On 7 and 8 May 1945, while cities across the West celebrated the victory against the Germans, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the celebrations quickly turned into the worst riot the city had ever seen.
Before World War II, Halifax was a relatively small city, with a population of around 70,000. But during the war, the population almost doubled—to 130,000—as the city became Canada’s most important wartime port. Halifax’s infrastructure and resources couldn’t handle the rapid population growth, leading to severe shortages in housing and goods—which in turn led to bad feelings and animosity between the Halifax natives and the servicemen, who now made up half the population.
When the victory in Europe was announced on 7 May, Halifax’s restaurants and liquor stores closed in an effort to prevent drunken revelry and to give the employees the day off. But this left the 9,000 sailors who were given shore leave that day nothing to do when the Navy’s canteens closed at 9 p.m, so they joined the civilians still thronging the streets in celebration. Soon looting began to take place, especially in liquor stores, and one group of sailors commandeered a tram, broke its windows, then lit the seats on fire.
The Navy’s shore patrol tried to round up the sailors, with limited success. The next day, the sailors were still allowed “open gangplank,” since the admiral in charge didn’t believe that the sailors were responsible for the majority of the damage from the night before. As had happened the previous night, the crowd of 12,000 servicemen and civilians smashed store windows and stole merchandise. The Navy tried to hold a parade to distract the crowds from their vandalizing, but the rioters openly jeered the attempt. Finally, the admiral and the shore patrol came around in trucks, ordering the sailors to return to their barracks, and that, combined with it beginning to rain, helped disperse the crowds.
By the end of the riot, more than 500 businesses were hit by rioters, and around 300 of those were looted. Alcohol was the main target of the looters, and about 91,000 bottle of beer, 56,000 bottles of liquor, and 15,000 bottles of wine were stolen. Over 350 people were arrested, with about 150 of the arrests being for drunken offences. Three men died, two from alcohol poisoning and one from a possible murder. The total bill for the riot was around 5 million dollars.
View a slideshow of images of the Halifax riots from the CBC archives.