Conveniently forgotten, an unsavoury, hate-filled bit of Ontario history is revealed when it falls, literally, from the rafters.
By: Alex Ballingall News, Published on Tue Jan 07 2014
Hooded men in spectral robes hold arcane rituals in the woods on the edge of town. Burning crosses light up the night from perches in the distant hills.
The images are chilling, and what they intimate is repugnant to the 21st century mind. But it’s all there, typed out in reams of paper splayed across Sarah Baumchem’s kitchen table, remnants from the Ku Klux Klan’s foray into southern Ontario, nine decades ago.
The mother of three boys shakes her head as she leafs through the aged documents. Her hands pass over strange symbols and Latin lettering, numbered KKK membership cards, Klan bulletins and communiqués. She usually keeps it all tucked away in a box, hidden from her children.
“This isn’t classed as history. It’s classed as hate. I couldn’t just sell it on Kijiji or anything,” says Baumchem, 34, wrapped in a snug hoodie with a big shaggy dog pawing at her chair in the warmth of her home, on a windy stretch of country road about 30 kilometers north of Bowmanville.
She is quick to emphasize the mystery as to whom the documents once belonged. Baumchem found the papers in the rickety rafters of an old wooden barn about two and a half years ago. She was cleaning up a neighbour’s property, clearing bucket after bucket of debris from the old barn, when a few sheets of paper fluttered down from the ceiling. The date “1918” caught her eye, and her curiosity was piqued.
“My reaction was — ‘Everybody, stop what you’re doing. We need to figure out what this stuff is.’”
Once she realized what it all was, she faced a conundrum. Though eerily fascinating, the documents of the so-called “Invisible Empire” carry the darkness of a racialist ideology with disquieting echoes of some of the last century’s most shameful streams of thinking: eugenics, segregation and fascism among them.
“I was told by a couple people to ‘Burn it, burn it, burn it. It’s hate,’ Baumchem says. She pauses. “ … But you can’t get rid of history.”
Matthew Bullock had a job at Union Station when the Ku Klux Klan proclaimed him a wanted man. It was March 1922, and the plight of the “young negro” from North Carolina was profiled in the Toronto Star.
Accused of inciting riots in the southern state, Bullock had fled north to the Ontario capital. At the time of his interview with the Star, the Klan had reportedly threatened to send robed riders to fetch Bullock and whisk him back to the American south. Adding to the poignancy of the danger, the reporter noted that Bullock’s brother had already been killed by Klansmen in the U.S.
“It looks to me like this was intended to scare me,” Bullock was quoted as saying in 1922.
The report is an early mention in the pages of Toronto’s newspaper of the American organization known for its secrecy. After decades of dormancy, the KKK had re-emerged in U.S. society during the First World War, with a 1915 film on the organization, Birth of a Nation, propelling the image of the burning cross and white-robed rider into the popular consciousness of the time.
Through the mid-1920s, as evidenced by Baumchem’s documents and dozens of newspaper reports, factions of this second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan would creep into Canada, sprouting branches from Vancouver to the Maritimes and enlisting thousands of followers.
Their movements were routinely reported in the Toronto Star, especially once the organization took root in the area. Articles told of crosses burning in the hills of Hamilton, of a dynamite explosion at a Catholic church in Barrie whose suspected orchestrator had Klan ties, and robed Klansmen laying a wreath at the city hall cenotaph.
What made these groups different from their American cousins, however, was a focus on preserving a narrow, religious- and ethnic-based notion of Britishness in Canada, explains James Pitsula, a University of Regina historian whose book on the KKK,Keeping Canada British, was published last year.
“The Klan in its various incarnations is not always the same thing. There are elements that are the same, like the racial ideology, but there are different emphases,” he says.
“(In the 1920s), they were trying to, I would say, preserve Anglo-Saxon, Protestant hegemony.”
This bent is clearly spelled out in the documents Baumchem found, which are full of unsettling references to racial purity and the evils of Roman Catholicism.
For instance, there’s a white card that bears a Klan saying, in Latin, Non Silba Sed Anthar, which means: “not for oneself, but for others.” Below, the card describes the main principles of the “Ku Klux Klan of Kanada” — one of the more prominent KKK groups in the country in the mid-’20s — including “white supremacy” and “pure nationalism.” It ends with a pledge for the signatory: “I am a white, gentile, protestant and will betray no confidence.”
It’s difficult to imagine, but the general tenets of such thought were hardly marginal in the Canada of the 1920s, says Pitsula. Long-standing anti-Catholicism was particularly expressed in antipathy toward the Quebecois and Irish immigrants. Further, “there was sympathy for the concerns of the Klan” when it came to immigration policy, especially in its opposition to the arrival of people from southern and eastern Europe, says Pitsula.
“There was a lot of sympathy for the ideas of the Klan … The Klan was a more extreme version of what many people believed.”
That much is on display in a Star article from March 1926, which describes a speech given by J.H. Hawkins, the American leader of a group called the KKK of the British Empire — noted in several of Baumchem’s documents — at an open Klan gathering in Parkdale.
Hawkins railed against Bolshevism, lamented immigration from the Balkans, and posited that Anglo-Saxon people should be the only ones to settle Canada. The speech received “whole-hearted applause,” the Star reported.
Despite the interest and values of the era, the Klan organizations in Ontario never built the same foundation they had in places like Saskatchewan, where Pitsula says membership hit more than 25,000 by the late ’20s.
But that failure to thrive here wasn’t due to widespread denunciation of their ideas (though condemnation was by no means absent); it was because more established groups in Ontario already commanded the political space for such thinking, says Pitsula, citing a 1995 article on the subject by historian Allan Bartley.
“In Saskatchewan, there was more point to the Klan, because the Klan could be used to mobilize support against the Liberal machine,” he says. “It had a purpose, it had a utility, for those who wanted to change the government,” he says.
Conversely, in Ontario, groups such as the Orange Order had long ago cornered the ideological market for anti-immigration views and support for the idea of white Protestant supremacy, Pitsula says. Bartley’s article agrees, citing the Orange Order as “chief” among the organizations representing “the residue of racism” left over in the province from the late 19th century British imperial mentality.
There simply wasn’t room for a robust Klan in Ontario.
So it faded away. Fowler left for the U.S. in 1926, leaving the KKK of Kanada in the hands of Canadians like New Brunswick MLA James Lord, while Hawkins headed west and made a brief appearance in the Klan operations on the Prairies, according to Pitsula’s book.
“These were people who were angry and frustrated,” Pitsula says of Canada’s Klan members.
“They were trying to preserve the old Canada that they had fought for in the First World War, when they were fighting for British civilization, British values,” he says.
Refuses to destroy
Cigarette propped between her fingers, Baumchem steers her car over the rolling hills of a snow-swept gravel road in Ontario farm country. Not far beyond the tree-lined horizon, to the south and east and west, the KKK found fertile ground for recruitment 90 years ago.
In early December, an agent with the PBS show Antiques Roadshow visited the area, and Baumchem decided to show her the Klan documents she’d found. Though their monetary worth is unclear, their historic value is notable, Baumchem was told.
The Roadshow official also noted the sensitivity of the papers, especially given that they include a two-sided sheet listing more than 60 dues-paying members of the Ku Klux Klan of Kanada’s Oshawa chapter.
“The names are what make it dangerous,” says Baumchem, taking a drag from her cigarette. “Nobody wants to be tied to that.”
Having grown up in Parry Sound, a small town on the shores of Lake Huron, Baumchem says she’s no stranger to lingering prejudices, intolerance based on religion and ethnicity.
That’s why she’s refuses to destroy them.
“We learn from those mistakes in history,” she says, pulling into her driveway.
“That’s how we learn to be better people. You need to feel that disgust in your belly.”