The On-To-Ottawa Trek

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The Great Depression was a terrible time for Canadians. Work was hard to find, crop prices were low and drought steeped through the prairies. Unemployment had reached historic levels with one in nine Canadian citizens needing government relief. The government provided relief, but that relief was not free. Under Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, the Department of National Defence was ordered to create work camps where unemployed single men could construct roads and other projects, earning 20 cents per day, or $3.77 a day today. There were also restrictions on what the men could do in their free time.

With these incredibly low wages, and poor living conditions where the workers often didn’t have adequate clothing, the men of the camps decided to unite in 1933, creating the Workers’ Unity League, led by Arthur Evans, also known as Slim. This organization would then organize the Relief Camp Workers’ Union.

According to one striker, Ron Liversedge, “The Tory government of R.B. Bennett had decided a role for the single unemployed. They were to be hidden away to become forgotten men, the forgotten generation. How naïve of Mr. Bennett. Never were forgotten men more in the public eye.”

In December 1934, the organization held a strike with men leaving the camps and protesting in Vancouver. For two months they protested and occupied a Hudson’s Bay store, the city museum and the library. On May Day, a parade of 20,000 strikers was held, along with supporters, marching to Stanley Park. The strikers would return to their camps after the provincial government and City of Vancouver made the promise of forming a commission to look at the complaints. A commission was never formed, most likely because the government assumed that the problem would go away. With no commission, a second walk-out was organized for April 4, 1935.

With this walk-out, 1,000 strikers then made the decision to travel to Ottawa with a list of demands. They demanded .50 cents an hour, or $9.42 an hour today, for unskilled work, union wages for skilled work, at least 120 hours of work a month, adequate first aid at camps and the extension of the Workmen’s Compensation Act to include camp workers. They also wanted recognition of their democratically elected workers’ committees, and the right to vote in elections for workers in camps. They also wanted the government to remove the Department of National Defence as the overseer of the camps.

Throughout Canada, the strikers had immense support from regular citizens, many of whom were dealing with poor economic conditions themselves. Among the governments, the municipal governments pushed blame to the provincial governments, while provincial governments pushed blame to the federal governments.

On June 3, the men boarded box cars and headed west in what would be known as the On-To-Ottawa Trek, making stops in Calgary, Medicine Hat, Swift Current and Moose Jaw. In Calgary, 300 men joined the Trek. By the time they reached Regina, some estimates put the number of protesting men at 4,000.

On the Trek through the Prairies, the leaders of the Trek put down strict rules forbidding any panhandling or drunkenness. The entire group of protesters were organized into companies and sections, like an army would be, to ensure that no one got out of hand and each group elected their own leaders. The trekkers were also clean-shaven and well-behaved, which impressed those they met along the way out east. People referred to the strikers as “our boys” highlighting their respect and admiration for the well-behaved group.

In Medicine Hat, Calvin Cavan would relate his memory of seeing the strikers.

“I remember witnessing the historic trek to Ottawa when that train load of men went through Dunmore to see Prime Minister R.B. Bennett in Ottawa. It was unbelievable. They were so numerous that they were like flies on a jam pail.”

Eleven days later, the protesters reached Regina and on orders from the federal government, the railways refused to allow further travel on their trains. On June 17, the strikers met with Robert Manion and Robert Weir, two federal cabinet ministers. The ministers said that eight elected representatives, with Evans serving as the leader, could come to Ottawa to meet with the prime minister. The condition put forward was that the rest of the protesters would stay in Regina. The protesters stayed in the stadium at the Regina Exhibition Grounds, with food supplied by the provincial government and the people of Regina.

The decision to keep the protesters in Regina came from Bennett himself, who did not want them to reach Winnipeg, which he felt was, in his words, “notable for labour radicalism.” It was in Winnipeg that the Winnipeg General Strike, the largest strike in Canadian history, had been held a decade and a half prior. You can listen to me relate the history of that strike on an earlier episode of the podcast.

In fact, as soon as the Trek was announced in British Columbia, a local support committee was set up in Winnipeg with the leader of the Co-operative Farmer’s Federation, S.J. Farmer, serving as the chair and local Communist James Litterick serving as the vice-president. The organizers had plans for feeding the men when they arrived, as well as the estimated 1,000 men who would arrive from the Manitoba relief camps.

For Premier Gardiner of Saskatchewan, he was not happy the trek had been allowed to proceed and then stopped in Regina. He was also not happy that the RCMP were being ordered by Ottawa without any reference to the province. The federal government was able to do this because they invoked the Railway Act, which allowed them to oversee the law enforcement of the province, while stopping the train from traveling any further. Gardiner would point out that the trekkers could not be called trespassers by the CPR and CNR because they had provided them with train cars to ride on, whether they realized it or not, to that point.

As for the eight men, they would reach Ottawa and have a June 22 meeting with Bennett. It did not go well. Bennett accused Evans of being an embezzler and Evans called Prime Minister a liar. The delegation was then escorted out of the building and to the street. They would return to Regina on June 26. The On-To-Ottawa protesters attempted to travel east by car, truck and train but were stopped by the RCMP. It was decided that they would head back to the west coast since they could no longer head east, but the federal government insisted that the group disband on their terms, which involved going to a holding facility where the men would be processed. The leadership of the strikers did not want to do this and they turned to Premier Gardiner and his cabinet for assistance.

In the evening of July 1, 1935, while the provincial cabinet was meeting to discuss the proposal, a public meeting was held in Market Square, ironically where the Regina City Police Station is now located, to update the public on the progress of the movement. Only 300 On-To-Ottawa Trekkers were there, but the crowd numbered over 1,500 people.

A poster for the rally would state, “hear the reply of the authorities to Strikers delegation requesting immediate relief and opening of negotiations on counter-proposals to Bennett Government’s offer on Concentration Camps.”

On three sides of the square moving trucks were parked and behind those trucks were RCMP riot squads. Regina police were in the garage of the police station as well. At 8:17 p.m., a whistle was blown and the police charged into the crowd with batons from all four sides. The people, who were caught off guard by the sudden appearance of the police, fought with sticks and stones. According to one person at the rally, “they opened the door and out they come beating the hell out of us. They chased us all over town.” Another witness would say, “A shrill whistle blasted out a signal. The backs of vans were opened and out poured the Mounties, each armed with a baseball bat. In less than four minutes, Market Square was a mass of withering, groaning forms, like a battlefield.”

The citizens and protesters were driven from the square but with the RCMP blocking the way back to the stadium, a street battle would begin and last for the next six hours. According to some Regina residents, who testified afterwards, some police had continued to club already unconscious men on the ground.

During the street battle, police fired their guns above and into groups of people while tear gas bombs were thrown at any groups of people that had gathered together. During the battle, glass windows in stores were broken, but only one store was actually looted. The stores were burned to the ground through.

The Regina Rifles, while not involved in the riot directly, were made available to guard vital points such as the Legislative Building.

In order to counter the tear gas, many people wore wet handkerchiefs on their face and would barricade the street with cars to protect themselves. Over the course of the six hours, the protesters would make their way back to the stadium individually or in small groups, joining the rest of the larger group of protesters who had stayed at the stadium.

Over 140 protesters and citizens were arrested by the end of the riot, and Charles Miller, a policeman in plainclothes and Nick Schaak, a protester, would die from injuries sustained in the riot. Hundreds of residents and protesters were injured as well. Any protesters or residents who went to hospitals were arrested.

The police stated that 39 of their men had been injured, and they denied any protesters had died. The police also stated they did not use guns, even though 17 civilians had gun shot wounds, while no police officer was shot. Protester leaders Arthur Evans and George Black who spoke at the rally were arrested as well.

The day after the riot, a barbed wire stockade was erected around the area where the protesters were staying on the exhibition grounds and news of the riot had reached across Canada.

In Regina, the Leader-Post had the headline “Chaos On Streets For Three Hours, Policemen stoned and strikers shot in heart of city.” Another headline on that same page said, “caught when mad riot starts, women, children trampled in stampede.”

Saskatchewan Premier Gardiner agreed to meet with the protesters but the protesters were arrested as they left the area, only to be released soon after for their meeting with the Premier.

Only eight people, all strikers, would be convicted on charges of rioting and sentenced to prison.

Premier Gardiner, after speaking with the protesters, wired the prime minister and stated that the police had created the riot and that the men should be fed where they are and sent back to their camps and homes as they had requested. He was unhappy that the federal government had invaded into provincial jurisdiction as well. Bennett, believing the had put down a communist revolt, agreed, while Gardiner seemed happy to have the protesters out of the province. The Saskatchewan government did provide free transportation back to British Columbia for the protesters as a gesture of peace.

While Hugh Guthrie, the Minister of Justice, would state on July 2 that the protesters had fired shots at the police, to which the police responded, no evidence was ever found to show the protesters had shot at police. The RCMP, who stated they believed that the protest was a plan for armed revolution, were exonerated of all charges by the investigating Royal Commission. The Royal Commission, chaired by Chief Justice J.T. Brown, stated in its report that the federal government and RCMP should be exonerated and that the living conditions and food at the work camps was satisfactory. All blame for the trek and the riot was put on communists. The commission took the testimony of 359 people, who provided 53 volumes of testimony, most of whom put the blame on the police. As we see, that was ignored.

Bennett, who was very behind the times with The Great Depression, would say of the riot that it 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”

The Trek and the Regina Riot would not bode well for Bennett, who would see his support in the 1935 federal election plummet from 135 seats to 39, costing him his position as Prime Minister. Following the election defeat of Bennet, bringing William Lyon Mackenzie King back to power, the camps would be dismantled and replaced with seasonal relief camps run by the provinces, with the men earning slightly more than before.

While the entire Trek did not reach Ottawa, its demands would be met over time as the public support for the protesters spread across Canada, helping to set up the social and welfare initiatives that would follow the Second World War.

For some of the trekkers, their lives would change in other ways thanks to the trek and riot. Bessie Noble would relate that she was on her summer holidays in 1935 when she travelled to Regina to visit her Aunt Bell and Uncle Bert. It was there she met Joe McKeown, who was one of the trekkers. McKeown had been a seamen on the Great Lakes before losing his job. When the riot broke out, Bessie’s aunt took Joe into her home to take shelter. It was there he would meet Bessie and the two would marry in December of that year. Their son, also named Joe McKeown, who would become a Regina City Councillor and put forward a proposal for a peace fountain out front of City Hall where citizens could gather to successfully and peacefully settle conflicts.

At the Fredrick W. Hill Mall in Regina, a plaque highlighting the historic protest and riot can be found. On the plaque, there is little mention of the police storming the crowd, or the reasonable demands of the protesters. Instead, it focuses on the failure of the relief projects for unemployed single men.

It states.

“A defining event of the Great Depression, the On-To-Ottawa Trek has become a poignant symbol of the working class protest. In 1935, over 1,000 angry unemployed men left federal relief camps in British Columbia and boarded box cars to take their demand for work and wages directly to Ottawa. As the number of protesters increased, the federal government resolved to stop the movement. The police arrested its leaders at a meeting on July 1, sparking the Regina Riot. Although it never reached Ottawa, the Trek marked the failure of the Depression-era work camps as a solution to widespread unemployment.”

If you would like to support Minnesota Freedom or Black Lives Matter, I will have links in the show notes.

Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Canadas History, the Regina Leader Post, CBC, Parks Canada, Regina Before Yesterday, Up The Johns The Story Of The Royal Regina Rifles, Alberta A New History, Let Us Rise A History Of the Manitoba Labour Movement, Plains Trains and Wagon Wheels, Regina Cemetery Walking Tour, Saskatchewan A History, Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, The Mackenzie Papineau Battalion.

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