THE DIRTY THIRTIES
DESPERATE TIMES CALL FOR DESPERATE MEASURES
It was early April 1935 — smack in the middle of the Great Depression — and the worst fears of Canadian authorities had begun to unfold. Hundreds of unemployed, disillusioned, young, single men were walking out of isolated Department of National Defence (DND) relief camps in British Columbia and were making their way to Vancouver. Sick and tired of working at hard labour for twenty cents a day, eight hours a day, under deplorable conditions — and with no end in sight — the men were determined to reverse their dead-end lives.
Their demands included a work-and-wages program, a fiftycent-an-hour minimum wage, workers compensation, the right to vote for all camp workers, and an end to DND’s control of the work camps.
The walkout, coordinated by the Communist Party-affiliated Relief Camp Workers’ Union, was a direct challenge to the federal Conservative government of R.B. Bennett and its handling of the single, homeless, and unemployed during the Depression. Bennett’s government, and the RCMP, looked upon dissent, no matter how peaceful or justified, as a possible communist threat to the country and its traditions.
Since his election in 1930, Bennett had tried to address the unprecedented economic collapse through traditional measures, such as protective tariffs. He opposed what he perceived as handouts. “Never will I or any government of which I am a part put a premium on idleness or put our people on the dole,” he told a labour delegation asking for unemployment insurance in 1930.
A few years later, it was clear that his remedies weren’t working. In October 1932, he reluctantly adopted a relief camp scheme to put unemployed men to work. Run by the military, the program began modestly but grew to include camps across the country.
In contrast to the American Civilian Conservation Corps, a popular federal work-for-relief program across the border, the make-work projects and isolating conditions of the Canadian relief camps aggravated the gloom of the men who were in them.
In Vancouver, local authorities nervously looked on as about fifteen hundred unemployed men — dubbed strikers — arrived in the city in April 1935. They held huge public rallies, paraded in the streets, raised $5,500 in donations from citizens — an astounding amount for the time — in a single day, and even occupied a library to extract relief funds from the city. The most remarkable event was a Mother’s Day gathering in Stanley Park, where about three hundred women encircled more than one thousand strikers, forming the shape of a heart. Meanwhile, the federal and provincial governments wrangled over who was responsible for the strikers.
As the stalemate dragged on and strikers began slipping away, with some going back to the camps, it was suggested at a meeting that the men take their grievances to Ottawa and directly confront the Bennett government. This bold idea galvanized the strikers’ flagging spirits.
But the trek was a bigger gamble than the walkout. Ottawa was more than five thousand kilometres away, and the strikers would have to travel there atop boxcars. An estimated one thousand trekkers left Vancouver by freight train in early June 1935 in three separate contingents. No attempt was made to stop them. Authorities confidently assumed that the resolve of the men would melt away like the snow in the interior mountains. Even Prime Minister Bennett, convinced that the strikers had misplayed their hand, announced that his Conservative administration would simply watch from the sidelines.
The trek seemed likely to fulfill the gloomy predictions. Although the train engineers tried to be as accommodating as possible — for instance, making frequent unscheduled stops to allow the men to urinate from atop the boxcars or to have a smoke — the same could not be said of the reception awaiting the men at their first stop, in Kamloops. Nothing had been done to prepare for their arrival; the mayor and chief of police had flatly refused requests for help.
“It was here that the breaking point was just about reached,” trekker Ron Liversedge later remembered, “and the first time since our strike started that ... our self-discipline [was] thrown to the winds.” The men scrambled to canvas the town for food and cash donations before settling down for the night in a local park. It was there, while the men were sitting around campfires, that one of them began playing the popular union song “Hold the Fort” on his concertina. One by one the men joined in to sing the words, until hundreds of voices were united in the stirring lyrics: “Hold the fort/ For we are coming/
Union men be strong./ Side by side keep pressing onward,/ Victory will come.” It became their anthem for the rest of the trek.
After the near breakdown in Kamloops — and a situation that was little better in Revelstoke — the trek leadership redoubled their efforts to ensure that arrangements were in place to feed and house the men at a series of predetermined stops along the way. Their work paid off: When the men, shivering from the cold, detrained in Golden at four o’clock in the morning of Thursday, June 6, they were welcomed by a clutch of elderly women stirring washtubs of simmering stew in a nearby park. “I’ll never forget that,” trekker Red Walsh confessed years later. “I was so cold when I come [sic] off the roof of that boxcar I thought I was goin’ to fall down.” The hot meal was exactly what the trekkers needed to shake off their doldrums.
Although the trek had defied the odds and travelled seven hundred kilometres to make it as far as Golden, it had come at a cost — more than a hundred men had defected since Vancouver. If the trek was going to build some momentum, organization and discipline were paramount. Trek leaders consequently used the day in Golden to strike various committees to ensure that the trek ran as smoothly as possible. They also drilled into the men that they would never reach their goal, never get to Ottawa, unless they came together as a unit. They were no longer an aimless group of individuals, hitching a ride on a train, headed for nowhere; they were men with a cause — and a mission. But the upbeat mood of the men on leaving Golden was shortlived: Ahead of them were the dreaded spiral tunnels of the Kicking Horse Pass. For the first time, there were genuine fears for the safety of the men. The two tunnels, each about a kilometre long, cut through the mountains and spiralled around and underneath themselves like a giant corkscrew. Inside the tunnels, there was the threat of asphyxiation from a lack of oxygen and the poisonous smoke from the steam engine.
The train was deliberately stopped outside Field while the men were cautioned about the danger ahead. Some placed wet handkerchiefs over their faces; a lucky few had goggles. All clung tightly to the catwalk that ran along the top of the boxcars as the freight train groaned around the curves in the pitch dark. “It was hot in the tunnels,” trekker Irven Schwartz recalled. “First there was a blast of cold, and then a real blast of heat, and finally the smoke came back. You think you’re not going to live.” In the late afternoon of Friday, June 7, the Canadian Pacific Railway train, with its human cargo, rumbled out of British Columbia and down into
the foothills into Calgary.
The trekkers, or “tourists,” as they were jokingly called in the local newspapers, were scheduled to spend the weekend in the prime minister’s home riding. But all that an advance party was able to secure at a special city council meeting was the use of the exhibition grand- stand to house the men. The Calgary mayor offered no bedding, no soap or towels, and no food. The trekkers responded by washing off their soot and grime in the Elbow River and then holding an illegal tag day — soliciting donations in the street — on Saturday morning.
When the Calgary police did nothing to stop the men from collecting money, they became even bolder and laid siege to the downtown office of the Alberta Relief Commission — until provincial officials agreed to provide meals for the next few days.
Initially wary of the trekkers and their motives, Calgary citizens were struck by the innocent youthfulness of the men. “We had reports that these strikers were a rough bunch,” one bystander told a reporter, “but when we saw how orderly and well-behaved they were everyone warmed up to them.” About a thousand citizens attended a rally at the exhibition grounds, cheering and applauding as they listened to speakers explain the reasons for the trek.
By the time the men left Calgary on Monday evening, the trek had taken on the aura of a crusade. What began as a strike against federal relief camps had been transformed into a popular movement against the federal government’s handling of the Depression. This message was not lost on the communities that welcomed the men like modern-day folk heroes as they headed east on their mission.
Police, military, and government authorities, in the meantime, decided that the trek had to be stopped. It was one thing for the trekkers to rail against federal relief policies, but it was quite another matter when their protest was attracting growing public interest, if not support. New recruits had climbed aboard in Alberta, and more were expected to join. Moved by a sense of urgency, the Bennett government drew up plans to stop the trek.
Meanwhile, the trekkers confronted more immediate concerns. No sooner had the freight left for their next stop in Alberta — Medicine Hat — than a stiff wind blew up and rain began to fall in torrents. The men atop the boxcars huddled together to try to stay warm, but their blankets and clothes were soon drenched. Whenever the train stopped during the night, a group quickly gathered around the huge pistons of the locomotive in an attempt to warm their chilled bodies.
The mayor of Medicine Hat tried to discourage the trek from stopping in his city by offering two hundred dollars if it just kept going. But the leadership turned down the bribe. Ever since the men had emerged from the mountains, there was a real sense that they were going to make it to Ottawa — with growing support and more recruits as the trek made its way eastward. “I thought we were makin’ history,” bragged Red Walsh. “No doubt about that.” This belief that they were part of something special forged a bond among the men, a steely enthusiasm that not even a night of cold, driving rain could dampen.
While the men were in Medicine Hat — near the Saskatchewan border but still in Alberta — plans were taking shape to halt the trek. On June 11, Saskatchewan Premier James Gardiner was personally advised by Regina-based RCMP Assistant Commissioner S. T. Wood that the trek would be stopped in Regina. Later that day, the premier received a telegram from W.A. Mather of the CPR declaring the men to be trespassers and asked for the “assistance and co-operation of your government.”
An incredulous Gardiner protested the federal decision. If the trekkers had been in violation of the Railways Act, why had they not been stopped earlier? The Liberal premier fired off a telegram to Bennett to say, “if there is any trouble while these outsiders are in Saskatchewan we will hold you responsible.” And a few days later, in a June 17 telegram to the federal minister of justice, Gardiner warned, “in our opinion your action may result in causing a riot in this province endangering life and property.”
It was not the first time during the Depression that the RCMP had been used in Saskatchewan to quell difficult situations. In September 1931, the Mounties sparked a riot by intercepting a peaceful march by striking coal miners and their families in Estevan. The police shot to death three men. In May 1933, the RCMP started another riot by forcibly trying to remove “troublemakers” from the Saskatoon relief camp. In that incident, one officer died when he fell from his horse and struck his head.
The trek took to the rails again on the morning of Wednesday, June 12, and reached Swift Current, Saskatchewan, shortly after noon. Most of the town turned out to witness the train’s arrival. So too did Charles Woodsworth, a newspaper reporter disguised as a transient. The Winnipeg Tribune had sent Woodsworth — the son of J.S. Woodsworth, founder of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation — to Swift Current to join the trek, and the organization of the men made quite a first impression.
“I expected them to swarm across the tracks and invade Swift Current like a mob,” he confessed. “Instead, they formed fours immediately on descending from the cars, waited until all sections of the hobo army were ready, and then marched town-wards in real army style.”
It was in Swift Current that the trek leaders first learned of the government’s decision to stop the trek in Regina. It was undoubtedly on their minds as they boarded a waiting freight train. This time, though, they had company. The boxcars were loaded with horses and cattle. As the hundreds of men took their positions above them, the frightened animals neighed, bellowed, and stomped.
“I expected them to swarm across the tracks and invade Swift Current like a mob,” he confessed. “Instead, they formed fours immediately on descending from the cars.”
The trekkers — now numbering about 1,350 — rode into Moose Jaw just before sundown on June 12. By this time, the public had cast aside its fear of the army of transient rail riders. Large crowds formed at railway crossings and overpasses, boisterously cheering on the trekkers as they passed. The men shouted and waved back, their teeth gleaming from faces darkened by coal dust and smoke.
On one level, the trek had become a travelling road show. It is quite likely that many in the crowds in Moose Jaw that evening had come to catch a glimpse of the men before the looming showdown in Regina. But, on another level, the trek resonated with Depression-weary Western Canadians in a way no other event had since their world had been turned upside-down.
However, the view from Parliament Hill, 2,700 kilometres away, was very different. To the Bennett administration the trek was a revolution on wheels — an army of single, homeless, unemployed men with nothing to lose, under the control of communist masters. To make matters worse, the army was growing. Labour organizations were throwing their support behind the rail riders: about a thousand relief camp workers were gathering in Winnipeg, prepared to join the trek if it came through.
Thursday, June 13, was a rainy day in Moose Jaw. Most of the trekkers spent their time at the exhibition grounds, huddling in small groups in the stands or underneath them, talking and smoking, while waiting for a decision from the strike committee about their next move.
That afternoon, three thousand citizens and trekkers filled the grandstand for a public rally that was held, ostensibly, to thank the city for its support. But the real purpose was to tell the Bennett government to keep its hands off the trek. Trek leader Paddy O’Neill announced to the enthusiastic roar of the trekkers: “We are going through with the march, and we don’t care if we have to go in our stockinged feet.”
At a closed mass meeting that evening, the trek leaders talked in detail for the first time about the blockade in Regina and what would be expected of the men. They sternly cautioned them that any “monkey business” or hooliganism on the trains or in the streets would lead to expulsion. At 12:30 a.m., after waiting for what seemed to be an eternity in the mud-filled park, the trekkers were called into formation and marched to the train station.
There, they patiently waited two more hours in steady rain until their freight was finally ready, and they struggled aboard for the seventy-kilometre trip to Regina. By now they numbered about fifteen hundred. The scene was eerily reminiscent of their departure from Vancouver ten days earlier — setting off in the night, with no one to see them off, and uncertain as to how far they would get.
At least one thing had been settled: There would be no turning back. The trekkers reached Regina early on Friday, June 14. There, the mood was tense. “Hurried conferences were held all day yesterday between Premier Gardiner, cabinet ministers, police officials, and civil heads,” reported the Ottawa Citizen, which also noted, “Orders from Ottawa to Royal Canadian Mounted Police officials here to halt the trek brought a demand from J.G. Gardiner of Saskatchewan that Prime Minister R.B. Bennett ‘keep his hands
off the policing of this province.’”
The train was met by members of the RCMP, who escorted the men to their new temporary home at the Regina exhibition grounds. A coalition of sympathetic Regina groups accommodated the needs of the men, including food, fundraising, and a variety of public events. Meanwhile, a delegation of trek leaders travelled by train to Ottawa in an attempt to negotiate with the government. The fruitless result was summed up in a two-line memo that the CPR flashed to its offices across the country on June 22: “Prime Minister told Regina Committee nothing doing. Go back to your camps.”
For the next two weeks in the Saskatchewan capital, the police and the trekkers played a tense game of brinkmanship, daring each other to make the first move. Near the end of June, the number of trekkers had grown to about two thousand. However, the men grudgingly conceded that there was no way out of Regina. An attempt to move some of the strikers out by truck was quickly stopped by the RCMP. At the same time, the RCMP warned civilians that they would be prosecuted if they provided assistance to the trekkers.
There seemed to be no way to end the impasse peacefully. The trekkers were agreeable to leaving Regina and going back to their respective camps or their homes — but only under the direction of their own organization. The Bennett government, however, insisted that the trek be disbanded on its terms — through a special holding facility on the outskirts of the city. The men balked at the proposal, seeing it as a trap.
On the evening of July 1 — Dominion Day — the strikers held a mass meeting at Market Square in the city’s centre. Estimates of how many were there range from twelve hundred to three thousand. More than half were local citizens. None realized that the Mounties and the city police had chosen this rally to arrest the trek ringleaders while clearing the square by force, if necessary. Even Premier Gardiner, who had met with strike leaders earlier in the day, was unaware of the plan.
At 8:17 p.m., just as one of the speakers finished addressing the orderly crowd, the shrill sound of a police whistle pierced the air. Thirtyone club-wielding city police officers sprang from their hiding places to charge the speakers’ platform and arrest the trek organizers. “The policemen went slam bang into the crowd,” witness Allen Miller told a provincial inquiry held later that year. “I saw people being knocked over.” One older woman fell and broke her leg. Another woman was clubbed on the back as she tried to help an elderly woman who had fallen. Even a baby carriage was bumped in the melee.
As the Regina police rushed through the crowd, two Mountie units also sprang into action and charged into the square. The raid quickly degenerated into a pitched battle between the police and trekkers and citizens. An unfortunate number of police officers became separated from their troops and were surrounded by angry mobs. One Mountie was pinned to the ground as two trekkers viciously punched him about the head and torso. The police were equally brutal, with many reports of groups of police officers holding trekkers down and beating them with clubs.
People fled the square, but trekkers and some civilians, including women, regrouped on nearby streets and threw rocks and bricks at
police. Mounties on horseback appeared, armed with long leather truncheons and protected by metal helmets. They charged at pockets of resistance, yelling all the while as if they were pushing cattle.
People gasped as clouds of tear gas filled the downtown. Store windows decorated with Dominion Day bunting and flags were shattered by brick-wielding rioters. Thousands of curious citizens emerged from cafés, theatres, and homes to watch what was going on. “I must say,” Colonel Wood reported later, “that spectators were the greatest hindrance to us in the course of our operations.” Two hours after the riot began, shots echoed through the streets as city police officers emptied their revolvers directly into a crowd of stone-throwing rioters. Ambulances rushed the wounded to hospital. Order was not restored until after midnight. Dawn broke on a desolate scene of streets littered with shards of glass, broken bricks, twisted metal, and pools of blood.
Two people died. One of them was city police detective Charles Millar, who was clubbed on the head. The other was Nick Schaack, a farmhand, who, at fifty-two, was one of the older trekkers. Schaack died three and a half months later, due to complications from a head injury sustained during the melee. In addition, hundreds of people were injured, and the city sustained tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage. Of the 118 men arrested, 38 were charged, and nine were convicted and sentenced.
Sadly, Premier Gardiner’s earlier warning — that stopping the trek would result in a riot — had come true. Seething with anger, he told federal authorities his government would feed and house the strikers and then move them west and back to their relief camps or their homes.
The day after the riot, Bennett spoke at length in the House of Commons, defending his government’s actions: “This movement is … not a mere uprising against law and order but a revolutionary effort.” Three months later, in the thick of an election campaign, he was promising radical reforms, such as health and unemployment insurance as well as a minimum wage. But it was to no avail. In
October 1935, Liberal leader William Lyon Mackenzie King overwhelmingly defeated Bennett.
Less than a year later, the relief camps were closed. But for many of the hopeless men who lived in them and took part in the protest, the trek had provided a purpose. Far from being a sinister communist plot, the march eastward captured a profound sense of the crisis that gripped the country during the 1930s. The stories of the trekkers — and their feelings of failure and despair — could have been the stories of many other ordinary Canadians. They just wanted to live ordinary lives.
Jean McWilliam of Calgary clearly understood this. In a letter to Alice Millar, Bennett’s private secretary, dated two days after the Regina Riot, McWilliams wrote: “These boys who went thro Calgary seemed to be a very fine type of boys.... And I am heartily sorry for them. To me it is ... a lost generation.”
Learn more at CanadasHistory.ca/OnToOttawaTrek
Unemployed men climb on board a train during the Depression. CITY OF TORONTO ARCHIVES
Unemployed, homeless men in a field somewhere in Western Canada in the early 1930s — a common sight during the Great Depression.
Above right: Relief camp workers construct a new sleeping hut at a camp in Kitchener, British Columbia, in November 1935. Below right: Mealtime at a Canadian relief camp in February 1934, location unknown.
Above: Unemployed men march in Toronto during the Great Depression. Below: A dust storm approaches the town of Lomond, Alberta, in the 1930s.
Unemployed men on the On to Ottawa Trek display a sign with one of their demands. The Department of National Defence relief camps were called “slave camps” by those who worked in them for twenty cents a day.
Left: Women in Vancouver hold a Mother’s Day picnic in support of the On to Ottawa trekkers.
Right: Trekkers stand in formation as they wait to board their train. Disclipline was one of the hallmarks of the trek.
Rioters carrying sticks and throwing rocks run towards a police officer who is bending over a person on the ground during the Dominion Day riot in Regina in 1935. The violence began when police stormed a rally to arrest leaders of the On to Ottawa Trek.