Canada's "Only" Lynching
Above are two articles that are 95 years apart. They claim to talk about Canada’s ‘only’ case of lynching but yet the stories are different. Both stories were brutal and were vigilante justice.
The disturbingly similar headlines and the idea that there was ‘one lynching’ deserves reflection.
The Two Cases
*warning* both cases are extremely graphic and disturbing. Skip this section to avoid these graphic descriptions.
The case described by the Winnipeg Free Press concerns that of 14 year old Louis Sam - a member of the Sto:lo Nation. In short, he was accused of the murder of a US shopkeeper in Washington state. He was taken into custody by a British Columbia officer but was soon captured by an angry mob from the United States.
The angry mob then hanged him from a tree near the Canada-US border. A Canadian investigation would later suggest that Sam was innocent. You can read more about the case here.
The second case - reported in 1910 - is different. It involves the case of a man named Isbey that was accused of murdering members of his family in Perth, Ontario. He planned to plead insanity but was placed in local jail. One night, residents of the town rammed into his jail cell and captured him. According to local legend, they flayed his body and made pouches out of his skin. You can read more about the case here.
Remembering Canada’s Lynchings
The article describing this second case includes a stark observation of how lynchings are remembered in Canada. Take a moment to read it before continuing.
“Canada has never had a lynching.
This statement has been repeated so frequently it is accepted as true by nearly all people who know any thing of Canada. Of late it has appeared thus specifically stated in several magazines of Canadian and American circulation....It is quite in keeping with the respect for law prevalent in Canada among her native-born residents and all settlers and visitors; it is as much in keeping with the inexorable, yet equitable, justice of the land, and yet it is not true."
A quick search among historic newspapers shows just how repeated this myth was. In 1901, the Beatrice Daily Express - a local paper in Nebraska - discussed lynchings in the United States. They looked at Canada and wrote:
"In the dominion of Canada lynchings are unknown; with its population of 3,000,000 or more that country has fewer murders in a year than an American city like Chicago to New York. That is because the law is stern and inexorable there and no quibbles can save the man who is proven guilty of a crime."
The examples continue. In 1928 Captain Steele of the RCMP told the Gazette in Montreal that:
"We should be very proud that there never has been a lynching in Canada. It is due to the great characteristic of our people and that is their study commonsense."
And in 1936, it seemed that another Canadian was curious and wrote in to the Q and A section of The Leaders Post of Regina. They asked, "Has there ever been a lynching in Canada? If so, how many in what years?"
The editor replied by saying, "As we have not been able to learn that there was ever a lynching in Canada it is suggested that you write to the department of justice, Ottawa."
You can find many more cases of officials, newspapers, or citizens claiming that there was never a lynching in Canada. This is often done without evidence or serious reflection on our society and how - as seen from history - we are open to mob justice.
Threats of lynchings were common
It is also important to understand how common the threat of lynchings were in Canada. For example, in the early 1900s, a large migration of Black settlers from the US lead to Alberta politicians and groups to denounce this movement and send stark warnings.
For example, the Edmonton chapter of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire - a women’s organization that still exists - met in an emergency session to discuss the ‘negro influx.’ They then sent a strongly worded petition to federal Minister Frank Oliver that warned of lynchings and the fleeing of white settlers. You can read the full petition below but the most relevant part is highlighted below:
"We do not wish that the fair fame of Western Canada would be sullied with the shadow of Lynch Law but we have no guarantee that our women will be safer in their scattered homesteads than white women in other countries with a negro population."
Source: The African Canadian Legal Odyssey: Historical Essays
edited by Barrington Walker PG 248
Dr. Ella Synge - an Edmonton woman - continued this tradition and was quoted in an Edmonton Bulletin article titled, “Women Utters Protest Against Negro Invasion.” She warned
“I see the finger of fate pointing to lynch law in the north country...which will be the ultimate result, as sure as we allow such people to settle among us."
Isobel Graham, the women's editor of the Guide, expanded on this mindset. Her words are below:
"There can scarcely be anyone who is not aware of the atrocities committed by members of these terrible communities.
The only corresponding punishment for which is the lawless lynching...already it is reported that there white women in Edmonton and Peace River districts have been victims of these outrages accomplished in peculiarly fiendish abandon.
Where will the end be?"
These examples were not isolated. Powerful people would build on this racist language and use it to justify formal segregation and open discrimination towards Black Albertans and Black Canadians. Central to this discrimination was that Black people were a danger to the province and that Black men were a danger to white women.
I should also note that Black Albertan’s would fight back against this open discrimination and myths as demonstrated by three Black Albertan civil rights cases. Charles Daniel in 1914, Lulu Anderson in 1922 and Ted King in 1959.
The myth that things are not ‘as bad’ in Canada have been common and used to minimize our often horrific history. This myth hurts our ability to understand our past and reconcile with it’s modern legacies.
Lynching is one such example that deserves further reflection. I am just someone with a blog but imagine what other cases can be uncovered. Stories that have been buried but that deserve attention.
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