William Stewart was mayor of Toronto during one of the worst instances of ethnic violence in Canadian history: the riot at Christie Pits. Now, nearly a century later, mayor Stewart’s grandson, Ted Staunton, is depicting the realities of the era through the perspectives of the children who lived through it, in his new graphic novel The Good Fight.
On Aug. 16, 1933, on a baseball diamond in what was then called Willowvale Park, the predominantly Jewish Harbord Playground softball team were squaring off against a gentile squad from nearby St. Peter’s Church. During the game, members of an outfit known as the “Pit Gang” unfurled a banner emblazoned with a large black swastika, sparking a six-hour brawl between white Christians and groups of young Jewish and Italian men.
“I never heard about this from my grandpa,” says Staunton. The riot took place at the height of the Depression, when many Torontonians, especially Jews and Italians, were toiling under the weight of poverty. At the same time, the newspapers were beginning to run stories about Hitler’s ascension to power in Germany. “In the rush of events, I don’t think the significance of [the riot] could have been recognized at the time.”
Staunton says he had been mulling over the idea of writing a novel about the subject for well over a decade, but it wasn’t until his introduction to illustrator Josh Rosen, that the project really began to take shape.
“I was very keen to work with Ted,” says Rosen. “We’d been batting the idea back and forth and then the 2016 [American presidential] elections happened, and suddenly, it felt very of the times. It felt like the story had this urgency to it that it might not have had otherwise.”
The Good Fight follows a young Jewish kid named Sid Klein as he traverses the city with his best friends, Plug and Rosie Venditelli, in search of a way to earn a buck. They try busking on the beach boardwalk, selling newspapers, and even picking pockets—a pursuit that, through a cascading series of events, leaves them caught in the middle of the fray at the start of the riot.
Klein and the Venditellis are figments of Staunton’s imagination; vehicles through which the heavy themes of anti-immigrant prejudice, and economic disenfranchisement are made accessible to a young adult audience. “Whether you’re 12 years old in 1933 or in 2021, there are certain emotional things about adolescence, about figuring out the world, that are going to resonate with kids,” says Staunton.
As the three friends make their way through the Toronto of old, the readers are introduced to a diverse tight-knit community filled with colourful characters. Among them are Tommy Lepofsky, a young Jewish pickpocket masquerading as an Irishman, a neighbourhood gangster known by the monicker, “Harry Suitcase” (a reference to his preferred method of disposing of his victims) and Jake Klein, Sid’s father, who as a union advocate has drawn the ire of an anti-communist Toronto detective.
Rosen says that at first, he was concerned that his ‘cartoony’ style would “run counter to the subject matter,” but that ultimately “having the lightness for contrast helps bring home the seriousness.” The juxtaposition is jarring in one frame in particular, where a few days ahead of the riot, a group of smiling sunbathers are shown marching down the Balmy Beach Boardwalk with swastika buttons pinned to their lapels and bathing suits. “I really tried to emphasize this sort of ‘banality of evil’ idea, the idea that these people are not even fully aware of how toxic what they’re propagating is,” says Rosen.
“It was a real reality check for me to understand the pervasive sense of anti-Semitism that existed as an accepted subtext to the culture of the city, and how that persisted into my childhood,” says Staunton. “Now, Toronto is a very different place, one hopes, and we think of ourselves as diverse, multicultural and accepting, but that’s so comparatively recent.”
Beyond just highlighting prejudicial policies and attitudes, Rosen says The Good Fight broaches important questions of what we as a society can and should do in response. “How do you respond to hatred? How do you respond to injustice? What are things we can do? I don’t think the book gives a simple answer on that, I think it gives a couple different readings, but that sort of question is an important one to reflect on.”