In a beautiful plaza where the avenues of Danforth and Logan intersect lies a statue of Alexander the Great. Built in 1994 by the City of Toronto and largely funded by the Greektown community, the Alexander the Great Parkette is listed on TripAdvisor as a bit of the “local flavour” and personality of the Danforth. It might seem strange that such a legendary figure, known for his prowess in military command, would be chosen to stand in the peaceful heart of Greektown—but the history of the Greek community in Toronto is not without opposition.
Up until 1918, Greek businesses, restaurants, and residences had formed their own neighbourhood on Yonge Street, in the centre of Toronto. It was at one of these restaurants that Claude Cludernay, a crippled Canadian Army veteran, was expelled for drunkenly assaulting a waiter on August 1st. Unbeknownst to any involved at the time, that would be the trigger to Toronto’s largest race riot, and one of the largest anti-Greek riots in the world.
Many Canadian veterans perceived this event as a personal affront from the Greek community, and on August 2, 1918, thousands of veterans gathered in the Greektown area and set about destroying Greek cafes, restaurants, and businesses. The mayor at the time, Tommy Church, was forced to invoke the Riot Act and call in the military police to back up the overwhelmed police forces already involved. However, their presence was reportedly ineffective at best, and negligent at worst. Victims of the destruction criticized the police for standing by and just watching as the veterans continued their rampage.
The following day, the militia and military police cracked down on veterans and bystanders alike. There were an estimated fifty-thousand people involved in the fights, and the aftermath of the riots totalled over one million dollars in damages by today’s values.
The riots were a result of growing resentments against new immigrants, the misconception that the Greeks did not fight in World War I, as well as a suspicion that the Greeks were pro-German. In fact, Greece was a friendly neutral party to the Allied Forces during World War I and was eventually brought to the side of the Allied Forces in 1916. However, their government’s neutrality did prevent many Greeks from fighting in the early years of the war. This, combined with the appearance of many able-bodied Greek men working public-facing jobs, lead to the misguided belief that they were “lazy” or ungrateful for Canada’s war efforts.
After their businesses and homes were destroyed in the riots, the Greek community moved to Danforth Avenue and built a new Greektown. With this in mind, no better figure than Alexander the Great comes to mind to represent them. Alexander is a figure out of legend and myth. He conquered from India to Egypt and founded around twenty cities that bore his name along the way. He is known for spreading Greek culture, and for his military expertise. All in all, Alexander is a figure who reminds the Greek community of their own fight for inclusion, the dignity of their heritage, and their strength in survival.
Image from Flickr—no copyright infringement intended.