By Julian Sher
In the early 1980s, when the Canadian Ku Klux Klan once again began to stir up racial hatred, the response from the provincial and federal governments was sluggish at best. This was best typified in British Columbia when the then opposition New Democratic Party tried to introduce a toothless resolution against the Klan. The ruling Socreds refused to allow the motion onto the floor of the legislature for debate.
Every single top leader of the Klan in Ontario - James McQuirter, Wolfgang Droege, Jacob Prins, Armand Siskna - had previous criminal charges or convictions. Several Klan members were arrested for breaking a public mischief law. But in no jurisdiction anywhere in Canada in the 1980s were any Klan members ever accused, much less arrested or put on trial, for hate crimes.
Not that Canada's hate propaganda laws have much teeth. The Criminal Code states anyone who "incites hatred against an identifiable group" is liable to up to two years in prison. But there are plenty of legal loopholes through which the Klan can ram a burning cross.
The law says you must "willfully" promote hate -- but intent is very hard to prove. And the law says belief in the truth of your statements can be a defense. So, not surprisingly, the Klan's newspaper, The Statesman, published a disclaimer saying the KKK "does not willfully promote hatred. The Statesman believes all statements made on its pages to be true."
With lawmakers and the law unable to stem the Klan's rise, it fell to popular movements - local anti-racist coalitions, trade unions and progressive groups - to take on and ultimately defeat the modern Klan.
When the Klan opened its first Canadian office in the multi-ethnic working class area of Riverdale, residents were quick to respond. Rev. John Robson of the local Presbyterian Church knew the dangers the Klan posed: "Where there's unemployment and fear because of people from different cultures moving into an old community, it's a good way for the Klan to organize a political base - by capitalizing on those feelings and trying to fan that into a flame."
Resolutions against the Klan were passed by community centers, church groups and legal aid clinics. In the summer of 1980, RACAR was born - Riverdale Action Committee Against Racism. "We got together and set out to build a community-based organization," said coordinator Dierdre Power. "Its focus was simple: to get rid of the Klan."
RACAR set up groups to produce a regular newsletter which decried "government inaction and the media's game of sensationalism." To counter the Klan's recruitment of young people, RACAR handed out brochures in school yards and playgrounds. When the KKK appeared in some schools, teachers invited RACAR people to speak to the students. RACER also went door to door in the neighbourhood near the Klan headquarters, handing out literature in English, Greek, Punjabi and Portuguese. In a few months, more than 3,000 Riverdale residents signed an anti-Klan petition. Racer’s efforts reached a peak in May of 1981 when 1,000 people took part in what was by far the largest anti-Klan rally Canada had seen. The community festival was sponsored by 60 trade unions, community groups and a broad spectrum of organizations such as the Native-American Prisoners' Rights Committee and the Chinese-Canadian National Council for Equality. As the crowd marched through the streets past Klan headquarters, residents came out to cheer them on. Less than a month after this show of force, the Klan moved out of Riverdale.
Finding a new home proved difficult. The Klan moved to Toronto's west end, on a quiet tree-lined street in Park dale. It did not take long for the KKK to find out it was not welcome there either. A demonstration was organized by community activists. "No Nazis, kick the Klan out," 350 people chanted as they marched past the Klan's new headquarters.
The protest laid the basis for a new coalition modeled after RACER - this time called the Park dale Action Committee Against Racism. "We wanted to make it clear that opposition was going to follow the Klan wherever they went and that communities were not going to tolerate the KKK," said one of the founders, John Meyers. PACAR brought together Filipino, Caribbean, Chinese, Japanese, Latin American and other members of the community. A public education group produced a leaflet on the dangers of the Klan. More than 4,000 people signed a petition against the Klan. And 500 protest letters were sent to the phone company for allowing the KKK to have a listing. To end the year, PACAR held a "Rock against Racism" dance attended by 500 people.
PACAR was so effective that the Klan never achieved the level of activity in Park dale that it had elsewhere - not a single school in the area was visited by the Klan, not a single street was hit by Klan literature distribution. "The Klan just can't get a foothold because the community is healthy," Meyers concluded.
In British Columbia, the Klan faced the same kind of popular resistance. In November, 1980, the British Columbia Organization to Fight Racism (BCOFR) was created and made the Klan one of its first targets. The BCOFR called for a legal ban on the Klan and its activities. "Freedom of speech is definitely a fundamental right," argued a leader of the BCOFR. "But the Klan should not be allowed to infringe on the rights of others, to propagate hatred towards national and ethnic minorities."
The new organization held its first public meeting in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey, attracting more than 400 people to its "Take a Stand, Ban the Klan" rally. Many of its members and organizers came from the province's South Asian community - a prime target of the Klan's racism - but the BCOFR also took steps to build a much broader coalition against the Klan. Its actions were endorsed by groups such as the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the Tribal Council of British Columbia and the Chinese Benevolent Association. Several trade unions backed the BCOFR, including the B.C. Teachers Federation, the Vancouver and District Labour Council and the Telecommunications Workers Union (which invited a BCOFR representative to its annual convention). "We have a united front against the Klan," explained a BCOFR representative.
It showed. A petition calling for a ban on the Klan was circulated in trade union and student circles and in various ethnic communities; 16,000 people eventually signed it. Then, 750 people took part in the largest anti-racism demonstration Vancouver had seen in years, as they marched to the downtown government offices to hand the petition to the Attorney General.
In other parts of the country, too, community response to the Klan was sharp and effective. In Nova Scotia, a quickly-formed Coalition against the KKK brought together members of the province's large black community, some Jewish residents and other citizens. About 250 people came to the coalition's first public meeting, where messages of support were read from East Indian, Chinese and African groups and labour unions.
It was ironic. The Klan's avowed goal was the separation of the races and the incitement of race hatred, yet its appearance in Canada sparked a vigorous, grassroots movement that united diverse national, ethnic and political forces. Black groups such as the Black United Front in Halifax and the National Black Coalition of Canada spoke out against the Klan. So did the Chinese Benevolent Association, the Chinese Canadian National Council for Equality, and the Indian Peoples Association of North America. Native American groups in Regina and Vancouver added their voices to the anti-Klan chorus. Jewish and Catholic groups called on governments to take stronger action. Labour unions also lent their support. Labour councils in Vancouver, Regina, Windsor, Sudbury and Cape Breton passed resolutions calling for a ban on the Klan.
"By its own presence, the Klan has sown the seed of its own destruction," said Norman Kwon at one of the first anti-Klan rallies in Toronto. "They think they can divide us, but they have actually brought us together."
The Klan of the 1980s lasted only a few years. But the lessons of unity and direct action that were learned in communities across the country would linger for much longer.