100 years later: Toronto’s forgotten anti-Greek riots reconsidered

In August 2, 1918, violent riots against the Greek immigrants of Toronto damaged their community and destroyed their businesses. Canada’s old ‘alien problem’, prejudice and hate for the immigrants, teaches lessons one century later

Dr Athanasios Grammenos

World War I stained Greek politics with a deep social division on the immediate question of Greece’s alignment. On the one side, King Constantine favoured neutrality while on the other, Prime Minister Venizelos was a zealot of the alliance with Entente. The two statesmen failed to compromise their opposing foreign policy views escalating the competition dramatically and the impasse was resolved only after a deeper schism: in October 1916, Venizelos formed a rival government in Thessaloniki and immediately brought the country into the war which lasted for two more years.

The crisis which historians define as the “National Schism” had had serious consequences that beyond the metropolitan centre, affected also the Greeks abroad. In Toronto, Canada, a vivid entrepreneurial community of Greek migrants was successfully running catering businesses (cafés and restaurants), the famous diners, along the city’s main street. However, when the Great War broke out, Greece’s forced neutrality prevented Canada from recruiting Greek Canadians, a fact that encouraged false perceptions about their loyalty and contribution to their host-land.

When the veterans started returning home, Toronto had changed. Saddened by the casualties and disappointed with the way the state had treated them -social care was poor and unemployment among veterans was high- they distrusted those who prospered while they were risking their lives in the battlegrounds of Europe. A significant minority inside the influential Great War Veterans’ Association (GWVA) went even farther raising the ‘alien problem.’ The agenda of GWVA promoted the removal of migrants from their jobs along with the total ban of employment for enemy aliens (migrants from Canada’s WWI enemy countries). Greece’s initial neutrality would place Canadian Greeks in the enemy camp in the eyes of the veterans.

When in July 29, 1918, the veterans gathered in Toronto for the GWVA convention, the atmosphere in the city was electric. In his opening remarks, Toronto Mayor Tommy Church flirted with ethno-nationalism stating that “those who fought for the country should own the country, and they are going to own the country, and it is going to be a British country.” A few days later, an angry crowd of veterans conducted the largest race riot in the city’s history, which ended with a pogrom against the Greek community.

On August 2, a veteran decided to dine at the Greek-owned White City Café along Yonge street, but after a few drinks he misconducted himself and he was asked to leave the restaurant. A seemingly ordinary incident triggered furious reactions by the GMWA members who took it as part of the ‘alien question.’ A group of them returned to the Café destroying, smashing and sparking a general uproar that did not stop until they had torn down most of the Greek-owned restaurants of the prestigious district. According to the Press, civilians including women and teenagers, fuelled by nationalist anger, joined the veterans in the riots. The generated violence imposed the Mayor to declare the city in state of emergency calling the military police to intervene leading to savage battles with many arrests, injuries and estimated damages that exceeded $1 million in today’s value.

One veteran’s supposed mistreatment by café workers reflected only the surface of the real problem. In the core, one can trace the locals’ discontent with the rising status of aliens, in their own country. Xenophobia and racism translated political conceptions to an exclusive concept of citizenship, ready to justify violent actions. The Greek entrepreneurs, stigmatized as traitors, had to abandon their locations and move inward to make a new start.

One hundred years later, in 2018, only few in Europe and America might remember that a European community, the Greeks of Toronto, was persecuted as the unwanted outsider. That experience of bigotry and discrimination, similar to the abuse of Greek Americans by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), remains mostly unknown. Nevertheless, the anti-alien language is still alive, arguing that Muslim immigrants and refugees or the poor from the South are threatening the European security; KKK argued the same for the Orthodox Christians.

The anti-Greek riots underscore an important fact: it is a mistake to victimize minorities – any kind of minorities. Democracy is about character and law abidance, not about race and religion. In that sense, Europe is in search of a new Reformation that will change the route of politics, harmonizing interests and objectives. Assimilation and cooperation need to be tried first, along with the political defeat of extreme views and controversial policies, across the political spectrum. Without such an attempt, nobody will be able to to prevent a new Toronto somewhere in the EU.


Dr Athanasios Grammenos is a political scientist and the Project Manager for Greece of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung für die Freiheit.

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