The Comment

The AGO protest was intimidation fuelled by police inaction

We publish an article by Flavio Volpe, from last Thursday’s edition of the Toronto Star.

TORONTO – Eighteen years before my grandfather Luciano emigrated from postwar Italy and settled in Kensington Market, Italians and Jews in Toronto stood together to fight racism and bigotry in the famous Christie Pits riot of 1933. Long a legend of Toronto race relations, that anecdote was on the minds of many of the attendees of the derailed Italy-Canada friendship reception at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) on Saturday night.

It was a hot summer (1933) here as the Nazis took power in Germany. Local news reports in the dailies included tales of violence directed at Jews and the systemic dismantling of professional progress they had made in the decades before in an industrializing power.

In Depression-era Toronto, the predominantly working-class Jewish community sought respite from the sun by going to swim in the Beaches. Some locals, resentful and emboldened by international antisemitism, formed a “Swastika Club” to convene over the issue. Insisting initially that this had nothing to do with bigotry and that they only wanted to “keep the area clean,” they eventually joined forces with other openly antisemitic clubs and went all-in on their hate.

Protests and counterprotests that summer came to a head at a baseball game at Christie Pits. A team of Italian and Jewish boys played a team mainly of Anglo players. A swastika was unfurled and all hell broke loose. Six hours later, after reports of an unruly mob of many thousands of people rushing into the park from the surrounding areas yelling “Heil Hitler,” the worst free-for-all the city had ever seen was over.

Miraculously, nobody was killed but blame lay at the feet of municipal and police leadership. Having ignored the threat of this before the fight, Mayor William Stewart decreed that displaying hateful symbols and making hateful threats would now be met with the full weight of the law.

The riot revealed that the soft xenophobia whispered and joked about in bars, factories and at kitchen tables in Toronto was actually a threat to a peaceful coexistence. Italians had been settling in Toronto for decades, like my great-grandfather Leonardo in The Ward in 1902. Italians were drawn to Jewish communities where hard work, faith and sense of family were common bonds when language wasn’t.

These two communities were intertwined in Toronto lore long before they stood shoulder to shoulder in Christie Pits and they would be forever after.

Last weekend, with my fellow Italian-Canadian community at the AGO, we were confronted by something ugly. Not protest — a critical part of a healthy democracy — but intimidation fuelled by a lack of police attention. A large group of organized, motivated disrupters chose our event to chant slogans that sound to my ears like antisemitism and inspire fear in the Jewish community: slogans like “there is only one solution” and “Intifada.”

They did this in the name of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. A noble cause. But far from winning converts, they burned up goodwill. Many of the guests are allies of these vulnerable civilians. Included among them are outspoken leaders with common cause.

Why block entrances, accost guests, rush to physically restrict access and otherwise menace the crowd of peaceful, unrelated guests? Why accuse attendees, many of them allies, of being “baby-killers” and “supporters of genocide.” What good does this do for their cause? I have been to many protests in my life and with the Saturday evening reception featuring Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, I expected to see one here. This, however, was something altogether different, something deliberately menacing to attendees. The circumstances are no doubt different but as they shouted at us in unison, I thought of that 1933 riot in Christie Pits. And like then, the absence of police action and planning fuelled the fire.

Protesters who choose words that are known to be hurtful to Toronto’s Jewish community should be reminded that none of the targets of their venom on that night are part of Benjamin Netanyahu’s war cabinet. The war in Gaza should concern us all but insults to Toronto’s Jewish community do nothing to help and do a great deal of harm.

Toronto’s Italian community has a century-old history of standing up for its Jewish neighbours, built on baseball diamonds and kitchen tables all over the city. All the AGO disrupters did was remind us that we still have work to do.

Flavio Volpe

Flavio Volpe, Member of the Order of Canada, is the President of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association

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