Lessons from dark Beach history still apply
This month, August 2013, marks a sad but yet important anniversary of events that happened 80 years ago right here in the Beach. It was 1933, and Adolf Hitler and his Nationalist Socialist Party (the Nazi party) had just come to power in Germany. That was the year a group of Torontonians formed the Balmy Beach Swastika Club. The group’s objective was to stop “undesirables” – recent immigrants in general, but mainly Jews – from using the eastern beaches. On Aug. 1, 1933, hundreds of members of the Swastika Club marched along the boardwalk from the Balmy Beach Club to Woodbine Avenue, posting swastikas on buildings, singing anti-semitic songs, and intimidating and harassing anyone who opposed them. It was front page news.
It seems unthinkable today. Toronto is one of the largest multicultural cities in the world. People from more than 190 countries live here. Over 200 languages are spoken. Today we have human rights protections and a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that has changed Canadian society through the courts to protect the worth and dignity of each individual.
Yet I remember clearly the man on Queen Street who told me in the 2010 municipal election that he would only vote for the Nationalist Socialist Party. It is not such a stretch when you consider the trials of Ernst Zundel here in Toronto some years ago. He rallied others to historical revisionism, claiming the holocaust was a fabrication and historical lie. More recently, only five short years ago, our boardwalk was spray painted with racist graffiti including swastikas and white power slogans.
On August 9, 1933, The Balmy Beach Swastika Club changed its name to the Beaches Protective Society with a stated goal of “beautification of the Beaches.” Toronto’s anti-Semitism, however, was not confined to the Beach. In the 1930s it was everywhere. Signs on beaches and at resort hotels read “Gentile Only” or “No Jews or Dogs.” Sunnyside Swimming pool would only admit a few Jews at any given time.
Later that August, members of the former Swastika Club started the largest riot in Toronto history at the Christie Pits. Homemade Nazi flags were displayed at a Christie Pits baseball game with many Jewish players and spectators present. Fighting broke out and soon thousands of people had rushed to the scene from downtown to join the fighting. No one died but hundreds were injured and the city reeled in shock. City Council actually outlawed the display of swastika symbols.
However, the swastika and its hateful message surfaced again in Toronto’s Gay Pride Parade in 2009.
This is why a group of volunteer lawyers – including myself – and human rights organizations have worked for four years with city councillors to amend Toronto’s anti-discrimination code. If groups like this can be supported with public money, city hall is seriously broken.
These groups shamelessly fought back with fabricated arguments of free speech and no censorship. But as every lawyer can tell you, there is no such thing as absolute free speech. You cannot yell fire in a crowded theater. This appeared to be the first time that hateful groups with divisive messages used public money to spread their hatred. For many on the sidelines, this was the 1930s all over again, with its hateful symbols and messages. We argued that nobody was being censored and that free speech was a red herring. These groups are free to march, but let them do it on their own money, not taxpayers’ money. While their speech is legal, and does not violate the criminal code, it is clearly not acceptable. Not all speech is deserving of taxpayers’ money.
After four years of work, and on the eve of the 80th anniversary of the Christie Pit Riots and the racist marches along the Beach boardwalk, City Council last month passed a revised anti-discrimination code. It affirmed that the City has a role to play to promote a harmonious city, and the discretion to defund grant recipients whose messages were contrary to the core principles of our city: inclusion and tolerance. Whether and how it will be enforced is another issue, but it is a step in the right direction.
Every community across the Toronto has a stake in ensuring we remain a city of tolerance, respect and inclusion. That is why these events and lessons learned should never be far from us.
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