By Cassandra Kislenko
It was January 1932, and the richest man in Canada had a serious problem.
Nova Scotia-born Izaak Walton Killam had made his millions through pulp, paper and hydro-electric projects across Latin America. His Montreal-based International Power company controlled a monopoly on electrical power in El Salvador and charged extremely high rates on the country’s exploited workers.
When these Indigenous peasants began an organized uprising, Killam called in a personal favour to protect his capital. This would end in a civilian massacre that would usher in decades of military dictatorship, and ultimately help establish prestigious cornerstones of Canadian arts, culture and academics.
El Salvador’s economy in 1932 was controlled by colonial coffee, railway and electricity companies that worked the country’s Indigenous peasants in gruelling conditions for meagre wages. A United States army major stationed there once remarked, “there appears to be nothing between these high-priced cars, and the oxcart with its barefoot attendant … there is practically no middle class.”
This state of affairs that allowed for Killam’s monopoly was enforced by the military dictatorship of General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, who had come to power in a coup d’etat in late 1931.
As part of legitimizing his rule, Martinez initially invited all parties, including the Communist Party, to participate in open elections at all levels of government.
These started with municipal elections on January 5, 1932, where the Communist Party saw several landslide victories in the face of intimidation tactics. The wins scared the Martinez dictatorship so badly that he not only nullified the results, but cancelled the promised upcoming federal election completely.
Salvadoran workers began an uprising, led by folk heroes like the Marxist-Leninist Augustin Farabundo Marti.
Groups of peasants, many of them from the Pipil Indigenous nation, seized plantations, military barracks and entire villages in a show of rebellion. These Indigenous groups and communists began directly targeting companies like Killam’s International Power with boycotts, strikes and demonstrations.
Meanwhile, the dictatorship was nearly broke and unable to pay its soldiers, whose morale was so low that they were threatening to defect and even join the rebellion. Killam saw his monopoly in El Salvador was facing a dire situation. And so, after extending a generous loan to the dictatorship, he called in help from a dear friend.
That friend was Canadian Prime Minister Richard Bedford Bennett. Killam asked Bennett if the Canadian military could intervene in the Salvadoran crisis, and recognizing the importance of Canadian capital in the region, Bennett happily obliged. The Royal Canadian Navy deployed the destroyers Skeena and Vancouver to help the Salvadoran dictatorship “safeguard life and property” against what Bennett called “communist Indians.”
Quebec-born Commander Victor Brodeur anchored his ships in the harbour outside the port city of Acajutla, leaving a fully armed landing party on standby while he went ashore to meet Martinez. Upon witnessing Salvadoran Indigenous workers making 12 cents per day, Brodeur remarked in his diary it was “hardly to be wondered that Communism made many converts” of the country’s workers.
Martinez was reportedly overjoyed to meet Brodeur, seeing the arrival of Canadian gunships as a turning point in the conflict. Not only did it give the army extra firepower, it symbolized a direct endorsement from the British Empire. Brodeur boasted that Canada’s visible presence in the harbour had a “wonderful morale effect” for the dictatorship’s soldiers, as well as a menacing warning to the outgunned peasants.
Brodeur enthusiastically offered to land Canadian soldiers and have them directly participate in the crackdown. However, Martinez declined, wishing to establish a strong and ruthless image for his new dictatorship. Brodeur instead helped Martinez’s army strategize and according to different sources, either had his landing parties fortify on the beach or stand by in the destroyers as potential reinforcements.
In the end, Canadian soldiers did not need to fire a shot.
What followed is known in El Salvador today as “La Matanza,” or simply “The Massacre.” Between January 23-25, 1932, approximately 25,000 Salvadoran peasants were murdered by government forces, including the public execution of freedom fighter Marti. The overwhelming majority of those killed were Pipil, some of whom were made to dig their own graves before being executed.
The Salvadoran military’s colonial-financed weapons and training would be a decisive factor, with witnesses describing “waves of Indians, blown away by machine guns.” Martinez’s chief of operation proudly informed Brodeur that Canadian troops would not be needed, assuring that “complete extermination (would) be achieved.” When Brodeur surveyed the aftermath, he observed that many of the corpses were holding white flags of surrender.
The dictatorship’s top brass thanked Brodeur with a celebratory luncheon, which he called “exceedingly good.” He even stuck around the next day to play a round of golf with Martinez and other military officials.
Reflecting on the events in his diary, Brodeur blamed the peasants for their own poverty, remarking, “it is one of the outstanding characteristics of the Central American Indian that he is incapable of saving money ... he spends it at once in the nearest cantina.” Yet the only Indigenous Salvadorans Brodeur met were surrendered corpses on the beach.
The Canadian media played up the navy’s supposed heroics. In the ensuing days, the Globe published articles claiming that Canada had rescued white women from “red hordes,” and declared in an editorial: “Reds making trouble. Foreign population in peril (with) no protection ... The Dominion (of Canada’s) fleet is roaming the seas in search of adventure; and finding it.”
The Royal Canadian Navy had indeed found adventure, aiding a capitalist dictatorship in one of the worst civilian massacres ever recorded on Turtle Island.
La Matanza continued until July 11, 1932, with a final death count of over 40,000. Martinez remained in power for more than a decade afterwards, vocally supporting the fascist governments of Spain, Italy, Japan and Nazi Germany throughout the 1930s.
Salvadorans would endure another 50 years of brutal western-backed far-right military rule, followed by 13 years of civil war during which an estimated 75,000 Indigenous activists, union supporters, communists, Catholic clergy and other leftists were murdered or disappeared by U.S.-funded right-wing death squads.
Killam’s International Power company maintained its electricity monopoly in El Salvador for some time following La Matanza. Upon his death, Killam was thought to be the wealthiest man in Canada. He left part of his fortune to the Canadian government, where it contributed half the funding to found the prestigious Canadian Council for the Arts.
His wife Dorothy Killam received $40 million, which she used to establish a series of coveted academic research grants known as Killam Trusts, today valued at around $400 million. These extremely lucrative CCA grants and Killam Trusts have been a cornerstone of Canadian arts, culture and academics ever since.
Today, five Canadian universities continue to be Killam institutions, including the renowned Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill. The National Killam Program Advisory Board oversees the distribution of hundreds of millions in academic funding each year, deciding which scholars get precious research funding for their projects.
Killam money also funds the National Research Council of Canada, and in May 2021 it was announced that the CCA’s Killam-funded grants would be renamed the National Killam Program.
Izaak Walton Killam’s colonial blood money is a foundation of Canadian identity and economy, and another reminder that the spoils of imperialism and Indigenous genocide are an integral part of Canada’s heritage.
The historical research in this piece is based on Tyler A. Shipley’s Canada In The World: Settler Capitalism and the Colonial Imagination, (Chapter 5, part 1 “Flirting with Fascism”) and Peter MacFarlane’s Northern Shadows: Canadians in Central America.