The anniversary of the Christie Pits riot was marked with a call to action to once again fight fascism in the city.
Toronto’s anti-fascist and anti-racist community held a BBQ in Christie Pits this weekend to commemorate the 84th anniversary of the Christie Pits riot and celebrate the city’s history of anti-fascist action. According to organizers, the rally had a second purpose—to build a broader coalition of anti-racist activists to oppose the intertwined anti-Muslim and white nationalist movements on the rise in Toronto and Canada.
On August 16, 1933, just a few months after Hitler and the Nazis come to power in Germany, a group unfurled a swastika flag during a baseball match between a Jewish and an Italian team. The swastika, and shouts of “Heil Hitler,” sparked the Christie Pits riot, which lasted for almost six hours and involved baseball bats and iron bars, and ultimately spilled out onto the streets.
“The Italian boys, who were out there playing with their Jewish friends stood in solidarity with them and they fought back,” says Carolyn Egan, president of the Steelworkers’ Toronto Area Council. “They told those racists—those Nazis—to take down the swastika. And out of that became the struggle … when one is injured we all fight back. That’s the lesson of what happened here in the 1930s, and it’s a lesson we have to carry with us today.”
Other speakers from the United Jewish People’s Order and Toronto’s LGBTQ and anti-fascist communities highlighted the need to fight anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and discrimination towards all marginalized communities.
Around 200 people attended the BBQ, including members of the Toronto Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a women’s Jewish-Muslim interfaith organization which focuses on their shared experiences and collaborate to host talks, meals, and events. It was hosted by the Toronto Chapter of the IWW General Defence Committee, and the International Socialists, who were involved in organizing the anti-racist rally in Vancouver last weekend.
At the BBQ, older activists mingled with younger ones. People brought their kids, some in strollers, and their dogs. It was a family-friendly event. A few people circulated around the group, handing out flyers praising socialism and condemning racism while others talked about the planned anti-Muslim demonstrations in Vancouver and Quebec City. The organizers were concerned that the BBQ might be disrupted or targeted for spurious bylaw complaints, but it went off without a hitch.
On Saturday, 4,000 people gathered at Vancouver City Hall to demonstrate against a planned anti-immigration rally hosted by white supremacist groups the Worldwide Coalition Against Islam and the Cultural Action Party. In the face of such numbers, the anti-immigration rally wasn’t able to go forward.
This reflects very well on Vancouver’s community, but it can also be understood as a Canadian reaction to the events in Charlottesville, Virginia. There, during a violent white supremacist rally, a man connected with the “alt-right” drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters—killing one woman, anti-fascist activist Heather Heyer, and injuring at least 19 others.
— Angela Sterritt (@AngelaSterritt) August 19, 2017
Whether Charlottesville is a wake-up call that will galvanize regular Canadians to continue to oppose anti-Muslim and white nationalist groups in Canada—in the long term—remains to be seen.
In Toronto, tens of thousands of people came to the Toronto Women’s March to oppose the Donald Trump presidency. In the following months, anti-Muslim groups began holding anti-M103 (the motion to condemn Islamophobia) rallies on the first Saturday of every month in front of Toronto City Hall. Hundreds of people came out to oppose one of the earlier anti-Muslim rallies in March. But, by April, moderates and liberals stopped coming out in such large numbers, and it was left to Toronto’s activist, anti-racist, and anti-fascist groups to continue to demonstrate against the anti-Muslim rallies. The demonstrations—and counter-demonstrations—have slowed down in August, but both sides expect them to resume in September.
The anti-fascists have been dogged in disrupting Toronto’s anti-Muslim groups. They have opposed them in equal or greater numbers at almost every juncture. However, there have been assaults and injuries.
While the BBQ was going on in Toronto, La Meute, a far-right group in Quebec, was trying to hold an “anti-illegal-immigration” rally in Quebec City. As documented by VICE, members of La Meute had gone to stand side-by-side with white supremacists in Charlottesville. The anti-fascist counter-demonstration was declared illegal, and bottles and chairs were thrown at the police as they tried to disperse the activists. La Meute was ultimately able to hold their march under police protection. A former right-wing extremist who now works in anti-radicalization says it was a PR victory for La Meute, who will now be able to claim that they are the victims, reports CBC.
While members of the anti-Muslim demonstrations in Toronto usually throw the first punch, Toronto’s anti-fascists don’t shy away from the violence.
“Antifa,” short for anti-fascist, is often incorrectly portrayed by the media as a singular and violent organization. They show clips of masked demonstrators fighting with “alt-right” groups and smashing windows.
In Canada, there is no active organization that is “Antifa.” Rather, the anti-fascist movement is made up of dozen of smaller groups that would all identify as anti-fascist and anti-racist. It’s possible that media reports of “Antifa” and reports of fighting at demonstrations may have also contributed in keeping moderates and liberals home who otherwise would show up to oppose the anti-Muslim groups.
The organizers of the BBQ tell Torontoist that they want to change that. They want to demonstrate that anti-racist activists are regular community members and that anti-racist action is a big tent activity. They say that crowds in “overwhelming numbers”—like what happened in Vancouver—is an excellent tactic and the preferred outcome. The more people who are show up at a counter demonstration, organizers say, the less likely that more confrontational tactics will be necessary.
Evan Balgord is a freelance journalist and an expert on the anti-Muslim, alt-right and alt-light movements in Canada and Toronto. You can follow his work on Twitter at @ebalgord.