Battle at Old Market Square, Winnipeg

In the lead up to Saturday's rally by FF1-Fascist Free Treaty 1, a short article on Winnipeg's antifascist history:

Helmut-Harry Loewen, ‘Battle at Old Market Square, Winnipeg, 1934.’ Published online in the International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest (Blackwell, 2009). General editor: Immanuel Ness (City University of New York); Canadian editor: Heidi Rimke (University of Winnipeg)

The event that has come to be known as the Battle at Old Market Square is a part of Winnipeg’s tradition of anti-fascist resistance that has been all but forgotten until recently. On June 5, 1934, hundreds of anti-fascist protesters fought with members of a Canadian fascist organization that mounted a public provocation aimed at the organized labor movement, Jews, and minority communities. After the clashes of that day, no fascist group in the city would ever find itself in a position to mount such public campaigns of discrimination. The lessons of Market Square resonated generations later when anti-racist youth in Winnipeg recognized the importance of those events of the 1930s.

After the Nazis seized power in Germany in 1933, pro-Nazi groups and fascist organizations sympathetic to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini sprang up in a number of countries, including Canada. A relatively small, yet well organized network of political groups promulgated racist and anti-Semitic doctrines with the support of various ethnic backgrounds. Some of these overseas organizations, including the German League (Deutscher Bund), were under the direct control of the Nazi diplomatic service, while others maintained nominal independence, despite close contact with the Nazi ministry of propaganda in Berlin headed by Dr. Joseph Goebbels.

Throughout Canada and especially in major cities, fascist organizations crystallized. The francophone-based National Social Christian Party in Quebec was led by the charismatic Adrien Arcand, who was later to be interned as a threat to national security due to his dedication to fascism. Swastika Clubs were formed in Toronto, Ontario, and ‘fascio’ groups were established in that city’s Italian neighborhoods, often with the support of local Italian businesses and Catholic priests.

The Winnipeg-based Canadian Union of Fascists, one of six separate fascist groups in the city, modeled itself along the lines of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. In Western Canada remnants of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) factions had been recruiting, organizing, and forging political alliances with the Conservative Party since the early 1920s, with Klan membership in the province of Saskatchewan reaching an estimated 40,000 members by 1928. While the Canadian Klans of the 1930s were not as powerful as in the 1920s, their members continued either with the organization or shifted their activism to the newly emerging fascist parties. These overtly racist organizations found significant levels of support in a society founded on racial supremacist doctrines and the “White Canada” policies of successive governments.

Among the best organized groups within Canada’s fascist network before World War II was the Nationalist Party of Canada, formed in Winnipeg at secret meetings in the summer of 1933 by William Whittaker, a Great War veteran, former KKK organizer, and hotel detective. Reports from federal police informants and agents inside both fascist and anti-fascist organizations found that Whittaker’s Nationalist Party successfully mobilized support from disillusioned war veterans, the unemployed, and from ideologically-committed anti-Semites in the Ukrainian, Anglo-Saxon, German-Canadian, and Russian-Mennonite communities, especially in the Red River Valley in Southern Manitoba. The Nationalist Party newspaper was published in Winnipeg by Hermann H. Neufeld, a Mennonite publisher who also printed Judaeophobic hate propaganda sold and distributed on the streets of Winnipeg and in smaller urban centres throughout the province.

The open dissemination of Nazi propaganda on city streets prompted a response from the Manitoba government after Marcus Hyman, a member of the legislative assembly, introduced a bill prohibiting “publication of a libel against a race or creed likely to expose persons belonging to the race or professing the creed to hatred, contempt or ridicule, and tending to raise unrest or disorder among the people.” The Libel Act of 1934, which proscribed racially motivated group defamation, was the first example of what in the latter part of the twentieth century came to be known as hate propaganda legislation in Canadian jurisprudence.

Despite the enactment of anti-hate legislation, Whittaker’s group continued its street-level agitation. Confrontations between Nationalist Party members and the Anti-Fascist League escalated during the first six months of 1934, culminating in a set of incidents which came to be known as the Battle at Old Market Square. Whittaker assembled more than one hundred members, most dressed in the brown shirts that served as the party’s uniform, on June 5, 1934, at a public square near the City Hall. Clashes ensued between the Nationalists and over 500 supporters of various anti-fascist groups. The gathering was under-policed with only three officers on the scene, but after police reinforcements arrived the violence subsided. Over twenty Nationalists suffered various degrees of injuries from beatings, stabbings, and flying objects during the clashes. Seven of Whittaker’s group were arrested and the remainder of the Nationalists were led away by the police shortly after Whittaker and his bodyguards fled the scene in his vehicle. In its coverage the day after of what would come to be known as the most significant case of political violence in Winnipeg’s history since the General Strike of 1919, the Winnipeg Free Press noted that the “greatly outnumbered Brown Shirts” were “badly battered before being rescued by police riot squad.” After complaining to the Provincial government about what he saw as police inaction in the face of anti-fascist provocations, Whittaker attempted to organize a similar public event at Market Square a week later, but given the successes gained by anti-fascist groups on June 5, the Nationalist Party was unable to mobilize any further public meetings.

In the aftermath of these events, William Verner Tobias, a highly decorated World War I veteran and prominent Conservative Jewish lawyer, filed group libel charges against Whittaker and Hermann H. Neufeld, the Nationalists’ publisher. The court granted an injunction that did not, however, completely halt publication of the Nationalists’ anti-Jewish propaganda. Whittaker continued attempts to consolidate fascist groups in Manitoba. But defections from his group, the emergence of new rivals on the Right, including the Fascist Party of Canada, and the growing popularity of anti-fascist labor groups within Winnipeg’s ethnocultural communities weakened a movement he once saw as an alternative to communism. Whittaker viewed communism as part of a broader Jewish conspiracy to control the Canadian political system. During the final year of his life in 1938, Whittaker soldiered on, mimeographing reams of hate literature and trying to revive a movement that now had only a handful of youthful adherents.

The Battle at Old Market Square is less well known than the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, despite having demonstrated the successful and deeply rooted popular resistance to fascist provocations. In the summer of 1997, anti-racist activists in Winnipeg, including Skin Heads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP), United Against Racism (UAR), and Anti-Racist Action (ARA), organized public marches and speeches at Old Market Square in an effort to reclaim part of Winnipeg’s forgotten radical heritage. Two survivors of the events of 1934 addressed the over two hundred activists, demonstrating that to expose and oppose racism in all of its forms is an ongoing intergenerational project.

SEE ALSO: Fascism; Protest and Revolution; Saskatchewan Socialist Movement; Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.
References and Suggested Readings:
Barrett, S.R. (1987) Is God a Racist? The Right Wing in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Betcherman, L.-R. (1975) The Swastika and the Maple Leaf: Fascist Movements in Canada in the Thirties. Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside.
Kardash, W.A. (1942) Hitler’s Agents in Canada. Toronto: Morris Printing.
Kinsella, W. (2001) [1994] Web of Hate: Inside Canada’s Far Right Network. Toronto: Harper Collins.
Robin, M. (1992) Shades of Right: Nativist and Fascist Politics in Canada, 1920-1940. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Wagner, J.F. (1981) Brothers Beyond the Sea: National Socialism in Canada: Waterloo: WIlfrid Laurier University Press.
(Note: March 2, 2017 - Research for this encyclopedia article included a study of Manitoba police reports from 1934, newspaper articles, and other documents in the Provincial Archives of Manitoba. The author thanks Zenon Gawron for access to this material.)