The Spectre of Bolshevism

Even as the First World War ended, Canada’s establishment cracked down hard at home.

William Thomas White is a little-remembered figure from Canadian history. A senior Cabinet minister in the government of Prime Minister Robert Borden, he found himself with a taste of real power in 1919 while Borden, in the pre-flight era, spent five months in Europe for the Versailles peace conference. Focused on finding a lasting peace for the post-war period, Borden expressed dismay in his diary after receiving an urgent cable from White. In it, the acting prime minister warned that Bolshevism was rife in Canada and pleaded with Borden to demand a British warship be sent to Vancouver to intimidate the revolutionaries there; his boss refused the request. But, as Daniel Francis documents in his fine new book, Seeing Reds: The Red Scare of 1918–1919, Canada’s First War on Terror, the panicked response of White was not unique among Canada’s ruling elite in the face of widespread domestic and international unrest at the end of World War One.

Daniel Francis is a remarkable individual in that he makes a living from Canadian history without being an academic. Over a career that has included more than 20 books, he has contributed numerous interrogations of a variety of dominant Canadian historical narratives. Seeing Reds is no exception to this pattern. The new work is a useful counterbalance to the recurrent narrative, propagated by both popular and academic historians alike, in which “Canada became a nation at Vimy Ridge.”

The Canada envisaged in that sentiment was a profoundly exclusionary nation that undoubtedly did not include four Quebec anti-conscription demonstrators shot and killed by soldiers in Quebec City in April 1918. Nor did it contain the thousands of enemy aliens, many of them Ukrainian, interned because of their ethnic background. Nor did it entail the women fighting for the right to vote. Nor did it embrace workers who began striking as the war dragged on and the cost of living surged far ahead of the increases in their meager wages. Nor did it involve radicals campaigning against a political and economic system that they believed exploitative and deserving of destruction. The latter welcomed the news of the Russian Revolution, hoping it would be the harbinger of Canada’s future. This put them squarely up against the power of a terrified Canadian state.

Some of what Francis details in his elegantly written monograph is not new and has emerged over several decades thanks to the archival efforts of a distinguished group of academic, often Marxist, historians born out of the social history revolution of the 1960s. Their view that 1919 represented a national labour revolt as opposed to a regional disturbance was once considered revisionist and became part of a heated debate (as much as any academic discussion can ever be). It has now become mainstream wisdom and is offered up by Francis, largely without reflection. In delving into both the secondary literature and the primary source material, he demonstrates that he is no parachute historian, jumping into an area where he has no background and just as quickly packing and departing. His primary focus is on a relatively brief period, 1918–19, but it was a period when pressures that had been building for years burst forth.

The immediate catalyst for what occurred was World War One. Nearly 1 percent of Canada’s population died in the muddy fields of Europe over the course of the war. Then, piling on the misery, the global influenza pandemic brought death directly to Canada’s shores. On the home front, the war created shortages and inflation soared, generating increasing unrest as the stalemate in Europe continued. Underlying the crisis in 1918–19, however, was wider anxiety on the part of an entrenched British-Canadian elite over the changes the nation was undergoing. The main change was mass immigration. In 1913, more than 400,000 newcomers, many from previously non-preferred parts of Europe, arrived in a country with a population of just under eight million. (To put this in perspective, a Canada with four times as many people welcomed just 250,000 immigrants in 2009.) Urbanization was the other great factor as the 50 percent urban mark was reached in 1921. These transformative changes combined with the war to foster a profound sense of disruption. Canada was not unique in experiencing turmoil from forces that were global in nature, something Francis wisely acknowledges and evocatively captures across the text.

At its heart, this book is about the forces of far-reaching change versus a wall of nativist reaction. From the perspective of the former, the sacrifice of war would be meaningless if revolution did not follow. And a small group of activists worked for that change through a variety of means, including radical political parties and strikes. The high point of their efforts may or may not have been the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, which shut down the country’s third largest city for several weeks before it was crushed through police violence that killed two strikers. The state interpreted the strike as a revolutionary effort to overthrow capitalism while others saw it as a legitimate expression of fundamental grievances.

Francis, in true Canadian fashion, occupies a middle ground in interpreting the extent of the revolutionary nature of the nationwide ferment. A meeting of radicals in Toronto ends with “three cheers for Bolshevism, Karl Liebknecht, the Social Revolution and Leon Trotsky,” prompting Francis to observe, “No wonder a nervous government thought they were plotting revolution.” A similar point is made when he notes that the Canadian bourgeoisie had “plenty of reasons” to believe they were up against a revolution. Some of those in power certainly made that assumption, despite being presented with evidence to the contrary, including from a commission appointed by the government itself that reported that “bread-and-butter issues” were fuelling the unrest. Francis’s lack of clarity on this question is problematic in that it undermines the notion of a red scare based on irrational and exaggerated fear, and raises the possibility that state repression may have been a reasonable response to a life-and-death challenge. On the other hand, the ambiguity on this issue is also understandable because the evidence remains unclear. In the end, Francis is undoubtedly correct in his suggestion that some involved in protest sought revolution while the majority desired fundamental reform, including a more equitable Canada, and that the governing elite chose to conflate the two.

Overall, though, the book concentrates less on workers and radicals striving against the status quo than it does on the embattled elite striking back. Repression was the cornerstone of this approach. It came in the form of legislation, including the War Measures Act, which was employed to infringe on freedom of speech, through the banning of a number of publications in “enemy languages,” and on freedom of assembly with the prohibition of a group of radical organizations. The strategy was pursued on the ground by counter–revolutionary foot soldiers in the form of a secret police force. Initially, policing duties were split along geographic lines between the Royal North-West Mounted Police in the west and the Dominion Police in the east. After the war, the two combined to become the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (an anniversary that, interestingly, the RCMP never chooses to commemorate). In what for domestic intelligence agencies across the western world represented the beginning of their own personal cold war, the police used informers and undercover police to spy on a variety of groups and individuals they deemed to be a threat to the state. Two such individuals attended the March 1919 Western Labour Conference in Calgary with one of them even distributing flyers during the event. All the while both recorded information to submit in their police reports. Such state efforts against what was portrayed as incipient Bolshevist revolution had its non-government cheerleaders in some quarters. This was particularly true of many media outlets, some of the especially friendly ones being fed material by Canada’s chief wartime censor, Ernest Chambers, with a prominent exception being the Toronto Star.

In the minds of those in power, the turmoil of 1918–19 represented an unprecedented level of menace through the seeming involvement of members of the non-British immigrant working class who revelled in foreign-inspired (meaning non-British) radicalism. Although Francis does not fully explore the nativist sentiments underlying the backlash, the vicious anti-Bolshevist cartoons that appear in the book, drawn by Arthur Racey of the Montreal Star and displaying hairy cavemen-like Russian revolutionaries, provide visual evidence of this linkage. Except that—and this proved difficult for the nativists to acknowledge fully—the leadership of the radical movements were largely of British background. The initial group of strike leaders arrested during the Winnipeg General Strike, including a future leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, J.S. Woodsworth, were British Canadian, so, for public relations purposes, the police rounded up some “foreign” agitators as well. Parliament hurriedly changed immigration rules to allow political radicals to be deported as an “out of sight, out of mind” philosophy prevailed.

It is in Francis’s effort to historicize the repression of 1918–19 that Seeing Reds finally runs into difficulty. The second part of his subtitle signals the problem (although it has all the appearance of having been tacked on by a publisher in a clumsy attempt to make the book seem relevant to 21st–century debates). If 1918–19 truly was Canada’s “first war on terror,” then who was the Osama bin Laden of the day? Winnipeg strike leader Bob Russell? J.S. Woodsworth? Lenin? The dodgy September 11 terrorism analogy aside, there is certainly accuracy in the author’s suggestion that 1918–19 was one of many overreactions during times of crisis by the Canadian state. The aforementioned internment of thousands of enemy aliens had already occurred during the war. In World War Two, prejudice led to thousands more being imprisoned, this time because of their Japanese background. During the Cold War, anti-Communist witch hunts would lead to blacklisting and destroyed careers and lives. The hunting spiralled even further afield into damaging the lives of gays and lesbians. The War Measures Act would be invoked in peacetime during the October Crisis with troops taking to the streets and the police arresting hundreds of peaceful Quebec nationalists without charge. Finally, the “war on terror” has led to the direct and indirect victimization of some Muslim Canadians at the hands of the Canadian state.

Francis is undoubtedly correct in predicting that there will be future overreactions with similar negative consequences. Nevertheless, that does not mean governments and state institutions always fail to learn from historical wrongs. Although it took decades, apologies (or at least an acknowledgement of wrongdoing) and compensation were offered to some of those unfairly interned during the world wars. And the government of Brian Mulroney replaced the War Measures Act in 1988 with the less draconian Emergencies Act. As for the “war on terror,” the government has already moved to address one prominent injustice with an inquiry followed by an apology and compensation to Maher Arar. Furthermore, when the Canadian government introduced its anti-terrorism legislation in the days of panic after the September 11 attacks in which 24 Canadians were among the dead, it added sunset clauses to some of the more draconian measures; these expired in 2007 and have yet to be restored, despite continuing efforts by Stephen Harper’s government.

Altogether this is not a perfect pattern of learning from past mistakes or correcting previous injustices, but the collective record does suggest at least some improvements over the course of the last 100 years. The fundamental problem remains for those in power, however, in where to draw the line between a legitimate response within a liberal-democratic society to a potential threat and a destructive overreaction. When fear and prejudice mix, as they did in 1918–19, an inevitable slide into repression follows.