|After a protest rally was ambushed by the RCMP in Regina, relief camp strikers and supporters fought a rolling street battle with authorities in 1935.|
It was 1935, the midst of the Great Depression. Times were hard in Canada, maybe even harder than in the big neighbor to the south. Down in the States Franklin D. Roosevelt was rolling out the New Deal and practical programs to help the huge army of the unemployed, not the least of which was the hugely popular and successful Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). But the Dominion was firmly in the hands of the Conservative Party led by Prime Minister R. B. Bennett, ideological devotees of Laissez-faire capitalism, allies of the big banks, and openly hostile to the unemployed who were considered shiftless and lazy. In their view assistance to out of work Canadians would be a “disincentive” for them to take work at any level of pay or conditions. In other words, Canada was run by the beau ideals of the modern American Tea Party.
The results of this policy were predictable, not only unemployment, but wide spread desperation. Under severe pressure some relief, miserly as it was, was extended by the Federal government to “responsible families.” But huge numbers of single men—the Depression caused marriage rates to plummet across the country—were considered leaches if they took any assistance and a potential danger to civilized society. Bennett hit on a solution. If unemployed single men wanted to eat, they had damn well best work for their keep. He required—virtually drafted them—to go to work in remote labor camps in the far west to do hard physical on infrastructure construction projects—for 20 cents a day, board and bed. The camps were organized by the Department of National Defence and run by Army officers and non-coms, many of the martinets
On the surface this program might seem like a Canadian version of the CCC. But there were huge differences between the programs all stemming from two quite different premises—the Canadian camps were meant to be punitive and an incentive to get off the dole. Therefore not only was the miniscule, food was limited, strictly rationed, and often of appalling quality. Accommodations were in tents and huts. Little attention was paid to sanitation and no provision made for the men’s “idle hours.” For Bennett a bonus was that his 20 cents a day virtual slave laborers replaced “greedy” construction workers, many of them unionized.
By contrast, although the CCC was partially considered a safety valve to get potentially volatile young men out of the cities and the way of possible crime and mischief, it was also conceived as a way of building them up. The camps were clean and well-constructed, food not only ample but generous and wholesome, mild military style discipline maintained order in the camps, clean high quality work clothing and uniforms were provided, and hours of labor were limited to eight a day. Pay was adequate enough, considering that all living expenses were paid by the CCC, that workers sent home 50% of their earnings to help their families, or if they had no families half the pay was held for them until their end of service giving them a nice nest-egg. Recreational programs were available for the off hours. Although many conservation construction projects were undertaken around the country, CCC workers were not to be used instead of regular labor on other construction projects.
As a result, moral in the CCC camps was high. Young men—and eventually some young women—emerged from the experience generally healthier than when they went in, often having developed useful skills and leadership experience, as well as confidence. Former CCC workers were so highly thought of that they had far less trouble than others finding work even as the Depression dragged on.
By contrast moral in the Canadian camps was abysmal. Anger and resentment grew with each day of mistreatment and forced separation from families and loved ones. Protests, even minor riots, broke out in some of the camps. Not surprisingly conditions gave rise to the Relief Camp Workers’ Union.
The Bennett government would later blame Communist outside agitators for the creation and leadership of the union. And there were Communists involved, openly and unapologetically. But many activists were veterans of the One Big Union (OBU), a Canadian version of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) which had been active on big western construction projects and in the timber industry. Most of the leadership of the union, however came from rank and file members with no previous political or radical connections.
The fledgling union declared a strike in the camps on April 4, 1935. Demands included the provision of adequate first aid equipment in the camps, the extension of the Workmen’s Compensation Act to include incurred camp workers, and that workers in camps be granted the right to vote in federal elections. They also demanded the repeal of the infamous Section 98 of the Criminal Code of Canada which had been enacted after the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 to suppress the Communist Party, which had played a role in the post-World War I action and the OBU which was not involved in that strike but which was mushrooming in membership across western Canada at the expense of union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Canadian Trade Unions Conference (TUC). In 1931 the act was used against several leaders of the Communist Party who were subsequently convicted under the law for and sentenced for up to five year prison terms. The law defined the offence thusly:
Any association...whose professed purpose...is to bring about any governmental, industrial or economic change within Canada by use of force, violence or physical injury to person or property, or by threats of such injury, or which teaches, advocates, advises or defends the use of force, violence, terrorism, or physical injury to person or property...in order to accomplish such change, or for any other such purpose..., or which shall by any means prosecute or pursue such purpose...or shall so teach, advocate, advise or defend, shall be an unlawful association.
Since those arrests social liberals, the union movement, and the otherwise widely fractured Canadian left had united in a campaign to repeal the law as fundamentally undemocratic. The campaign gained the support of the opposition Liberal Party and a majority of Canadian citizens as measured by public opinion polls. But the government would charge that inclusion of repeal among the strikers’ demands was evidence that the Relief Camp Workers’ Union was a Communist creation with insurrectionary intent.
Knowing that they could not gain critical public support in strike actions at remote and scattered camps, more than 1,500 camp works descended on the British Columbia capital of Vancouver, the principle city on the west coast to press their demands. The workers set up camps in the city and began a round of daily protests, marches, and public rallies. They did draw the support of many of the city’s workers and of much of the middle class including small business owners who felt squeezed by the Depressions, the Federal Government’s hands off policy, and the growing power of the Banks and major corporations. Citizens provided food and supplies to the encampment, mingled freely with the strikers and often joined their demonstrations.
Despite the support in Vancouver, only the Federal Government could respond to the strikers’ demands and the Bennett Government steadfastly refused to have any communication with the strikers or their representatives. After two months in Vancouver, strikers voted to take their demands to the Canadian capital in an On-to-Ottawa Trek. In the mode of Kelly’s Army, a western contingent of Coxey’s Army that set out for Washington, D.C. from Oakland in 1893 onboard railway boxcars on commandeered trains, hundreds of men boarded freight cars headed east on June 3. Once again, on their way they were greeted as heroes and provided food by locals in the towns through which they passed.
On June 14 the strikers arrived at Regina, Saskatchewan where they made their first contact with the now alarmed Federal Government. At a meeting between strike leaders including Arthur “Slim” Evans and Minister of Railways and Canals R. B. Bennett and Minister of Agriculture Robert Weir an agreement was hammered out that a delegation of strikers could proceed to Ottawa to meet with Bennett while the Trekers were put up at the Regina Exhibition Grounds.
Slim Evans was a veteran Toronto born unionist who had joined the IWW in Minneapolis in 1911. Two years later he arrived in Colorado to support the epic Coal Strike of 1913 and was shot during the Ludlow Massacre just two days after arriving. He walked with a limp from his wounds the rest of his life. Returning to Canada, he organized coal miners and rose to leadership in the OBU as the leader of the local of coal miners in Drumheller, Alberta, where he was sentenced to a three-year prison term for leading a strike. He joined the Communist Party after 1921. In ’33 he was arrested again for leading a coal strike and sentenced to 18 more months in prison under Section 98.
The meeting with Prime Minister Bennett did not go well, to say the least. As soon as the union delegation was ushered into his presence and without any preliminaries, Bennett launched in to a shouting rant accusing them of being radicals, Communists and Evans an extortionist. Evans bellowed back that the Prime Minister was a liar, probably interlaced with other more colorful descriptions of his character. Within minutes the meeting was over and the delegation was hustled out of Bennett’s offices and unceremoniously pushed out into the street where their humiliation was captured by the press. Bennett himself soon strutted before the press bragging about his tough, no-nonsense approach and vowing never to concede a single point to the strikers.
The furious leaders returned to Regina where at a meeting on June 26 the Trekers vowed to resume their journey.
Regina was the home of one of western Canada’s largest barracks of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Bennett ordered more troopers from around the Prairie Provinces to join them. Along with local police they effectively blockaded the rail yards preventing the Trekers from resuming their journey by box car. Attempt to depart the city in convoys of automobiles and trucks was met by armed blockades.
As anger and frustration grew on the Exhibition grounds, so did it in the city of Regina itself where support for the strikers only seemed to grow with government intransigence on one hand and a growing resentment, stoked by the newspapers, of the burden of supporting the “shiftless radicals” among the wealthier citizens and Conservative Party diehards.
While most of the Trekers stayed in their camp, on July 1, 1932 about three hundred of their number came into the city center for a public rally of support. They were joined by hundreds more local residents including local unionists, socialists, Liberal Party members and even whole families. The meeting gathered at Market Square in Germantown and about 1,500 people were in attendance listening to speeches delivered from the back of a truck.
As the crowd gathered a large force of the RCMP infiltrated the area surrounding the square carefully shielding their movements. Regina police were hidden in a near-by garage. At 8:17 pm as Slim Evans and George Black were on the platform, a whistle blew and police charged the crowd from all sides. Evans and Black where whisked from the platform by plain clothes detectives stationed nearby.
The unexpected baton charge left many of the crowd injured but quickly cleared the square. But anger soon overcame fear as strikers and supporters regrouped and began to fight back. Melees continued all around the city center for hours along with bloody street fighting involving clubs, bricks, and sometimes knives. Police used their revolvers freely and lobbed tear gas grenades. The now enraged mob dodged police, fought them when they had to, and began rampaging, overturning cars and shattering the windows of shops and storefronts. There were some cases of arson.
When word reached the Exhibition Grounds, the remaining strikers tried to march to the relief of their comrades, but they found themselves surrounded by heavily armed RCMP troopers and unable to move. By the next morning up barbed wire stockade around the grounds was erected turning it into an instant prison. All of the men inside were eventually charged under Section 98.
As fighting in the city slowly died down, scores of the injured arrived at local hospitals where strikers and suspected demonstrators—even ordinary citizens who had just been caught up in the confusion—were all arrested and charged. Hospital records were later confiscated and destroyed so that no evidence of the number of the wounded remained. Or that of the dead whose bodies were taken and secretly disposed of.
The night of June 2 a Treker somehow managed to get to a telephone and place a call to Liberal Party Saskatchewan Primer James “Jimmy” Gardner begging for his intersession on behalf of the besieged Trekkers. He agreed to meet a delegation the next morning. The outraged RCMP arrested the appointed delegates as they tried to leave the grounds and held them for hours under rough interrogation before they were finally released to their meetings.
In response to the conversation Gardner sent a much publicized wire to Bennett accusing to police of “precipitating the riot” while he had actively been negotiating with the Trekers. He outlined a plan to feed the men at Provincial expense while plans were made to send the Trekers back to either the camps or their home towns also at Provincial expense. The broad outline of this proposal was eventually put into effect and most of the rank and file members dispersed within a few weeks, their union shattered.
Wire services spread reports of the violence quickly across the country. Despite generally supportive of the police, accounts made it clear that the riot had been precipitated by an unprovoked police report.
The official RCMP report of the “riot” reported that they had been fired upon first from the crowd at the rally and city police had returned fire. It reported only two confirmed deaths, Charles Millar, a plainclothes policeman and Treker Nick Shaack who died of his wounds several days later in the hospital. They listed a ridiculously low 30 injuries on all sides and 130 arrests on the streets.
The trials of Evans and other alleged “ring leaders” dragged on. But no evidence was ever shown supporting government claims that they had been fired upon or even that any striker or demonstrator had ever used a fire arm in the riots that followed. The men were eventually released as the new government declined to continue prosecutions.
Bennett declared to the press that the On-to-Ottawa Trek was “not a mere uprising against law and order but a definite revolutionary effort on the part of a group of men to usurp authority and destroy government.” He called the crushing of that uprising his finest hour of public service.
The disgusted voters did not think so. In the October Federal elections later that year the Conservative Party lost its huge majority in Parliament falling from 134 seats to just 39. The Tories would be frozen out of power until 1957. Bennett was replaced as Prime Minister by Liberal William Mackenzie King who pointedly brought on Gardner as his Minister of Agriculture.
Mackenzie followed a policy of moderate social reform, far short of the American New Deal, but a vast improvement of Bennett. His government sponsored the repeal of Section 98. The Federal Work camps were abolished and replaced by a system of Provincial camps where wages were at least moderately better and conditions vastly improved.
As for Bennett, he was so humiliated and outraged at his rejection, that he abandoned Canada altogether. He moved to Britain in 1938 and was created a Vice Count and member of the House of Lords in 1941. He died in 1947 and was buried in St. Michael’s Churchyard in Mickleham, Surrey. He remains the only former Canadian Prime Minister not interred in Canada.
For his part Slim Evans continued a career as a union militant. He organized a local of a Canadian section of the International Union of Mine Mill and Smelt Workers (CIO), formerly the old radical Western Federation of Miners. He led fundraising for relief for the surviving Spanish Civil War veterans of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion. He died after being struck by a car in 1944 while serving as a shop steward on his job at the Vancouver Shipyards at the age of 53.
The prestige reputation of the RCMP was severely damaged and did not recover until the mid-50’s when a campaign in support of Canadian identity and nationhood picked the red-coated police as a national symbol. The Communist Party, on the other hand, saw a surge of popularity although with or without Section 98 it long remained a targets of police action, spying, and disruptive dirty tricks.
In the end those work camp strikers and On-to-Ottawa Trekers may have lost a battle but won a war.