It was 100 years ago today…

…and in the dying days of the Great War, that THIS happened:

A perfect storm of disgruntled returning veterans, an end-of-war society in flux, Greece’s official neutrality during the war, and an accident of Toronto’s geography came together to produce a race riot. Or, more specifically: An assault by Anglo-Canadians on their immigrant neighbors, with proto-fascist undertones.

For the Anglos, with their blind loyalty to “Mother England”, and their unquestioning support of British imperial wars, it was galling to see these “black” immigrants (for Greeks were regarded as not truly white, then) sitting out the war — or working it out, rather, in normal jobs not in any way related to the war economy.

Never mind that the Greeks were just hard-working folks who were keeping their heads down and minding their own business, trying to keep their own lives afloat in an alien country whose dominant culture rubbed up uncomfortably against their own. The war veterans had it in for them. They regarded the Greeks, resentfully, as “slackers”. An understandable enough position when one is coming home to a changed and suddenly messier homeland, maimed in body and/or spirit, and too many of one’s old friends are senselessly dead, and one’s own future is far from assured. After years of having the “manly virtues” of bellicosity and imperialism drummed into them, and having sacrificed so much for so flimsy an illusion, with so little to show for it, one would expect them to be righteously angry. Nor could one blame them for wanting to vent their frustration somewhere.

But what followed is inexcusable. Instead of organizing on socialist lines, and taking their ire out on its rightful target — the imperialists, the propagandists, the politicians who had sent them to war while sacrificing nothing of their own — the veterans turned to an easier, and far more convenient target: the Greeks in their little ghetto in the heart of downtown Toronto. Writing for Maclean’s, Toula Drimonis relates the incident that touched off an explosion of violence that went on for three days:

Claude Cludernay, by all accounts, didn’t want a part in any of that—the army private just wanted dinner at the corner of Yonge and Carleton streets, which at the time was near the business and residential hub of Toronto’s Greek immigrant community, stretching a few blocks in the heart of downtown. But Cludernay, who had been drinking, wound up assaulting a waiter at the Greek-owned White City Café, and he was asked to leave. A rumour, however, began to circulate among veterans that it was the other way around: that one of “their own” was kicked out of a café by “slacking” immigrants—and from a country perceived to be in the pocket of the German enemy, no less.

Recall that King Constantine, who was of German descent, had decided that in the interests of saving Greek lives while still preserving friendship with Britain (and its allies), Greece must remain neutral. It was a well-meant choice that would backfire awfully an ocean away, in one of Britain’s colonies:

But the forced neutrality during the war’s early years—which prevented Greek-Canadians from being allowed by the government to fight on behalf of Canada—didn’t help Greek immigrants abroad. The fact that these able-bodied and young Greek men went about their business in high-visibility restaurant and public market jobs made some Canadians consider them ungrateful in not contributing to Canada’s war effort. This misinterpretation would prove to be tragically ironic, too; two decades later, during Germany’s Second World War occupation of Greece, more than 56,000 Greeks would be executed in cold blood by Axis forces.

Those false perceptions merely served as unfortunate kindling for a firestorm of hate, violent looting, and bubbling xenophobia in Toronto. At about 6 p.m. on Aug. 2, 1918, veterans began to gather, according to historian Thomas Gallant, the co-author of The 1918 Anti-Greek Riot in Toronto. By 7 p.m., 600 of them had gathered outside the White City Café. “A fusillade of rocks and bricks smashed through the windows and doors of the restaurant,” recounted Gallant in the documentary Violent August. “The mob then entered inside, destroying every scrap of furniture, every counter, and then looted the kitchen.

“As they told their fellow soldiers: tonight they wanted justice,” Gallant continued. “Tonight, they would go hunting Greeks.”

Hundreds quickly became thousands, and from the corner of Yonge and Carleton they would head northwest to the corner of Bloor and Dufferin, destroying every Greek-owned business they came across, while the police looked on and did nothing. “By 1:20 a.m., the mob demolished the Alexandria Café at 748 Queen Street West,” said Gallant. “Owner Tony Tsarhoof begs police to intervene, but they refuse. The mob hurls him to the ground and he watches as his café is destroyed.”

By Saturday night, Toronto police and the city administration, criticized for doing little to stop the destruction, retaliate with brutal force, hitting the rioters indiscriminately, injuring many veterans and innocent bystanders in the process. By Sunday morning, the city — now on lockdown — is reeling from the riot. Across the city’s sidewalks, blood and broken glass is splayed on the sun-warmed asphalt.

The painful irony of what happened is clear only in hindsight. Two decades later, Greeks would be massacred by fascists in Europe, but in those three days, they were being “punished” for falsely perceived wrongs by proto-fascists in Canada, which had yet to grow into its multicultural maturity. And crude, inchoate racism played a huge part in the proto-fascist orgy:

This was also a time in which Greeks were not seen as many do today—that is, as white. David R. Roediger, a professor at the University of Illinois and the author of Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White, wrote that those considered “white” generally came from England, the Netherlands, Ireland, Germany and Scandinavian countries. So Greek immigrants were viewed with suspicion in North America—as a foreign incursion that threatened the job prospects of local citizens—as evidenced by a 1909 pogrom-style riot in Nebraska which resulted in the death of a Greek boy, the burning of Greek-owned businesses and homes to the ground, and the displacement of South Omaha’s Greek population. “Herded together in lodging houses and living cheaply, Greeks are a menace to the American labouring man—just as the Japs, Italians, and other similar labourers are,” Joseph Pulcar, the editor of the Omaha Daily News, wrote at the time.

Greeks were even the targets of the Ku Klux Klan. The American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) — one of the largest Hellenic heritage groups in the world — was founded in 1922 in direct response to the racism and bigotry Greeks experienced in the U.S. at the hands of the KKK. While it’s a barely mentioned part of the Greek diaspora’s history today, the Greek population was, in fact, terrorized by the racist organization who saw all immigrants and people of colour as below them. “The Klan in the Western States has a great mission of Americanism to perform,” Fred L. Gifford, Klan Grand Dragon of the Realm of Oregon, in Atlanta, said in a 1923 speech. “The rapid growth of the Japanese population and the great influx of foreign labourers, mostly Greeks, is threatening our American institutions, and Klans in Washington, Oregon and Idaho are actively at work to combat these foreign and un-American influences.”

Let’s not forget that the KKK was the model for Hitler’s stormtroops, and their lynching parties set the tone for the pogroms of the Gestapo and the Waffen-SS. For the Jews, like the Greeks, were seen as non-white in those days, and many neo-fascists still see them that way today. Knowing that, it is easy to see why the white-supremacist, imperialist-minded, war-propagandized veterans of 1918 would have viewed them as menacing, “slacking” parasites in what, just four short years before, had to their unquestioning eyes had been a pure white, British-dominated land. And why they would want to extirpate this supposed looming menace which was, in sad fact, nothing of the sort. The three days of anti-Greek pogrom did nothing to drive any “enemy” out; all it did was serve as an escape valve for the pent-up steam of rage that had missed its proper mark. It was an exercise in utter futility.

Meanwhile, the Greek self-preservation instinct kicked into high gear. Faced with KKK-led boycotts that were taking a heavy toll on their communities’ economies, the Greeks organized…and commenced a propaganda initiative of their own:

[…] Greeks and other immigrant groups slowly started on a “path to whiteness” to access the better prospects that white privilege bestows as a reaction to the anti-immigrant sentiment they faced. AHEPA founders were adamant about demonstrating that “Greeks were good Americans and good for America, and therefore desirable business associates and beneficial citizens,” according to the organization’s manual. During the Second World War, for example, AHEPA sold more than $500 million of U.S. war bonds, more than any organization in America, in part because of its overwhelming desire to be accepted into American society and give back. And many Greeks shortened or changed their long or difficult-to-pronounce names in an effort to assimilate quicker into American society, making them less of a target of suspicion, and less of the “other.”

Insofar as the idea was to be accepted, this plan worked. Today, few would question that the Greeks are European, and therefore “white”. 100 years ago, that would not have been the case. The xenophobia and bigotry, tantamount to racism, that exploded in a rage which led to the trashing of Toronto’s Greektown a century ago, have since been turned toward other, equally undeserving targets. And Greek Canadians, like their non-Greek neighbors, still have a fascist menace to fight, not only in the neo-fascist “Golden Dawn” of the old country, but right here at home.

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