By Rémi Tremblay
If you’re interested in the history of Fascism in Canada, it is likely that you have heard of Adrien Arcand and his Blueshirts. His party, the Unity Party of Canada, attracted thousands of Fascists from across Canada, and has been studied extensively by Canadian historians with renewed interest in the last few years. But one name you are unlikely to have heard is Anaclet Chalifoux, who, on many occasions, attracted more supporters than Arcand. Rarely mentioned in books about Fascism in Canada, the leader of Montreal’s Brownshirts was someone to reckon with at the dawn of the 1930s. Unfortunately, unlike Arcand, who directed several newspapers and authored many books, Chalifoux never put his thoughts on paper, and so there is an absence of first-person recollections about him. One must delve into the newspaper archives to see his name and find information on his mass movement.
The 1929 financial crash had a terrible effect not only on the American economy, but also on its northern neighbor. Recession hit Canada and Quebec, in particular, very hard, especially Montreal, Quebec’s most populous and industrial city. Poverty followed unemployment, and countless workers who had previously left the fields in search of a better life in the cities were now unable to feed their family. According to some sources, there were an estimated 100,000 unemployed people in Montreal, a city of about 1 million inhabitants at the time.1
Many of these now-unemployed laborers joined workers associations, small local clubs where they could meet and chat. Based on a principle of solidarity, dozens of these clubs were founded in Montreal to help the unemployed regain some of their lost dignity and help them find jobs.
Chalifoux, who had been a grocer as well as a petroleum dealer, joined one of these clubs, the Ahunstic Worker Association,2 of which he became the leader. But, unlike many of his fellows, he sensed that these clubs had to adapt if they were to serve their purpose. They could not remain as simple social clubs and, instead, had to morph into political associations to make sure the voices of the people were heard by the men in power. For too long, the politicians had defended the big trusts, which had the unbridled power of massive wealth. If the workers wished to be heard, they had to oppose this money power. Therefore, workers had to create a mass movement able to counterbalance the strength of the oligarchy.
But, unlike what one may think, Chalifoux was not an apostle of Marx and Lenin. Father of eight children, he was a devout Catholic whose work was inspired by the social teaching of the Catholic Church. He did not dream of Communist banners in Montreal, but looked instead with interest at the Roman Blackshirts who had crushed the Communist threat and put Italy back on a sound cultural, social and financial foundation.
Social justice could not be accomplished under any other symbol than the cross, Chalifoux believed.
Chalifoux first juggled with the idea of trying to gain political office on the Montreal city council. But what could a single man do against a powerful bloc representing nothing more than the status quo?
He thus decided to unify the workers’ clubs into a single front. Divided by neighborhoods, the 76 existing clubs had no political power, and their voices remained unheard. All but three clubs were convinced by Chalifoux’s aggressive vision and decided to federate into a single organization, the Fédération des clubs ouvriers de la province de Québec (Federation of the Workers’ Clubs of Quebec).
Chalifoux was first and foremost a charismatic speaker. With simple words, sports analogies and colorful language, he was what we would now call a populist. He grasped the people’s plight and was able to channel their disaffection. Soon he won over more and more followers. His federation attracted around 85,000 men and 40,000 women in Montreal, alone, who felt that Chalifoux could give them back their dignity and futures.
The politicians soon noticed this growing mass of discontented but increasingly organized workers. The conservatives approached him, as he was the man who was turning the workers away from socialism. The daily La Patrie offered him an office as well as a microphone at the CHLP radio station. (CHLP was a French-language Canadian radio station located in Montreal, which operated from late 1932 to late 1957.) From there, Chalifoux and his friend Diogène Maillé started expanding their audience.
The rise of Chalifoux and his federation was brutally halted in the winter of 1933. Though Chalifoux was a natural-born leader, he had difficulty managing his own finances and thus endured several court cases. Like the French author Léon Bloy, he was unable to manage his own budget and amassed huge debts to multiple lenders. He was also involved in different schemes—some deemed on the bounds of illegality—that brought him in front of the local magistrate. He even served a day behind bars.
Though these personal problems were not linked to his political crusade, his credibility among the workers suffered from the bad publicity. A man who wishes to take down the establishment must be above reproach. Thus, some within the federation now doubted that Chalifoux was the right man for the job. They instead wished to remain workers clubs and had no desire to become political organizations, the road that Chalifoux was increasingly interested in taking.
In May 1933, a putsch was organized within the federation. The ploy finally ended in a split. Many workers decided to follow J.C. Rancourt, who left to found his Fédération des clubs ouvriers du Canada. It would become a more conservative organization, both in its objectives and its means. The extent of the schism is hard to evaluate, as very few reliable sources exist, but we can evaluate that Chalifoux lost, at least temporarily, around half of his membership and many of his inner circle.
Nevertheless, what could have killed the movement actually allowed Chalifoux to give it a new direction, as it was mostly the reformers and the lobbyists who had left. The ones who remained in the organization were interested in radical change. They were ones who knew that nothing would be given them unless they took it themselves. They also knew that the entire system had to be changed in order to fix the problems from which so many average Canadians were suffering.
Chalifoux had lost the support of the conservative establishment but had gained a new freedom. And with the rise of the National Socialists in Europe, who had also started as workers parties (the NSDAP or National Socialist German Workers’ Party), he sensed that something similar could happen in Canada.
Chalifoux did not wish to be associated with conservatives anymore. He now presented himself as a genuine third option, opposed to both liberals and conservatives. He “considered the wellness of the working class”—meaning all those who work—”above party politics.”3
In the past, Chalifoux’s Fascist tendencies were tempered by Rancourt and Maillé, but now, they could be openly expressed.4 The club members started sporting brown shirts along with black ties and brown caps. The women had their own uniforms and, according to The Gazette, a paramilitary guard called the Steel Helmet was founded.
Many who had abandoned him soon came back to Chalifoux, who now boasted a membership of 85,000. Thus, he started feeling that it was time for a demonstration of strength. On July 1, 1933, the anniversary of the Canadian Confederation, he planned to march in Montreal with his Brownshirts. The city council forbade such a demonstration. After protesting, Chalifoux encouraged his troops to challenge the ban and march, but the Brownshirts did not dare defy the law. His march proved to be a failure.
The month before, though, he had managed to gather more than 20,000 workers for a religious pilgrimage at the St. Joseph Oratorio. His members were ready to take to the streets, but did not have the revolutionary mettle to actually break the law. But the setback of July did not dampen his enthusiasm. On August 20, he held a huge assembly at Cartierville. The scene was similar to the European Fascist assemblies in that Chalifoux was welcomed between a guard of honor and, when he arrived on stage, thousands raised their arms to salute their leader. Thousands of voices thundered, “Long live Chalifoux!”
At this meeting, hundreds of Montreal Italians were present. Even though Rome, aware of Chalifoux’s movement, never supported him, Montreal’s Blackshirts unofficially did.
Chalifoux’s speech on that day showed his new-found radicalization. He warned the politicians, “If violence was used to intimidate the people, the Guard of Honor of the federation would intervene and mettra les politicailleurs en déroute (“rout the politicians”).5 Only Fascism could win over their trust and end the corruption. The Reds had also better beware.
That last warning was soon followed by deeds. The next month, more than 8,000 Brownshirts and Blackshirts rioted against a meeting organized by the notorious Communist Albert Saint-Martin. The raucous protest lasted for a few hours before the police managed to take control. It was not the first time the Fascists opposed the Communist faction of Saint-Martin in the streets. They had previously attacked the funeral march of Saint-Martin’s wife, whose coffin had been draped in a Communist flag. Chalifoux had sworn that Montreal would never become a Bolshevik bastion.
But ensuring that Montreal would not embrace Communism was not Chalifoux’s primary goal. He wanted change. His march on Montreal had been a failure because of his supporters’ respect for the rule of law. Thus, the best way to take power and bring about real change, he decided, was by the democratic process. If all of Montreal’s unemployed workers supported his bid, he had a chance to be elected—perhaps even mayor.
In the months that followed, Chalifoux and some of his men ran for office in Canadian elections, but all these efforts failed. He was not the only politician to appeal to the unemployed masses. The Conservative Camillien Houde, who would be re-elected as the mayor of Montreal in 1934 and would be interned in a concentration camp during WWII, had even started his own Workers Federation.6
Chalifoux realized that, despite its potential, the federation he was leading was too narrow. If he wanted to take power, he had to reach out to the rest of society. The new vehicle he envisioned for this was an openly Fascist party.
On March 21, 1934, he launched the National Fascist Party. Unlike his previous federation, it would have a presence from coast to coast. But would it take power by the ballot boxes or by other means? Only time would tell.
The evening was planned like the European Fascist meetings, with huge white banners, bordered by brown frames, on which were written “Justice for All,” a slogan similar to the one Argentina’s Juan Peron would later adopt. The men and women from the movement who had gathered for the event stood still, singing Fascist hymns and the federation anthem. Chalifoux gave one of his most inspirational speeches against the bankers and politicians who had sold out the working men and women of Canada. Only his movement could “restore a real democracy,” he told them. Unfortunately, that evening was basically a failure, as only a few hundred people attended the meeting.
The thousands of members of the federation had no problem being in a Fascist club, but, like those who had not been ready to break the law the year before, they were not ready to join a political party whose aim was to overthrow the government. It seems that many within the federation were sympathetic to Chalifoux’s Fascist pledge, but were first and foremost interested in improving their daily lives—and not directly challenging the Canadian government.
The disappointment was even greater because, a month before, Arcand had himself launched his own Fascist party—the National Social Christian Party—and managed to attract more than 1,500 attendees at his first gathering.7
Interestingly, B’nai Brith Canada still considered Chalifoux’s federation as “the most numerous Fascist organization,” and they estimated the membership at “100,000 Brownshirts, 42,000 female auxiliaries and a shock brigade of 2,000.”
The failure to found a popularly supported Fascist party was another blow for Chalifoux, especially as Arcand’s party was growing fast and was able to expand outside of Montreal, something Chalifoux had failed to do.
Learning from this new setback, Chalifoux put his political ambitions on hold and decided to concentrate on his federation. The Fascist aspect of it remained—the uniforms, the decorum, the flags, the rallies—but he now felt that, in the short term, he had to stop the anti-government rhetoric and start working with those in power to ease the bad living conditions of the unemployed and poor. He started doing what he had been doing at the beginning of his political journey: meeting politicians to propose reforms that would help the working class. If he was not able to revolutionize society, he would try to reform it and make it more humane.
In the years that followed, he met several times with the prime minister of Canada, the premier of Quebec and the mayor of Montreal to encourage them to take an active role in fighting poverty. His plans were often met with refusal, but many of the proposals he made in the 1930s became reality in later years. This included the nationalization of electricity and transportation, free healthcare and free transportation for children attending school.
It was then that the war erupted in Europe, with Canada immediately joining Great Britain. Many Canadian Fascists were interned at the same time Oswald Mosley was arrested and jailed in England. Chalifoux, who was not considered a threat anymore, never was.
After the war, society had changed. The war had allowed the implementation of good working conditions, with a minimum wage, benefits for the unemployed and government help for families. Also, it brought an end to the mass rallies and the colorful speakers of the decade before. Television had changed political events forever. The time when speakers could attract thousands to listen to them orate was over. Chalifoux was never able to adapt to that new reality. He nevertheless continued his political activism—but his star was fading. The era of the orators was replaced by the age of the technocrats.
Chalifoux died far away from the media spotlight on October 27, 1958, in Chambly, a town close to Montreal where he had been born on August 28, 1892. He had not been able to bring the changes he felt necessary for a more humane and Christian Canadian society, i.e., one concerned about the average Canadian. Today, he has vanished from history and few scholars ever mention his name. Even if many of the reforms proposed by this man have since been implemented, the story of Montreal’s Brownshirts and its colorful leader has been totally ignored. Those who know the story of Anaclet Chalifoux, however, realize that his memory has been erased because he was a true nationalist and a populist—both taboo terms in today’s New World Order.
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1 La Roque, Hertel, “Le p’tit gars de Sainte-Marie,” Éditions de l’Homme, Montreal, p. 55.
2 Le Devoir, December 10, 1931.
3 Montreal Gazette, June 8, 1933.
4 Le Canada, November 21, 1933.
5 Le Canada, August 21, 1933.
6 La Roque, op. cit., p. 56.
7 Tremblay Rémi. “Adrien Arcand et le fascisme canadien,” Les Cahiers d’histoire du nationalisme. No. 12, 2017, p. 31.
This article appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of The Barnes Review. Click here for more information.