Many Canadians were shocked by the images of riot police chasing and beating citizens in the streets of Toronto this past weekend during the G20 summit. The police violence and the limited acts of vandalism were inexcusable, but not at all unprecedented in Toronto’s history. In all of the reporting over the weekend, I was most surprised by the common refrain from news commentators about how extraordinary it was to see this kind of protest and violence in a city like Toronto, Toronto the Good.
Like other historians, I cringed when I read statements in Sunday’s New York Times that claimed that Toronto is “a city with little history of violent protests.” As I always tell my students, one should be very careful about making broad historical generalizations, especially when they are so obviously untrue. Any historian of Canada knows, of course, that the very notion that Toronto is “a city with little history of violent protests” is laughable. Newspapers across North America have spent more than a century reporting on eruptions of violence and protest in Toronto’s past.
Perhaps the most well-known episode of protest and resistance in Toronto’s history occurred in December 1837 when William Lyon Mackenzie led a group of political reformers into open rebellion against the colonial government of Upper Canada. On December 12th, an article in the Montreal Transcript reported news that “an armed force is collected on Yonge Street, and is threatening an attack upon the city.” Mackenzie clumsily led his men into direct armed conflict with the better-armed and trained British colonial troops under the command of the bombastic Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Francis Bond Head. The conflict left men wounded and killed in the streets of Toronto long before this past weekend’s G20 summit.
Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, the city was regularly plagued by episodes of religious conflict between Irish Catholics and Protestants. For instance, on October 4th, 1875 the front cover of the New York Times reported that there were “Religious Riots in Toronto.” A procession of Irish Catholics was assaulted by members of Toronto’s Loyal Orange Order and other Irish Protestants while marching toward St. Michael’s Cathedral. Police and the militia tried to bring a halt to the stone-throwing by chasing the violent protesters through the streets and opening fire. According to the Times correspondent, “one or two of the police and a number of others were seriously wounded, but no one killed as far as known.”
Toronto was also no stranger to violent labour conflict. Toronto’s workers regularly met the brutality of late nineteenth-century industrial capitalism in Canada head-on through street protests and strikes. One of the most explosive episodes of labour conflict occurred in March 1886 when the Toronto Street Railway workers were locked-out. The street railway corporation hired replacement workers under police escort to run the cars but were met by the hostility of crowds of striking union workers. Laying carts and other obstructions across the tracks, the union workers attempted to bring the streetcars to a halt. One group unsuccessfully attempted to push a streetcar into Lake Ontario. According to a March 13th issue of the Globe, “the police used their batons freely and not a few of the aggressive members of the mob went home with sore heads.” The Chief of Police as well as Mayor Howland stood firmly behind the Toronto Street Railway Corporation in its labour dispute, offering full police protection and security for the replacement workers.
Those citizens of Toronto who faced police batons, bullets, and gas this past weekend were not historical anomalies. They walk in the footsteps of their predecessors down streets all too familiar with protest, violence, and bloodshed.