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Turning Points: The Detroit Riots of 1967, a Canadian Perspective

by Herb Colling

The city of Windsor, Ontario, is often a forgotten footnote in Canadian geography and history, dwarfed by its sister city across the border, Detroit. Herb Colling has rectified that neglected status with a number of anecdotal histories of Windsor, focusing on the landmark 1945 Ford strike as well as the role of the automotive industry in the city.

In Turning Points, Colling rebuts the curious notion that Canadian history, even when told in relation to major U.S. events, is not compelling or important. The most destructive riot in U.S. history at the time, the rebellion on the streets of Detroit in 1967, was eventually memorialized in the Gordon Lightfoot tune “Black Day in July.” The riot dominated the media for a week during the long, hot summer of 1967, focusing attention on core issues of racism and poverty not only in the U.S., but in Ontario cities like Windsor that had sizable black populations.

While providing a good overview of events in Detroit, Colling also paints the bizarre scene of Windsor residents watching a neighbouring city go up in flames while drinking beer and sitting in lawn chairs at a Canadian waterfront park. There is plenty of interesting first-hand anecdotal history here, from the Windsor firefighters who helped in downtown Detroit to the Canadians who spearheaded efforts to raise relief for the American city’s beleaguered residents. Turning Points also focuses on the riot’s long-term historical impact on both sides of the border.

Colling’s analysis of potential solutions to racism is sometimes only ankle deep, concluding with platitudes about people needing to get along that, though welcome, do not do the complicated subject justice. But what could have been a nostalgia trip through a bleak historical event is instead buffeted by substantial historical background on Canadian racism against those of African ancestry who found freedom, but not necessarily equality, at the end of the Underground Railroad.