had bricks thrown at them and were attacked by rioting men as the broken coffee machine sprayed water behind them. The White City Cafe, which had a few locations in the city, was singled out for special destruction. Military police from Exhibition Camp were called as reinforcements but also couldn’t control the mob. Only 15 people were arrested. The next day, the Star tallied the damage from all the businesses and put it at $24,300. The paper called the scene “a trail of wreckage beyond description.”
The next night, the police did not stand by. Saturday’s violence did less damage to property, but crowds clashed violently with police officers across the city between 7 p.m. and 2 a.m. Sunday. The Star headline later proclaimed a “Pitched battle on Toronto streets,” and the paper reported that 500 people had been injured, 34 seriously, and 10 people had been arrested in what it described as a “general melee.” Some of the people included women and children beaten by clubs with police desperate to control the mob. Apparently, later in the night, police began randomly assaulting people out on Yonge Street, many of whom were returning from the theatre or were otherwise unconnected to the rioting. Many Greek restaurants had closed Saturday afternoon in case of violence, and police had told others to close early for the night. An investigation was quickly opened into police conduct.
Sunday saw another tense standoff as a large crowd of mostly young men (the Globe later reported the police said they were “of the hoodlum type”) gathered at Queen and Bathurst Streets just before midnight. Frightened business owners called the police, who sent a mounted division that eventually caused the mob to disperse. Following more incidents after the weekend, Mayor Tommy Church read the Riot Act on the steps of City Hall on Wednesday. Several of the rioters were sentenced that day, with fines or jail time of up to a year.
The riots prompted a complaint from the Greek community to the Greek Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the Greek consul general came to Toronto to meet with the acting premier. The consul spoke about how Greeks were good Canadian citizens.
Burgeoning Films made a documentary about the riots called Violent August, which won a Heritage Toronto award in 2010. A Heritage Toronto plaque about the anti-Greek riots now stands on Yonge Street just south of Carlton, near where the White City Cafe that started it all would have been in 1918.
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