Canada embraced Ku Klux Klan in early 20th century

The spirit of the Ku Klux Klan is alive today in Canada, professor Jim Penton told a hushed audience at the Paris Museum. “It shows up in the anti-refugee, anti-indigenous, anti-immigrant attitudes we see today.”

The purpose of Penton’s lecture was two-fold; first to disprove the myth that Canada is — or ever was — immune to racial hatred; and second to demonstrate that, even without hooded gowns and burning crosses, white supremacism is deeply rooted in Canada.

“Weren’t we a lot better?” Penton asked rhetorically, referring to the early 20th century. “Absolutely not!”

He cited three ugly examples of the Klan’s racist activities in Canada:

In Oakville in 1930, a mixed-race couple was forcibly separated by a troop of hooded Klansmen from Hamilton, their house set aflame. When the police chief arrived, the leaders took off their hoods. Recognizing several of them, he assured the group no arrests would be made, no charges laid.

In Barrie, a Catholic church was dynamited in 1926, allegedly at the secret hand of the KKK.

In London, a South Carolina Klansman fleeing U.S. police in 1872 was hailed as a local hero. When American detectives seized him, took him across the border and charged him with the murder of a black man, an outcry went up among Canadians. Anxious to avoid an international showdown, U.S. marshals dispatched him back to Ontario, where he was warmly welcomed and spent his life.

Two characteristics made Canada’s white supremacist movement different from its American counterpart, Penton explained. It was nurtured by many mainstream institutions — the Presbyterian Church, the Salvation Army and the Orange Lodge Order. Its targets were not just black — it propagated hatred toward Roman Catholics, Jews, “Indians” and people of mixed race. Its goal was to keep Canada British, Protestant and white.

Although Penton has no personal knowledge of KKK activity in Paris, he told the audience “I have no doubt the Klan was here.” He pointed to rumours of cross burnings and reports of a by-law forbidding black people from staying in Paris overnight.

In fact, local historians have found evidence that the Ku Klux Klan held an organizing meeting in Paris on April 27, 1927. It circulated a manifesto, obtained by the (Paris) Star-Transcript, listing these objectives:

  • To honour the glorious Union Jack;
  • To serve the Protestant Church;
  • And to advocate white supremacy and racial purity.

At the time, there were no blacks in town. The 2 Jewish families were well-respected. And there was little antipathy between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Enthusiasm for the movement quickly fizzled.

Penton, now 85 and retired from the University of Lethbridge, felt the brush of the KKK personally. He grew up in small-town Saskatchewan. His family belonged to a small sect of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He has Metis ancestry, making him vulnerable on two counts. He remembers a neighbour’s house being burnt to the ground.

At 16 years of age, his parents sent him to Arizona, ostensibly because of ill health. He went to high school in Tucson, earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Arizona and acquired his master’s degree and doctorate at the University of Iowa.

“I’ve seen so much hatred in my life that I feel very strongly about human freedom,” he said in an interview. “We could all be a little more compassionate.”

Carol Goar