Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected


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.”

WASP Racism, continued > 

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