KKK history challenges idea Sask. always welcomed newcomers: expert

The Ku Klux Klan thrived in Saskatchewan during the 1920s, and historians say they were so successful because they exploited and took advantage of the fear that residents already harboured about new immigrants and people who were different.

Province had around 25,000 Ku Klux Klan members in the 1920s

In the 1920s, people marched through Saskatchewan streets in Ku Klux Klan robes and a cross burning was held on a hill in Moose Jaw, Sask., a historian says. 

Thousands of people in the province were KKK members in the early part of the 20th century. 

Robes of the women's section of the Ku Klux Klan. From a Klan mail order catalogue which circulated through Saskatchewan during the late 1920s and early 1930s. (Saskatchewan Archives)

"There's hardly a community in Saskatchewan that did not have a branch of the Ku Klux Klan," historian Bill Brennan said. 

This week, south of the border, a violent, deadly white nationalist rally in the United States saw President Donald Trump bow to political pressure and denounce neo-Nazis and KKK members

Meanwhile, historians north of the border are well-versed in Saskatchewan's own KKK history. 

However, Saskatchewan's Klan was different than what existed in the United States because they targeted their beliefs specific to the setting, historian Bill Waiser said. 

"They decide to take advantage of existing anxiety," he said. "One Klan organizer said 'we took advantage of the antis in this province.'"

For English-speaking Protestants, the "antis" were the new continental-European immigrants and Roman Catholics because they talked, dressed and worshipped differently.

An archival photo shows John W. Rosborough, a Regina accountant and Grand Wizard of the Saskatchewan Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. (Saskatchewan Archives)

The KKK exploited an existing situation rather than creating it, and they blamed society's ills on the group of people perceived to be "the other," Waiser said. 

"The majority were concerned about what this new immigration was doing to Saskatchewan," Waiser said. "Because Saskatchewan was not supposed to be this diverse pluralistic society."

"The Klan was very successful, everywhere it went, in finding what people were bent out of shape about and then using that as a way of selling memberships and creating a strong organization that could have an influence on government," Brennan said. 

The Klan settled in Saskatchewan in 1926 and gained momentum by 1927.

Thousands of members

A membership cost $13 and the Klan gained an upwards of 25,000 Saskatchewan members, as they latched on to people's frustrations.

"How many more sympathized with the plan but didn't actually take out a membership? We'll never know." Brennan said.

"It challenges the notion that many in Saskatchewan have today, that our province has always welcomed newcomers." 

The "province was a hotbed of the Ku Klux Klan," James Pitsula wrote in Keeping Canada British: National Identity and the Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Saskatchewan. 

"The 1920s Klan represented in essence a belligerent assertion of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant supremacy."

Pitsula wrote that in 1929, the Klan demonstrated its influence by helping oust the Liberals and elect the Conservatives for the first time in two decades.

"There were some prominent Conservatives who came to think that cozying up to the KKK — and appealing to the prejudices that some Saskatchewan people had to Roman Catholics and immigrants — that they could persuade those people to vote for the Conservative Party," Brennan said. 

He said it will never be truly known if the Liberals wore out their welcome, or if the KKK raised the Conservatives to power. 

Membership declined dramatically in the KKK after the Liberal government was ousted, the economy entered a downturn and the Great Depression began. 

"The Klan emerged, came to Saskatchewan from Indiana like a rain storm and it tore across the province and created some damage," Brennan said. "And then it disappeared." 

The article's headline says "In Saskatchewan We Have Only 19 per cent of Our Population Roman Catholic, Yet They Run Our Affairs" with photos of the director and editor of the Freedman. (Western Freedman, Vol. 1, No. 10, Saskatchewan Archives)

'Still got some distance to go'

There was an attempted revival of the KKK in the 1960s and '70s when members attempted to recruit people in Saskatchewan, Brennan said.

"One of the fears they appealed to in their campaigning, was the influx of "Indians"— as they would have called them," he said, adding that's because the Indigenous population began to move into urban centres like Saskatoon, Regina and Prince Albert.

Brennan said that because the population had to live on reserves on rural land in the 1920s, they weren't seen to be a threat.

"If the KKK was to come to Saskatchewan today, it would be a very different story."

The KKK isn't operating openly as it used to in Saskatchewan, but it still lingers and other anti-immigrant groups exist. 

Waiser notes that the province didn't fully embrace multiculturalism until the 1970s, and even still "we've come a long way since the early 20th century but we've still got some distance to go."