The violence and racism of Peace Day, 1919

It was supposed to be a celebration of peace. World War I had just officially ended, and Canada declared a national holiday. Then things turned ugly
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Jul 19, 2019
A clipping from the July 21, 1919, Toronto World shows the crowd that gathered at Queen’s Park on Peace Day.

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“Tomorrow, through the worldwide realms of the British Empire, the advent of peace will be gratefully acclaimed with mingled feeling of sorrow and gladness,” declared an official statement issued by the Canadian government on July 18, 1919. “For nearly four-and-a-half years this peace has been fought for, longed for, and prayed for by countless war-worn millions, who in the meantime have been called upon to make incalculable sacrifices of life and property.”

The celebrations that marked Peace Day across Ontario on July 19, 1919, demonstrated the public’s relief that the First World War finally seemed to be behind them — but they also triggered anger from war veterans and acts of violence against those considered “aliens.”

On July 9, the federal government announced that a public holiday would be held on July 19 to commemorate peace, coinciding with celebrations in the United Kingdom and the rest of the British Empire.

a newspaper ad for Peace Day in 1919
A banner from the July 17, 1919, edition of the Ottawa Citizen advertising a Peace Day-inspired sale.

Not everyone was in the mood to celebrate. Toronto mayor Tommy Church received complaints from people upset that many soldiers were still stuck in Europe. “How can we celebrate peace,” one wrote, “while our men are fuming and fretting in England, and cannot do anything to hasten their release?”

Veterans’ groups such the Great War Veterans’ Association and the Grand Army of Canada, though, were fully behind marking Peace Day on July 19. They demanded that processions of veterans take place and that most businesses close out of respect — expressing concern that “aliens” and “the foreign element” would demonstrate their poor judgment and lack of patriotism by treating it as a standard workday. “Surely no self-respecting man,” a Kingston Daily British Whig front-page editorial observed on July 18, “would run the risk of getting himself and his business into bad repute by such an action as openly refusing to recognize the wishes of the ruler of the British Empire.”

“Soldiers Want All Shops Shut Saturday” read the front-page headline of the July 17 edition of the Hamilton Herald. Local members of the GAC, GWVA, and other veterans’ organizations threatened to blacklist all businesses — other than drug stores and restaurants — that opened on Peace Day. Rumours spread, especially in the east end of the city, that angry veterans were planning to conduct vigilante raids.

“It is up to Hamilton storekeepers and employers to sacrifice something on Saturday in order to show their appreciation of the work done by our soldiers overseas,” Fred Tresham, secretary of the GWVA’s central Hamilton branch, told the Herald. “I cannot say that there will be an official blacklist of men who keep their shops open, but I can say that, from what I know of the strong feeling existing among the returned men, that such men will be treated with scant consideration from our members.”

The next day saw the GWVA doing damage control in the Hamilton Spectator: it claimed that its members had never discussed blacklists or raids. The Herald reported that executives of the GAC and GWVA would allow some stores to remain open if they donated their Peace Day profits to charity. Mayor Charles Booker urged all stores to close, although he indicated that those offering perishable goods, such as ice cream, should feel welcome to open after the veterans’ parade had finished.

In Toronto, a GAC delegation asked Church to ensure that all businesses run by “alien shopkeepers” recognize the holiday. Church noted that he lacked the power to force compliance, but he did urge stores to stay shut. “There is a strong feeling among Toronto veterans that tomorrow is no day for aliens,” the Toronto Daily Star reported on July 18, “and that for them to attempt to make profit by it would be an insufferable sacrilege.” Several store owners reported that they had faced intimidation. Chief of Police H.J. Grassett claimed that he had not heard of any threats toward merchants and expressed support for the veterans. “I believe that it is a reasonable request to make,” he told the Evening Telegram, “for they have made peace possible.”

Veterans in some other communities took a more relaxed attitude toward businesses. In London, according to the Free Press, “they do not care whether any stores close or not.”

The celebrations across the province followed a similar pattern. Veterans paraded in their uniforms alongside floats from local organizations and retailers. Effigies of former German leader Kaiser Wilhelm II were carried through town before meeting fiery ends. Homes and businesses were covered in flags and other patriotic paraphernalia. Sporting competitions, singalongs, concerts, contests, picnics, patriotic speeches, community dances, and fireworks filled out the day. Spectators were treated to a stunt pilot in action in Port Stanley; Cornwall displayed captured German guns during its parade.

Individual neighbourhoods also held their own festivities. Residents of Toronto’s Essex Street, for example, received permission from the city to close the street for nine hours and offered activities such as sporting competitions and a tug-of-war faceoff between married and single men: all 40 veterans who lived there received gold cufflinks from Church.

At 10 a.m., 25,000 people assembled north of Queen’s Park to take in a band concert and an hour-long singalong of hymns and patriotic songs led by local choirs, choral societies, and school children. No speeches were given. “Excepting when they sang, they were a quiet lot of people,” the Toronto World reported. “Occasionally a cheer and a round of applause greeted a company of war veterans or a little band of men headed by a couple of Frenchmen in uniforms of blue, but in celebrating peace the price could not be forgotten.”

The day, though, was marred by violence. In Toronto, a mob of roughly 200 youths led by two veterans with criminal records threw bricks at a Jewish peddler and set his stable and wagons ablaze. Rioters broke into and vandalized several restaurants; two streetcars suffered fire damage. A crowd rushed into one Chinese-owned store that, although it was closed, had left its light on.

In the end, the only reported discord in Hamilton came when veterans interrupted speeches at the official celebration at Dundurn Park with demands for beer, which was still under wartime prohibition measures. Booker forcefully expressed his opinion that the peace terms agreed upon at Versailles didn’t sufficiently punish Germany. “I have come to believe that the only good German is a dead one,” he told the thirsty crowd. “Anyone who buys German-made goods in Canada within the space of 20 years is a traitor to his country.”

Of course, in 20 years’ time, Canada would once again be at war with Germany.

Sources: the July 18, 1919, and July 21, 1919, editions of the Border Cities Star; the July 18, 1919, edition of the Daily British Whig; the July 18, 1919, edition of the Evening Telegram; the July 19, 1921, and July 21, 1919, editions of the Globe; the July 17, 1919, and July 18, 1919, editions of the Hamilton Herald; the July 18, 1919, and July 21, 1919, editions of the Hamilton Spectator; the July 18, 1919, edition of the London Free Press; the July 21, 1919, edition of the Mail and Empire; the July 18, 1919, edition of the Ottawa Citizen; the July 14, 1919, and July 18, 1919, editions of the Toronto Daily Star; the July 19, 1919, edition of the Toronto Star Weekly; and the July 19, 1919, and July 21, 1919, editions of the Toronto World.

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