Canadians of Greek descent this week in Toronto will honor the 100th anniversary of an incident that has been widely forgotten from their hometown’s history.
In an event titled “100 Year Anniversary Commemoration of the Greek Canadian Riots at City Hall,” the Hellenic Heritage Foundation (HHF) will educate participants about the worst race riots Toronto has ever seen — against Greek immigrants.
The commemoration will take place Thursday at 12 p.m. at Toronto City Hall, followed by a photo exhibit titled “Greeks in Toronto – The Immigrant Experience,” which will be on display in the Rotunda at City Hall, July 30 to August 5.
The ceremony recalls the dramatic events of Friday, August 2, 1918, when thousands of Canadians crammed Toronto’s streets as they targeted and destroyed Greek-owned businesses.
Just the evening before, an incident that would ultimately trigger the riots took place when a crippled World War I veteran was kicked out of the Greek-owned White City Café.
Drunk and belligerent, the war veteran had hit a waiter and was promptly thrown out after the café staff called police.
The episode seemed insignificant at first, but it led to immense violence the following day with crowds numbering between 5,000-20,000 mobbing in the center to loot and sabotage every Greek business they could.
Given the scope of destruction, police were overwhelmed and left Toronto’s mayor with no choice but to invoke the Riot Act, which allowed the militia and military police to intervene; the next day, police forces fiercely engaged with rioters to stop the violence.
An estimated 50,000 on both sides participated in what would be known as the largest riot in Toronto’s history, as hundreds were injured, including innocent women and children.
In addition, more than 20 restaurants were attacked and suffered more than $1,000,000 of damages (according to 2010 standards).
The riots had been fueled by anti-immigrant sentiment in Canadian society, as well as the incorrect belief that Greeks did not fight in WWI and that they were pro-German.
After the events, however, Greek community leaders issued an official statement in which they affirmed their support for the Allied cause.
They said that Greeks with citizenship were joining the Canadian army and that more than 2,000 Greeks were in the Canadian Expeditionary Force — especially from Toronto.
Fast forward a century later and the Greater Toronto Area is now home to nearly 100,000 Greek Canadians, according to the Canada 2016 Census; likewise, dozens of restaurants and stores that have opened since now form part of the city’s beloved Greektown.
The Hellenic Heritage Foundation is a charitable organization committed to the advancement of Greek education and culture in Canada, and its upcoming event forms part of a year-long campaign in collaboration with York University.
This year the HHF has organized various other initiatives — Toronto school curriculum packages for Greek History Month in March, a public lecture on 1918 Anti-Greek Riots in May, as well as screening the film Violent August with commentary from the director and accompanying historian.
Additionally, the foundation has hosted guided walking tours along the route where the riots occurred, the last of which is scheduled for Sunday, August 5 at 10:30 a.m.
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