- Keeping Canada British: The Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Saskatchewan by James M. Pitsula
A burning cross emblazons the cover of James Pitsula’s Keeping Canada British: The Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Saskatchewan, a sign of the violence the reader expects within. And yet the Saskatchewan Klan did not lynch anyone and did not raid and run rampant over its opponents’ houses and stores; when it burned crosses, it burned them in fields as a spectacle for its members, not as a warning to others. The Klan was, Pitsula reminds the reader throughout, a hateful organization but also a self-consciously British law-and-order organization in step with its time.
Keeping Canada British is divided in half. The first half tells the story of the growth of the Klan from 1927 until 1929. The Klan came to Saskatchewan with Kleagles (organizers) from Indiana who set up shop in Moose Jaw and branched out from there. Pitsula follows the growth of the Klan as its original organizers returned to the United States, taking what money there was with them, and its continued growth, led mainly by local men, but feeding off of the oratory skills of another American organizer. This section nicely balances the public story of organizers, speeches, and rallies with the fine details of how one became a member, what fees one paid, and how it worked. It ends in 1929 when the Klan was at its largest.
The second half of the book is much broader in scope, presenting a story of racism, anti-Catholicism, the rise of the provincial Conservative Party, and the fall of the Liberal government. All of these involved the Klan but often in a supporting, even marginal, role to the broader tale. This demonstrates one of Pitsula’s key arguments: however awful the Klan seems in retrospect, it was part of the broader, pro-British Protestant chauvinism of the time. These sentiments, shared to a degree by people [End Page 541] from across the political spectrum, pitched English-language public schools against Catholic schools. Similarly, a broad spectrum of people, from J.S. Woodsworth to John Diefenbaker, accepted as truth the imagined superiority of British people and northwestern Europeans over central and southern Europeans, let alone Africans, Asians, and North American indigenous people. Pitsula pulls together these stories of nativism in early twentieth-century Saskatchewan and inserts the Klan where they attempted to make their presence known.
Looming over the whole of the Klan’s story in 1920s Saskatchewan is Liberal premier Jimmy Gardiner. His rise to political prominence, his war against the Klan in 1928 and 1929, and his loss in the 1929 election form a parallel story to the Klan’s own rise and fall. In following Gardiner as well, Pitsula traces the anti-Klan organizing that began immediately after its founding. At the same time, Pitsula effectively uses Gardiner, as the Klan’s most vocal critic, to show how mainstream the Klan’s ideology was. Its anti-Catholicism, its racism, its prizing of British people and institutions to the detriment of all others were matched by Gardiner’s own similar views and the Liberals’ own policies when in power.
The last chapter of the book is the final showdown between the Klan and Gardiner, in the 1929 election. Pitsula argues that the Klan was key to the Conservatives’ eventual victory. The evidence he presents shows the Klan playing an active role in the election. Pitsula also draws out a lot more evidence on Conservative organizing and growing dissatisfaction with the Liberals. I finished the chapter sure that the Klan took part but not that the Conservatives “owed their victory to the Klan,” as he argues.
I imagine Pitsula starting out to write a history of the Klan only to discover that there was not all that much history there. The book he has written is all the better for it. The intricacies of the institutional life of the Klan provide a fascinating insider history of an organization assumed to be secretive. But...