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How the KKK capitalized on Canada’s racism

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Aside from accounts of the many acts of horrific, hate-driven violence committed by the Ku Klux Klan in Canada, one of the most disturbing quotes from Allan Bartley’s new book, The Ku Klux Klan in Canada, describes the Canadian establishment’s complacent attitude towards the hate group during its resurgence in the United States in the 1910s and 1920s.

Piggybacking the unprecedented box office success in the US and Canada of the American white supremacist propaganda film, The Birth of a Nation (1915), Atlanta businessman William Simmons had at that time become inspired to establish a new KKK for the twentieth century.

In the years that followed, Bartley explains, Black churches burned, while American Klansmen beat, shot, mutilated, lynched, hanged, and castrated their perceived enemies, be they Black people, white progressives, union members, or anyone else who got in their way. KKK membership exploded. Klansmen won seats in the Senate and state legislatures.

The response of the Canadian establishment to this violent campaign south of the border?

Bartley writes:

Canadian authorities took the position that common sense and British justice would protect Canadians from the chaos and vitriol of America. Canada comfortably watched the spectacle from afar as Canadians continued to absorb the messages of The Birth of a Nation. And then the Klan came north.


What follows in Bartley’s book is a thoroughly detailed and timely account of how the Klan capitalized on Canada’s deeply entrenched racism to establish a decades-long legacy of terrorizing anyone the group deemed a threat to their white supremacist goals.

Organized into two parts, the book first looks at the KKK’s beginnings in Canada during the 1920s until the start of the Second World War, before examining the group’s revival in the 1970s—under the leadership of Wolfgang Droege and James Alexander McQuirter—through to the far-right online organizing of today.

Who did Canadian Klansmen regard as enemies? An important feature revealed in Bartley’s work is how that category frequently changed and adapted depending on which pocket of white reactionaries the Klan sought to recruit at any given time or place.

Working closely with the Protestant Orange Lodge, the Klan focused much of its early vitriol in Canada against Roman Catholics. Meanwhile, Bartley notes, anti-Black racism, already endemic to Canadian society, gave American Klansmen an early abundance of potential Canadian recruits. Jewish people, too, were already subject to widespread exclusion and hate long before Klan organizers (or “kleagles”) showed up in Canadian cities.

The unionized working class were also a target, as Klan organizers were, in Bartley’s words “friends to capitalists and the status quo.” During a 1932 miners’ strike at Crowsnest Pass, Alberta, union organizers received unsigned death threats from the local KKK.

Interestingly, Bartley finds, anti-Indigenous racism was not a priority for Canadian Klansmen in the early days. He writes: “First Nations peoples, confined to reserves with no political rights, rarely figured among the groups targeted by the Klan.”

Bartley might have considered in greater detail how the Canadian state’s genocidal racism against Indigenous people may have made pursuing anti-Indigenous hate a redundant exercise for the KKK, although the book does examine how later iterations of the group fuelled and capitalized on white-settler racism.

In one particularly horrific episode of anti-Indigenous mob violence, Bartley reminds readers of the role Quebec Klansmen played in the Oka Crisis of 1990. Klan members, reinforced by white locals, threw rocks and stones at a Mohawk motorcade as it passed over a St. Lawrence River bridge, while police officers stood by and watched.

Such anti-Indigenous violence, and the inaction of police, disturbingly recalls incidents recently experienced by Mi’kmaw lobster fishers in Nova Scotia.

Indeed, other examples throughout the book highlight manifestations of racism that will be all too familiar to today’s readers. Although an extensive analysis of the many parallels between the Klan’s past and Canada’s racist present is beyond the scope of Bartley’s book, the incidents he documents demonstrate how many of the forms of racism that gave Canadian Klansmen a foothold in the early twentieth century are alive and well today.

For example, in 1924, off-duty Point Grey police officers—acting on a fervent tide of anti-Asian racism in Vancouver, and mimicking Klan tactics—kidnapped and brutalized Chinese house servant Wong Foon Sing for six weeks, based on allegations, amplified by the local press, that he had murdered his white girlfriend, Janet Smith.

A gathering of the Ku Klux Klan in Kingston, July 31, 1927. Photo by John Boyd/Library and Archives Canada.

We need only look to the recent uptick in racist attacks against Asian people in Vancouver to see that this kind of violent hate still exists.

Despite finding welcoming environments in many corners of the country, the formation of a sustainable national organization proved to be elusive for Canadian Klansmen. Still, despite often being incompetent, messy and rife with infighting, various Klan groups in Canada, by Bartley’s account, nonetheless managed to exert influence on politicians and provincial legislatures, particularly during the first half of the twentieth century.

Although the Klan’s mainstream political influence had waned significantly by the 1970s and 1980s, newer versions of the group nonetheless managed to spread hate and terrorize communities of colour.

Under the leadership of Wolfgang Droege and James McQuirter, the newer Canadian Klan’s activities culminated in the throughly delusional “Operation Red Dog,” whereby the pair hoped to launch a coup against the government of Dominica, and establish in that country a safe haven for white supremacist organizing and fundraising. Spoiler: the plan ended with the Canadian Klansmen behind bars.

Aside from this account of the absurd, grandiose international plans of the later Canadian Klansmen, one of the most successful aspects of Bartley’s book is how it vividly details the ways in which the Klan ably exploited local resentments and prejudices to establish beachheads in many corners of the country.

In some cases, Bartley explains, local racism was so intense that the Klan had little new to offer potential recruits. British Columbia’s anti-Asian racism, for example, was so mainstream that some of the early KKK’s basic messaging was already enshrined in law (as through the 1885 Head Tax and 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act).

Bartley avoids an overarching, sweeping assessment of what made the Klan’s brand so resilient over the decades, and focuses instead on how the material realities of Canadian racism gave Klansmen openings in every major province. The author’s pervasive attention to these historical realities makes the book a richly informative and illuminating account of hate organizing in Canada.

Another key detail Bartley highlights is that the Klan in Canada was nearly always run by assorted con men, scammers and criminals. The various leaders and organizers that passed through the Klan’s ranks over the years tell a story of white men who were often more concerned with lining their own pockets than realizing their racist objectives.

In fact, the very first leaders of a national KKK in Canada—Americans Dr. Charles Lewis Fowler and Dr. James Henry Hawkins, and Toronto businessman Richard Cowan—launched the group with the explicit intention of, as documented by journalist Patrick Richards, “making a lot of money easily and quickly.”

As well, the conditions in Canada that allowed these kinds of con-artist-turned-Klansmen to thrive was also often aided and abetted through the complicity of the media, establishment politicians, and law enforcement for decades.

Notably, during the Klan’s early organizing efforts in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, “there was always the suspicion that police officers might have a set of Klan robes at home,” Bartley writes. Under these favourable conditions, the Klan played a key role in influencing the 1929 provincial election, to the benefit of the Conservative Party.

In a relatively recent example, Bartley reminds readers that the right-wing Toronto Sun uncritically featured an image of James Alexander McQuirter as a so-called “Sunshine Boy” in 1980. Included in the spread was a photo of McQuirter posing next to an explicitly racist, anti-Black poster.

The author also highlights how the Stephen Harper government’s striking of section 13 from the Canadian Human Rights Act in 2013 removed the ability of individuals to seek redress for online hate messaging, at a time when remnants of the Klan and other far-right groups had primarily shifted their efforts to the Internet.

The timing of this immensely important book could not be more urgent. Just as the Canadian establishment’s early complacency (and sometimes open encouragement) towards the Klan’s hate permitted the group a foothold in the early-twentieth century, so too do foolish appeals to so-called “Canadian exceptionalism” provide an opening for hate groups to exploit today.

As we watch far-right paramilitaries and anti-democratic posturing run amok in the wake of the US election, we would all be wise to heed the historical warnings offered in Bartley’s compendious work. With recent racist attacks such as the Quebec City mosque shooting in 2017, we know, as Bartley notes in his closing chapter, that racial hatred and far-right organizing have outlived the decline of the Canadian KKK.

Canada was ripe for white supremacist organizing when the Klan was at its peak, and it remains so today.

Alex Cosh is a writer and graduate student based in Powell River, British Columbia. He writes for PressProgress, and is the Opinions Editor at rabble.ca.

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