Essay: Moral Panic in Toronto’s Yonge Street - The Case of the Shoeshine Boy in 1977

By Stefanie Martin


In the 1970s, with “one of the largest concentrations of sex-related businesses in North America” especially along the Yonge Street “sin strip”, Toronto was no longer seen as living up to its image as “Toronto the Good” (Brock 31; Rankin). “Toronto the Good” was a nickname coined by William Holmes Howland, Toronto’s former mayor in 1886, based on the moral behaviour of its citizens. The 1880s were a time when Christian faith and morality were the dominant ideologies in Toronto and shaped the moral conduct of the public (Ruppert, 6). By the mid-1970s, Toronto had the potential to be a world-class city with its newly constructed CN Tower and the opening of The Eaton Centre, a major shopping centre (Brock 32; Rankin). However, Toronto’s booming sex industry created the perception amongst some that Toronto had become deviant, promiscuous, and dangerous.

This concern over the sex-related businesses and the increased “sexual permissiveness” on Yonge Street resulted in a clean-up campaign (Brock, 32). A committee made up of the Chief of Police and members of Toronto City Council was given the task of making recommendations for the city. In June 1977, the Report of the Special Committee on Places of Amusement was released and used to legitimize investigations on the Yonge Street strip. According to the report, “Yonge Street should be an acceptable and appealing street for people of all ages and interests to shop and visit … it should be an attractive place for a wide variety of businesses … it is absolutely necessary that appropriate levels of government take action to minimize the offensiveness to the general public of adult entertainment establishments in particular” (33). Some of the recommendations included increased licensing fees for body-rub parlours, restrictions on new adult entertainment businesses, and new “special class” licenses for current businesses (34). Police and politicians were determined to clean up the Yonge Street strip in order to uphold the image of “Toronto the Good” while heavily regulating the operation of sex-related businesses.

Despite these existing demands and recommendations to clean up Yonge Street, it was the murder of Emanuel Jaques, a twelve-year-old Portuguese boy, that sparked an intense moral panic in Canada. On August 1, 1977, Emanuel Jaques’ body was found at Charlie’s Angels, a body-rub parlour shop located at 245 Yonge Street, where he was sexually assaulted and drowned (McLeod, 158). Jaques had been working as a shoeshine boy at Yonge and Dundas with his brother Luciano and friend Shane McLean. Jaques was approached by Saul David Betesh and was offered thirty-five dollars to help move photographic equipment (Strauss, 5). Eager to earn some money, Jaques was lured into Charlie’s Angels and was sexually assaulted and murdered by Betesh and three other men who were all reportedly gay (Brock, 35). It was only after a few days that Betesh turned himself in after contacting George Hislop, a well-known gay activist, and tipped off the police leading to the arrest of Robert Wayne Kribs, Josef Woods, and Werner Grenuer, who were on their way to Vancouver (McLeod, 158-159). Along with Betesh, Greuner, Kribs, and Woods were charged with first-degree murder.

On August 8, 1977, 15,000 people, mostly from the Portuguese-Canadian community, held a demonstration at City Hall demanding “the return of capital punishment, more power for the police, and the eradication of homosexuals” (163). A press conference at the Community Homophile Association of Toronto (CHAT) centre was held the following day to discuss the implications of the Jaques murder case on the gay community. Tom Warner from the Coalition for Gay Rights in Ontario (CGRO) expressed concern that the media’s framing of the Jaques case allocated guilt and blame on the gay community by using terms such as “homosexual orgy.” Since it was known that Betesh contacted George Hislop at the night of the arrest, Hislop was sent death and bomb threats while some journalists accused gay activists of being responsible for Jaques’ murder (163-164).

The Jaques murder case trial began on February 8, 1978 overseen by Judge Anthony Maloney of the Ontario Supreme Court. The gay community followed the case closely, as many feared that the sexual orientation of the four men charged would be used against the entire gay community (239). During the trial, Crown Attorney Peter Rickaby presented two photos of Emanuel - one where he was clothed and another where he was naked with Betesh in a sexual pose (Strauss & Carriere, 5). On March 12, 1978, Saul David Betesh and Robert Wayne Kribs were found guilty of first-degree murder, Josef Woods of second-degree murder, and all three men were sentenced to life in prison. Werner Greuner was acquitted. During his sentencing statement, Judge Anthony Maloney asked if “homosexuals deserved protection from discrimination in the Ontario Human Rights Code” and if pedophilia was common among homosexuals, infuriating the gay community (McLeod, 252).

The murder of Emanuel Jaques led to public outrage not only in Toronto but all over Canada. The Jaques case gained media attention as it was used as a political tool to further problematize homosexuality during the growth of the lesbian and gay liberation movement in Canada (Brock, 38). It also perpetuated the unfounded connection between pedophilia and homosexuality in order to blame the gay community. The media coverage and court trials emphasized the sexuality of Jaques’ murderers, reinforcing the view of gay people as deviants (35). Meanwhile, issues such as child labour on the streets and public safety were rarely discussed. Instead, Jaques’ death was used to justify the need for city officials to regulate sex-related businesses and their cleanup campaign for Yonge Street.

Although Jaques’ death has been rarely remembered after the cleanup of the “sin strip,” it had a significant impact on the development of Yonge Street and Toronto in general. Today, Yonge Street is one of the city’s main attractions, with a variety of stores and restaurants as well as new buildings like the Ryerson Student Learning Centre. Much of this new growth on Yonge Street would not exist without the cleanup that began in 1977. More and more high end condominiums are being built in Toronto, especially in the downtown core, and the city has gradually become more and more unaffordable to the marginalized communities that helped shape it.

Works Cited

Brock, Deborah R. Making Work, Making Trouble: Prostitution as a Social Problem. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998. Print.

Brown, Edward. "Meanwhile, Up On Zanzibar's Roof." Torontoist. N.p., 24 Nov. 2010. Web. 30 June 2016.

McLeod, Donald W. Lesbian and Gay Liberation in Canada: A Selected Annotated Chronology, 1976-1981. Toronto: Homewood Books, 2014. Print.

Rankin, Jim. “Anthony De Sa Weaves Emanuel Jaques Murder Into His First Novel”. Toronto Star. 21 September 2013. E1. Print.

Rankin, Jim. “De Sa Stuck to the Facts”. Toronto Star. 21 September 2013. E13. Print.

Ruppert, Evelyn S. Moral Economy of Cities: Shaping Good Citizens. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006. Print.

Strauss, Marina. "Friend of Jaques Boy First Offer of a Job." The Globe and Mail (1936-Current): 5. Feb 10 1978. ProQuest. Web. 28 June 2016.

Strauss, Marina, and Vianney Carriere. "Boy Forced to Commit Sex Acts at Knifepoint, Jaques Trial Told." The Globe and Mail (1936-Current): 5. Feb 17 1978. ProQuest. Web. 28 June 2016.