Riot at Christie Pits and Toronto the Good

The Riot at Christie Pits exposes the roots of racism focusing on Canada’s worst race riot.

It happened in the fiery summer of 1933, in Toronto-now the world’s most multi-racial city. Using contemporary and historical footage, reenactments and eyewitness accounts, the film offers insight, compassion and humour-and a warning that hatred can lurk in the heart of any city.

In the Depression-era Toronto of 1933, 80% of the population are of British descent and the civic power of the Protestant Orange Order is supreme. Resentment towards ethnic minorities, especially Italians and Jews, is exacerbated by the economic hardships and by racist propaganda filtering in from Germany, where Hitler has just gained power. Toronto’s minorities become the scapegoat for the city’s woes.

At Christie Pits park on a hot August evening in 1933, the racial tensions finally snap. As an amateur softball game between a Jewish and a Gentile team ends, a huge swastika flag is unfurled to inflammatory shouts of “Heil Hitler!” A riot explodes. Police are slow to intervene, and reinforcements for both sides pour in from nearby neighbourhoods. A mob of over 10,000 rampages for eight hours and hundreds are injured. By early morning, both the swastika flag and the city’s reputation lie in tatters.

Vivid accounts from eyewitnesses form the heart of the film. Jocko Thomas spent the night of his 20th birthday covering the riot for The Toronto Star. Joe Black was only eight when he watched the riot rage outside his family grocery store. Media personality Johnny Lombardi was then a teenager who joined in, brandishing a chair. Other eye­witnesses include revered boxing champion Sammy Luftspring, social activist Toby Ryan and Irv Lasky, who was the Harbord team’s catcher that fateful night.

Based on an award-winning book, The Riot at Christie Pits is an historical story as gripping and urgent as the nightly news. It sheds light on the dark past of a city that remains a beacon of hope to immigrants from around the world.

Produced by Breakthrough Films &: Television Inc., in association with the CanWest Global System, with the participation of Telefilm Canada, Ontario Film Development Corporation, Multiculturalism Programs of Heritage Canada and the National Film Board of Canada © 1996 Breakthrough Films & Television Inc.

Toronto the Good is the companion documentary to The Riot at Christie Pits.

Eyewitnesses to the riot recall life in Toronto during the 1920s and 1930s.

Bergstein brothers
Joseph Black (Photographer)
Frank Genovese
Harry Kates
Allan Lamport (Mayor)
Irv Lasky
Johnny Lombardi (Broadcaster & Impresario)
Sammy Luftspring (Canadian Welterweight Boxing Champion)
Toby Ryan (Author)
Leslie Saunders (Mayor)
Gwyn “Jocko” Thomas (Police Reporter)

1992 Documentary 30 minutes – made by Ira Levy & Peter Williamson

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