March 5, 2016 update: A commenter has clarified that this rally took place instead of a rally in Detroit, which was thwarted by the mayor. This is alluded to in the 1927 Whig article but I wasn’t aware of any direct link when I wrote this post.
Anyone who’s dabbled in local history or Ontario history will have likely learned about the Ku Klux Klan’s Canadian operations in the 1920s, and perhaps even seen the photo above. Surprising as it seems, the KKK were here, and in 1927 they spent a day in Kingston burning crosses and inducting Klansmen and women. This story will hit you first with its shock value, but I found that researching the Ku Klux Klan in Ontario was extremely fascinating, and revealed a lot about the province’s past and how much we’ve changed in the ninety years since these events took place.
There were three iterations of the KKK which were for the most part unrelated. You can read some information on all of them on this History Channel page if you like (heads up: a video will begin playing). However, the version that we are concerned with is the one that arose in 1915, spurred in part by the D.W. Griffith film Birth of a Nation, as well as the turbulent labour and immigration climate in the United States at the time. While the original Ku Klux Klan of the 1860s was contained to the American South and concerned with bringing down the growing presence of blacks in public and political life, the Klan of the 1910s and 20s had branched out in geography and intolerance. New targets of hatred included not just non-whites, but Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and in Canada, French-Canadians. See the ad below for the Kingston demonstration:
The history of the Ku Klux Klan in Canada is splintered, but essentially it took root here because it was a commercial enterprise and needed more money to operate. If more members could be gained, the KKK could get more donations, and spread their (incoherent) message far and wide. Ironically, although the KKK found success in Western Canada, it struggled in Ontario because the prevailing culture was already infused with many of the values it espoused – there was no “room” for it to expand. The Conservative Party, always popular with white Protestants, was in power during much of the 1920s, and they were influenced by the Loyal Orange Lodge, a Protestant Irish fraternal organization. So the majority of people who were interested in furthering white Protestant goals were already enjoying a wealth of choices that were considered respectable and decent.
It’s important to note that although the Ku Klux Klan was present in Ontario, it was not considered respectable and decent. The police were all over it, and it was derided in newspapers as “a public nuisance” and “a scheme to sell cotton nightgowns to boobs.” The Klan first made news in Ontario in 1923, and over the next few years it attempted to terrorize individuals in southwestern Ontario, with its higher black population. These attempts were generally not successful: in one case a man, targeted because he was believed to be involved with a black woman, simply booted the Klansmen off his property. The provincial police stated that as long as people aren’t breaking the law they can organize, but they were very suspicious. Their concern went all the way up to Ontario Attorney General William Nickle, a Kingston native.
However, after a peak in about 1923-24, the Klan’s presence in Ontario began to fizzle. Offshoot groups with no real connection to the true KKK haphazardly sprung up, and were lambasted in the press. Very few “respectable” people, whatever their feelings about minorities, wanted to be attached to a group that was undergoing high-level police evaluation. So it’s kind of unusual that Kingston’s Klan rally occurred in the summer of 1927, long after their criminal intentions had been exposed.
Up until 1927, the only other reference I can find to the Ku Klux Klan in Kingston newspapers is an article from 13 April 1868, in the Kingston Daily News. Republished from a publication called Every Afternoon, the article titled “The Kuk-Klux Klan” evocatively describes the first iteration of the KKK (full disclosure: I can’t help but hear this in a whispered Southern accent):
All at once, with the suddenness of a mid-summer thunderstorm, there has arrisen [sic] at the South and overspread the whole political sky of that quarter, a dark cloud that threatens a dangerous disturbance of the elements of society. A mysterious secret organization, known as the Kuk Klux Klan, has extended its affiliations everywhere throughout the States lately in rebellion, and has, here and there, signalized its active existence by deeds of blood.
The article, despite a few racist stereotypes found later on, is clearly critical of the KKK. But oddly, the 1927 article takes a very neutral tone towards the Kingston demonstration. The event, which took place on 31 July in the area roughly north of the Kingston Centre, was very large and came after a demonstration in Brockville in June. The newspaper account, which is surprisingly dull, deals mostly with propaganda in the speakers’ (who were not all Canadian) speeches. It was the usual hate group rhetoric: we’re not “against” the others, we just want to promote and protect our own interests:
J.S. Lord very strongly denied . . . that Klansmen were the enemies of Roman Catholics or any others who differed from them in their religious opinions, classing such talk as “a damnable lie. This organization stands for British solidarity and unity . . .”
This quotation also shows that at this time, the Ku Klux Klan could be morphed to fit any region and prejudice. What American Klansman would preach about “British solidarity”? And since Eastern Ontario’s black population was minimal, the race element of Klan propaganda had been reduced to almost nothing. More pressing concerns in this region were faith differences, immigration, and of course, the threat of communism:
“What is Canada doing with the hundreds of thousands of foreigners who are coming to her shores. Let me tell you that in one city in Canada there are sixteen Sunday Schools teaching the ‘red bible,’ Bolshevism. The K.K.K. will not stand for that.”
Meanwhile, between speeches I guess, the Klan members donned their robes, burned five crosses, and inducted sixteen men and nine women into their ranks. There’s no word on whether these people were Kingstonians.
In sum, the day went well, which is a bit depressing for a modern researcher to learn. It attracted a very large gathering from Ontario and New York, was relatively peaceful, and the publicity it received via the Whig-Standard article was hardly negative. It’s good that the group behaved themselves, but it seems many in Kingston may not have had the same apprehensions about the Ku Klux Klan that others in Ontario did. Luckily, the KKK was on the outs in Canada by 1927, and once the Great Depression hit, most people had more important things to do than put on silly costumes and attend rallies.
I don’t doubt that for as many people as attended Kingston’s 1927 demonstration, there was an equal amount that found it distasteful. However, we must remember that the only reason the Ku Klux Klan didn’t do so well in Ontario was because its values were already endemic here. It would take many more decades of immigration and assimilation before Ontarians would begin to embrace the multiculturalism enjoyed here today.
The Vintage Kingston Facebook post regarding this event, which you can find by clicking here, was extremely helpful in preparing this post and was also how I found the following article, thanks to a helpful commenter:
Bartley, Allan. “A Public Nuisance: The Ku Klux Klan in Ontario 1923-27.” Journal of Canadian Studies 30, no. 3 (Fall 1995): 156-174.
“The Kuk-Klux Klan.” Kingston Daily News, 13 April 1868.
“Second Annual Open Air Demonstration of the Ku Klux Klan.” Advertisement. Kingston Whig-Standard, 30 July 1927.
“Twenty-Five Thousand People at Ku Klux Klan Demonstration. Kingston Whig-Standard, 1 August 1927.