Register Thursday | December 13 | 2018

Shriners March to a Different Tune

15,000 delegates in Vancouver

The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine—otherwise known as the Shriners—rolled into Vancouver, B.C., this summer for its 2002 Imperial Council Session. With 15,000 delegates and their families arriving from across North America for a week of meetings and socializing, it is a significant event in the commercial life of any host city. However, the convention took a small back seat to the colourful public parade, the highlight of the weekend. Bemused parents and their entertained offspring lined the sidewalks of Pacific Boulevard, and with good reason: 3,500 paunchy clowns, pantomime Arabs and fez-wearing Potentates is a rarer sight than whaling boats in English Bay. The procession was led by local Imperial Potentate Ken Smith, this year’s head Shriner, with an honour guard of Dixieland marching bands dressed in colours more usually found on children’s TV. Dozens of floats in the parade featured members in false black beards, flowing multicoloured robes and golden curlicue shoes. Accompanied by tinny kazoo music, they looked like cheap extras from a desert-themed Abbott and Costello movie. Dangerously top-heavy “Shriner Klowns” teetered along on scooters, and several carefully preserved vintage cars were a standout, but the real crowd-pleasers were the Shriners’ miniature vehicles. Driven by old men at speed, zipping and honking along the route, these go-cart-sized vehicles parade in entire formations of customized mini monster trucks, Model-T Fords and Formula One racecars. While the Shriners have a well-deserved reputation for sterling charity work—they annually raise US$600 million to provide free medical treatment for children in 22 Shriner-owned hospitals—not everything the Shriners do retains an air of harmless fun. The movement has been increasingly lambasted in recent years for what’s regarded as an old-fashioned and disrespectful appropriation of Arabic and Islamic imagery. All 515,000 members wear dark red fezzes and recognize the scimitar, crescent and star as their fraternal symbols. Omar, Mecca, Ben Hur, Islam and Gizeh—a Westernized misspelling of the pyramid of Giza—are used as names for Shriner divisions. Meeting centres are called mosques. The Shriners contend they have only a secular and superficial interest in these cultural symbols and names, and their costumes—whether clown jumpsuits or Aladdin outfits—are simply a silly way to draw attention to their charity initiatives. The organization is reluctant to abandon what have become firmly established Shriner traditions. While individual Shriners may pay occasional lip service to the idea of change, resistance to reforming its practices is seen by some as a nod to the unchanging, ritual-driven Freemasons, the 600-year-old secret society that is closely affiliated with the Shriners. The Shriners were founded in 1870 to plan and stage fun social events for the Freemasons. All members of the male-only organization must belong to the 10-million member Freemason fraternity. In fact, the Shriners’ charity work is often described as the public relations face of the Freemasons. Whether the Shriners’ reluctance to revise their anachronistic traditions makes them a sinister old boys’ club or simply reflects the generational ignorance of an elderly congregation, it’s clearly having a detrimental effect on attracting new members. The Shriner hierarchy’s claim that new members are flocking to the fold was undermined by the evidence of this year’s parade, where the words “white” and “balding” sprang frequently to mind. And while one fez-wearing spectator boasted of new Asian-American members in the Seattle and Hawaii divisions, another could be heard laughingly calling for a “Chinaman” to help him unfurl his tangled flag. But if the Vancouver region could take offence at the Shriners’ lazy racism—the Lower Mainland has one of the largest Asian communities in Canada —the reality is that the Shriners are welcome in the city anytime. The largest convention ever held in the region, the event soaked up 5,000 hotel rooms and delivered an estimated $30 million in tourism spending. With that level of purchasing power, combined with the undiminished need for charity hospitals to augment shrinking public health programs, the movement continues to be welcomed with open arms across North America. In the current climate, where the civil and moral bottom line is money, the Shriners are in a strong position to maintain their outdated traditions. When big money talks, it can say almost whatever it wants. The aging Shriners may be old hat, but there’s plenty of money under those fezzes.