White Riot, A Riot of My Own

(Downtown Halifax, VE Day, May 8, 1945)

60 years ago today, my hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia, was the scene of an orgy of intoxication, looting and vandalism as the end of the war in Europe unleashed a torrent of pent-up frustration and anxiety on the streets of this thriving seaport.

(Downtown Halifax, Hollis St. between Blowers and Bishop Streets, May 8, 1945)

When authorities shut down theatres, bars, and liquor stores in hopes of quelling the desire to celebrate, they only made things worse, prompting widescale smash and grabs at said establishments and even a mass storming of the downtown Keith's Brewery which military policemen were powerless to prevent. Much of the mayhem took place within a block of my workplace at The Chronicle Herald.

"In the two days' riot 6,987 cases of beer, 1,225 cases of wine, two cases of alcohol and 55,392 quarts of spirits were looted from Halifax liquor stores and 30,516 quarts of beer from Keith's Brewery. Commission stores subsequently recovered 1,140 quarts of spirits, 10 cases of wine and 81 cases of beer.
In Dartmouth, the Liquor Commission lost 5,256 quarts of beer, 1,692 quarts of wine and 9,816 quarts of liquor, of which 550 bottle were recovered.
Halifax property losses involved 564 firms, with 2,642 pieces of plate and other glass broken and 207 of the firms suffered from looting in some degree . Unofficial figures earlier placed loss and damage at $5,000,000." - The Globe & Mail

Amazingly, someone had the temerity to grab a home movie camera and record the events of the day, capturing some remarkable footage, in colour no less, which has been posted on the CBC website in the form of a news report from the riot's 40th anniversary in 1985. There's a brief glimpse of the Herald Building as part of the crowd trudges up Sackville Street (likely to make out on Citadel Hill or in the Public Gardens), but most of the footage is shot up the street from the brewery, and from an upper window of what's now known as the Khyber Building, a church-run boys school that is now an indie arts centre that also features local music and drama (and former home to this blogger's old home-away-from-home, Wormwood's Dog and Monkey Cinema).

There were three deaths in the whirl of those three days, two Navy sailors who drank themselves into the hereafter, and one suspcious killing. The Admiral in charge of the port was forced to resign in humiliation, and later became a lawyer in England. Halifax's reputation as a sterling place to drink your face off, however, has not diminished over the years.


Brent McKee said...

Two things. While the authorities blamed the Navy, the Navy was scarcely alone in their involvement - the Admiral who was fired was essentially a scapegoat. The only two places for a sailor to get a beer in Halifax (one was was the wet canteen on base) both ran out. Second, the Navy as a whole was scarcely broken hearted when they heard about what happened. The authorities in Halifax were very restrictive in what they'd allow the sailors to do - at that time it was not a good leave port. When the news reached the ships at sea that "Slackers got it" there wasn't much sorrow.

swac said...

I've read a fair bit about the tense relations between visiting/stationed sailors and the residents of the town, it wasn't pretty. Brent, have you read Stephen Kimber's chronicle of the war years in Halifax, Slackers and Blind Pigs? It's quite detailed about the whole affair.