When I signed my first full-time teaching contract with the Toronto Board of Education in 1989, my salary was $26,000. Even using the filter of “waaaay back in those days”, $26,000 did not go very far in a cosmopolitan city like Toronto. Needless to say, I did not have an extravagant lifestyle. In fact, the loose change that rattled around in my pocket was often all that I had for necessities like milk and bread. My entertainment often consisted of things that were free. One such example was that I often spent many a sunny summer afternoon watching the Toronto Maple Leaf baseball team playing at a local ballpark called Christie Pits. The good thing about going to Christie Pits was that the ball field was surrounded by a short hill, giving it a bowl-like feel. So, many folks, like me, chose to sit on the grassy knoll and watch the action from there. The grass was free to sit on. The sun felt nice on my skin. Sometimes pretty girls sunned themselves on the grass, too. It was all good. To top it all off, I could buy a hot dog for a buck and pop, too. So, at a time when five dollars was a king’s ransom for me, I could have lunch and see a ball game, all beneath the sunny skies at Christie Pits.
It is funny for me to look back on those times and realize that I was sitting in the very spot that one of Canada’s most notorious events took place, aptly named, The Christie Pit Riot of 1933. In 1933, Christie Pits was still in use as a sports facility. But, that is where the similarity ends between my experience and that of those who were in attendance back then. In 1933, the world was a different place. The seeds of what was to become WWII were being sown in Germany, as Adolf Hitler was elected as Chancellor. The laws he quickly enacted help shape what was to become known as The Holocaust; which resulted in the systematic killing of over 6 million Jewish men, women and children. While the history of WWII tends to focus on the battlefields of Europe and later, in the Pacific, when Japan entered the fray, many of us are woefully ignorant of how life was in Canada at the time for Jewish people. This brings me back to Christie Pits.
In the early 1930s, anti-semitism evolved from being the whispered utterings shared at family gatherings and in community halls to, becoming formal policies in countries all over the world. As news of restrictions placed on Jewish citizens in Europe began to spread across the Ocean to Canada, many Jews in Canada mobilized to help family members immigrate here so as to escape persecution. Unfortunately, their efforts were often met with resistance from government officials who feared an influx of Jews would alter the make up of our citizenry. Compassion was trumped by intolerance.
At the same time, those who distrusted and/or disapproved of Jewish people as a race, were emboldened by what was happening in Europe. Nationalistic sentiment was strong and was not restricted to fringe elements but, was also, to be found in the ranks of the cabinet of then, Prime Minister MacKenzie King. The Christie Pit Riot took place in 1933 and what happened was simple: a group of Nationalists in attendance unfurled a large flag that had a swastika on it……a flag that would soon fly over many European countries. One of the teams playing that evening, The Harbord Playground team, was comprised primarily of Jewish men. They were the target of the taunts from the Nationalist group. Armed with baseball bats, the ball players fought with the Nationalists, who had knives and clubs of their own. According to reports issued the following day, over 10,000 people were eventually involved in the riot. There were many injuries but, luckily, no fatalities. But, from that moment on, Canada was not a safe place for Jewish people.
As mentioned above, it wasn’t just fringe elements, like the gang who started the riot at Christie Pits who made life tough for Jewish people. The Canadian Government did, too. Two famous examples of this can be found in the formal policies of creating internment camps for citizens of “enemy combatants of Canada”. This saw Japanese citizens placed in prisoner of war-style camps. It, also, saw Jewish immigrants, fleeing Nazi oppression placed in “holding” camps, too. The Government of MacKenzie King actively sought to limit immigration at a time when European Jews were, literally, running for their lives. The most notorious example of this was the case of the ship, the M.S. St. Louis. This ship was a German liner filled with Jewish refugees seeking asylum anywhere, besides Europe. They sailed to Cuba and were denied permission to leave the ship. Eventually, the set sail for America and were denied entry there, too. We Canadians like to think of ourselves as a compassionate lot but, when the M.S. St. Louis came to our shores, those Jewish refugees were denied entry here, too. Our refusal to allow the passengers to disembark resulted in the M.S. St. Louis being forced to return to Europe. Hundreds of those passengers ended up dying in concentration camps such as Auschwitz.
As I sat on the green grass at Christie Pits, under the warm summer sun, I never thought about any of that. I had the luxury of living in a country that was not at war, In fact, the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia had ended in peace agreements, the Berlin Wall was coming down, The Soviet Union was breaking up and NATO was a strong, stable military and economic presence in Europe and North America, too. It was as close to world peace as I have experienced in my lifetime. My days at Christie Pits bring with them, warm memories. I am lucky to be able to say so.
This brings me back to today. Did you know that on this day, 75 years ago, the Soviet Red Army liberated the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, freeing those remaining, skeleton-like prisoners? The Holocaust officially ended, with the liberation of those European Jews. Those who entered the camps were haunted by what they bore witness to. Emaciated bodies piled in mounds. Emaciated bodies still alive but barely able to stand or walk. Human beings reduced to sub-human versions of themselves which, after all, is how they were viewed by the Nazis all along. The horror and revulsion of what was found in those concentration camps helped create a saying, “Never Again”. This saying was a promise that, never again, would we lose our sense of humanity to the extent that formal government policies would see the systematic killing of entire races, religious members or sects. Never again should have meant, forever but, as history has gone on, those lessons of the Holocaust seem to have been forgotten. From The Killing Fields of Cambodia, to the Rwandan Genocide, to the ethnic cleanings in the former Yugoslavia, governments continue to slaughter their enemies with reckless abandon and ruthless precision.
Some times we, as Canadians, feel smug in what we believe is our highly compassionate reputation in the eyes of the world. But, you don’t have to search very hard to find people on the right wing side of our political spectrum openly discussing the “problem” of allowing immigrants to come to Canada. One can talk to any indigenous person in this country and find out how difficult it is to be “native” in many towns and cities across this land. And, being a person of colour has been difficult, to say the least, seemingly, forever and a day. Just ask any “black” kid trying to play minor league hockey these days without the racial slurs raining on down every time they step on to the ice.
It is not a warm enough day to be sitting on the grassy knolls of Christie Pits in Toronto today but, it is warm and comfortable sitting on my couch in my home. I am safe and so are my family and my friends and neighbours. We don’t think of injustice much. But, sometimes, we should. Perhaps on days like today, the 75th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust, we should think about children in cages in the US, the sub-human living conditions in many indigenous communities, as well as, in cities like Flint. Michigan, with its predominantly black citizenry and its legacy of unsafe drinking water. Perhaps, on days like today, we should think about how women are treated by men and how we can all do better, as a gender, moving forward. And finally, perhaps on a day such as this, it would be good time to think about those we entrust to power. Are the Putins and the Trumps and the others of their ilk really any different from the Hitlers and Mussolinis of the past? Are their policies making life better for their citizens or, like Hitler, are they starting to lay the groundwork for systemic oppression of those who are different from them and/or a threat? If you think I am exaggerating, it was just this past week that an armed militia descended on Richmond, Virginia in the States; many of whose members openly advocate for race wars to purify the country. Much the same mindset as the Nationalists who descended on Christie Pits in 1933. Just like MacKenzie King denied entry to the Jews on the M.S. St. Louis, Donald Trump is building his wall to deny immigrants entry, too. The separating of people into groups is becoming less of a cultural thing and is now moving into the politics of our societies. Is it really such a stretch to predict how this will all turn out if left unchecked?
Holocaust-like scenarios don’t happen all at once. They happen incrementally and purposefully, over time. It is hard, at times, to see the bigger picture because of the constant onslaught of slights and outrages that seem to be happening, everywhere, all of the time. But, it is important to make time, even if it is just once and awhile, to step back and see if the events of the past days and months add up to something bigger and more insidious than we may have noticed. The 75th Anniversary of the end of the Holocaust seems like a good day to try to be a better person. I wish that peace and love and compassion applied equally to everyone and that, never again, would we allow our souls to become so lost or confused or overwhelmed that the suffering of others became our creed.
Never again. The promise of “Never Again” melted away those summer days, a few decades ago; sold for a couple of hot dogs and an ice cold pop. Who knew that the site of the largest and ugliest riot in Canadian history could be such a lovely spot to forget about my worries and my woes and, instead, simply enjoy the sights and sounds of baseball, amid a bevy of pretty girls? Who knew, indeed.