5. The Politics of Panic - A History of Canadian Firearms Control


Between 1892 and 1913, Canada experienced an unprecedented wave of immigration. The Canadian population increased by 34% between 1901 and 1911, and over a third of that growth resulted from immigration (Bothwell, et al., 1987, p.60). In 1913, the number of immigrants to Canada reached a record 400,000 (Bothwell, et al., 1987, p. 58). By 1914, one of every four Canadians was foreign-born (Granatstein, et al., 1990, p. 351).

The majority of immigrants were of British or Irish stock. The remainder came from northern, central, and eastern Europe, with a very small percentage from Asia and Africa 20 . Canadian immigration policy was anything but colour-blind and did everything possible to ensure that imperial subjects from the West Indies, Africa and India would not settle in Canada (Bothwell, et al., 1987, p. 59).

Racial and ethnic tensions increased with immigration. There were anti-Oriental riots in Vancouver in 1907 (Adachi, 1991, p. 76). On 18 July, 1913, the immigration of Sikhs from India caused race riots in British Columbia (Myers, 1987, p. 163).

Labour was becoming increasingly organized and militant. In 1911, there were 104 strikes involving 28,918 employees. In 1913, there were 113 strikes resulting in 1.3 million lost working days (Bothwell, et al., 1987, p. 161).

In May, 1913, C. J. Doherty, the Minister of Justice, reported to Parliament that "...we are coming to have a very large increase in the number of crimes of violence, which I think may be directly attributed to the general carrying of arms..." and introduced an amendment to the Criminal Code which restricted the sale of "...pistols, daggers, stilettos, metal knuckles, skull crackers, and other offensive weapons..." only to persons with a permit to carry them outside of their dwelling house, shop, or warehouse (Hansard, 1913, p. 10071; Criminal Code, 1913, Sect. 118) 21 .

Section 118 of the amended Criminal Code allowed the Governor-In-Council to suspend the issuance of permits "...in the whole or part of Canada" whenever it was considered "...expedient in the public interest."

While Doherty chose his words carefully, it was evident that immigrants were considered to be the cause of the alleged increase in violence.

The bill was passed by Parliament, with little debate, on 6 June, 1913.

Just over a year later Canada became involved in the First World War. Immigration was reduced to a tenth of its pre-war level (Stacey, 1992, p. 190).

Responsing to patriotic fever, Canadian workers were initially reluctant to strike. In 1914, there were only 44 strikes, and in 1915, 43 (Bothwell, et al., 1987, p. 161). The labour movement, which had expressed strong support for the war effort, was not invited to participate in government and was ignored by Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden (Bothwell, et al., 1987, p. 162).

By 1915, real wages rose while prices remained stable. Union memberships began to increase (Bothwell, et al., 1987, p. 161).

Following the summer of 1916, inflation would erode the wage gains. Union membership and militancy increased again in 1917. There were 148 strikes resulting in 1.14 million lost working days (Bothwell, et al., 1987, p. 162).

Canadian industrialists warned the government that foreign-born workers were "encouraging" strike action to sabotage the war effort. Police and the military reported a growing militancy among foreign-born workers, particularly Finns, Slavs, Russions and Ukranians (Granatstien, 1990, et a., p. 357).

On 7 November, 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. A Canadian government enquiry concluded, without any real evidence, that many immigrant workers were Bolsheviks, and that Soviet agents had arrived in North America to help them organize (Granatstein, et al., 1990, p. 357).

In 1918, panicked by the prospect of further labour unrest prompted by the success of the Russian Communists, the Canadian government issued a ban on strikes which remained in effect until the end of the war (Bothwell, et al., 1987, p. 164).

Membership in labour unions displayed unprecedented growth during the winter of 1918-1919. Inflation continued to rise while real wages dropped. The end of hostilities in Europe meant the return of Canadian soldiers and increasing unemployment.

Canadian workers saw their government as unable and unwilling to deliver on their wartime promises of peacetime prosperity and a richer democracy (Bothwell, et al., 1987, p. 165). The government viewed labour as corrupted by "Bolsheviks" and "foreign-born anarchists" (Kopel, 1990, p. 141) 22 .