Chris Benjamin Reviews Allan Bartley’s The Ku Klux Klan in Canada
Carleton University political scientist and historian Allan Bartley’s The Ku Klux Klan in Canada: A Century of Promoting Racism and Hate in the Peaceable Kingdom is mostly straight reportage, a presentation of years of formidable research into a little-covered topic. It must have been hard at times for Bartley not to editorialize. The hate movement in Canada: what a bunch of klowns.
From the beginning, and Bartley’s focus begins in the 1920s, leaders of KKK groups in Canada took after their American originators by being a raving bunch of con artists, more interested in money than any ideology. Hate just happened to be abundantly profitable in those days.
The scam was pretty basic. Tell people you represent this VERY EXCLUSIVE new group for white Protestants, collect membership fees and skip town. “As happened in almost every region where the Klan operated during the 1920s, the opportunity to skim cash, abscond with cash or simply embezzle proved irresistible to the average kleagle [Klan recruiter],” Bartley writes. “The membership regularly began asking awkward questions that led to accusations, recriminations and public squabbles.”
The bigger scandal, at least from modern eyes, is that you could make money “marketing hatred and racial violence.” The amount of money these recruiting drives raised across Canada shows how popular the Klan’s ideas were. So much so, that some branched out further, creating new Canadian offshoots of the Klan, such as the Ku Klux Klan of the British Empire, a title that would not have resonated with southerners who grew the Klan out fear of freed slaves after the Civil War.
Despite repeated corruption–with many new members being cheated of their funds–and fighting among different versions of the Klan, and different leaders vying for power at the top, the hate movement grew in Canada, finding a strong foundation in a colonial nation with strong anti-Indigenous, anti-Black and anti-Chinese sentiments and laws.
The hate was often sewn by political leaders, like British Columbia MP William Galliher, who in 1908 told the House of Commons that BC should be preserved as “a white man’s country.” Unsurprisingly, Canada passed its Chinese Exclusion Act 15 years later, banning Chinese people from entering Canada. Bartley notes this as a time that “saw regular violent white mobs targeting Chinese.”
Through the 1920s and 1930s, The Klan counted lawyers, doctors, judges, accountants, police, politicians, businessmen and publishers among its ranks. Its leadership–decentralized and convoluted as it was–exploited those sentiments and turned them toward any group they could get people worried about, anyone who could be perceived as different, with divisions as shallow as race itself. Catholics were said to be elite power brokers corrupting the nation, which is reminiscent of an ancient and equally baseless attack on Jews.
But some folks were particular about who they hated. One MLA “found fault with the Klan for putting ‘Catholics and Negroes on the same plane.’ He did, though, think the Klan had value if it worked on ‘running the Japanese and Chinamen and Hindus out of British Columbia.’”
There were a few high-ranking KKK members elected to office in Canada, like Jim Lord, who became both a New Brunswick MLA and the highest ranking member of the Canadian KKK. Bartley notes that Lord used his credibility as an MLA to recruit new members to the hate movement.
Bartley also presents examples of law enforcement officials abusing their authority on behalf of the KKK, either as participants in hate crimes, representatives of hate criminals in court, or sitting on the bench or in the jury box. One such example was in the kidnapping of Chinese houseboy Wong Foon Sing, who was falsely accused of murder. His kidnappers were cops, ex-cops and private detectives.
“It came to light that Attorney General Alexander Manson himself had known about the kidnapping from the beginning but went along with it,” Bartley writes. The charges were stayed. One participant went on to become a Conservative MLA.
Bartley presents different estimates of Klan membership in different parts of the country, some from the Klan itself that he notes are likely inflated. Still, some single events drew crowds in the tens of thousands to observe the signing in of hundreds of new members, and the usual cross burning, which guaranteed press coverage. “Local newspapers viewed the Klan phenomenon with bemusement mixed with disdain and occasional hostility.”
Nevertheless, the Klan was granted enough legitimacy that it swayed elections, including the 1929 Saskatchewan provincial election in favour of the Conservatives, which went on to ban religious symbols in schools and drastically cut French-language instruction, refusing to accredit Quebecois instructors. “The Klan shifted the mindset of the voters. It stirred up the issue of British national identity, especially with respect to the dangers of foreign immigration and sectarian influence on the public schools.”
INFLUENCE AND REACH
The Ku Klux Klan never did sweep our nation, but their membership and enthusiastic reception were substantial in the 1920s, with a national office that claimed 7,000 members in Toronto alone, although Bartley feels this number is hyperbole. He acknowledges though that “Canada was the Klan’s most successful attempt at creating a national organization outside of the United States.”
Its presence was strong in New Brunswick, where it had 17 “klaverns” [groups of members] by 1926, including one in Jim Lord’s hometown of St. Stephen. “Cross burnings were a regular feature of provincial life during 1925 and 1926, far out in the countryside and around the port city of Saint John.”
A recruiter claimed to have signed up 2,200 members in Moose Jaw, out of a population of just 20,000, and 46,500 across Saskatchewan. Bartley says a more realistic figure was 20-25,000, still enough to fill out a modern Canadian football stadium.
There were fewer in Alberta. “The number of Klan members probably peaked [in Alberta] at around eight thousand in 1931.”
SECOND WORLD WAR QUIETS THE KLOWNS
The relevancy of the KKK declined with the rise of Adolf Hitler’s German Nazi Party. Canada was officially in an anti-fascist mode, but Bartley wisely points out that the country was far from being a bastion of equality, and the KKK was still able to take advantage of “an already stratified society, where minorities were marginalized and excluded from the full benefits of citizenship.”
Yet the Klan’s welcome in Canada started to wear out with its novelty. “Imperial Wizard Jim Lord presided over an increasingly fragile national organization.” This was in the early 30s. Lord died in Deer Island, New Brunswick in 1932.
Later in the decade, an underground national network of Nazi sympathizers was discovered by an investigation by the Globe and Mail. Already, the remnants of the KKK were starting to overlap and merge with other hate groups: fascists and Nazis.
RETURN OF THE KLOWNS
Bartley finds little to report on the KKK from the end of the Second World War until about 1980. Not that Canada had ever fully embraced the organization, but its members’ racism and hate had been allowed to flourish in pockets. Perhaps Hitler was enough of an eye opener, showing the world a brand of hate so frightening it motivated the rise of the human rights movement. But hate didn’t disappear in Canada.
We were still engaged in a genocide of Indigenous Peoples. Segregation was common. Bartley notes that in 1946, Viola Desmond was arrested essentially for violating segregation rules at a theatre that had once screened a Klan propaganda film, The Birth of a Nation, every year.
Perhaps in the post Second World War decades, there was enough racism applied from authorities that an organization like the KKK was rendered moot. But the klown show attempted a comeback in the 80s, led by former Toronto Sun “Sunshine Boy” James Alexander McQuirter. It ran into the same old problems of corrupt and inept leadership.
Several members were jailed, somewhat hilariously for a failed coup attempt in Dominica called “Operation Red Dog.” Apparently they thought Dominica was too socialist, despite it being a “strong ally” of the United States with no hint of Communist influence.
Still, there was a bit of a revival, and even US Grand Wizard David Duke came to visit in 1980. He bragged of hundreds of Canadian Klan members on the west coast. McQuirter bragged too, of expanding to the East Coast. It never happened.
There were acts of violence, beatings of Nigerians and South Asians in British Columbia, a home firebombed, one young man beaten with a bat and iron bar, a Jewish Community Centre set ablaze. There was a broken up conspiracy to bomb a Jewish Centre in Calgary.
The most heartening part of Bartley’s book is his description of resistance groups of this era, popping up in response to every planned Klan rally, in Toronto, Halifax, Montreal and Vancouver. In Halifax: “Four local women led by community worker Jackie Barkley … formed an a capella singing group and performed at an anti-Klan rally in 1981. The quartet called itself Four the Moment. … They appeared at rallies, women’s events and Black culture celebrations across the province and then across the country. Their repertoire was resolutely political, with an antiracist message that reflected the opposition the Klan sparked.”
But the violence escalated into the 90s. One Klan member murdered Leo Lachance, a Cree fur trapper from Whitefish Reserve northeast of Prince Albert. The killer was sentence to four years in prison for the life he ended. Again, Bartley wisely and quietly notes that such violence continued only because Canada remained “an environment ripe for exploitation by racists,” one where cops regularly took Indigenous people far out into the prairie night, mid-winter, and made them walk home, sometimes freezing to death.
21st CENTURY ONLINE HATE REVIVAL
The internet has allowed a hate revival of sorts, and made way for a new brand of hate mongering. Online hate too has an unfortunate Canadian connection, in the person of William James Harcus, Manitoba “grand wizard” (since murdered in 2016). His hate hotline had been shut down by the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
Harcus connected with Louis Beam, Texas “grand dragon,” and they made a computer bulletin board to bring white supremacists together, which led to the Aryan Nations Liberty Net, “probably the world’s first white supremacist online bulletin board.” Beam was thrilled they’d finally be able to bring hate to children. That site led in turn to “the Internet’s pre-eminent racist, white supremacist, neo-Nazi website, hosting the full spectrum of hate-based groups,” called stormfront.
Back in Canada, “the first noteworthy cyber presence of Canadian racists involved an online organization called the Canadian Patriots Network (CPN) … evolved into a platform called the Freedom Site,” which is filled with “vitriolic and threatening messages against minorities of all kinds.”
Bartley notes that since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, traffic to these sites has spiked as groups grew more comfortable using them to organize in-real-life hate rallies.
The Ku Klux Klan in Canada is a fascinating and detailed Canadian history of a hate organization strongly associated with the United States of America, its long history of slavery and its ongoing tense race relations despite its melting-pot creed.
But, contrary to popular belief, we had slavery too. And while we’ve officially tended more to a cultural-multitude approach to diversity, there are still many, many volumes worth of intolerance in our history. That is why the Ku Klux Klan was able to find firm footing here.
Books like Bartley’s are important tools for helping us understand the history of racism and hate in Canada, and how it connects to contemporary incidents of violence and intolerance against some Canadians, merely for their skin colour or cultural background.