Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

WASP RACISM (continued)

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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