Citizen historian determined to expose Edmonton's racist past to reconcile and move forward

Research in city and provincial archives reveals strong KKK presence in Alberta during the '20s and '30s.

Geoff McMaster - 01 February 2019

For Bashir Mohamed, racism is no mere academic pursuit. It's a painful and immediate reality.

Three years ago while riding his bike through a construction zone by Edmonton's new arena, he heard a man in a truck swear at him and call him the n-word. Another driver chimed in with her own toxic expletives.

It wasn't the first time Mohamed had run into such hostility on the road, but he was shocked enough to get off his bike and record the incident with his phone. He gave the footage to the CBC, telling a reporter he felt profoundly dehumanized by the confrontation, and by the racist vitriol he faces all too often. The police told him there was nothing they could do.

"I'm the guy who has done everything right," said the University of Alberta political science grad ('17 BA). "I've studied, I finished high school, I got to university, I did four years of that, I'm now a public servant, I volunteer, I don't do drugs, I don't do any of that."

But Mohamed refuses to take such racism in stride, or dismiss it as isolated and divorced from history. Instead, he has been searching the provincial and city archives, trying to expose how white supremacy has affected black lives in his home province, and posting what he finds on his rapidly growing Twitter feed.

"It's probably more meaningful than any book, or anything I or a historian might write, because it has a life," said Teresa Zackodnik, a U of A historian of African-American literature. His posts have sparked online discussion, she said. "People respond to it and engage."

Most surprising to Mohamed was discovering that the Ku Klux Klan-a fraternal white supremacist organization with roots in the American Deep South-was once alive and well in Alberta, operating out in the open with the full support of local politicians.

According to U of A historian Susan Smith, the Klan existed in a number of Alberta towns, including Edmonton, and membership peaked at 5,000 to 7,000 people during the '20s and '30s. It directed its energy against central and eastern European Catholics, including Ukrainians, as well as African-Americans who had migrated to Alberta from American states like Oklahoma.

In 1931, the Klan's Alberta Grand Wizard, J.J. Maloney, campaigned for Edmonton mayoral candidate Daniel Knott. When Knott won the election, the Klan burned a cross on Connor's Hill in celebration. Once mayor, Knott granted the Klan permission to hold a rally at Edmonton Exhibition Grounds, now Northlands-complete with cross burnings-despite the fire chief's concerns about the risk.

A junior high school on Edmonton's south side is now named in Knott's honour.

In its early days, the Klan had an office on Jasper Avenue and a newspaper-the Liberator, for which they claimed a circulation of 250,000 (highly unlikely, since according to Stats Canada, the population of Edmonton was just under 80,000 at the time). In 1933, they held a lavish banquet at the Hotel MacDonald.

One particularly chilling Klan document Mohamed came across in his search was a simple, handwritten note, every 't' enlarged in the shape of a cross: "The KKK just wants to give you fair warning that you are a marked man. So watch your step. Take our advice and keep out of sight or things might happen." Mohamed said he also read about a tar and feathering in Lacombe.

"The fact they were able to operate with such openness says a lot," he said. "There wasn't much active opposition."

In the city archives, Mohamed found the local Klan's financial documents, and through the Alberta Registry he was able to locate a copy of the certificate of incorporation, which lapsed in the 1950s when events in the U.S made the group universally reviled. But the certificate was renewed in 1980, remaining in effect until 2003.

"I was surprised, but it just made me want to learn more," he said. "Right now our history is very whitewashed. We have the myth that we didn't use to have those problems, and it makes it easier to ignore racism and social issues such as disparities in our education and criminal justice systems."

In the fall of 2017, Mohamed gave a presentation on black history to the Edmonton Police Commission on behalf of Black Lives Matter. He says the legacy of the Klan is all too obvious in more recent variations such as the Aryan Nation and other growing alt-right groups in Alberta.

"To solve the problems we need to accept the past," he said. "If we can acknowledge this history, and reconcile it, that's the best way to move forward."

Zackodnik agrees that exposing the roots of racism in Alberta is essential in coming to terms with it today.

"People want to understand racism as isolated individualized incidents, which is how we want to understand racism now-as part of a post-racial ideology," she said. "But it's structural and systemic, with a history. It's on the loose walking around. We need to be a lot more aware of that."

While much of the history has been collected in William Peter Baergen's 2000 book, The Ku Klux Klan in Alberta, Mohamed said he has no interest in publishing what he's found. He's happy just to do the legwork for other interested archivists such as Rebecca Jade and Edmonton's former historian laureate Chris Chang-Yen Phillips, who have also been searching archives for traces of the Klan.

"Archives get lost every day," said Mohamed. "What if there was a fire or something-that history will be gone."

Read Bashir's blog here.