In the summer of 1918, prejudice and grievance against a small but visible ethnic population gave rise to destruction on the streets of Toronto. But the anti-Greek riots of 1918 were largely forgotten for nearly a century.
Discover the history of these riots, why they were absent from Toronto’s collective memory for decades, and how the story has been recovered in recent years.
This story was researched and written by Emerging Historian Elizabeth Compa (2023) and made possible by the generous support of our Tours Program Presenting Sponsor, TD Bank and The Ready Commitment.
Last updated: August 3, 2023
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By the onset of World War I in 1914, the Greek population in Toronto was around 3,000 people. They represented less than one percent of the city’s 500,000 residents, but owned and operated some 35 percent of its restaurants, as well as many grocery stores and shoe shine parlours.
Several Greek-owned restaurants could be found along Yonge Street, stretching north from Queen to Bloor. Others were located along Queen Street heading west. Toronto’s Greek residents lived nearby, generally in the area bounded by Yonge and Church streets to the east and west, and Carlton and Dundas streets to the north and south.
In the summer of 1918, Canada was years into an overseas war. Nationwide, more than 650,000 Canadians served in the Great War. Some 70,000 young men from Toronto had enlisted. But Greeks in Toronto were barred from doing so.
As a country, Greece remained officially neutral until late in the war because its king and prime minister supported different sides of the conflict. As a result, Greeks in Canada were left in an unusual position. They were neither considered “enemy aliens,” nor allowed to enlist for most of the war. Many Greeks living in Canada faced resentment and persecution due to Greece’s wartime foreign policy: accused of cowardice or supporting the “enemy.”
In early August 1918, Toronto was filled with soldiers from across the nation who were gathering for a Congress of the Great War Veterans Association. Men returning from battle faced meagre pensions, inadequate health care, and poor job prospects. The Congress was a means of organizing around these issues.
John Burry, documentarian
On August 1, a veteran named Claude Cludernay patronized the Greek-owned White City Café, where he was reportedly drinking and acting belligerent. When he struck a waiter, staff kicked him out and called the police.
The next day, as talk of his ejection from the restaurant circulated through a citywide game of broken telephone, the story changed: Cludernay was alleged to have been “badly beaten… by a Greek.”
On the night of August 2, a reported 200 veterans intent on revenge — many of them in uniform and using crutches or canes — and upwards of 1,000 civilians went on an eight-hour rampage. The violence started at the White City Café, expanding to attack businesses up and down Yonge Street and Queen Street. The group destroyed nearly every Greek-owned restaurant in its path.
Toronto Daily Star
August 3, 1918
Destruction mounted as the mob attacked more Greek-owned restaurants and businesses. These included the Marathon Café (822 Yonge St.), the Star Lunch Café (441 Yonge St.), the Vendome Café (305 Yonge St.), the Colonial Lunch (349 Yonge St.), the Palace Café (271 Yonge St.), a shoe shine parlour north of Bloor Street “said to have been demolished,” and a butcher shop (504 Yonge St., the only affected business that was not Greek-owned).
The Superior Lunch (257 Yonge St.) had a stone thrown through the front window. Moving west, the mob attacked another White City location (985 Bloor St. West), the New London Café (311 Queen St. West), the Alexandria Café (750 Queen St. West), and the Sunnyside restaurant (at Queen St. West and Roncesvalles). At some sites, crowds gathered to watch and cheer the destruction.
Toronto Daily Star
August 3, 1918
On August 3, tensions still ran high. “Fearing that their places were to be visited and cleaned out, a number of Greek storekeepers closed down Saturday afternoon and did not re-open in the evening,” the Globe newspaper reported. By nightfall, a crowd of thousands of soldiers and civilians had gathered downtown.
That evening, the Toronto police — who had taken little action the night before — unleashed violence on the crowd. Approximately 500 people including women and children were injured, 34 badly. Accounts described mounted police officers wielding thick canes to battle the crowd. Anger and blame persisted for days among police, returned soldiers, and civilians.
As the unrest wore on, Torontonians debated the place, and even the legitimacy, of Greek business owners in the city. Some called for cancelling business licenses that had been “granted promiscuously to all aliens.” Others argued that immigrants “are as much entitled to the safeguards of the law as others. They should obey the law, and they should be protected by the law.”
Finally, on August 7, Mayor Thomas Church issued an official proclamation. He banned groups of three or more people from gathering in any outdoor public space, stating, “it is necessary to maintain law and order and preserve the good name of the city.”
A final assessment of the damage inflicted found some 20 restaurants and businesses destroyed and estimated financial losses approaching $100,000 (valued at over $1.8 million today).
Toronto Daily Star
August 7, 1918
Six men and three boys were punished for their involvement in the riots — the men received sentences ranging from six months to a year while the boys were fined $10 — but the listed charges were for assaulting police officers, not attacking restaurants.
The combination of inaction followed by excessive force on the part of the police threatened to tarnish Toronto’s image as a city capable of maintaining basic order. The police had not only failed to protect business owners, but had also assaulted and injured hundreds of citizens, including bystanders.
When the restaurant owners sought $45,000 from the Toronto government for the damage their businesses had suffered, Mayor Church denied the city’s legal liability. A city alderman added, “We did our best to prevent these foreigners getting a license at all.” The restaurant owners unsuccessfully went on to seek compensation from the Dominion government in Ottawa and then from the British government.
The shock of anti-Greek violence in August was soon forgotten with the outbreak of the Spanish flu near the end of September 1918. Within a month, half the city would be infected. Less than two months later, on November 11, the Great War officially ended.
The anti-Greek riots, largely forgotten for decades, offer an example of recovered historical memory. Collective memory is the public, shared consciousness of a group’s past. Groups who share a collective historical memory span the local to the national to the global. Collective memory offers a narrative of historical events that can be passed to new members of the community and new generations.
Collective memory in Toronto can be layered: there is collective memory within families, neighbourhoods, the city, the country, and among any number of affinity groups. It is not that everyone has the same understanding of the past, but rather that there is a shared rubric for understanding and making meaning of the past. Collective memory is not static. Events and ideas can go quiet for periods of time, only to be taken up again by later generations.
John Burry directed the 2009 documentary Violent August, which introduced many people — including many Greek Torontonians — to the story of the riots for the first time. Burry wondered why the riots had been forgotten for so long.
Burry, whose father came to Toronto from Greece in the early 1920s, recalls learning of the riots at a lecture by historian Thomas Gallant, “I thought, this is a great story, why hasn’t anyone heard of this? And a little bit of investigation, you find out, yeah, it’s there in the newspapers. But certainly the community never talked about it.”
When Burry began work on the film, he found few members of the Greek community willing or even able to offer their perspectives: most people he spoke with had never heard of them before.
Burry thought there may have been feelings of shame among the people whose businesses were attacked. Greek restaurant owners may have recognized frustration that returning World War I veterans felt about their circumstances, and were perhaps sympathetic. Greek Torontonians may have felt uncomfortable about emphasizing their status as immigrants in a context where many felt a drive to assimilate.
The shock and trauma of the riots could also have inspired an unspoken pact of silence, an impulse to bury the memory and to shield the next generation of Greek Torontonians from learning about this painful episode.
Koula Lakas grew up in Toronto’s Greek community along the Danforth in the 1920s and ‘30s. Her father arrived in Canada from Greece in about 1910 and operated a candy shop and later a restaurant. But Lakas never learned about the riots until she saw Violent August.
Two childhood friends of hers, whose parents were also restaurant owners, had contributed to the documentary, but, as Mrs. Lakas recalls, “they never talked about it.”
Mrs. Lakas says pride likely played a role in the silence, especially once compensation was denied: “They were too proud, you know. They asked for help. They asked the government to help them, they asked the city to help them, and they got ‘no’ from everybody, and they said, let’s forget about it, we’ll start all over again. So I’m very proud of that.”
Documentarian John Burry recalls his experience with Demitri Bazos, son of Colonial Restaurant owner Chris Bazos, “I had to practically beg him to be in the film, because he said ‘I can’t tell you anything, I don’t know anything.’ And I said, well that’s news in itself. Your father owned one of the restaurants, but he never spoke about it.”
Sandra Gionas, who chairs the History Committee of the Toronto-based Hellenic Heritage Foundation, notes, “This story within our own community was completely lost. That memory didn’t pass on, because the first generation wanted to forget.”
“I had a Canadian education and went to Greek school — never heard a thing,” she recalls. When she did learn of the riots from watching Violent August, “I was in shock … How can I be a resident of this city and really be a student of history, and to know this city’s history and not know that?”
Professor Thomas Gallant, with co-authors George Treheles and Michael Vitopoulos, offered in-depth research on the riots with their 2005 book The 1918 Anti-Greek Riot in Toronto. Drawing primarily on newspapers and archival sources, the slim volume offered a timeline of the riots as well as broader context on Toronto’s Greek community in the 1910s.
John Burry released Violent August a few years later in 2009. People within the Greek community and outside it responded to the documentary with surprise. “It’s an eye-opener, I think, for most Torontonians. ‘The Greeks, why? What have they ever done?’” Burry recalls.
The 1918 riots challenge modern Toronto’s self-image as open and welcoming to newcomers. It also provides a window to the everyday characteristics of the city more than 100 years ago, including some that clash with modern sensibilities. “Racism was there, it was everywhere,” Burry notes. “It wasn’t always ‘Toronto the Good.’”
Sandra Gionas and her colleagues at the Hellenic Heritage Foundation led efforts to publicly remember the riots, especially for the 100th anniversary of the event in 2018. “We embarked on a campaign to take a forgotten part of history and bring it to life for a new generation of people,” she recalls.
Around this time, the City of Toronto took steps to acknowledge the riots as an important event in the City’s past and in the story of the Greek community’s history and contributions. On the centennial anniversary of the riots in 2018, there were events, articles, and tours. The Hellenic Heritage Foundation held a ceremony in Nathan Phillips Square with the mayor, local officials, and historians, and developed a curriculum for public schools.
With each new effort to tell the story of the riots, more people in Toronto learn about them, and the collective historical memory grows. But the questions of how to think about the riots and what they mean in the city’s and the Greek community’s history are still being grappled with.
Interrogating our collective memory is an ongoing, collaborative process. The goal is not to settle on a defined narrative, but rather to invite each generation to examine the past anew, to make sense of it. As Burry notes, “These are incidents that happened. Whether we like them or not, they deserve to be discussed and debated.”
Thank you to John Burry, Sandra Gionas, Koula Lakas, Bill Molos, and the Hellenic Heritage Foundation for their help and support in the preparation of this digital story.