The Sunday Magazine·Q&A

The rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Canada — and why its lasting impact still matters

When political scientist and historian Allan Bartley began researching the Ku Klux Klan 25 years ago, he was struck to find that the infamous white supremacist organization has had a long history in Canada, which dates back to the 1920s. In his interview with The Sunday Magazine host Piya Chattopadyay, he explains how the KKK took hold here.

From the '20s to the '80s, historian Allan Bartley explores the history of the KKK in Canada

Author Allan Bartley's latest book is called The Klu Klux Klan in Canada: A Century of Promting Racism and Hate in the Peacable Kingdom. (James Lorimer & Company Ltd.)

When political scientist and historian Allan Bartley began researching the Ku Klux Klan 25 years ago, he was struck to find that the infamous white supremacist organization has had a long history in Canada.

"Like many Canadians, I used to have a very whitewashed image of Canadian history, which did not give much place or presence to the role of racism in our history," said Bartley. 

His new book, The Ku Klux Klan in Canada: A Century of Promoting Racism and Hate in the Peaceable Kingdom, traces how the group established itself and has operated in the country since the 1920s. 

"I have to regretfully conclude there is a seam of racism that runs through Canadian history very wide and very deep. It's not always on display. It's quite artfully hidden in many cases," he said.

In an interview with The Sunday Magazine host Piya Chattopadyay, Bartley explained how the KKK took hold in Canada.

1865: U.S. Civil War defeat and the origins of the Klan

The original Ku Klux Klan was established in 1865, in the wake of the southern defeat in the Civil War when Black Americans began to gain their freedom.

"The Klan itself was an attempt to impose order and to ensure that Black citizens, who were recently freed from slavery, kept their place, did not threaten the white society," said Bartley. 

It was violent and extreme — killing and lynching both Black people and sympathisers and orchestrating arson attacks — to the point where the U.S. government outlawed the Klan in 1871. The group formally disbanded, but existed underground for several more decades, according to Bartley. 

20th century: The Birth of a Nation (and rebirth of the Klan)

In the 20th century, the advent of motion pictures helped to propel the popularity of the Klan in both the U.S. and Canada, specifically with the film The Birth of a Nation.

Ku Klux Klan members on horseback drive a Black militia out of town in a battle scene from The Birth of a Nation, which Bartley says helped to glorify the Klan. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Directed by D. W. Griffith, The Birth of a Nation chronicled the chaotic period following the Civil War and glorified the role of the Klan in establishing social order, Bartley said.

It was released in the U.S. in early 1915 and then later that year in Canada, finding immense success in both countries, including in cities such as Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

"All the major cities and any town [in Canada] that had a theatre showed The Birth of a Nation not once, not twice, not three times — sometimes it was shown half a dozen times over the course of the years from 1915 to 1920, and in some places, every year after that," Bartley said. "It had a huge following, a huge attraction, and it created this image of the Ku Klux Klan."

1920s: KKK heads north

By the early 1920s, there were tens of thousands of new Klan lodges, or klaverns, in the U.S., and recruiters started to cross the border into the Maritimes, the lower mainland of British Columbia and southern Ontario.

"There was no organization to the recruiting at that time," said Bartley, noting that the popularity of The Birth of a Nation had served as a kind of recruitment tool. 

"It was individuals who were essentially salesmen signing up members, taking the $13 that the new members would hand over, and creating a new group in whatever community they were in."

A Ku Klux Klan gathering in Kingston, Ont., on July 31, 1927. (John Boyd/Library and Archives Canada)

Historically, the Klan has been very good at exploiting any kind of community tensions, particularly ones based on race or religion, Bartley said. At that time in Canada, negative public sentiment already existed against Catholics and French-speaking Canadians, as well as against Black, Jewish, and Chinese people.

"When the Klan arrived in Canada, it was not as if they convinced people suddenly to start hating," Bartley said. "Canadians were already well established in their views of how they saw non-white, non-Protestant, nonconforming members of Canadian society."

1925: A Canadian Klan headquarters

In 1925, the national headquarters of the Canadian Ku Klux Klan was established in Toronto. Despite being a hate group, they sold themselves as a social organization, with a formal hierarchical and fraternal structure, and held meetings and rallies, and socialized in klaverns. In just a year, the group became the largest and the fastest growing social organization in the country, according to Bartley.

"You had rallies where you had five, 10, 15, 20,000 people who would show up at these Klan meetings in places like Kingston and Belleville, London, Hamilton," said Bartley. 

The Kanadian Knights of Ku Klux Klan hold a meeting in Vancouver on Oct. 30, 1925. (Leonard Frank/Vancouver Public Library)

There were cross burnings all across southern Ontario, southern Alberta, in the Maritimes, and the primary targets were Black people, Catholics, Jews and the French. In 1926, there was an explosion at a Roman Catholic church in Barrie, Ont.; three perpetrators were sent to prison.

"It was a full-fledged hate group, which was starting to exhibit all of the features that you associate with the Ku Klux Klan in the United States," said Bartley.

1930s: A move towards Nazism

In the 1930s, some Klan members and leaders had moved towards fascism and Nazism, and some of the early members popped up again in fascist and Nazi-like organizations in Canada.

The well-attended Ku Klux Klan convention in Memorial Hall, Edmonton, 1932. (City of Edmonton Archives )

By the end of the decade, however, the Klan was effectively dead as an organization in this country, according to Bartley. During the Second World War, fascism and Nazism became the enemy for many Canadians.

"By the time you get into the 1940s and 1950s and 1960s, the only echoes you see of the Klan in Canada are basically echoes from the United States," Bartley said.

1960s - '80s: Civil rights, multiculturalism and a Klan resurgence

After a couple of decades of dormancy, the Klan made yet another resurgence in the 1960s and '70s, spurred on by the Black civil rights movement in the U.S. and by the official adoption of multiculturalism in Canada, Bartley said. 

David Duke, who led this resurgence in the U.S. as the Klan's grand wizard, was also amassing a number of followers in Canada. These followers established a new Ku Klux Klan of Canada, led by James Alexander McQuirter, who became the group's grand wizard.

WATCH | This archival CBC report chronicles the rise of the KKK in Canada:

Archival video: Ku Klux Klan sets up training camps in Canada

3 years ago
Duration 5:44
In this report from 1981, CBC reporter Genevieve Westcott talks to members of the Ku Klux Klan in Canada, including national director James Alexander McQuirter.

"There was much talk by the Klan leadership about multiculturalism being a form of assimilation and predicting the disappearance of the white race in Canada," Bartley said. "They advocated for the return of all minorities to wherever they originated."

Throughout the 1980s, however, Klan leaders were convicted of criminal activities, and many members were sent to jail, including McQuirter. The Klan as a national organization was, yet again, effectively dead, Bartley said. But people and small groups claiming to be the KKK began to move to different kinds of white supremacist organizations.

In this June 26, 1977 file photo, demonstrators carry signs of Adolf Hitler, Anita Bryant, the Ku Klux Klan and Idi Amin, while chanting, 'Human rights now,' during the annual Gay Freedom Day March in San Francisco. (Associated Press)

2000s: White supremacy moves into cyberspace

By the early 2000s, the remnants of the Klan began to move online, with the creation and rise of a number of successor groups with similar kinds of white supremacist ideologies, Bartley said.

In June 2019, the Liberal government added two international neo-Nazi groups — Blood & Honor and Combat 18 — to Canada's list of outlawed terrorist organizations.

Police hold back far-right protesters during a demonstration in Montreal, Saturday, March 4, 2017. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Bartley points to about a half-dozen other groups that have taken up the Klan's mantle, recruiting members and promoting hatred in Canada. 

"You have groups like Sons of Odin, Blood & Honour, The Atomwaffen Division, La Meute in Quebec," said Bartley. "I would argue that even if these groups are not formally identified with the Klan, the ideas that they promote and propagate certainly have their origins with the Klan and benefit from that association."

The new white nationalist and white supremacist groups are "as virulent and as dangerous and as flagrant" as the Ku Klux Klan was in its heyday, and should not be dismissed, he said.

"There is, I think, an argument for a seam of hate in Canadian society that's never really gone away. Sometimes it flows very clearly, other times it recedes. But it's been there for a very, very long time. And I would argue will continue to be there for the future unless we start to do things to deal with that directly."

Interview produced by Levi Garber.

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