The Kanadian Klan

Our moral superiority to the Americans takes another hit

Canadians like to think of themselves as a relatively tolerant society that possesses a history free of the worst excesses of racial hatred, in contrast to our neighbours to the south: a Heritage Minute, for example, portrays Canada as a welcome haven for runaway American slaves. While this Heritage Minute may reflect a certain truth, Canadian historians have increasingly posited another set of truths, namely that racism was not just tolerated, but legitimized and sometimes actively promoted in Canadian law, social policy, aboriginal relations and immigration restrictions. James Pitsula’s study of the Saskatchewan Ku Klux Klan, the strongest provincial Klan in the country, contributes significantly to our understanding of Canada’s history of intolerance, particularly the way in which the KKK became closely entangled with existing ideologies, controversies and political parties on the prairies. In Keeping Canada British: The Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Saskatchewan, Pitsula effectively challenges the myth that the KKK was a marginal anomaly in Canadian history: the KKK was “not a sideshow,” he quips. “It lay at the heart of [Saskatchewan history].”

Drawing on an extensive secondary literature, the author situates the Saskatchewan KKK within the orbit of already circulating racial ideas within Canadian intellectual, religious and social circles. Whether Canadians were listening to conservative Stephen Leacock or radical J.S. Woodsworth, ideas of Anglo, white superiority appeared frequently. Rather than seeing Canadian minds suddenly colonized by the American KKK, Pitsula argues persuasively that we need to situate the Klan in the fertile soil of Saskatchewan, in ongoing battles over Catholic and French school “rights,” existing ideologies of British imperialism and fears of European immigrants. Racism is thus usefully rendered part of everyday ideology, although I think it can be risky to assume KKK ideas were universally ordinary, asserting, as Pitsula does, that “the Klan was racist, but so, too, were most Canadians of that era.”

According to Keeping Canada British, the KKK was a natural “after shock” of World War One, fostered by Anglo paranoia that only those of British background made the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefield, while unpatriotic immigrants stayed home and reaped the economic benefits of war. Even a slight increase in the province’s non-Anglo population, aided by the railway companies continuing importation of “cheap” European labour in the 1920s, was enough to scare English, Protestant inhabitants into believing that their rightful place of social dominance was threatened. The Saskatchewan Klan included a substantial number of ministers from the United Church, and its platform paled beside the pronouncements of prominent Anglican Bishop George Exton Lloyd who wanted black and Asian Canadians shipped back to “where they came from.” Situating the KKK in this receptive social context goes a long way toward explaining why the organization did not fall apart when one of its early promoters, something of a scoundrel, fled back to the United States, discredited for questionable financial practices.

Pitsula points to American studies of the KKK, which recognize that this nasty leopard changed its spots depending on where it set up shop and who it sought as converts, focusing its hostility, depending on the locality, on Catholics, immigrants, Asians, blacks or the need for moral reform. While the same point was made by journalist Julian Sher decades ago in his book on the KKK (which Pitsula does not cite), Pitsula takes this idea in a new direction, arguing that the KKK represented a struggle for the hearts and minds of Canadians over what “British”—and thus Canadian—identity meant. He argues it was taken for granted by most citizens that Canada was British in character, but for those supporting the Klan, this meant the assimilation of all Canadians to culturally and racially superior Anglo, Protestant values, while Klan opponents had more tolerance for other ethnicities, religions and languages—but still within the context of a British society.

Pitsula is drawing our attention to the “fluidity” of identity, the way in which nationality might be equated with various racial, ethnic or political ideologies, each carrying different meanings. Of course, not all Canadians identified as British; aside from the obvious fact of Quebec, there were some non-Anglo immigrants on the receiving end of KKK disparagement who likely kept their heads down and did not, or could not, safely confront the Klan’s agenda in the same way that Saskatchewan Catholic lobby groups, more assured of their educational and political rights, did. What of other resistance? In British Columbia and Alberta, some labour leaders and socialists spoke out against the Klan (which had a strong record as thuggish strike breakers), yet there is no mention of similar opposition in Saskatchewan. Why was this? We know that only a few years later, Anglo and European immigrants found common cause in the famous Estevan coal strike, suggesting Saskatchewan was not bereft of all labour or class identity that could override racism and nativism.

Pitsula concentrates on the Saskatchewan Liberal Party and its leader Jimmy Gardiner’s concerted opposition to the KKK, suggesting it was largely devoid of principle, fuelled primarily by partisan goals. Liberal tactics were not just a failure; he implies the party’s hegemony and corruption facilitated the KKK’s growth as a conservative opposition movement. While in Saskatchewan: A New History historian Bill Waiser sees Gardiner’s public anti-Klan campaigning as “laudable,” Pitsula is more skeptical, claiming Gardiner simply feared that the Conservatives, who sat on KKK platforms and quietly aided them, could ride into provincial power on KKK coattails. Gardiner’s vaunted anti-Klan opposition is thus portrayed as opportunist, and tepid at best. When the patronage-prone Liberals are defeated, Pitsula cannot resist applauding: the party “was a blot on democracy, and the province was well rid of it.” Yet there are few heroes in this story: the Conservative Party’s use of the KKK’s anti-French, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant feeling for own their ends and their political pandering to KKK members are just as unappealing.

Although Pitsula admits that the lack of membership lists make KKK membership hard to determine, he is confident that members were “mainly lower middle class and skilled working class.” However, his study also shows that much influence was exercised by non-members too: local political elites, journalists, middle class reformers and ministers all reaffirmed KKK prejudices, translated them into electoral issues and spoke about them from their pulpits. Ideologies of nativism and racial superiority may be shared across class and occupation, but they are often internalized, negotiated, embraced and rationalized for different reasons.

Keeping Canada British is well researched and clearly written, but the academic style of presentation will likely dissuade a wider popular readership, looking for more political passion and sparkle in the writing. The argument is occasionally repetitive, and while the politics of separate schools—that interminable problem in Canadian history—are extensively detailed, some of the connections the author attempts to make to gender, moral reform and Klan appeal are weaker; the evidence seems tangential at best.

The final explanation for the sudden demise of the KKK also needs nuance. Pitsula suggests that in the Depression “the struggle for survival took precedence over identity politics.” Appeals to Britishness were no longer selling; the public’s main concern was staving off starvation. While economic concerns undoubtedly became more urgent, other issues—the curtailing of controversial immigration, Conservative limitations on French schools (a Klan success)—were likely also important. Perhaps people found new ideological outlets for their nativism. The division between the 1920s, characterized by “identity politics” and the 1930s, consumed with the “economy,” seems rather stark. Aside from the problematic use of a modern term—identity politics—many historians also suggest that class, gender and race relations were historically entwined, even as they changed over time. If we do not want to return to the faulty image of the KKK as a spurious anomaly, we need to develop an understanding of the way in which, over this entire period, material concerns and ideological beliefs intersected, and how a malleable Britishness was adopted, manipulated and transformed by different social actors for their own ends.