Social Services Bureau sets up collection depot
Prince Albert was not immune from the worst effects of economic stagnation that afflicted North America during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The most serious problem the city experienced was widespread unemployment, and the resulting need to provide relief to impoverished families.
In May of 1932, the Prince Albert Daily Herald reported that there were 281 unemployed persons in the city with 984 dependents, making a total 1,265 – 13 percent of the population – receiving relief assistance from the city. In ordinary years, the cost of relief assistance to the city was less than $500 per month. By 1932, this cost had soared to about $10,000 per month.
The numbers only tell part of the story, however. It is difficult to find first-person stories about the suffering endured by so many during the depression. For one thing, it was considered a shameful thing to have to go on relief, so records were kept private. “The mere application for relief had been an indignity to many families,” Gary Abrams explains in his 1966 book on the history of Prince Albert, “and their more fortunate neighbours had continued to stigmatize them as second-class citizens.”
One way to get a picture of what Prince Albert was like during the depression years is to read pages of the Daily Herald from the 1930s. For example, in January of 1932, the Prince Albert Social Services Bureau, a private charity, had set up a clothing collection depot in the post office building on Central Avenue. Every week, the Bureau published an appeal in the paper for items needed by families on relief. Here are just a few examples from the charity’s first months of operation:
February 1: “One family, a widower with three children, is badly in need of outfitting. The father is employed on city relief work – three days’ work in every nine. The three youngsters … are sleeping with little other than overcoats and the like. The Bureau is particularly in need of bed clothing and warm footwear.”
February 8: “On Saturday afternoon a boy entered the clothing depot and it required no second glance to know he needed an overcoat. A search through the stock revealed there was nothing to fit him. It looked as if he would have to go out into the cold again without sufficient protection from biting winds until one of the workers discovered a coat of sorts. The lad went away happy and thankful. The bureau is very much in need of boys’ clothing, anything at all that boys wear, such as overcoats, mitts, caps, sweaters and underwear.”
April 15: “Wednesday a man called at the Social Service Bureau clothing depot and requested a pair of shoes for his wife who was unable to come herself to be fitted because she had none of any description. Officials sent a number of pairs for the woman to try. This is only one of the many examples of the acute need of footwear among unfortunate families in the city.”
May 4: “A number of single men living at the immigration hall have practically no footwear, and without it they cannot to out to work when available. Donations of men’s shoes are needed.”
Between January and June of 1932, the Prince Albert Social Service Bureau had distributed used clothing and footwear to 200 infants, 579 school-age children and 739 adults. Food, fuel, and bedding were supplied to 78 families. Local school children were supplied with a total of 10,500 quarts of milk, 69 textbooks, and 72 scribblers. Six city dentists gave free dental treatment to 122 school children. The Bureau even helped non-residents. “Seventy-four transients were assisted with clothing, footwear, etc., in order that they could accept farm work outside of the city,” the Herald reported, “thus enabling them to avoid becoming a charge of the city.” A total of 2,382 cases were handled through the Bureau in six months. Thanks to volunteers, there had been no cost for the administration of this relief.
Other relief measures in Prince Albert during the 1930s included public works projects for unemployed men – projects like the construction of a rock dam on the river near the airport to raise the water level for seaplanes. Over the nine years of the depression, the City, with some help from the provincial and federal governments, spent $357,000 on unemployment relief. This included direct benefits to families to help them stave off destitution – money for groceries and free medical and dental care.
In 1938, as clouds of the depression began to lift, the city administration conducted a survey of housing conditions in Prince Albert. The findings help to illustrate the effects of a decade of poverty on city familes. Forty-eight percent of the city’s homes lacked modern plumbing – outhouses were still being used. The survey also found that nearly one-eighth of the houses were classed as unsanitary. “The cost in human misery had been incalculable,” Abrams writes, “and the effects of the depression upon the health of the people of Prince Albert were to be felt far into the future.”