The 1930s Were More than a Great Depression in Canada

I am starting a new feature entitled First Friday here at History Imagined. First Fridays are now reserved for guest authors of historical fiction. This will create a whole new dimension to the blog by bringing unexpected research discoveries and more historical fiction to my readers. The first year’s posts are all author friends who are passionate about their subjects, their craft, and their novels.

Today, I am delighted to host my friend and fellow author, Bruce Bishop, on History Imagined. He is sharing one of those tantalizing footnotes of history that make the past so fascinating. Most people think they know our Canadian friends and their nation’s history as the more polite, kinder, gentler North American country juxtaposed with their rowdier cousins to the south. Bruce has uncovered a forgotten facet that you may find quite surprising. Welcome to History Imagined, Bruce!

The 1930s were more than a Great Depression in Canada

by Bruce Bishop

After my editor read the first draft of my second novel of historical fiction, Uncommon Sons, she made the offhand comment that perhaps ‘nothing much’ had happened in my country (Canada), province (Nova Scotia) and city (Halifax) in 1935, the year in which I set my novel.

I was sure there would have to have been some momentous occasions or people I just didn’t know about, and I was bound to find the noteworthy ones. I wanted to find some ‘meaty’ information – an unusual event(s) or person(s) to be included in Uncommon Sons.

What I did discover was eye-opening if not downright cringe-worthy for this patriotic Canadian.

I should not be so surprised when the underside of our heritage is exposed, for in some respects, we have sugar-coated parts of our history to be the moral opposite of 20th century United States’ history.

After all, we hadn’t gone through a revolution and civil war, had we? Aren’t we supposed to be the polite, law-abiding people in North America who don’t question authority?

Sadly, Canadians have an abysmal record with the historic treatment of our indigenous peoples, and when we were still British North America (before 1867), more than a few citizens did own slaves. That ended on August 1, 1834 as decreed by the British Empire.

But in the 1930s, a century later, a far-right political movement began in the French province of Quebec that had a leader who was bent on becoming Canada’s own ‘Führer’.

His name was Adrien Arcand, born into a poor Montreal family of twelve children in 1899. He died in 1967, still an avowed fascist and neo-Nazi propagandist. He would soon become a footnote in Canadian history, especially since Canada was celebrating its 100th anniversary of Confederation in 1967 and would elect a new Liberal Prime Minister, the young, charismatic Pierre Elliot Trudeau, in 1968.

Four decades earlier, the first stirrings of fascism had begun in Quebec. While Canada had both a Conservative Prime Minister during the Great Depression (R.B. Bennett) and the Liberal W.L. MacKenzie King, neither federal leader wanted to be involved with what might become another war in Europe.

In 1929, Adrien Arcand, then a fully bilingual journalist, and soon-to-be newspaper publisher, started his political movement called the Ordre Patriotique des Goglus. (Goglu is Quebec French slang for someone who is jovial and friendly.) Arcand had always been a strong federalist and anglophile but leaned toward a fascist ideology and was unapologetically antisemitic. His newspapers were his platform to espouse his extreme right-wing views, and by 1934, he had established the Parti National Social Chrétien (Christian National Social Party), which was anti-Communist and vowed to banish all Canadian Jews to the remote Hudson Bay area.

Adrien Arcand as pictured in Le Devoir, a Montreal newspaper

Immigrants and Jews who had arrived in Quebec were seen as economic competitors by Arcand and others, and did not practice the Roman Catholic faith. Arcand wanted to keep French Quebec society “pure”, preserving its Latin character, “customs and our habits, on protecting our rights and our privileges”. Arcand was regarded as being shrill in his delivery, echoing the fanatical voice of his idol, Adolf Hitler.

By 1938, emboldened by the rise in popularity of Hitler, Chancellor of Germany since 1933, and Benito Mussolini, Italian Prime Minister since 1922, Arcand was chosen leader of the fascist National Unity Party of Canada, a fusion of his own party with Ontario’s Nationalist Party and the Prairie provinces’ Canadian Nationalist Party.  

To analyse all the reasons by why fascism became popular in Quebec at this time would take much more discussion than would fit in this article. Suffice to say, many Quebecers were already suspicious of the English federal government of Canada, based in the House of Commons in the capital city of Ottawa, Ontario.

Quebec’s federal representatives in Ottawa were opposed to allowing Jewish refugees into the country, for example. They knew that many ultramontane nationalists in Quebec — i.e., those who promoted supremacy of Catholicism and papal authority in matters of governance — regarded Jews as a threat to the Catholic values of the province.

During the Great Depression in Canada between 1930 and 1934 alone, close to 17,000 immigrants were deported for mostly minor infractions. Canada did not have a refugee policy at the time, so Jews who were being dispossessed of all their belongings in Nazi Germany could not even support themselves in Canada.

Antisemitism was rife in my country at the time, making it easier for fascist-leaning Quebecers and their minority of fellow Canadians to follow Adrien Arcand’s National Unity Party of Canada in 1938 until May 30, 1940 when the Party was banned by the federal government.

Arcand was arrested for “plotting to overthrow the state” and was placed in an internment camp for the duration of the war. At this camp, he reputedly sat on a throne built by other prisoners and spoke of how he would rule Canada once the Nazis has taken over the country.

Following World War II, Arcand ran for a federal electoral seat on two occasions, but was not victorious, although did capture twenty-nine and thirty-nine per cent of the votes in the 1949 and 1953 federal elections, respectively.

Arcand never wavered in his support for Adolf Hitler and became a mentor to German-born Ernst Zündel (1939 – 2017), perhaps Canada’s most notorious and famous Holocaust denier. Zündel lived in this country for four decades and was finally deported to Germany to face prosecution in 2017.

Adrien Arcand delivered his last speech in 1965 to six hundred and fifty supporters. He died at the age of sixty-seven, two years later, in relative obscurity in the farming village of Lanoraie, Quebec. He never relinquished his antisemitic views.

Sources (Adrien Arcand, by W.E. Caplan, 2013, The Canadian Encyclopedia) (Canada’s Road to the Second World War, by Tim Cook, 2016, The Canadian Encyclopedia) (Canada and Jewish Refugees in the 1930s, by Claude Bélanger. Marianopolis College, 2006, The Quebec History Encyclopedia) (The Canadian Fuhrer: The Life of Adrien Arcand, by Jean-Francois Nadeau, 2011)


Bruce Bishop is a former award-winning travel and lifestyle journalist who is based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His first novel, Unconventional Daughters, was independently released in December 2020. It is a family saga inspired by the real-life honeymoon letters of a young woman in 1920s Nova Scotia who had married her stepfather, at her mother’s urging. Bishop developed a compelling, fictitious cast of characters that many readers have said reminds them of a “Netflix series”. It is currently available in paperback and eBooks on Amazon and Rakuten Kobo.

His second novel, Uncommon Sons, will be initially released on Amazon by early July 2021. It is interlinked to Unconventional Daughters, with returning characters Marc Shehab and Eva McMaster.

Uncommon Sons is a fascinating tale of sexual identity, systemic racism, familial obligations and the bonds of love and friendship. It is set in the fictitious Pan-Canadian Princess Hotel in the port of Halifax in 1935-36, and of the characters introduced, ‘Paul-Adrien Leaud’, a Quebec politician inspired by Adrien Arcand, makes a pivotal and memorable appearance.   

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