Less than a century ago, some major Ontario media outlets and elected officials openly supported police violence — as long as it was directed against unpopular radicals. This attitude was on full display following the so-called Queen’s Park Riot in Toronto on August 13, 1929.
Around 7:30 p.m. that evening, a small group of demonstrators approached the bandstand in the park space behind the Ontario legislative building. There were roughly 60 protesters, and they did not have a rally permit.
John Morgan Gray, future president of Macmillan Company of Canada, observed their movements.
“They looked both ordinary and harmless, not remotely dangerous to the city or the country as a whole,” Gray later wrote.
A student at the time, Gray was one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bystanders (newspaper crowd counts varied enormously) watching the rally or out for a stroll. Vastly outnumbered by the crowd, the demonstrators were members or supporters of the Communist Party of Canada. The party had been launched a few years before, following a gathering of radicals in Guelph.
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While its membership was tiny, the CPC inspired fear and hatred on a vast scale. Plenty of Canadians viewed Communists as little more than political criminals who needed to be stopped — by force, if necessary.
Before the protesters had reached the bandstand, police made their move. Dozens of officers swarmed the rally, clubbing and bloodying unarmed demonstrators and bystanders alike.
“Motorcycles roared, officers on horses dashed hither and thither … The police did not stand on ceremony. They asked no questions but used their fists and batons freely,” stated a Canadian Press account in the Ottawa Journal.
Communist party leader Jack MacDonald “was singled out for special attention by the police and, according to witnesses, was beaten and kicked as he was run out of the park,” wrote CP.
While their wrath was directed against radicals, police assaulted anyone who didn’t move fast enough, regardless of their political views. In the course of roughly 30 minutes, police made a handful of arrests and “nipped a Communist meeting in the bud,” stated CP.
Far from being an unusual occurrence, this brutal crackdown was “only one of a series of similar incidents that had the approval of the mayor, the police commission, and three of the city’s four dailies — the Toronto Daily Star being the exception,” wrote Pierre Berton in The Great Depression.
A few years after helping defeat the Kaiser, Canada had become fixated on a new enemy. With its opposition to capitalism, private property, and religion, Communist ideology was anathema to much of the Canadian public. Communists now controlled Russia, and authorities were terrified a Bolshevik Revolution might break out in Canada.
Canadian officials responded to the “Red Menace” with severe repression. Throughout the 1920s, police raided CPC meetings, confiscated literature, deported “foreign” Communists, and arrested people when they could. Section 98 of the Criminal Code (introduced following the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919) made it a crime to belong to a group that advocated for the violent overthrow of the government. Technically, this meant any Communist who called for revolution was breaking the law.
In Toronto, left-wing radicals faced Chief Denny Draper, a former army general turned police commander. Military-minded Draper despised Communists and ensured that the party could never secure permits for outdoor rallies or find a rental space for indoor events. In early 1929, he issued a police order mandating the use of English at public meetings in Toronto.
“Hereafter, all proceedings and addresses at all public meetings are to be in the English language and no disorderly or seditious reflections on our form of government or the King, or any constituted authority will be allowed,” stated the astonishing edict.
This draconian measure underlined the common belief that “foreigners” (i.e., non-British immigrants) were responsible for spreading Communist doctrine. A vile variant of this stereotype claimed that Jewish activists promoted Communism to enslave the Christian world. Speaking anything but English or criticizing the Royal Family at a Toronto political meeting became an invitation for a police raid.
Against this backdrop, there was a wave of support for police following the Queen’s Park Riot, as the melee was dubbed by the press.
“The battle for the ‘freedom of the streets’ was fought and won last night by the Toronto Police Force. Afoot, on horse and on motorcycles, city policemen put to rout the forces of Communism which tried to form a first line of attack on British institutions in Queen’s Park last night … the [Communists were] dispersed by a few back-handed slaps from policemen,” gloated the Globe on August 14, 1929.
A week later, a Globe editorial entitled “Send the Bolsheviks Back” blamed Communists for “the recent turmoil in Toronto.” The editorial said Ottawa should deport “foreign” radicals — a sentiment echoed by Toronto mayor Sam McBride.
“Most of these agitators are foreigners. They must learn that when they come to this country, they must respect its laws. When they cause disturbance or bring on riots, it is up to the Chief of Police to suppress them in the interests of the majority of citizens,” stated the mayor, in the August 15 Globe.
While the riot took place outside the Ontario legislature, provincial leaders claimed they had no authority to intervene in the aftermath. The province lacked jurisdiction over Toronto police, explained Premier Howard Ferguson. The conflict between cops and Communists in Toronto was a municipal matter best handled by Toronto officials, insisted the premier.
If the province took a hands-off approach, the Toronto media continued to obsess over the
riot in the days following the event. The Globe either downplayed the violence (one headline read “Tales of Brutality by Toronto Police Branded as False”) or endorsed tough tactics (“Police Suppression of Red Agitators Upheld by Mayor”).
Similar sentiments were expressed by other major newspapers.
“Directed from Moscow, a communist group in Toronto have been defying the police of the city by holding street meetings … for the spreading of the most pernicious, subversive doctrines. The police, acting under instructions from the proper authorities and in response to public sentiment have forbidden the meetings. They have been forced to use stern measures to prevent riots,” declared a Financial Post editorial on August 22, 1929.
The Post fumed against critics who dared to raise “petty questions of just exactly how the police should do their job.”
A Globe editorial titled “The ‘Red’ Herring” offered much the same: “If the people of the city can be made to believe that the police are wrong and they must submit to the Reds, it will be Communist victory worth cabling around the world.”
A letter published August 21 in the Globe took things a step further, blithely noting that “a few broken heads and a few drops of blood at this time will prevent a broken nation and rivers of blood in the future.”
Not everyone agreed. At a Toronto meeting held the day after the riot, labour leaders slammed the police.
“I think myself that the police are very foolish in their methods of dealing with the Communists. They are really aiding and abetting the Communists, in a way making martyrs of them,” said Sam J. McMaster, president of the Toronto District Labour Council, according to the Ottawa Journal.
“The Toronto police are behaving worse than the Cossacks of the Czarist regime … In Toronto, [radicals] are chased from Queen’s Park, beaten and jailed before they have said a word,” added Gregory Aristoff, a London “Communist chief” in the October 19, 1929, Windsor Star.
A few church groups and civic leaders and such politicians as Agnes Macphail (Canada’s first female member of Parliament) voiced concerns about police overkill. Some rally bystanders complained of mistreatment. These bystanders included T.J. Meek, a “professor of Oriental languages at the University of Toronto,” according to the Windsor Star, which ran an interview with him.
“I am not a Red and I am absolutely opposed to Communism, but I am equally opposed to the attitude and methods adopted by the city council and police towards the Communists in Toronto,” said Meek, who claimed police had twisted his arm even though he had just been observing the rally.
As Berton noted, the Toronto Daily Star refused to join the media chorus praising the police. The Star denounced police violence at the rally and highlighted the role authorities played in directing the crackdown (“Uniformed Constable and Plainclothesman Attacked Citizen Before Chief’s Eyes” stated a Star sub-head). Winston Churchill — who was visiting Canada around the time of the riot — said Communists in Great Britain had the right to demonstrate as long as they were peaceful. Churchill was years away from becoming the British prime minister, but his words still carried weight, and the Star ran them on its front page.
The Queen’s Park Riot was soon overshadowed by larger events. Just weeks after the melee, the New York Stock Exchange crashed, triggering the Great Depression. As the Canadian economy soured, calls to suppress radicalism grew. Speaking at a Conservative party convention in fall 1932, Prime Minister R.B. Bennett said socialism and Communism should be “crushed with the iron heel of ruthlessness.”
Bennett would later regret this remark as overly harsh, but it’s not clear whether the victims of police violence at the Queen’s Park Riot appreciated his about-face.
Sources: The Great Depression by Pierre Berton; the August 22, 1929, edition of the Financial Post; the August 14, 1929, August 15, 1929, August 16, 1929, August 21, 1929, and January 24, 1929, editions of the Globe; the November 16, 1963, edition of Maclean’s magazine; the August 14, 1929, edition of the Ottawa Journal; the August 14, 1929, August 16, 1929, and August 17, 1929, editions of the Toronto Daily Star; the August 13, 1929, August 30, 1929, January 23, 1929, October 19, 1929, October 23, 1929, and November 11, 1932 editions of the Windsor Star.