Sunday, January 23, 2011

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

When you look at the world through the prism of history, the events that unfold today can appear luminously connected to the events of the past. In Seeing Reds: The Red Scare of 1918-1919, Canada’s First War on Terror (Arsenal Pulp, 2010) by historian Daniel Francis, this valuable prism comes with a fascinating story.

Francis is an historian based in Vancouver and he’s written over twenty books about Canadian history, including the Encyclopedia of British Columbia. His latest book covers 24 months in Canadian history, namely the post-war years leading up to the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. His premise is simple. In the years after the First World War, political activism by the masses was at its peak. Led by Unions, people felt the urgent need to achieve economic equality and launched an often highly charged political battle against the Federal government and industry for better rates of pay, better working conditions and more say in the political process. This revolt, leading up to the Winnipeg General Strike, was characterized as the “Red Scare” by the government and media of the day.

Author Daniel Francis
But as Francis explains, it wasn’t an isolated revolt. His worldly analysis helps us understand why the Canadian public was so charged up on both sides of the political spectrum. The rallying call of political activism was in full force in Canada between 1914 and 1919. It was first generated by the war itself as Canadians volunteered to fight. By 1917, after an intense political fight over conscription, Quebec’s independence movement got an early spark. When the war ended, newspapers carried the stories of revolution in Europe that inspired some Canadians who were eager for social change. What is striking about the book is the size, scope and militancy of the Canadian public, made up of a mostly Anglo-Saxon and Eastern European heritage.

After 1918, it wasn’t unusual to see thousands of men and women on the streets protesting against the government. As Francis astutely points out, “While the Great War was a momentous struggle that united most Canadians in support of their armed troops, it was also a divisive force, revealing and intensifying deep fractures in Canadian society. Native-born Canadians doubted the loyalty of the foreign-born.” Immigration, particularly after 1890, was an integral part of government policy as the Feds tried hard to seek out people to develop the growing economy. Immigrants from Europe, Great Britain, and the United States relocated in droves so that by 1914, when Canada entered the war, “half a million people living [here] could trace their origin to countries with which Canada was now in conflict.”

Winnipeg General Strike 1919
Francis paints a fascinating picture of the rise of political activism on the one hand, and the federal government’s strong actions to suppress it on the other. His book weaves tales of massive demonstrations on the streets of Winnipeg, or Toronto, that were inspired by the Russian Revolution. He also reports on the often-secret methods used by the Federal government to suppress and undermine these protest movements, aided by a paranoid House of Commons and a print media that sold the “Red Scare.” Francis doesn’t pull any punches describing the various spies employed by the North West Mounted Police, the precursor to the RCMP; or the work of Canada’s chief censor, Ernest Chambers, who spied on people who were considered radicals. “Better dead then Red” wouldn’t echo the discourse until the 1950s, but it was alive and well in Canada after 1918.

Francis tells this story with an approachable, slightly non-judgmental style, characterizing the era with great insight. As we read, the author seeks to answer the following questions: What happened during the Red Scare? Who participated? And how can we understand it in the context of its own time and in relation to current events? By carefully selecting details out of his extensive research, Daniel Francis seems to have lifted all the important stuff from his research, assessed its value and interpreted the events. He doesn’t burden the reader with a lot of dry facts but tries to add dramatic colour to the historical figures that graced Canadian government, media and political activists. Canadian history, often challenged as being dull and boring, is brought to vivid life as genuinely interesting and as provocative as any other country.

Francis has also grasped the media disinformation campaign that fueled the Red Scare with unrepentant stories about the “evils of Communism.” He cites Macleans magazine as an early anti-communist rag supported by major newspapers such as The Globe and the Manitoba Free Press, all under the private ownership of what we would now consider right-wing hardliners. One has to remember that “journalism,” as an honorable profession, was still decades away. Newspapers then often printed hearsay for fact and exaggerated what they didn’t understand. Francis puts these stories into a proper context and succeeds at relating the significance of what most Canadians were reading at the time. The Toronto Daily Star gets better marks for being a more balanced, a-political paper at the time, unlike today.

The so-called Red Scare, according to Francis, was a manufactured fear-mongering plan to ridicule the opposition forces in Canada with the help of the police, conservative media and covert agencies such as the RCMP. In fewer than 300 pages, Francis tells the story of two of the most significant years in Canadian history that led to the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. The result is a book that reflects a country that is barely recognizable today.

The last chapter, called “Nothing to Fear except Fear mongering itself” is the author’s personal reflection of what he’s learned from that story. For Daniel Francis, the study of these two years in Canada’s history is a prism to the 21st Century in Canada today.

Seeing Reds is a quiet reminder to me that the events of the present are usually shadowed by what’s come before.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director with a keen interest in history.

1 comment:

  1. This is such a great book! Available in audio, too: