During the 1930s, an aggressive propaganda campaign by the Italian consulate split the local Italian community on the question of fascism up until suspected Italian sympathizers were interned. This story has been told, but there was another fascist movement completely separate from the Italian community. These were the local British fascists, and although they wielded far more political influence than Italians in interwar Vancouver, their history has been all but forgotten. The Lumbermen’s Building at 509 Richards Street is perhaps the best place to start recovering this history.
The building was owned by lumber baron Charles Fenn Pretty, one of two monied sponsors of local British fascism. Probably the earliest fascist group in the city was the Praetorian League, formed at the University of British Columbia around 1929 by Francis C. Pilkington, an economics student and the son of the city comptroller. Several other fascist groups eventually appeared, including Pretty’s Fascisti of Canada. These groups didn’t accomplish much beyond countless meetings to hammer out the finer points of their constitutions and organizational structures.
Enthusiasm for British fascism seems to have peaked in 1933, the worst year of the depression. C. F. Pretty launched his Fascisti of Canada in May that year with a proclamation calling for national unity, nationalization of banking, economic and political reconstruction, and opposition to “seditious, subversive and revolutionary movements and propaganda tending to overthrow the basic institutions of Canada.” In short, the line separating local fascists from reformist liberals was a thin one indeed.
The fledgling fascist groups attempted to consolidate by uniting into a group called the Canadian Guard. C. F. Pretty gave them space on the ground floor of the Lumbermen’s Building for their headquarters. Pretty, meanwhile, was primarily interested in banking reform along the lines of social credit and the monetary schemes of Liberal MLA, future mayor and senator, Gerry McGeer, and soon abandoned fascist politics altogether. The Lumbermen’s Building directory, however, continued to read as a who’s who of the far right in the city.
The term “fascist” fell into disuse by local proponents after the “Battle of Cable Street,” a turning point for the British Union of Fascists. Although local fascists, being good Britishers, initially sought to emulate Sir Mosley’s BUF, the 4 October 1936 riots in London’s East End showed Mosley’s mob to be a little more nutty than Vancouver fascists were comfortable with. To symbolize its moderation relative to the blackshirts in Europe, the Canadian Guard adopted grey shirts for their uniforms.
The other major sponsor of local fascism features prominently in Vancouver’s labour historiography. The Shipping Federation of British Columbia rented offices in the Lumbermen’s Building for its front organizations in the battle against communism. The Federation was an employers’ association formed to manage port operations by the CPR, the Union Steamship Co., Evans, Coleman & Evans, and the other major waterfront-based companies. After Communists managed to gain control of the longshoremen’s union in 1933, the Federation engaged in a multi-front struggle against the red menace. One project it funded was Labor Truth, a union rag designed explicitly to counter Communist propaganda. It was produced in the Lumbermen’s Building, but eventually Communist infiltrators managed to subvert that as well.
The Shipping Federation also used the Lumbermen’s Building as headquarters for the Citizens’ League, a well funded front group mandated to spread anticommunist propaganda and expose Communist conspiracies. The role of spokesman for the League fell to Colonel C. E. “Doc” Edgett, a former Mountie, Vancouver police chief, prison warden, veterinarian, and fruit farmer. The only overt anti-Semitism I found among Vancouver’s fascists was in a speech Edgett gave that was published in both the News-Herald newspaper and the RCMP Quarterly. In it, he traces the lineage of Communism from those two famous “German-Jews,” Marx and Engels, back to obscure 18th century Jewish conspirators. Edgett regretted fascism’s violence, but with its state-centric nationalism and anticommunism, felt its evils were justified. The Citizens’ League headquarters in the Lumbermen’s Building served as the recruiting station for the army of special constables used to break the 1935 waterfront strike.
Another Lumbermen’s Building tenant was Pratt Secret Services. It was one of many private detective agencies operating in Vancouver before WWII, and one of the Shipping Federation’s preferred labour spy agencies for keeping tabs on longshoremen. On one occasion in 1935, Pratt had an operative in San Francisco trying to find out Harry Bridges’ itinerary because they believed he was coming to Vancouver. Bridges is a legendary union organizer who rose to prominence during a 1934 strike that shut down all the Pacific ports in the US and which culminated with a general strike in San Francisco. Vancouver’s longshoremen were striving towards similar strike action in 1935, and the last thing the Shipping Federation wanted was Bridges to exert his influence here.
Another detective agency, which was defunct by 1935, was the British American Secret Service Agency. It was located in the Lumbermen’s building in the 1920s, and its letterhead featured two creepy Pinkerton-esque eyes and its motto: “Secret investigation is the backbone of governments.”
Lastly, Tom MacInnes’s Nationalist League of Canada was another tenant in the building. MacInnes was an independent local fascist. He was a notable Canadian poet and liberal lawyer who took a sharp ideological right turn after spending a few years in China in the 1920s. He was there as an investor working with the nationalist government to build a streetcar system in Canton, when along came Mao’s revolutionaries and expropriated his capital. He returned to Vancouver with a lifelong hatred of Communists and Chinese. (One of his more popular works was The Oriental Occupation of British Columbia, which called for South African-style apartheid policies for BC. It began as a series of newspaper articles before the Vancouver Sun published it in book form in 1927). In the 1930s MacInnes was the most prominent polemicist for Vancouver’s far right through a weekly radio broadcast. His Nationalist League was located in suite 406 of the Lumbermen’s Building.
The Lumbermen’s Building was taken over in 2007 by Taxi, the shameless promoter of capitalist enterprise responsible for those Telus ads with the cute animals. The storefront is a cozy, but non-unionized, coffeeshop.