Toronto’s Greek community will commemorate the 100th anniversary of a weekend-long anti-Greek riot on Thursday with an event at Nathan Phillips Square at noon.
The Anti-Greek Riots of 1918 took place when hundreds of First World War veterans and their supporters attacked Greek residents and destroyed their businesses in an explosion of anti-immigrant anger and resentment.
The riots lasted for several days and were one of the most violent episodes in the city’s history.
“The event is meant to basically let all Torontonians know a little bit about this lost chapter in our history, to explain what happened … and to also tell people why it matters that we remember what happened to all these Greek Canadians,” said Sandra Gionas, chair of the history committee at the Hellenic Heritage Foundation, which is organizing the event.
The event will feature musical performances along with speeches by historians, politicians and members of Toronto’s Greek community. Mayor John Tory will attend along with Coun. Jim Karygiannis, of Ward 39, and Effie Triantafilopolous, MPP for Oakville North-Burlington.
A photo exhibition in the rotunda of city hall called Greeks in Toronto: The Immigrant Experience will chronicle the past 150 years of Greek immigration to Toronto through pictures and newspaper articles.
“People will get a real sense of what daily life was like for Greek Canadians over the years,” said Gionas.
The riots began in August 1918, when the country was in the final months of the First World War.
On Aug. 1, a crippled veteran named Claude Cludernay was dining at White City Cafe, a Greek-owned restaurant on Yonge Street near Carlton Street. Cludernay was drinking when he started acting belligerently and struck a waiter.
He was subsequently kicked out by staff and arrested.
Cludernay spent two nights in jail, while rumours spread among veterans that one of their own had been mistreated.
The next day, thousands of veterans and their supporters descended upon Yonge Street seeking vengeance.
Over the next several days the mob looted, vandalized and destroyed dozens of Greek-owned businesses, causing thousands of dollars worth of damage. Dozens were injured in clashes with police as officers began a crackdown on Aug. 3.
The violence came to an end Aug. 5.
Historian Christopher Grafos says a seemingly innocuous event — a man being ejected from a restaurant — snowballed into a riot because of the grievances of returning soldiers and the perceptions of the role Greek residents in the war effort.
Hundreds of soldiers had returned from the front to a city they didn’t recognize, according to Grafos. Returning soldiers found it difficult to find jobs and experienced problems receiving their pensions.
“The primary reason for the violence was the general grievances that [war veterans] faced when they returned to Canada,” said Grafos “They were not treated the way that they thought they would be treated after sacrificing their lives.”
On top of this, many saw members of the Greek community as “slackers,” because they had not served in the war.
“There was a perception that Greeks had stayed here to get rich while born-Canadians were off risking their lives and contributing to the war effort,” said Grafos.
In fact, most Greeks were not permitted to serve in the Canadian army because they were not naturalized citizens of the British Empire, said Grafos.
Despite the scale of the violence, the anti-Greek riots of 1918 were quickly forgotten.
The armistice a few months later ushered in a new era of peace, and soon Communists replaced immigrants as enemy number one.
Grafos said many of the victims also wanted to forget about what happened.
“The Greek community at the time was highly aspirational and they wished for their children to integrate into Canadian society and not have this as a blemish of difference on their children,” said Grafos.
But Gionas believes it’s important to remember the riots because they have modern parallels.
“If you had told anybody that the kind of ethnic, nationalist fervour and racism that early Greek Canadians experienced in Toronto in 1918 would still be present in the world today, they wouldn’t have believed you,” said Gionas.
“But sadly that is the case today.”
She hopes Thursday’s commemoration event will show people the value of building bridges among different communities.
“It’s a good reminder to all Torontonians that we were all once newcomers,” said Gionas. “We have to remember to be kind to those who are new to our country, people who we might not understand as well yet, and to reach out.”