Perched next to a city park baseball diamond one sunny day this week, a group of Toronto teens took in a vivid lesson about a Canadian story that remains unfamiliar to many.
An on-site performance transported them to Depression-era Toronto, when exploding antisemitism and anti-immigrant sentiment in the city ran parallel to the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany — ultimately erupting in the Christie Pits Riot, one of the largest race riots in the country’s history.
Watching performers depict the era — when swastika-brandishing provocateurs and skyrocketing racial tensions sparked a brawl involving more than 10,000 people in the downtown park — truly brought history to life for Grade 8 student Hanah Isse.
“It’s much more effective, because it’s easier to understand when you see it right in front of you,” the 14-year-old said.
On-site show more ‘impactful’
The new production, Christie Pits Riot, coincides with the 90th anniversary of the riot. It’s been a personal effort for Sam Rosenthal, who co-wrote, co-produced and directs the show, co-created by his Hogtown Collective partner Drew Carnwath.
At the time of the riot, which broke out during a baseball game in which one team was predominantly Jewish, Rosenthal’s grandfather was minding his store down the street. His father grew up just blocks from the park.
WATCH | Christie Pits Riot provides students with an on-site history lesson:
“This is my family history,” he said. “My dad and my grandfather, this is their neighbourhood, so it touches me deeply.”
For others, Carnwath says the immersive, site-specific approach helps the story resonate on a more personal and emotional level.
“It’s one thing to sort of sit back in a dark room and watch a play as if you’re watching a movie, but when the actors are as close to the audience as I am to you right now, you can literally stand shoulder to shoulder and feel what they’re feeling,” Carnwath said.
“It’s just more impactful.” The pair hope to draw the general public to the show and maybe tour it.
Watching the production left a strong impression on 13-year-old student Chloe Douglas.
“I didn’t know any of that happened in Toronto. I honestly thought it was just in Germany,” she said.
‘Very much relevant in 2023’
Whether learning about it from a play, a graphic novel, podcasts, film or any other medium, Jamie Michaels believes the 1933 riot isn’t simply Toronto history, it’s something everyone should learn about.
The English literature doctoral student didn’t hear of the Christie Pits Riot until after completing his undergrad, but the tale both shook him and inspired him to create a graphic novel about it.
“I am a young Jewish Canadian. I’ve had similar experiences in a similar sports context and this, I felt, was shocking. How could this be new history to me?” said Michaels, who is a University of Calgary instructor and PhD candidate.
He recalled growing up in Winnipeg and, as an eighth grader, attending a baseball tournament where at one point students from a rival school began spewing antisemitic insults. It eventually provoked a fight in the crowd.
With his graphic novel Christie Pits, Michaels calls on Canadians “to view this hatred as part of a continuum that we’re still battling against… It’s definitely a book that is unpacking the events of 1933, but it’s a book that is very much relevant for 2023,” he said.
The riot erupted in a “Canada that had intolerance as a primary value and I think that sharing that story and understanding that history lets us learn from it — and lets us combat that same rise of intolerance that we’re seeing today.”
Hate ‘can cascade to us all’
The students who watched Christie Pits Riot this week were joined by some prominent adults.
“We have to learn from our history so we’re not doomed to repeat it,” said Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce, whose government is introducing mandatory learning about the Holocaust in the Grade 6 curriculum and has invested in community groups creating educational resources to combat antisemitism.
“We have to be very vigilant in the fight against hate. And yes, it’s not just only against the Jewish community. We’re seeing hate manifest against so many faiths and religious communities and others, including the LGBTQ community,” he said.
“When it starts with one group, as we know through history, it can cascade to us all.”
Retired senator Linda Frum said Canadians mustn’t “gloss over difficult chapters of our history… Hate and intolerance is something that happens here, just as it happens elsewhere.”
Yet Frum, who chairs the committee to counter antisemitism and hate at the Toronto United Jewish Appeal, also pointed to another key part of the Christie Pits story: that members of the Jewish community and the Italian community came together against the Nazi-inspired crowd that had antagonized the Jewish baseball players.
“There’s a broader lesson there about solidarity between communities and standing up for other communities,” she said.
That point wasn’t lost on 14-year-old Ron Sanchez, who said he took “valuable lessons” about tolerance, kindness and allyship from the Hogtown Collective performance.
“The Italians and Jewish people stood up for each other throughout the racism, even though they knew it could get themselves hurt. I think that should happen more often,” said the Grade 8 student.
“People caring for each other and also not [judging] people off their religion or the things they believe in.”
Toronto students can see Christie Pits Riot through May and June.