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Forced Relief

Like many Canadians of the baby boom generation, I gained my first knowledge of the Great Depression from my parents. In particular, I remember my father’s stories about the dirty thirties and how he always emphasized the precarious nature of the times, when jobs were scarce and no welfare system existed to help those in need.

Many people, including the policymakers of the day, had experienced economic recessions, but these downturns in the economy had been relatively brief compared to the severity and duration of the Depression. As a result, most people were unprepared when the world economy was plunged into chaos in 1930 following the disastrous stock market collapse on Oct. 29, 1929. It is also important to note that the processes of urbanization and industrialization were of fairly recent origin in 1930, and the prevailing assumption that unemployment was a personal failing proved resilient even as the creation of a modern economy called such precepts into question.

Few images capture the essence of the period more distinctly than those of the unemployment relief camps that operated between 1932 and 1936. To understand why the federally-run camps were created and what they came to represent to the people who lived in them, we need to take a closer look at the times.

Although the stock market crash is sometimes considered the trigger of the Great Depression, the roots for the calamity were firmly connected to the unstable international economic structure that emerged after World War I. The war ended Great Britain’s economic supremacy and gave Germany a massive debt as well as war reparations. It also plunged Russia into revolution and elevated the United States to dominance in the world economy. American credit kept the edifice upright for a time, but as nations recovered from the war, increased industrial and agricultural capacity created a glut on commodity markets by the late 1920s.

Canada’s economy was overwhelmingly dependent on a relatively small number of exports. Some 80 per cent of the nation’s agricultural, forestry and mineral products depended on foreign markets, and over 1/3 of all Canadian exports were consumed in the U.S. When the American economy began to decline in 1929, Canada’s key market vanished. Tariff barriers went up around the world and this caused Canadian exports to fall in value from $127 billion in 1929 to $396 million in 1932.

Out west, a bushel of wheat worth $1.03 in 1928 earned 29 cents in 1932. British Columbia’s timber, fish and mining camps fell silent, and across the country railway construction came to a halt. At the same time there was a faltering demand for agricultural implements and automobiles. In the Maritimes, per-capita income averaged $185, only marginally higher than levels in the devastated Prairie provinces.

It is estimated that one in five Canadians became dependent upon government relief between 1929 and 1933. Not until World War II did rearmament alleviate the unemployment that brought misery to Canadians for a decade.

Among the people who suffered the most were the “bunkhouse” men who had helped build Canada’s transportation infrastructure, harvest its crops, mine its minerals and log its timber. Dominion immigration policies had encouraged a plentiful supply of labour for resource development and railway construction, and most of these workers moved about in accordance with the economy’s seasonal and cyclical demands. During periods of unemployment they migrated to the skid row areas of cities and towns, but after 1930 this mobile mass was joined by thousands of young men who took to the nation’s roads and railways to find work and ease the burden on their families. Many of these men “rode the rods” in search of work and milder climates. Many ended up in Vancouver and found themselves settling into crude hobo jungles.

The single transient unemployed occupied an unenviable place in Canada’s welfare system. Constitutional responsibility for unemployment rested with the provinces, which shifted the burden downward to their municipalities. Unable to meet the needs of the destitute, local governments adopted residency requirements that disqualified transients from eligibility beyond perhaps a meal at a soup kitchen and a night’s sleep in a municipal hostel or jail. In leaving home, the transients had cut themselves off from any government aid.

Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King made scant reference to the almost 400,000 unemployed Canadians during the 1930 federal election campaign, while Conservative leader R.B. Bennett promised swift action to promote economic recovery. The Conservatives under Bennett won the election, but over the next five years the taste of victory would turn bitter as the economy spiralled downward.

While holding to the position that unemployment was primarily a local problem, Bennett provided an unprecedented $20 million for relief to the provinces and municipalities in the summer of 1930. The provinces and municipalities contributed funds to qualify for the federal money that was used to launch public works projects for the unemployed. Only $4 million was earmarked for direct relief, known as the dole, for distribution by private charities and emergency relief committees.

Bennett made further funds available for public works in the spring of 1931, and several provinces established highway construction schemes to draw transients from the cities. The federal government established its own projects on western national parks. Unfortunately, poor administration characterized many of the provincial and municipal initiatives. Historian James Gray participated in Winnipeg’s “weird and wonderful schemes of organized time-wasting.” He writes that men dug holes only to fill them in again and built roads that started nowhere and led nowhere.

By the spring of 1932, many provincial and municipal governments could no longer bear their share of the costs associated with public works. Facing a $150 million deficit of his own, Bennett pulled the plug on co-operative public works in favour of the dole, paying a third of municipal direct relief costs. The national parks program in the west continued, but it absorbed only a tiny fraction of the homeless. Radical alternatives to Bennett’s ineffectual social and economic policies gained popularity as the economic crisis worsened. The National Unemployment Workers Association, which was affiliated with the Communist Party of Canada, organized protests in cities and towns across the country. Federal authorities deported more than 28,000 recent immigrants between 1930 and 1935. Many of these people were suspected of radical leanings, but most were deported because of illness or unemployment.

The fear of a revolution grew as the single unemployed drifted back to the cities when the public works projects closed down. The ultimate solution to the problem originated in a 1932 inspection of Canada’s military districts by the chief of the general staff, General Andrew McNaughton. Concerned about the threat of civil unrest and the questionable fitness of future military service among the estimated 70,000 young men who were wandering throughout the west, McNaughton developed a plan for the Department of Defence to administer a system of relief camps for single, homeless men. Bennett approved the scheme in October of that year.

Men would gain entrance to the camps through national employment offices, and the camps would provide housing, food, clothing, medical care and a 20-cent daily allowance for work on projects of national value, mainly construction work in the bush. Presented as a temporary exercise in morale building for demoralized Canadian youth, the idea gained public approval. By June 1933, projects had opened in every province except Prince Edward Island. British Columbia, with the largest number of single unemployed, hosted 53 of the 144 projects. Ontario ranked second with 37.

However, conflict plagued the camps from the start, and relations between the men and the people who ran them worsened. The internees said the discontent was caused by authoritarian administration, government penny-pinching and prolonged confinement. In their three-plus years of existence, the camps recorded 359 strikes and disturbances. Bennett and McNaughton maintained that the men entered the camps of their own accord, and they were not subject to the military code of conduct.

But while it is true that the men were not rounded up and forced to participate in the camps, to refuse meant ineligibility for relief. Civilian supervisors made no attempt to drive the men or impose rigid disciplinary standards, but military principles of order governed camp affairs. Rules forbade any organized presentation of grievance by groups or committees, and challenges to authority invited immediate eviction with no provision of transportation from isolated camps to the nearest town.

The living conditions have been described as being worse than those encountered in railway construction or logging camps. “Some were good, some not so good,” recalled one relief worker. “A lot depended on the supervisors.”

Bunkhouses of frame and tarpaper construction contained two tiers of straw-filled bunks and a wood-burning stove. The quality of the fare also varied, but Vancouver Sun reporter Bob Bouchette gave the food a passing grade when he toured several camps in early 1934. The army veteran and former merchant mariner described the meals as far superior to those served at sea and above the military standard.

The availability of medical care, coupled with regular meals, contributed to a general improvement in the health and weight of men. “The fact is that many men came into the camps half-starved and gaunt,” wrote Bouchette. “In a few weeks the hollows have filled out.”

Charities donated books, magazines, radios and playing cards, and several provinces offered correspondence courses, but the lack of organized recreation left many internees with “plenty of time on their hands and few amusements.” Bouchette noted in an essay on the “sex picture” in the camps, that younger men inevitably spent a great deal of time thinking about women. And unlike loggers, seamen or even prisoners who endured a fixed period of isolation, the relief workers faced an indeterminate sentence, he observed, in requesting donations of recreational equipment to help “turn the mind from the most powerful instinct in life.”

Scholars have traditionally emphasized the make-work nature of the camps, but a recent analysis casts a more favourable light on the contribution made by those who built aerodromes and landing fields, constructed highways, developed military facilities and established federal forestry stations. Nevertheless, the government’s reluctance to fund machinery expenditures coupled with its desire to maximize employment reduced both productivity and morale, and the 20-cent allowance reinforced the belief that the facilities were “slave camps.”

The allowance was a persistent source of unrest. This was evident in the relief workers’ sarcastic identity as the Royal Twenty Centers. However, the root cause of discontent lay in the atmosphere of hopelessness that permeated the camps as time passed. “The present system breeds idleness, a feeling of futility and a smouldering resentment against society,” Bouchette concluded.

It wasn’t long before protests became more commonplace.

The Communist Party of Canada was virtually outlawed from 1931 to 1936, but affiliated groups such as the Relief Camp Workers Union, the Workers Unity League and the National Unemployment Workers Association organized the unemployed in protest marches and demonstrations. By April 1934, more than 50 strikes and protests had occurred, but rather than address grievances the authorities simply blacklisted agitators.

The Relief Camp Workers Union and Workers Unity League’s influence peaked in British Columbia where the number and size of camps provided the most fertile ground for organizers. A December 1934 general strike call provided the first opportunity for a test of strength. That project failed to muster widespread support, but the public demands for an investigation into the administration of the camps gained strength. Bennett approved an investigation, but too late to head off another Relief Camp Workers Union strike in April 1935. Demands included union rates for skilled labour and 50 cents an hour for unskilled work, improved first-aid facilities, workers’ compensation coverage, the right to elect camp committees, and an end to the blacklisting of workers.

Roughly 4,000 camp workers made their way to Vancouver in response to that strike call. They occupied the city for almost two months. Strong public support sustained the strikers through May, but with Vancouverites growing tired of their presence, and no sign of concessions from Bennett, the protesters decided to carry the struggle directly to Ottawa.

This strategy set the stage for the On-to-Ottawa Trek that began on June 3, 1935. The travelling protest began with roughly 1,000 strikers, but grew to approximately 2,000. Led by Workers Unity League’s officer Arthur Evans, the protesters headed east on commandeered freight trains in their attempt to inform the nation of their cause and bring their complaints before Parliament. However, while in Regina, further access to the trains was denied, an edict that was supported by Bennett. Eight trekkers went on to Ottawa to negotiate, but the talks failed. On July 1, some 300 protesters held a rally at the Regina Exhibition Grounds and as the crowd was dispersing, police moved in to arrest Evans and other speakers. A city constable was killed and several other people were injured in what became known as the Regina Riot.

King, who was elected prime minister later that year, shut down the unemployment relief camps in 1936, a decision that was made after an investigation concluded the camps should be closed “in the best interests of the state.”


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