WASP Racism

Had I pursued a Ph.D., I would have specialized in periodical literature; I’ve loved old magazines since I was a kid. After I began writing for Saturday Night, it became apparent that the magazine’s financial situation was so precarious that it mightn’t survive until its ninetieth birthday in 1977. (Indeed, the magazine folded briefly in 1974.) With the help of the Canada Council, I spent the better part of a year going through the magazine’s back files — from 1887. What surprised me more than anything was the overt and virulent racism that characterized the magazine’s first forty years. A Saturday Night Scrapbook on the 85 year history of the magazine, was published in 1973.

TO US THE CONCEPT of racial purity smacks of Nazism. So it may surprise readers of Saturday Night to learn that a concern with racial purity was one of the dominant themes of this magazine during its first forty years. From its very first issue in 1887, Saturday Night published editorials and articles that argued that although Canada needed more immigrants, it didn’t want them to be black, Oriental, Jewish — or for that matter, Catholic. They had to be WASPs. In this, the magazine was not unique — it was simply expressing the dominant view of the time.

An 1892 editorial opposing Chinese immigration typifies Saturday Night’s attitude, not only during this period but until the late 1920s: “It will be time enough to receive the Chinaman on an equality,” wrote founding editor Edmund E. Sheppard, “when the true religion has eradicated the social and moral decay resultant from centuries of heathenism, and has done for him some portion of what it has accomplished for his Western brother.”

Canada was a “white man’s country,” Sheppard said, and by that he meant people who were not just white but Protestant and English-speaking. To him, talk of treating French Canadians as equals was ludicrous: “Why did Wolfe take the trouble to fight Montcalm?” he asked in an 1891 editorial. “Was it not to make the Anglo-Saxon supreme?” End of discussion.

In the early years of the new century, Saturday Night frequently carried advertisements urging people to move west. The Department of Indian Affairs advertised available Indian land. The Department of the Interior regularly published a summary of Canadian northwest homestead regulations. The Hudson’s Bay Company’s land commissioner advertised lots “centrally located” in Edmonton. There was, prospective immigrants were told, a great deal of empty space. But the editors of Saturday Night didn’t want non-WASPs to fill up those empty spaces. Far better that eastern Canadians go west or that the West remain uninhabited than that it be occupied by aliens.

Jews weren’t suited to the West because they were urban rather than rural creatures. Even those in urban areas, the magazine said, were of dubious value. “Their sole idea of making a living is to barter in refuse, skulk through city lanes, and operate on a business level that the native race will not descend to.” The Chinese were even worse prospects. “Let them swarm in once and the yellow stain on the country will be one that cannot be rubbed out…. They are an honest, industrious, but hopelessly inferior race.” The question of black immigrants, it was thought, was less serious and would take care of itself. Blacks simply weren’t hardy enough to stand up to life in the Canadian West. The black man, said a Saturday Night editorial in 1911, “is by nature unfit for carving out for himself a home in the wilderness … the rigorous climate of our Northwest is unsuitable for those of a dark skin.”

The most distinguished of Saturday Night contributors agreed. As Stephen Leacock, a frequent contributor, put it in 1911, the real trouble with non-WASP immigrants is that they were at best “fit objects indeed for philanthropic pity, but indifferent material from which to build the Commonwealth of the future.”

The closest anyone came to criticizing the concept of racial purity in Saturday Night during its first twenty years occurred in 1907. Following the lynching of a Chinese immigrant in Vancouver — such lynchings were not uncommon — someone wrote a letter to the editor suggesting that the event reminded him of the hymn:

Shall we whose souls are lighted
With wisdom from on high —
Shall we, to men benighted
The lamp of life deny?

It wasn’t enough that heathens take on the true religion. Saturday Night was opposed to intermarriage, even in those cases where Chinese or Japanese or blacks who had converted to Christianity chose to marry a white. The ceremony of marriage, said the magazine, “is the basis of western civilization…. Differences of colour were fixed by the controlling factor of the universe long before history was recorded … the fruit of marriages between persons of different colours has been almost invariably degenerate.”

The threat of what the magazine regarded as the wrong kind of immigrants continued to concern it in the years after the First World War. Mennonites were “backward, grossly ignorant people who, like the Doukhobours, would never, generally speaking, be a credit to the country of their adoption.” Jews were the favourite targets during these years. In 1921, following the arrival in Halifax of 317 Polish Jews (my own parents among them), Saturday Night editor Frederick Paul reiterated that if Canada was to remain a “white man ’s country” it could ill “afford to be the dumping-ground for the scum of Europe.”

Because of the intense discrimination they faced, many Jews chose to change their names, hoping that might help. They frequently took on Anglo-Saxon names — “white” names like Campbell or Cameron or Roebuck or MacDonald. Saturday Night deplored the practice. “It is sometimes said,” wrote Paul, that “there is nothing in a name. As a matter of fact, there’s a great deal in a name…. A good name is something to be proud of … not a thing to be handed out to any ignorant Continental immigrant that might apply for its use.”

Still, Saturday Night lamented that Canada’s population remained pitifully small. The right kind of immigrants (British), the magazine argued, were being kept away by the landscapes portrayed in the work of the Group of Seven. And Canadian movies were creating even greater problems. Too many films were being made containing snow scenes. “When exhibited overseas, they have a detrimental effect on immigration.”

It wasn’t until after Saturday Night had passed its fortieth birthday, in the late 1920s, that its concern with making Canada a “white man’s country” began to change. It’s not entirely clear why the country’s (and the magazine’s) attitudes began to alter, but alter they did. Perhaps it was a kind of new maturity that grew out of our experience in the First World War. Whatever it was, a change was taking place. And ironically, it was occurring at a time when the notion of racial purity, in a much more virulent form, was sinking its roots in Germany.

By 1928, Saturday Night was giving voice to a genuine concern for better relations between English Canadians and French Canadians — to the point of arguing that English Canadian children ought to learn French. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, one is struck over and over again by the growing liberalism of Saturday Night. Overt racism had almost disappeared entirely from the magazine.

Canadian blacks were mentioned now only in articles that attempted to revise what had become an embarrassing chapter in Canadian history. “Canada’s attitude toward the Negro race,” one such article suggested, “has on the whole been characterized by sympathy, justice and generosity. Probably no other country can show as favourable a record in this respect.” Saturday Night even argued, albeit tentatively, that Canadian-born Orientals should be given the vote.

During the Second World War, Saturday Night became something more than just a reflection of upper-middle-class values. Under the editorship of B.K. Sandwell, it transcended these values and became a kind of conscience for Canada. The magazine’s remarkably humane editorial tone during the war provides a fascinating contrast with other popular journals of the day. Before the war had even begun, Sandwell was urging Canadians to bring Jewish refugees from Nazism to this country. When recruiting officers were reluctant to accept Jews in their units, Sandwell suggested: “It will be somewhat difficult to overcome Hitler and Hitlerism if we do not first destroy the latent Hitlerism in our own hearts.” When the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America set aside May 2, 1943, as a “day of compassion for the Jews,” Sandwell commented on the appalling irony: “Here are some millions of human beings … who are being systematically murdered by means which a humane people would not tolerate for use upon animals; and all that we in this favoured hemisphere feel we can do about it is devote a day, one single day, to feeling sorry for them.” When at the end of the war in Europe the results of the inaction of Canadians — and others — had become horribly apparent to all, he insisted on reminding his readers of their culpability.

During the conscription crisis, B.K. Sandwell and Saturday Night displayed considerable understanding of what it was that troubled French Canada. In a striking editorial, Sandwell commented that a great many English Canadians still expected French Canadians to become Anglicized, if not Protestantized, and were surprised and distressed when confronted with very strong evidence that they had not been. “It is to be feared that in the mind of that element the demand for the conscription of Quebec for overseas service is to no small extent what some French-Canadians have called it — a symbol of dominance.”

When in the fall of 1942 Queen’s University, the University of Toronto and McGill refused admission to Japanese Canadians, Sandwell wrote that the “exclusion of applicants on any such grounds as these appears to us to be morally wrong and completely indefensible.” When in 1943, the Toronto Globe and Mail reflected the then prevalent hysteria and argued that Canada should deport its Japanese citizens, he reminded the Globe that “expulsion of persons who are legally entitled to citizenship … on grounds of race, is the outstanding … feature of the whole Nazi ideology.”

During the war, Saturday Night began to lose readers — and to experience serious financial difficulties. This occurred partly because of the influx of slicker American magazines. But partly, I suspect, it occurred because Saturday Night was no longer simply reflecting the views of its readers. It had, in fact, run considerably ahead of them.

— Saturday Night, December, 1977

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