Jamie Michaels was just 13 when he ended up in a brawl at a ballpark that was sparked by anti-Semitic comments.
It happened while he and some friends were watching the Winnipeg Goldeneyes playing minor league baseball and he heard the words “dirty Jews” shouted across the bleachers, which led to a fistfight.
Now, at age 30, Michaels is the creator of Christie Pits, a graphic novel about an event known to many readers of The CJN. But the fact that he only learned about it four years ago, during a conversation in a bar, spurred him to imagine relaying what happened to every generation.
“I couldn’t believe it was a real story,” he says. “So I did what any good millennial would do: I looked it up on Wikipedia. And I was extremely dissatisfied with the lack of detail I could find about Canada’s largest race riot.”
From there, Michaels fixated upon the events of Aug. 16, 1933, when a Toronto playground became the stage for a showdown over the swastika. The five-hour melee involved about 10,000 participants, after the Nazi symbol was deliberately unfurled on the field.
“I’ve spent the past few years of my life living in the 1930s,” says Michaels, “exploring what it was like to be young and Jewish at that time.”
Back then, he was working on his first self-published graphic novel, Canoe Boys, and wanted to tell the Christie Pits riot story in a similar fashion. While his own drawing abilities are limited to stick figures, Michaels solicited submissions from artists around the world, only to find the ideal illustrator in his own neighbourhood: Doug Fedrau.
Not only did this mean having a collaborator nearby in Winnipeg, but the fact that Fedrau isn’t Jewish validated the view that the story deserves to be read by everyone.
Funding for the project came from 189 people who pledged a total of $10,748 through Kickstarter. The Jewish Foundation of Manitoba gave Michaels’ company, Dirty Water Comics, a grant matching that amount, which justified some trips to Toronto to delve further into the history.
Between ploughing through riot-related documents and newspapers that provided a bigger picture of the events, Michaels visited Christie Pits, where a 2008 plaque commemorates how the initial provocation from the local “Pit Gang” during a softball championship game on Aug. 14, 1933, led to the epic fight two nights later, with the Jews reinforced by young Italians.
Many were injured, even though no one was killed.
Nowadays, aside from continuing to function as an urban park, Christie Pits is best known as the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs baseball club and the fact that it’s named after Mr. Christie, the man behind the cookies.
Weighty material aside, Michaels and Fedrau also had plenty of fun. The comic illustration technique of “braiding” finds a motif presented in one part of the graphic novel slyly repeated in another, to draw analogies. Look even closer and one will see faces from the 2017 Unite the Right protest in Charlottesville, Va., transposed onto Toronto Nazi sympathizers circa 1933.
Accessing a new world of material acquainted Michaels with works such as Irving Abella and Harold Troper’s book on Canada’s wartime immigration policy, None is Too Many, which was published in 1983. Thirty-five years later, he asked Abella to write an introduction to Christie Pits.
Given how his own father was a British immigrant to Canada, the discrimination faced by Jews from some sectors of society was something Michaels already knew about. Statistics showing a recent rise in hate crimes across the country were also on his mind. He therefore hopes that readers will see Christie Pits as an inspirational story about how a persecuted tribe got together to fight back.
It’s also an edifying work of historical fiction: rooted in reality, albeit with a disclaimer that the portrayed names, characters and incidents were invented by Michaels.
“Unless it’s really obvious, in which case you’ve caught us,” notes the opening page caveat. “Either way, we know a really good Jewish lawyer, so don’t even think about it.”
Christie Pits launches with events on March 23 at 7 p.m. at McNally-Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg (1120 Grant Ave.) and March 31 at 2 p.m. at Beth Tzedec in Toronto (1700 Bathurst St.).