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The Globe and Mail

Ontario Legion branch shut down after KKK Halloween costume debacle

The presence of a man dressed in a white Ku Klux Klan robe and hood at a Campbellford Legion Halloween party Saturday night set off a swelling tide of revulsion that has reached the Royal Canadian Legion Dominion Command.

The doors are closed, the poppy drive is in doubt and Remembrance Day could be wiped off the calendar at the Royal Canadian Legion in Campbellford, Ont., where a man in a Ku Klux Klan outfit, trailing a noose-necked man in blackface, won first prize at a Halloween party last weekend.

The Legion's provincial president, Ed Pigeau, decided to shut down Branch 103 indefinitely on Wednesday "pending a full investigation and for the protection of the branch and its members," a move that came amid a rising tide of outrage over the incident, and tepid apologies from one of the men involved.

In the process, Mr. Pigeau has upset not only Legion members, but the actual black man whose anger at seeing the display prompted the shutdown and investigations by Legion officials and the police.

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"This is a small town and a pretty tight community here, and the Legion's a big part of it," said Mark Andrade, a restaurateur and one of few non-white residents in the southeastern Ontario community of 3,500. "It's not what I wanted at all; I don't think it's what anybody wanted."

It's certainly not what one of Mr. Andrade's three employees wanted: "[He]just walked out on me because I 'shut his Legion down'," he said. "But every customer who's come through these doors today has been nothing but positive, and apologetic in some cases, which they do not need to be."

The unseemly spectacle unfolded Saturday night when Blair Crowley, a resident of nearby Hastings, showed up in a white KKK cloak and hood, with a Confederate flag draped over his back. He led a plaid-shirted friend, face covered in black makeup, by a rope looped around his neck.

Mr. Andrade, who had dropped by the Legion for a beer, could barely believe it when the men were named winners of the costume contest. He left, appalled.

When reports of the incident and Mr. Andrade's anger surfaced this week, the Legion was flooded with calls from people upset not only that Mr. Crowley was allowed into the party, but that he won a prize.

"They just can't believe that a branch of the Legion would participate in something like this," said Mr. Pigeau.

For his part, Mr. Crowley told the QMI news agency his Halloween get-up "wasn't meant to be anything racist" and said "I apologize if I offended anybody." He went on to suggest people were overreacting, saying the practice of Klan lynchings of black people "has been gone for years and years and years...That's so past-tense."

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When Mr. Pigeau asked the branch to explain how the men got into the party and won an award, he was told "the fellow who was in charge of the event felt that it was their right to wear these costumes under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada, and he didn't see anything wrong with it."

With Remembrance Day a week away, Mr. Pigeau decided to close the branch to allow the situation to cool down. "There were no actual, credible threats at any time," he said, "but I'd rather take heat for making a hasty decision than have something happen to somebody as a result of the branch being open."

He asked the branch to suspend its poppy sales drive and Nov. 11 commemorations, and was warned there would be a backlash, "and I said, 'Well, if that's the case then I'll reverse my decision, but until then, the decision stands'."

A backlash is more than likely, given the Legion's centrality to small-town life and the charitable works of its members.

"I was just going to make sandwiches for this Friday, for the people who sell the poppies," said Frances Watson, 74, of the branch's ladies' auxiliary. "You can't put the whole Legion down because of one person or one episode."

On that point, Mr. Andrade agreed. He'd like Legion officials to simply expel the members responsible and get back to business.

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"It's an isolated incident; I've been here 12 years and never once have I ever felt the slightest bit of discomfort or racism directed against me or anybody else," he said. "Four hundred people called the Legion [to complain]before I did...I just have to look at that and say, this is exactly the town I thought I was living in."

Tad Seaborn, who grew up in Campbellford but now lives in Toronto, said he "felt bad for Mr. Andrade, having to be subjected to such an insult, but also for most of the people in town who would have found the event equally repulsive."

Mr. Seaborn, who is white, said his former hometown is no hotbed of racism, but rather a "unicultural bubble" where it is easier to be insensitive than in more-diverse communities. He called the costume prize "far more troubling, as it implies a general acceptance of something so obviously wrong," but had no explanation for it other than "some rural, institutionalized ignorance, lack of education and life experience outside the local culture bubble."

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