SEEING REDS: The Red Scare of 1918-1919, Canada’s First War on Terror, by Daniel Francis, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010, 280 pages, ISBN 978-1-55152-373-6.
Review by Kimball Cariou
When the danger of fascism in Canada is discussed, some argue that we already live under fascism. It is true that “democracy” in our society is severely restricted by the power of big capital over politics and the media. But generations of struggle for working class rights and freedom of speech have achieved important gains, making Canada today very different from Hitler Germany or Pinochet’s Chile.
More insidious is the claim that “fascism could never happen here.” This concept encourages people to downplay the significance of attacks on freedom and democracy, or to ignore the possibility of an “open terrorist dictatorship” of the most reactionary sections of the ruling class.
Could it happen here? A new book by historian Daniel Francis warns that this threat could become reality, “regardless of our commitment to freedom of expression and the rule of law.”
Francis has written books on topics ranging from the whaling industry, to coastal First Nations, to the origins of the sex trade in Vancouver.
In Seeing Reds: The Red Scare of 1918-1919, Canada’s First War on Terror, Francis goes back to the First World War and the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. His research points to frightening parallels with the capitalist state’s post-9/11 policies, especially the tendency in both eras to trample on civil rights as the primary response to a hyper-inflated “terrorist threat.”
Francis presents a vivid picture of sharp class and political struggles across Canada during the early 20th century, from the perspectives of both the ruling class and the emerging movements for labour rights, peace and socialism. He shows how the ruthless greed of employers stimulated the rise of radical concepts in all parts of Canada. Among the “traditional” population from the British Isles, and the more recent (and supposedly dangerous!) immigrants from eastern Europe, trade unionism and socialist parties made rapid gains.
This advance was temporarily choked off by the First World War. Many workers knew that the war would slaughter millions for the enrichment of big capital. But others were sucked in by flag-waving propaganda, rallying to help save the British Empire from the ravages of “the Hun.”
Four years of war shattered many illusions. The bloodbath in Europe was accompanied at home by massive war profiteering and a sharp decline in living standards. The October Revolution in Russia proved that workers and soldiers could overthrow the existing order and usher in working class power. When the troops began returning to Canada, a powerful upsurge in strikes and revolutionary sentiments was underway.
Not surprisingly, the pro-business “Union” government of Conservative Robert Borden was terrified by the bubbling tide of working class anger which led up to the Winnipeg General Strike. The government threw its resources into a dirty propaganda campaign, police spies and provocateurs, deportations, violence, and mass censorship.
Politically, the attack assumed two main forms. One was the accusation that labour radicals had been “unpatriotic” for stirring up anti-war sentiments. Closely related was the charge that unrest was spread by “Bolsheviks” – a term which covered everything from the genuine item to the mildest of reformers. Fourteen labour and political organizations were banned, massive amounts of literature were seized, and letters were routinely intercepted by the police. Progressive Canadians were indeed the target of a fascist onslaught.
The details make for compelling reading. But even more thought-provoking is the author’s conclusion: “If there is a lesson to be learned from the Red Scare, it is that it – or something like it – will almost certainly happen again… If history teaches us anything, it is that in Canada we will cross the line whenever it feels as if the country is threatened.”
In other words, yes, it can happen here. It’s up to us to make sure it doesn’t.