Sunday, January 15, 2012

Since You Brought it Up: Stephen Harper and R.B. Bennett

In 1931, during a particularly stormy debate in the House of Commons, a member of the Opposition asked Conservative MP Walter D. Cowan, why he didn't wear his "nightshirt". An odd question to be raised in Parliament, but a very significant one.

Before winning his seat in the federal election of 1930, Cowan had acted as treasurer for the Ku Klux Klan in Saskatchewan. In fact, several new Tory MPs, who joined the government of R.B. Bennett, were affiliated with the Klan.

Quebec Liberal MP, Jean F. Pouliot, produced official Klan documents showing that Cowan, as treasurer, had overseen the collection of more than $40,000 in dues and donations in the province, for which he was paid a salary of $2,170. Pouliot also charged that Ambrose Bury, the Conservative MP from Edmonton, was a Klan member and noted "that body celebrated his victory by burning crosses on the side of a hill near Edmonton." Then in 1934, Pouliot alleged that not only Cowan and Bury, but new Regina MP F.W. Turnbull "and other members of the Ku Klux Klan" were sitting in the Tory side of Parliament.

Initially Bennett refused to address the accusations until the media ran with the story and he was forced to make a public statement denouncing the Klan.

In his new book on Bennett, The Rebel Who Changed a Nation, John Boyko states that the Conservatives in Saskatchewan had been so aggressively anti-Catholic, that even the KKK endorsed several candidates. He's being kind. The relationship between the Conservatives of the 1920s and the Invisible Empire ran much deeper.  We have to remember that the Klan of that day, especially in Canada, were not like the KKK of the post Antebellum  period in the South.

They did not engage in lynchings or castrations, but were more of a religious fundamentalist group, policing morality, endorsing vigilante justice and protecting their White Ango-Saxon Protestant heritage.  As such their targets of hatred were Jews, Catholics and French Canadians.

Boyko's book is the first full-length biography of this controversial prime minister, and he suggests that one of the reasons for that is that Bennett burned most of his papers.  I think it's more likely that Bennett burned most of his papers to avoid having such a book written.

I noticed in the bibliography, that Boyko does not mention two very important books written of this era.  Julian Sher's White Hoods:  Canada Ku Klux Klan (Newstar, 1983) and Martin Robin's Shades of Right: Nativist and Fascist Politics in Canada 1920-1940 (University of Toronto Press 1992)

He also avoids mentioning Cowan, Bury or Turnbull.

Yet at the time, Regina dentist Walter Davy Cowan, was very open about his involvement with the Klan, not only acting as their treasurer, but was a popular speaker at their rallies, including the one advertised on the left, that took place on May 15, 1929.
Klan membership lists were filled with the names of Tory supporters, and their meetings attended and harangued by party activists. According to Dr Walter D. Cowan, the Klan treasurer, Regina Conservative elected for Long Lake to the House of Commons in the general election of 1930, and columnist for the Regina Standard, the Klan was 'the most complete political organization ever known' in the West.  'Every organizer in it is a Tory,' he wrote R.B. Bennett. 'It cost over a thousand dollars a week to pay them. I know it for I pay them. And I never pay a Grit. Smile when you hear anything about this organization and keep silent.' (Robin 1992, p.68)  
Cowan's advice of "silence" was heeded not only by Bennett, but by many "prominent Conservative colleagues who welcomed the Klan's arrival, appreciated its ignition potentials and gloated over prospects of a political windfall."  And according to Robin, " J.F Bryant, the Tory lawyer and Orangeman, was a key player in the Tory-Klan game."

History has sought to downplay the role of the Klan in Canada, but when it is reduced to a few lines in a new book, suggesting only that Bennett's anti-Catholic stance inspired several Klan members to vote for him, it looks like a deliberate attempt to obliterate that history.
But why?
Telling are some of the endorsements for Boyko's book.  Conservative Senator Hugh Segal claims that it should be required reading "for any Canadian who wants to understand the real roots of modern Conservatism."   Indeed, in the book Boyko compares Stephen Harper to Bennett, though he may understand Harper as little as he understands, or refuses to understand, Bennett.
Segal is right in many respects.  Bennett was cool and aloof, a multi-millionaire corporate lawyer who assisted in many mergers, and refused to address poverty.  Under pressure, he attempted a few measures during the Depression, but they were too little, too late.  During the 2008 election debate, when the topic was rising unemployment, Harper claimed to understand, himself once being unemployed for a long period of time.  When pressed on the issue, turns out that it was by choice.  His wife had a thriving business printing material for the Reform/Alliance Party, so he spent his time planning for the next election.  Not really the same thing.
And then of course his suggestion that the recession provided an opportunity to buy cheap stocks.  People worrying about putting food on the table, are hardly looking for bargains in the stock market.
Both men lack empathy, although Bennett grew up poor, unlike Harper who grew up in privilege.  His father made a bundle on an accounting program he designed for Esso and Harper grew up in a high-middle-class WASP neighbourhood.
Another endorsement comes from Brian Lee Crowley, a Neoconservative activist with ties to many right-wing think tanks.
In an interview with Allan Gregg, Boyko states that much of the negativity surrounding Bennett, has been exaggerated, claiming to have found little evidence of "Bennett Buggies", the name given to cars with their engines removed and hooked up to horses (In the U.S. they were "Hoover wagons").  But they were real and images can be found in many places.  A trip to the library will help.
Perhaps the most important similarity between Stephen Joseph Harper and Richard Bedford Bennett, is that both used religious fundamentalists and the radical right to get elected, then attempted to dismiss them once they got they wanted: POWER.  And yet the policies of both men reflect the desires of religious fundamentalists and the radical right, including tough immigration rules, a roll back of earned "rights", and an attack on the French language, to name a few.
In Allan J. Lichtman's White Protestant Nation (Atlantic Press, 2008), he traces the modern American conservative movement to the Era of the Klan, a strong political force in the 1920s and 30s.  According to Hugh Segal, so can Canada's modern day conservatism, which successfully managed to eradicate the "progressive" years, just as the American conservatives try to forget the impact of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the last moderate Republican president.
After accusations of the "new" conservatism being more a "radical conservatism", every bit an oxymoron as Stephen Harper's suggestion that "progressive conservatism" was the same, American Cory Robin claimed that they were reactionary Tories in the same vein as Edmund Burke.  And what Burke reacted to was the French Revolution.
After being sent his argument by one of my right-wing followers, I reminded him of another "reactionary conservative" party that had embraced Edmund Burke.  From a radio broadcast on April 1, 1933, "the year 1789 has been expunged from the records of history." 
"It was obvious to all why 1933 was being compared to 1789.  "Any contemporary, whether schooled in history or not, instinctively knew that the French Revolution was the measure of things in the modern world. 'We want to eradicate the ideology of liberalism and replace it with a new sense of community'"  (Foundational Pasts: The Holocaust as Historical Understanding, By Alon Confino, Cambridge University Press, 2011, ISBN 978-0-52173-632-9, p. 6)
The man making that announcement? Joseph Goebbels.  According to Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism:
While the seeds of German race-thinking were planted during the Napoleonic wars, the beginnings of the later English development appeared during the French Revolution and may be traced back to the man who violently denounced it as the "most astonishing [crisis] that has hitherto happened in the world"—to Edmund Burke . The tremendous influence his work has exercised not only on English but also on German political thought is well known.
It should be noted that John Boyko is a teacher at Lakefield College School, listed as one of the most expensive private schools in the country.  They are also under royal patronage, due in part to a famous former student, Prince Andrew.
The Orange Lodge and the Klan worked in tandem during Bennett's time, and while the Klan has lost most of its influence, the Orange Lodge and their counterpart, the Monarchist League, are working to restore our WASP heritage.
They are behind the rewriting of our citizenship guide, returning the "Royal" to our military and are now pushing to have a crown placed on our Olympic uniforms.
This new biography on Bennett provides an opportunity to have an adult discussion on the roots of the current movement, and the impact of radical right-wing fringe groups.  We no longer have to open the door a crack, because Boyko has flung it wide open.


  1. As usual nothing more than sheer excellence I never miss a day without reading your article have told others they like it to informative educational and above all interesting!!

  2. This was fascinating. Thanks for your take. I am not a historian, but when I was reading up on a relative who was a labour leader, and engaged in a shouting match with RB Bennett at the conclusion of the On to Ottawa Trek, I was struck at the similarities between Bennett and Harper. So, I did a google search, and bingo. Very worrisome times in Canadian history, then and now. I created a Facebook post about your blog entry on my timeline.