Here in the United States, when we think of the Great Depression, we only think of its impact here in the United States. We rarely (if ever) think about its impact elsewhere in the world. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some people out there completely unaware it went beyond our shores.
Well, it did. It was a global economic crisis and one of the countries affected by it was our sweet little neighbor to the north, Canada.
Since today is Canada Day, I am going to share with you a bit of Canadian history—a little event called the “On to Ottawa” Trek, and the Regina Riot that took place on July 1, 1935.
“On to Ottawa” Trek
The Great Depression hit Canada hard. The scene there was pretty much the same as it was down in the United States—extremely high unemployment and little to no relief for the suffering.
The government set up federal relief camps all over western Canada where homeless single men could come get a bed, hot meals, and a meager 20 cents a day for working on road projects.
The men came there voluntarily, and were willing to do whatever it took to get a job and a hot meal. But once they got settled in they quickly realized the living and working conditions in these camps were atrocious, and in April 1935, more than 1,500 men in British Columbia walked out on strike to protest.
The government was exploiting them at a time when Canada was in dire straits. One out of nine citizens were on some type of relief. These men were not going to take the government’s pathetic attempt at relief anymore.
In June, strikers voted in favor of airing their grievances to the federal government in Ottawa. Hundreds of men started out on foot and hitched rides on boxcars on what became known as “On to Ottawa” Trek so they could do just that.
By June 14, the protesters reached Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan and met with cabinet ministers to schedule a meeting with Prime Minister R.B. Bennett. Several days later, a meeting was granted to a small handful of protest leaders, including Arthur “Slim” Evans. The meeting, which took place on June 22 in Ottawa, did not go so well. Prime Minister Bennett accused Evans of being an extortionist and Evans called Bennett a liar as the protesters were thrown out of the building.
This wasn’t the last Bennett was going to hear from the protesters. In fact, this was just the beginning of what would turn out to be a violent clash between citizens and government.
The Regina Riot
The eight men who went to Ottawa to meet with Bennett returned to Regina on June 26. The Trekkers attempted to leave the city, but were stopped by Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).
On July 1, 1935, Arthur Evans and the other Trek leaders organized a public meeting, which was attended by upwards of 2,000 people (only a couple hundred of which were Trekkers).
RCMP riot trucks were parked all along the square and police were on standby in a garage, waiting for the signal to break up the meeting and arrest the ringleaders. At 8:17 p.m. a whistle was blown and the police began their attack on the stunned crowd, whose stones and other small objects were no match for the heavy clubs and MP40s used by the RCMP.
The fighting lasted for four more hours and resulted in several injuries and miraculously only two deaths. Leaders Arthur Evans and George Black were arrested along with 128 other people.
The marchers returned to their camps a few days later, downtrodden and feeling they had not accomplished anything. However, Bennett’s actions toward the Trekkers and how he handled the Depression overall turned public opinion against him. The people viewed him, and others in government like him, as the symbol of everything that was wrong with Canadian politics.
So the Trek was not in vain. The protesters exposed the horrible conditions of relief camps and the pompous attitudes of the people in government put there as public servants, not dictators.
Happy Canada Day to one and all! And remember, hard work and determination pays off in all sorts of ways, even if the benefits aren’t exactly what you wanted or expected.