Book review: Seeing Reds by Daniel Francis

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      Published by Arsenal Pulp Press, 280 pp, hardcover

      Spanish American philosopher George Santayana is perhaps best known for his observation, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

      North Vancouver historian Daniel Francis vividly demonstrates the truth of Santayana’s remark in his astonishing book Seeing Reds: The Red Scare of 1918–1919, Canada’s First War on Terror. It chronicles a far-reaching conspiracy by the Robert Borden government to wage a secret war against trade unionists and immigrants during and shortly after the First World War. Even though there was no evidence of an impending armed insurrection, English-language newspapers and magazines of the day—led by the Montreal Star and Maclean’s—whipped up public fears of a Bolshevik revolution in Canada.

      Seeing Reds demonstrates how the combination of massive immigration in the early 20th century and the start of the First World War divided Canadians along ethnic lines. Xenophobic mobs targeted those who were seen to be disloyal—including trade unionists who opposed the war, as well as “aliens” from countries allied with the Germans. New laws were introduced, such as the War Measures Act, to clamp down on dissent as government censors and undercover police operatives ran roughshod over civil liberties.

      Fans of other great exposés of government repression—such as Victor S. Navasky’s Naming Names and D. D. Guttenplan’s American Radical: The Life and Times of I. F. Stone—will feast on Francis’s eye for detail. He takes readers inside undercover police investigations and reveals how the red scare gave birth to the modern RCMP. Francis also describes how Leon Trotsky’s month-long internment in Canada in 1917 aroused fellow prisoners. The book culminates in dramatic show trials of organizers of the Winnipeg General Strike.

      Francis’s thorough research enables him to present three-dimensional portraits of all the key players. It’s a valuable book for anyone who wants to understand the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, the red scare of the 1940s and 1950s, and recent media frenzies against Muslims in Canada. “Sometimes it seems as if the modern war on terror has followed a script written almost a century ago,” Francis writes.