The Ever Changing Nature of White Canada

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By Adam Coombs

“Canadians have learned how to be strong because of our differences,” states a new draft version of Discover Canada, the study guide for Canada’s citizenship exam. This vision of Canada as a diverse and multicultural society is one that most Canadians embrace. However, for many on Canada’s far-right this vision of Canadian society is simply one more attempt by the Liberals to undermine traditional Canadian and Western values in favour of moral relativism, cultural Marxism and Sharia Law. In response they forward their own distorted version of Canadian history that creates a false narrative of whiteness to justify their racist politics. This post will take a look at the claims of one of these groups, The Proud Boys, and demonstrate the profoundly ahistorical nature of their claims.

While previously relegated to the fringes of the internet, The Proud Boys, burst to national prominence this past Canada Day. By now the actions of five members of the Canadian Armed Forces in Halifax on Canada Day are well known. The men who disrupted an Indigenous mourning ceremony identified themselves as members of the Maritime Chapter of the Proud Boys, an all-male, right-wing group started in 2016 by Vice Media founder Gavin McInnis. While many commentators have rightly heaped ridicule on the group over the past three weeks for its violent induction rituals, rules regarding masturbation, and the fact that their name comes from a song in the Broadway adaption of Disney’s Aladdin, the most succinct description of the group comes from Globe and Mail columnist Tabatha Southey, who describes them as “a group of guys possessed of a seriously shaky grasp of history.”

Southey’s characterization of these men is certainly correct. While many Canadians of all political stripes have a tenuous understanding of the country’s past, what is particularly concerning about the Alt-Right’s historical ignorance, as exemplified by the Proud Boys, is that their flawed historical narratives are used to justify their overt racism and intimidation of other Canadians seeking to raise awareness of injustice, both historical and contemporary.

In this post I want to provide a historical corrective to one of the basic assumptions underpinning their most egregious claims: whiteness. Though often clouded in lines of argumentation that “refuse to apologize for creating the modern world,” these self-described “western chauvinists”, clearly use the terms “modern” and “western” to stand-in for “white.” One of the multitude of comments that makes this apparent comes from an anonymous woman at a Toronto rally defending the five men from Halifax. In response to a counter protest by anti-fascist activists, she shouted at them to, “Give up your clothing, give up transportation… give up everything the white man has done.” It is clear from this statement, and many others like it, that these alt-right groups equate all positive aspects of modern Canada with whiteness.

Beyond the clear factual problems with such a claim, it is also clear that whiteness, as a racial signifier, is a malleable concept and in the past has often excluded substantial numbers of people the Alt-Right now considers white. In fact, over Canada’s 150 years as a nation-state, the very definition of the word ‘race’ has shifted substantially, usually being tied to religion and language.

For much of the 19th century, for example, French and English Canadians were described as two races. Most famously, Lord Durham, in his report on the rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada, wrote that in Lower Canada he “found a struggle not of principle but of race.” It was self-evident for 19th century political commentators that French and English Canadians were different races: they spoke different languages, worshiped differently and practices politics differently.

This strain of thinking continued into the 20th century. In 1898 and again in 1904 French geographer and political commentator André Siegfried visited Canada and in 1906 published Le Canada, les deux races : problèmes politiques contemporains which was translated as The Race Question in Canada. For Siegfried, much as for Durham 70 years earlier, it was self-evident that Francophones and Anglophones were different races. For him, each “race” possessed unique psychological traits which one could observe, describe and employ as a predictive factor.

Fast forward to the present day and we can see how symbols are being used to gloss over this complex past. The Proud Boy’s use of the Red Ensign, for example, is an overt nod to Canada’s Neo-Nazi movement, which has adopted Canada’s pre-1965 flag as a symbol of “White Canada.” Importantly, despite the visceral political tensions of the era, Canadian white supremacist Paul Fromm, who recently attended a Toronto rally, emphasizes how the flag marks a certain degree of unity among White Canadians. In a 2015 Facebook post, he emphasized that the flag “beautifully symbolized the Canada of its European founder/settler people . . . the symbols of French, English, Irish, and Scots.” Fromm, like the Proud Boys, conveniently ignores the fact that for much of Canadian history Francophones and Anglophones were often portrayed as diametrically opposed to each other, even as racial enemies.

Furthermore, if we examine the more recent history of the 1930s, it is clear that there was not one unified conception of white English Canada. While the Red Ensign celebrates the Irish along with the French, Scots and English, many members of the Conservative Party under the leadership of R.B. Bennett drew clear boundaries between the English and Irish. Writing to Prime Minister Bennett in July of 1934, party member A. Stockton stated that, “[Canada] is too unstable, too polyglot, too under the sway of Irish politicians and Jewish manipulators.”[1] This strategy of separating the Irish from English and Scottish immigrants and grouping them in with other minority groups was a common rhetorical strategy in the 1930s. Conservative Member of Parliament for Windsor Raymond Mance told his party leader in October of 1935 that, “there are two groups in this country – the French and Anglo-Saxon Races (English, Scotch and Irish Protestants), each of which constitutes one third of the population. The other third is made up of Irish Catholics and the New Canadians.”[2] While today the distinction between Irish-Canadian Protestants and Catholics is almost non-existent, historically these divisions were deep and important and their existence undermines the right-wing narrative of a united, “white” Canada.

It wasn’t just the rank and file or the radical fringe of the Conservative Party who espoused these ideas about race. Rather, the leaders of both the Federal and Ontario Conservative Party argued for deep divisions between people now considered “white.” Speaking in 1938 in one of his last speeches before leaving Canada to sit in the British House of Lords, R.B. Bennett outlined his thoughts on the past and future of democratic government in what the Proud Boys would now recognize as “the west.” For Bennett the reason democracy could succeed in Britain and Canada was because of the particular racial traits of Northern European people. He stated that, “the love of liberty and freedom, the right of every man to due out his own destiny, independence in thought and action – these are the warp and woof of these Nordic races.” Alternatively, democracy in France was plagued by problems because of extreme swings between the right and left. For Bennett, “[France] seems to lack the balance so noticeable in the other Northern European democracies. That is, I believe, because such a large percentage of the people are Latin and Alpine origin.”[3]

While liberal-democracy is commonly portrayed as a collective product of Western European and American culture, this equation of democracy with all of “the west” is relatively recent. Rather, even within 18 months of declaring war in support of European allies such as France during the First World War, many Canadians expressed a deep distrust of France’s ability to maintain a stable government because of their country’s racial make-up. Yes, France was white, but it wasn’t the right type of white.

Even during the final month of World War Two, the Conservative Premier of Ontario George Drew reiterated the stark differences between French and English in racial terms. In response to the imminent return of hundreds of thousands of Canadian soldiers with their new British brides, Drew stated, “I want British stock for Ontario. We can take thousands of your people. The one thing that can keep the French-Canadian pressure within bounds is a strong Ontario, peopled by British stock.”[4] Much like Lord Durham over a century before, Drew articulates a political conflict, this time between Quebec and Ontario, as a racial one between Francophones and Anglophones. The only solution to much higher French Canadian birth rates was immigration, hence Drew’s enthusiastic support for British War Brides immigrating to Canada.

Overall, many far right activists ignore this complex history of concepts like race and whiteness in Canada and instead craft a fictitious narrative about Canadian identity as a means of justifying their opposition to the substantial changes in Canadian society over the past fifty years. In particular, people like Fromm argue that a series of government policies since the late 1960s, such as the removal of race based criteria from Canada’s immigration laws and the introduction of official multiculturalism, have undermined some essential “European” identity at Canada’s core. By creating a false conception of whiteness that is far more inclusive than it was historically, the alt-right seeks to appeal to a large cross section of Canadians to undermine political support for government action to address historical and present day injustice. It is these attempts to create an Us vs. Them dichotomy that Canadian historians need to address and emphasize that Canada has always been a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual state. It is our duty to demonstrate to the public that the alternative historical narratives of the far right contrasting a unified and peaceful past with a divided present are not only false but destructive and motivated by an ideology rooted in white supremacy.

Adam Coombs is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of British Columbia.

[1] A. Stockton to R.B. Bennett, 1 July 1934, R.B. Bennett Fonds, MG26-K Vol.200 # 130852, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

[2] Raymond Mance to R.B. Bennett, 17 October 1935, R.B. Bennett Fonds, MG26-K Vol.206 #135174, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

[3] “Our Democratic Heritage,” Speech from 1938, R.B. Bennett Fonds, MG26-K Vol.720 #443359, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

[4] W. George Akins, “Ontario Liberal Association: Bulletin No.12” 15 May 1945, Liberal Party of Canada Fonds, MG28-IV3, Vol.802 “Ontario Election 1945,” Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

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