By ALAN SHACKLETON
Illustrated by Beacher Josh Rosen, The Good Fight graphic novel tells the story of one of the sadder days in Toronto’s history.
It was the summer of 1933, the Depression was taking its toll on jobs and the economy, the weather was sweltering hot and tensions between different ethnic communities and neighbourhoods were also near the boiling point. On Aug. 16, The Christie Pits Riot took place.
The riot saw six hours of fighting between groups of mostly young men made up of the city’s Jewish and Italian communities against the city’s “Anglo-Gentile” community. Thankfully no one was killed in the riot.
The riot highlighted the racist and xenophobic attitudes that were prevalent in Toronto at the time against the Jewish community, which was mostly poor and working class, and recent immigrants to the city including those of Italian heritage.
The Good Fight, written by Ted Staunton, tells of the events leading up to The Christie Pits Riot including a Swastika Club and a Protective Association that existed in the Beach community at the time.
For Rosen, 35, that connection to the area that he mostly grew up in came as a bit of a surprise once he started work on the illustrations.
“I knew very little about the Beach connection going in, or the Swastika Club protective association,” he said.
“That part of the story was a shock to learn, especially trying to reconcile it with the Beaches community I grew up around.”
The Christie Pits Riot began during a playoff baseball game at the ball diamond in the pits between Harbord Playground (a team of mostly Jewish and Italian players) and a team sponsored by St. Peter’s Catholic Church near Bloor and Bathurst Streets.
The baseball game was where the bad feelings that had been simmering all summer between the city’s different ethnic groups turned violent.
A large sheet with a swastika painted on it was unfurled by a group of spectators watching the game at Christie Pits, on the northwest corner of Bloor and Christie streets. Jewish and Italian spectators confronted those who displayed the swastika and the fighting began.
The Nazis and Hitler had only recently taken power in Germany, and the display of a large swastika angered and frightened members of Toronto’s Jewish community.
The use of the swastika and its display at the baseball game was encouraged by events earlier that summer in the Beach.
The Swastika Club in the Beach was formed after local residents became angry at the large number of Jewish families and young people coming to lake to cool off on the beaches from the hot summer weather. The swastika was openly displayed in the Beach, including one at the Balmy Beach Canoe Club, in an effort to intimidate members of the Jewish community and stop them from coming to the area.
For Rosen, it was very close to the place he had called home.
“I obviously knew all of the landmarks associated with the events, Kew Beach and the Balmy Beach Club and all that. But I’d never imagined them in that context,” he said.
“I’d only known the Beach as an overall very friendly, welcoming community, and to uncover that aspect of our history was a shock. I think readers unaware of that history might be shocked.”
Which is why The Good Fight tells an important story for Torontonians of today, said Rosen.
“I think there’s huge value in the study of history, even more so when it’s the history of your own city. History informs who we are, it tells us how we got here,” he said.
“And in the case of something like the Christie Pits riots and the tensions that surround them, it’s a warning of sorts.”
Times were tough in the Depression and many chose hatred and scapegoating others for their problems, said Rosen. It’s also important to remember that the riots and the embracing of swastikas and racism were not acceptable to the majority of people in Toronto in the 1930s, he said, and that the actions of those who caused the riot by trying to promote hatred were condemned at the time.
“I think it’s incredibly important to remember that, especially in these present times, where there are obviously parallels,” said Rosen.
Among those who condemned the Swastika Club and its actions was Toronto’s mayor at the time, William James Stewart. He called them “un-British and un-Canadian.” Author Staunton is the grandson of Stewart.
With The Good Fight graphic novel, Staunton and Rosen look at the riot and its causes in a way that is approachable for readers of many ages.
“Our hope with The Good Fight is that if provides an opportunity to revisit the moment in a way that hopefully doesn’t feel so dry. We’re revisiting it in the context of an adventure story, and one that kids can hopefully relate to,” said Rosen.
The Good Fight’s story follows people who were involved in the events leading up to the riot.
Rosen said there are numerous aspects to the story and it is not all “heavy”.
“I want to also make sure to mention that the book is fun. It has moments of humour, and lightness too. And action and thrills. And the characters are really sweet. Ted really composed such a wonderful story with this book, and I did my best to do it justice through my illustrations,” said Rosen.
The Good Fight is Rosen’s first work with a large book publisher and he said it has been a very positive experience.
“I’ve been working towards this point for many years, and I could not have asked for a better debut project,” he said.
Given that he spent many years in the Beach growing up, attended schools in North York and now lives in the Annex (near Christie Pits), Rosen said working on The Good Fight has been a fascinating trip through his city’s history.
For more information on The Good Fight, please go to http://www.scholastic.ca/books/view/the-good-fight