In April and May of 1956, Lethbridge, Alberta, Social Credit MP John Blackmore gave two speeches over the radio to his constituents where he claimed that on recent versions of Canadian dollar bills, there was clearly the likeness of a demon hiding in the Queen’s hair. Blackmore related how a correspondent, William Guy Carr, had drawn his attention to this fact. Each man agreed that this was a sign that the agents acting behind the scenes of the “Anglo-Saxon Celtic administrations, British and American” and who had facilitated recent victories against “Christianity and the Bible, against the United States and the British Commonwealth, and the whole free world” (e.g. Communism spreading in Asia) had become bolder. Blackmore reassured his audience that this was serious; he would not listen to Carr if he were an “extremist.”
A first reaction to such claims is perhaps to laugh (as I did when I first stumbled across it while researching the federal Social Credit Party), to enjoy it from an ironic distance, or to dismiss it as part of the lunatic fringe. In other words: Who cares? By examining such strange ideas, do scholars not risk bestowing status upon them?
While these reactions are initially justifiable, they become less defensible with context. Blackmore was first elected in 1935 and was re-elected five times. There he sat in the House of Commons, discussing funding of public buildings on one day and emphasizing the need to strike a committee to investigate the “Mongolian-Turkic-Red” conspiracy behind Communism on another.
Carr was a respected and well-known Canadian navy man and author whose books were positively reviewed in the pages of the Globe and Mail in the 1940s. His retirement in 1945 elicited a glowing two column article by that venerable paper. Folklorist Bill Ellis, however, characterizes him as the key revivor of Illuminati-based conspiracy theory in postwar North America upon publication of his anti-Semitic screed Pawns in the Game in 1955. The Illuminati remains one of the foundational elements of conspiracy theory.
Blackmore and Carr are part of Canada’s conspiratorial heritage, a very real heritage that was/is constantly interacting with transnational currents attempting to explain the modern world.
Conspiracy theories are not just for the tinfoil hat set or the charlatan. These two men did not necessarily suffer a sudden mental break (as far as I can tell): they were simultaneously conspiracy theorist and politician or local dignitary. The scholarship of Michael Butter and Peter Knight has shown that conspiratorial thinking does not necessarily know solid class, gender, race, ethnic, age, or religious boundaries. Borrowing from Michael Barkun’s pathbreaking work, the barrier between conspiratorial thinking and the mainstream is permeable and always changing; historicizing conspiracy theories and challenging the easy binary of “fringe” and “mainstream” can help us to better understand the thinning and thickening of these barriers in time and space.
It is hackneyed at this point to acknowledge that right now the lines between fact and fiction are very tenuous. Historians, I think, can help, historicizing this tenuousness by grounding conspiracy theories in context, not relying on binaries, while still actively challenging conspiratorial conclusions. Historians can take this mode of thinking seriously without legitimating (let alone believing) the content by tracking how conspiratorial thinking migrates back and forth from “illegitimate” to “legitimate,” manifesting itself among “average” Canadians, in the halls of power, and even in the academy.
Dismissing Blackmore and Carr as merely fringe figures is aspirational; Blackmore and Carr are what we want to be easily dismissed.
Conspiracy theories rely on simplifying the complexity of the modern world, they attribute clear causation to unconnected events, and thrive on polarizing society into those who can see “the truth” (Us) and those undermining a “way of life” (Them). More often than not, “They” are an identifiable group: They are Jews, They are Communists, They are the Illuminati, They are the Chinese (They are all-of-the-above).
Just look at my opening example. Carr and Blackmore’s claim was only one component of much more elaborate, often hateful, ideas.
Blackmore made numerous references in his speeches to Asiatic peoples conspiring to destroy European Christianity, using the cover of Communism. He was a public proponent of the wildly anti-Semitic Khazar theory. As Barkun describes it, this theory posits that contemporary Jewish people are in fact the descendants of disingenuous Asiatic converts who used their status as God’s Chosen People to hoodwink the planet and impose One World Government. Western European Christians, according to this theory, were therefore the real inheritors of God’s covenant and had to defend the world against these Jewish-Satanic forces. Carr repeated this idea in Pawns.
Blackmore would go so far as to state publicly that Nazi Germany acted the way it did toward Jewish people because “the Germans ‘know the score’” and understood that the Communist conspiracy of a people “alien to Russia as to ourselves” was its gravest threat. Again, he was re-elected.
In Carr’s book, he advocated for his Ontario-based National Federation of Christian Laymen as the organization capable of revealing “the Truth”: that the chaos of the modern world had been caused by secret Satanic groups working to move mankind away from knowledge of God. These groups, as revealed in the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and a secret 1773 Meyer Rothschild speech Carr was told about (by an unrevealed source) were actually led by the “Jewish Illuminati” plotting to start World War Three and finally achieve a One World Government.
Carr shared Blackmore’s sentiment regarding Germany. He spends several pages of Pawns defending Hitler as “knowing the truth” about the Jewish nature of the World Revolutionary Movement: that it wanted to stoke war between the Commonwealth and Germany to soften them up for eventual “Communization.”
It was Carr’s work that, according to Ellis, was taken up by the far-right (specifically the John Birch Society in the US), updating late-eighteenth century Illuminati-based conspiracy theories and weaving in current events. It provided an updated narrative to an old fear. Carr’s work, in other words, had influence. It matters.
What we are experiencing now is not wholly new, but it can feel that way without background, especially in Canada where conspiracy theories are often dismissed as an American problem. Tell that to the “anti-maskers,” Holocaust deniers, and QAnon supporters across Canada. Tell that to Maxime Bernier who asked via Twitter during the 2019 federal election if Justin Trudeau was “LOYAL TO CANADA OR LOYAL TO A FUTURE WORLD GOVERNNMENT THAT WILL DESTROY CANADA?” Blackmores and Carrs are not isolated figures. They exist within national and transnational networks that are more widespread than many of us know or want to know. Conspiracy theories facilitate the erosion of diverse peoples living together by imposing malicious causation on the vagaries of the modern world. We should at least try to better understand our own conspiratorial heritage as, perhaps, both good scholarship and good citizenship.
Kevin Anderson is an instructor of Canadian history and Canadian Studies at the University of Calgary and Mount Royal University. His recently published manuscript Not Quite Us: Anti-Catholic Thought in English Canada Since 1900 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) explores the connection between anti-Catholicism and Canadian national identity in the 20th century, and his current research focuses on the intersections of conspiracy theories, religion, hate, and politics in post-WWII Canada.
 See “Fly Leaf,” Globe and Mail, December 4, 1943. “Canadian Author is Sailor Linked to Lord Nelson Era,” Globe and Mail June 2, 1945.
 Carr, Pawns in the Game (Willowdale, Ontario: Gadsby-Leek Co., 1955), 11-12, 97-98.
 Carr, Pawns, 160-163.
Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).
Michael Butter and Peter Knight, “Bridging the Great Divide: Conspiracy Theory Research for the 21st Century,” Diogenes (2016): 1-13.
Bill Ellis, Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2000).
Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” in The Paranoid Style in American Politics and other Essays (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), 3-40.
Janine Stingel, Social Discredit: Anti-Semitism, Social Credit, and the Jewish Response (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000).