Written by John Dash / TMakWorld.com. Published on July 28th, 2012
The wrenching scenario of leaving ones homeland to make a better life for the next generation is a seminal image that continues to play out around the world. Today, the large and vibrant Toronto Greek community has woven itself into the business, social and political fabrics of this great city of ours with an endless out pouring of civic pride. But life wasn’t always this gentle for the community. Violent August is masterfully narrated by Professor Thomas W. Gallant with unflinching detail on how the Toronto Greek community, through no fault of their own, became public enemy number one due to the unconscionable politics of World War I (“WWI”) and the insular mindset of the ruling class towards immigrants.
With the start of WWI in 1914, political divisions within Greece’s started between King Constantine’s push for neutrality up against Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos fervent demand to enter the war in support of Britain eventually rendered Greece neutral in the eyes of the world. And it was this neutral position that became the spark that lit the fuse which manifested into riots against the Toronto Greek community in the late summer of 1918. Immigrants to Canada from countries officially at war with Canada were labeled Resident Aliens and summarily sent to internment camps such as the Japanese in British Columbia during WWII. Greece’s neutrality meant the freedom to live and work in Canada but this posed a further problem politically for the Canadian government. The fact that Greece’s neutral position could change at any moment forced the Canadian government to defer enlistment of able bodied Greek men.
Further muddying the political situation was the reluctance of Greek men to fill out papers when conscription became law which only infuriated returning veterans who were willing to give their lives for their country. With 1 in 7 vets returning from the war to a Toronto that was over crowded, busy, dirty and far from accommodating to the majority of crippled and demoralized veterans made the now smoldering situation incendiary. In 1918, the successful Greek merchants owned 35% of the city cafes, restaurants and grocery stores which became the ultimate insult and the last straw as destitute vets struggle to survive while immigrants reap the spoils of business. This disenfranchisement couple with the laisse faire attitudes of the Canadian government and a misinformation campaign on Greek merchants by the veterans culminated in four days of rioting as 50,000 Torontonians, mostly Anglo-Saxon, rampaged through the streets of downtown targeting every Greek establishment. The ensuing melee became the worst anti-Greek riot in the world.
Producer, Writer, Director, John Burry has skillfully chronicled this little known but troubling chapter in Toronto’s historical legacy. With masterful used of newsreel footage, period stills, poignant Greek experiences and the creative use of interactive maps, the Visual Archives Research of Lynne Thorogood-Burry allows viewers to, not only move through the streets of Toronto but experience the overt racism the Greek community faced during those four days in August. It wasn’t enough that Greeks enlisted over 2,000 men to fight for their new country and show their allegiance to Canada . . . but they did. It wasn’t enough that Greeks endured a litany of racist taunts in the face of an aloof and malcontent police force . . . but they did. It wasn’t even enough for naturalized Greeks with Anglicised names to finally escape persecution . . . because they couldn’t. Violent August reveals in the most unvarnished way the inability of a city, and by default, a government to fight for the plight of a community as they became fodder for all the ills of a city and a society in flux.
4.5 out of 5
Violent August is a triumph in its revelation of the Toronto Greek experience. Teachable moments on the politics of war and the effects of anti-immigrant racism makes this documentary required viewing for all who truly want to understand the other side of the Canadian experience. You can buy the DVD here.