Behind the peaceful if not magical symbiosis that now permeates Canadian society and makes it the envy of much of the world, and a prize destination of immigrants, lies the marriage of both English and French cultures. Disputes rarely erupt now between these two races which, along with aboriginal people, were the founding cultures of Canada. When they do, they are often economic spats or related to official languages.

But this symbiosis has a dark history of conflict before, during and long after the Battle of Quebec in 1759.

After that battle, English and Commonwealth immigrants poured into Canada and settled in territories both east and west of Quebec. Soon, French-speaking Canadians were outnumbered.

Gloriously and ultimately successfully, they fought for the right to retain their language. However, 1924 marked a dark hour of that struggle.

Many of the immigrants to what are now the Western provinces of Canada, were French-speaking and by the early 1920s, they were outnumbered by non-French European immigrants, especially from Scotland and Ireland.

Klu Klux Klan gatheringStarting in 1924, Klu Klux Klan flaming crucifixes were lit on the soil of Canada's maritime provinces to intimidate the French and Roman Catholics.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia:

"In 1921 the Klan was reported active in Montréal; by 1925 "klans," or locals, had been established all across Canada. Like their American counterparts, Canadian Klansmen had a fanatical hatred for all things Roman Catholic and feared that the purity of the Anglo-Saxon race was being jeopardized by new immigration. Moreover, they were not averse to stepping outside the law to achieve their goals."

On November 24, 1922, the French college, College de Saint-Boniface (now the l'Université de Saint-Boniface) was set aflame by arsonists. It was the only post-secondary French-language school west of Quebec. One teacher and nine students were burnt alive unable to escape the burning building. Forty-thousands books were lost as were the remains of several French explorers.

The Fire Commissioner for Manitoba, Charles Heath investigated but curiously ordered the hearing to proceed in camera. It was only opened to the public when the Manitoba Free Press made a formal request to the provincial government.

The Heath inquiry was unable to determine the cause of the fire even though eye-witnesses saw an unknown man near the College grounds late the previous night. The Free Press raised the spectre of Klan involvement.

The hatred of the Klan, though, burned on. Ontario, in 1925, had 1,100 Klan members, and in Saskatchewan, the Klan boasted of 125 local clubs.

In June of 1927, the Klan held a rally in Moose Jaw, attracting 7,000 white hooded members. The rally protested angrily against French language rights.

A year later, another rally, this time in Regina and then in Melfort. The Klan was so popular that their national treasurer, dentist Walter Davey Cowan was elected to the House of Commons as a Member of Parliament for Regina in 1930 (as a Conservative).1

In the 1930s, the Klan virtually disappeared from the Canadian landscape, even as the College de Saint-Boniface was rebuilt and stands still today as a monument to that distinctively Canadian hybrid of two ancient European cultures.

REFERENCES:

  • Castex, Jean-Claude, les Grands Dossiers Criminels du Canada (Montreal: Editions Pierre Tisseyre, 1990), pages 179-193 and re NOTE 1, page 180.
  • Sher, Julien, White Hoods: Canada's Klu Klux Klan