What many people find most shocking about Violent August is its depiction of Toronto. It’s a Toronto whose racist behavior seems so at odds with the city we know – a city that promotes multiculturalism and celebrates its reputation for tolerance. As the film makes clear, however, this civic self-image is a very recent construct.
What Torontonians should find even more shocking is how openly racist the city, in fact the whole country, was as recently as 70 years ago. Here’s what our beloved humorist and McGill professor Stephen Leacock wrote in 1930 about “foreign” (non-British) immigrants:
“A little dose of them may even, by variation, do good, like a minute dose of poison in a medicine…I am not saying that we should absolutely shut out and debar the European foreigner, as we should and do shut out the Oriental. But we should in no way facilitate his coming. Not for him the free ocean transit, nor the free coffee of the immigrant shed, nor the free land, nor the found job, nor the guaranteed anything. He is lucky if he is let in ‘on his own’.” (“Economic Prosperity in the British Empire”)
This is just a mild sample of attitudes that were very openly expressed in books, newspapers, and public discourse of the period. As military historian J.L. Granatstein makes clear in the documentary, it was a very different Toronto than the one we know today. The population was largely Anglo-Saxon and “foreigners” included anyone who wasn’t. In fact, as Demetri Bazos and Jim Letros make clear when describing their experiences, racial slurs were pretty common in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s too.
And, if we’re being honest, who of us hasn’t recently heard a racist comment made by a friend or acquaintance. Toronto has certainly made major strides in publically condemning racist attitudes and comments, but let’s never delude ourselves that these attitudes will ever completely disappear. As long as we fear change, resist compromise and forget the lessons of history, racism will always be with us.