COLUMN: It’s déjà vu all over again

The more things change, the more they stay the same

By BRIAN KIERAN

 

As we get longer in the tooth how often do we find ourselves grousing: What’s the world coming to?

In my case, too often. My dotage-inspired generational disconnect usually kicks in when the evening news subjects me to yet another urban riot. It can be hockey hoodlums in Vancouver, anarchists crushing corporate greed in precious Toronto, rampaging residents on the streets of race-torn Baltimore.

Regardless of the cause of the made-for-TV riot de jour, I find myself yearning for a gentler time, like the days of our forefathers when a good job and a picket fence inspired social calm and peaceful co-existence.

Ya, right. What am I smoking?

I was unceremoniously awakened from this misplaced reverie when I was reminded that May 2015 is the 100th anniversary of one of this nation’s most bizarre and confounding race-inspired riots … and it happened right here on the tranquil streets of Victoria.

I was surfing the University of Victoria’s “acitygoestowar.ca” website and read Ashley Forseille’s piece on the “Anti-German Riot of 1915” that followed the Nazi U-boat sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland.

Ashley has an M.A. in Canadian history from UVic and is pursuing a career as an archival technician and researcher. A City Goes to War is a UVic project made possible by a Veteran’s Affairs Canada grant.

Before the First World War, Victorians largely accepted local Germans. Many were prominent business owners and political figures participating in German clubs that perpetuated the language and cultural.

When conflict in Europe started and Germany became an enemy of Britain, Victoria residents started viewing their Germans neighbours with hostility. Tensions came to a head on May 8, 1915 after the sinking of the Lusitania.

Ashley writes: “What has become known as the Anti-German Riot of 1915 began when a group of soldiers stationed at the Willow’s training camp started breaking windows and mirrors at the German-owned Kaiserhof Hotel.

“The Kaiserhof was targeted because the soldiers thought that Victorian Germans had congregated at the hotel bar to celebrate the sinking. The small group of soldiers grew into a large mob that looted a number of German-owned businesses in downtown Victoria until they were dispersed by the police, fire department and military.

“Further violence continued the following evening when looters once again targeted German businesses culminating in the reading of the Riot Act.”

In the months following the riot, the city continued to alienate Germans, causing some to leave for more neutral cities like Seattle. Others were interned in the Interior.

B.C.’s resolve to target race during wartime strive reached its zenith during the Second World War with the Internment of Japanese Canadians following Japan’s invasion of Hong Kong and the attack on Pearl Harbor. The internment, which included confiscation of property, was deemed necessary by Ottawa but was really racism cloaked in the flag. It happened despite evidence supplied by the RCMP and the Department of National Defence that it was unwarranted.

So, when I see the next riot on the evening news I will give my head a shake and remind myself it is déjà vu all over again.

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Brian Kieran is a journalist and communications specialist.