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Seeing Reds: The Red Scare of 1918-1919, Canada’s First War on Terror

By Daniel Francis

Review By Duff Sutherland

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 175 Autumn 2012  | p. 126-28

In Seeing Reds: The Red Scare of 1918-1919, Canada’s First War on Terror, Daniel Francis provides an overview of the response of the Canadian state and elite to the postwar labour revolt. Although written for a popular audience, Francis makes extensive use of the wealth of academic writing and research produced on the topic over the past generation. He also nicely sets the events in Canada within the broader context of the worldwide social, political, and economic upheaval in the aftermath of the First World War.

Francis concludes that working people wanted change in Canada after the First World War but that there was not a widespread desire for violent revolution. Viewed in this light, the government and employer demonization and repression of working class organizations, leaders, and dissent during and after the war reveals the fragility of liberal freedoms and democracy in Canada. Looking back over the past century, Francis concludes that, “[w]hen faced with perceived threats to security…, the Canadian government, with the support of the press and much of the public, has responded…with Robert Borden’s stern hand of repression”(246). While parts of these conclusions may be debated, Seeing Reds is nonetheless an engaging and useful work which deserves a wide readership.

As his title suggests, Francis finds the roots of Canada’s “Red Scare” in the events of the First World War. Working class Canadians came to deeply resent the Borden government’s handling of the war effort which saw industrialists profit on munitions contracts, a soaring cost of living, high casualty rates devastate working families, the imposition of conscription of manpower but not wealth, and the internment of immigrant workers as dangerous “foreigners.” By war’s end, many working class Canadians felt the country had to change; their radical union and political leaders saw the revolutions unfolding in Germany and Russia as models for this change.

Certainly the Borden government, along with many business leaders and a large part of the middle class, saw the growing discontent sweeping the country as the beginnings of a revolution. In response, the government used its wartime powers to crush working class protests, strikes, and dissent — a campaign which continued until 1920 and included the suppression of radical unions and parties, the deportation and jailing of leftists, widespread censorship including the banning of foreign-language newspapers, the use of police and militia forces to break up strikes and protests, and the mainstream media’s demonization of “Reds” as dangerous and ruthless terrorists.

According to Francis, the full-blown repression of the scare began in the summer of 1918 when Canadian workers were in outright revolt. A strike wave rolled across the country, radicals led the union movement, there was an explosion of anger at the killing of the labour organizer and draft resister, Ginger Goodwin, and many were following the successes of the Bolsheviks in Russia. The scare culminated with state and employer actions — organized by the Citizen’s Committee of 1000 — to break the Winnipeg General Strike which the elite feared was part of a broader conspiracy to overthrow the “system.” For the government and industrialist “scaremongers,” this conspiracy could be traced back to, among other events, the Western Labor Conference in Calgary in March 1919 where radical union leaders had endorsed the formation of the revolutionary One Big Union. Francis determines that the scare wound down after the courts found the Winnipeg strike leaders guilty of seditious conspiracy at the end of the famous “show trials” of 1920, which were prosecuted by members of the city’s elite.

All of this is written in a clear and compelling way. One problem, though, with viewing this critical period in Canadian history as a passing episode (a “scare”) is that it underestimates how long the repression went on. In British Columbia, one can see all of the same techniques of state and employer repression present in the breaking of the Wobbly-led logger strikes of 1923-4. At the same time, it is hard to disagree with the examples Francis presents in his conclusion of other moments when the Canadian government responded with repression to perceived threats to the stability of the state — from the Communist party activism of the 1930s to the current “war on terror.” This does reveal the fragile nature of freedom of expression and the rule of law in Canada. However, one could argue that Canada’s elite, rather than episodically, has always and continuously taken threats to its interests seriously. One feels, too, that the Strike Bulletin editor Abe Heap’s call at the end of the war for a “better day” does represent an ongoing desire and efforts by many to build a significantly different Canada. 

Seeing Reds: The Red Scare of 1918-1919, Canada’s First War on Terror
By Daniel Francis
Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010. 280 pp. Illus. 27.95 cloth.