Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Daniel Francis

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Ten Questions, with Daniel Francis

Daniel Francis talks to Open Book about Canadians' relationship to our history, the narrowing of our political spectrum and the fear of change that compelled the government to violently suppress the Winnipeg General Strike and other labour movements in the turbulent years after the First World War. His newest book, Seeing Reds: The Red Scare of 1918-1919, Canada’s First War on Terror (Arsenal Pulp Press), brings this period to life.

Open Book:

Your new book, Seeing Reds, is a fascinating look at Canada's "Red Scare" after World War One, when the Canadian government imposed severe measures to suppress labour movements and end the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919. Why did you want to write about this subject, and why now?

Daniel Francis:

The subject attracted me for different reasons. First of all was the apparent absurdity of it. People actually believed that Canada teetered on the verge of Bolshevik revolution? You’ve got to be kidding. And because it seemed absurd, it also seemed interesting. Secondly, I’d been looking into the history of the RCMP and when I discovered that the modern force was created in 1919 as a secret service to spy on Canadians, it led me to wonder what was going on in the country at that time that made the government so nervous. And thirdly, the Red Scare appealed to me as a case study in civil liberties and how easily Canadians violate their own laws in a time of apparent crisis.

OB:

The Canadian government sent soldiers to force an end to the Winnipeg General Strike in an event that came to be known as "Bloody Saturday." In Seeing Reds, you call it the most famous riot in Canadian history — and yet it is relatively little known today. Why has this event fallen into the shadows of our collective memory?

DF:

I always find this sort of question difficult to answer because in my world, populated by people who know about and are interested in Canadian history, the General Strike is well known. In fact I feel the need to emphasize that Seeing Reds is not another book about the strike. And in western Canada, particularly in Manitoba of course, the strike remains very present in the popular imagination. There was even a recent musical about it! That said, I was surprised as I worked on this project to learn that, as you suggest, the strike is perhaps less known than I had assumed. This speaks to the very large issue of the relationship between Canadians and their history. I’ve worked in the field for more than thirty years, so believe me I know how indifferent many Canadians can be to their own past. However I also know how engaged they can be by it, proof being the success enjoyed by many popular historical writers, starting with Pierre Berton. So it is a bit of a glass half empty, glass half full situation. One thing I can emphasize is that Canadians are not unique in having a short historical memory. The Americans and the Brits complain about the same phenomenon in their countries.

OB:

Public support for labour unions and workers movements is much lower than it has been in the past. What is the reason for this, and should we be concerned?

DF:

I think it illustrates the way that political discourse has become so narrow in Canada since the post-World War One period that my book discusses. Accepting that the NDP are really left liberals, there is hardly any place at all for the socialist perspective. Yet early in the twentieth century candidates for the Social Democratic Party and labour parties routinely won election to legislatures across the country. An earlier book of mine was a biography of Louis D. Taylor, a long-serving mayor of Vancouver. He called himself a socialist and it didn’t stop him from being elected eight times. And it wasn’t just electoral politics. Thousands of people routinely met in halls and parks to listen to radical speakers and discuss radical ideas. Leftist political parties and labour councils had lively newspapers that expressed a broad spectrum of opinion. Slowly the space for this kind of broad conversation closed, and indeed part of the argument of Seeing Reds is that that was the purpose of the Red Scare of 1919, and subsequent Red Scares: to demonize and de-legitimize the left-wing alternative in the eyes of the public.

OB:

In the United States, and to a lesser extent in Canada, words like "communist" and "socialist" are thrown around as political barbs. What was the general feeling towards Bolshevism and other socialist movements in Canada in 1918 and 1919?

DF:

That depended on who you were talking to. The revolution in Russia in 1917 was an incredibly influential event in the world. Many working people and labour activists were energized by it. It seemed to be the harbinger of a bright new world, a new way of organizing society in more democratic ways. And people paid a great deal of attention to other socialist movements around the world. To take just one example, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the leaders of the German revolution that followed the war, were household names in Canada. When they were murdered in January 1919 it was front page news here. At the same time, the ruling elites — employers, the government and so on — were terrified of Bolshevism. The revolution seemed to show that a small group of committed militants could appear out of nowhere, win the support of the public and topple an entrenched regime that had been in power for generations. So Bolsheviks were admired by many people who saw them as the vanguard of change, and detested by many others who believed they were no better than simple thieves and murderers.

OB:

Seeing Reds brings the events surrounding Canada's "Red Scare" into context with similar historical and contemporary movements in the United States and western Europe. Which events do you see as parallels?

DF:

There was the revolution in Germany that I mentioned above. There were also serious labour disputes in Britain. There was a violent general strike in Glasgow, for example, that in many ways prefigured later events in Winnipeg. The civil war that would lead to Irish independence was just getting underway. It was, as one cabinet minister put it, “a seething time in the world.” Probably most importantly for Canadians was the outbreak of a “Red Scare” south of the border in the US. This began in February 1919 with a general strike in Seattle and spread across the country. It was more dramatic than the Canadian Red Scare; there were letter bombs exploding and a wider campaign of raids and arrests by the authorities. But certainly Canadians saw a direct connection between events in the US and around the world and events here. If it could happen there, why not here in Canada?

OB:

Canadians seem to be more ambivalent and less knowledgeable about our history than our American neighbours. Why do you think this is the case, and what can be done to bring our history to life?

DF:

As I’ve mentioned, I’m not sure this is true. Americans tend to do just as badly on the knowledge tests as Canadians. The other day I heard an Australian historian complain that his students are always saying to him that their history is so boring because Oz never had a revolution. Where have we heard that before? I think it is quite possible that everyone’s historical memory is getting shorter because of the increasing pace of change and the declining attention span, but that is a subject I’m not qualified to get into. I think it is true that, for better or worse, the Americans have done much more than Canadians to mythologize their history, to create legends that seem to embody their values and aspirations. And they did so, in part, because of the vast media empires they developed, beginning with the dime novel that romanticized cowboy heroes through to the Hollywood dream machine. Canada had nothing similar until recently, no similar mechanism for popularizing and mythologizing our history.

OB:

As you wrote Seeing Reds, what did you do to ensure the book would appeal to a general audience?

DF:

All my books are intended for a general reading audience as opposed to an academic one, although they have found a wide readership in schools and universities as well. I suppose one way that a popular historian like myself tries to appeal to readers is to emphasize narrative instead of analysis. Not that popular history is dumbed down. Rather that it attempts to disguise its analysis, or interpose its analysis in the pauses within the story. I also try to develop characters and elaborate dramatic episodes that will engage the readers’ interest. So for instance, Seeing Reds begins with a description of Bloody Saturday, the riot in Winnipeg on June 21, 1919, that was the climax of the general strike. Another example is the death of Wilfrid Laurier in February. I hope that set pieces like these will help the reader visualize the era. I also like to use the first person, not in Seeing Reds but in other books I’ve done. I try to present myself as someone who is thinking out loud about the subject and encouraging the reader to do likewise. This is an attempt to dissolve the dichotomy between the author as someone who knows and the reader as someone who doesn’t know. I’d prefer to think of it as a process of inquiry in which we are engaged together.

OB:

What research techniques do you use for your books and articles?

DF:

For Seeing Reds I spent many hours in the National Archives in Ottawa reading records from the RCMP, the chief press censor and the departments of justice and national defence, as well as the papers of different cabinet ministers. As well I visited the Manitoba Archives to look at the collection on the Winnipeg General Strike. It was a pretty archives-heavy project. For other books, let’s say my book about killer whales on the West Coast, Operation Orca, the research was almost completely based on interviews with marine scientists who had studied the animals. And for The Imaginary Indian, it was mainly secondary sources because I was interested in finding out what other people had said and thought about Aboriginal people. So the process is different for every book.

OB:

You are a member of the editorial board of Geist. What can we look forward to in the upcoming issue of Geist?

DF:

Any day now the 20th anniversary issue will be arriving in mailboxes and magazine stores. It is our biggest issue yet. Along with new material it will include a retrospective of some of the best articles from the past two decades. It is an incredible achievement, keeping a cultural magazine afloat in this country for twenty years, especially one that is based in Vancouver and for many years relied on just a skeleton staff. All credit to founding publisher Stephen Osborne and editor Mary Schendlinger.

OB:

Do you have another historical project in mind?

DF:

For some time I’ve been writing a history of the British Columbia coast. In fact for the past year I’ve been publishing it in bits and pieces online at my blog. Another project involves my book The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture. It was published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 1992 and amazingly it is still selling well enough that we plan to publish an updated 20th anniversary edition next year. And in the spring (2011) I’ll be publishing a book called Selling Canada (Stanton Atkins & Dosil) which looks at three Canadian propaganda campaigns and how they shaped the identity of the country.


Born and raised in Vancouver, Daniel Francis is the author of more than 20 books, principally about Canadian history. Titles include The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture (Arsenal Pulp Press, 1992), National Dreams: Myth, Memory and Canadian History (Arsenal Pulp Press, 1997) and A Road for Canada: The Illustrated Story of the Trans-Canada Highway (Stanton Atkins and Dosil, 2006). He was editorial director of the mammoth Encyclopedia of British Columbia, hailed on its appearance in 2000 as one of the most important books about the province ever published. His book L.D.: Mayor Louis Taylor and the Rise of Vancouver won the City of Vancouver Book Award in 2004. His natural history book Operation Orca: Springer, Luna and the Struggle to Save West Coast Killers Whales (Harbour, 2007; with Gil Hewlett) won ForeWord magazine’s 2007 Book of the Year Award in the nature category. His latest book is Seeing Reds: The Red Scare of 1918-1919, Canada’s First War on Terror (Arsenal Pulp Press). For several years he has written a regular column on books for Geist magazine. In 2010 Daniel was shortlisted for the prestigious Pierre Berton Award which recognizes excellence in bringing Canadian history to a wide popular audience. Visit him at his blog.

For more information about Seeing Reds: The Red Scare of 1918-1919, Canada’s First War on Terror please visit the Seeing Reds website and the Arsenal Pulp Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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