The Anishinabek

Time Immemorial

and 7 October 1763

Canada is widely viewed as a young country, its history stretching back no more than a few hundred years to the arrival of French and British settlers to its shores. But this is a very blinkered view of things. The territory that we now call Canada was not terra nullius when the Europeans arrived, far from it. It was instead populated by a diverse group of Indigenous peoples with their own cultures, traditions and languages from the Pacific Ocean in the west, to the shores of the Arctic Ocean in the north, the Great Lakes in the south, and to the Atlantic Ocean in the east. Pre-contact population estimates vary widely, but modern estimates place the population of the Pacific Northwest alone at as much as 500,000.  One, therefore, wonders what the population of the entire territory that was to become Canada might have been. Sadly, European traders and settlers brought diseases, such as smallpox, to which the native population had little or no resistance. Whole communities were virtually wiped out within a short period of time. By 1867, the Canadian Indigenous population had fallen to about 125,000 souls, out of a total Canadian population of about 3.7 million, and was to continue to fall for decades after.

Algonquins, 18th century watercolour, Wikiwand

Nobody could live in the Ottawa region until the glaciers of the Wisconsin glacial episode had retreated sufficiently to expose the territory. This occurred roughly 11,000 years ago. Recent archaeological work has found traces of humans dating back as much as 8,000 years. Excavations at several locations along the Ottawa River have uncovered many artifacts fashioned by the Laurentian people of the Archaic period. These included the discovery of spear throwers on Allumette Island in Quebec close to Pembroke, Ontario. These implements enabled hunters to propel spears with greater force than relying on muscle power alone. Also found were tools made of stone and bone, knives crafted from slate and copper, scrapers, harpoons, fish hooks, awls and finely-made needles, the latter requiring a high degree of sophistication to manufacture. On Morrison Island, also close to Pembroke, hundreds of grinding stones were found along with axes, drills, and adzes. These early residents were highly skilled and had a strong artistic sensibility. Many bone articles had been delicately engraved.

The archaeological record also shows a continuous human presence right in the National Capital Region since those early days, reflective of its strategic position at the confluence of three major river systems—the Ottawa which flows into the St. Lawrence and from thence to the Atlantic; the Gatineau which extends northward for almost 400 kilometres; and the Rideau which, via a series of portages, provides access southward to the Great Lakes. These waterways were major transportation and trade routes for indigenous peoples, and continued as such well after the arrival of European settlers at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Indeed, the Rideau Canal built in the late 1820s traced the well-travelled indigenous route from Lake Ontario to the Ottawa River.

Indicative of the importance of the region as a trading centre, archaeological digs in the National Capital Region have uncovered an extraordinary range of material brought many hundreds if not thousands of kilometres. These include quartzite from central Quebec, different types of chert (a type of rock) used for making tools from the Hudson Bay, Illinois, and Ohio, ceramics from south of the Georgian Bay of Lake Huron, and copper from the western edge of Lake Superior.  Today’s Leamy Lake Park appears to have been a key stopping point with evidence indicating continuous seasonal occupation of the delta at the mouth of the Gatineau River for over 4,500 years. There, indigenous people from all over stopped to meet, trade, and enjoy the rich bounty of natural resources to be found there.

Ottawa First Nation family, J.G. de Sauveur, Engraving, 1801, Library and Archives Canada, 2937181.

Other excavations, pioneered by Dr. Edward Van Cortlandt, a prominent Bytown physician, identified in 1843 an “Indian burial ground” on the northern shore of the Ottawa River. He uncovered the remains of twenty individuals in communal and individual graves. Also found at this site were ashes from cremations. Recent investigations during the twenty-first century have confirmed the location of the site as Hull Landing, immediately opposite Parliament Hill, now the location of the Canadian Museum of History.

We also know that the Chaudière Falls was a site of considerable spiritual significance to the Indigenous peoples of the region. In 1613, Samuel de Champlain described in his journal the “usual” ceremony that was celebrated at that site. He wrote that after the people had assembled, and a speech given by one of the chiefs, an offering of tobacco on a wooden plate was thrown into the roiling waters of the cauldron to seek the intercession of the gods to protect them from their enemies.

It was Samuel de Champlain who popularized the name for these indigenous peoples—the “Algoumequins” a.k.a. the Algonquins. But the people knew themselves as the Anishinabek, sometimes translated as true men, or good humans.

Following first contact with Europeans at the beginning of the seventeenth century, many eastern First Nations became embroiled in the seemingly endless conflicts between European powers for political and economic ascendency in North America. The semi-nomadic Algonquins, who were superb hunters and trappers, became key partners with the French in the European fur trade. They supplied pelts from their own extensive territories in the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Valleys, or acted as middlemen for the Cree to the north. In exchange, the Algonquins received firearms that they used to defend themselves from their traditional rivals, the Iroquois First Nations, who were important allies of Dutch settlers to the south, and subsequently the English.

These European struggles culminated in the long conflict between England and France in the mid-eighteenth century, called the Seven Years’ War, which ultimately led to an English victory and France’s loss of its North American colonies with the exception of the important fishing centres on the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon located in the mouth of the St. Lawrence close to Newfoundland.

When Montreal capitulated in 1760 to English forces, the English agreed to a French condition of surrender that their indigenous allies could remain in their traditional territories and would not be molested. Three years later, in June 1763, France ceded its North American territories to the English under the Treaty of Paris.

On 7 October 1763, King George III issued a Royal Proclamation outlining how his new territories in North America would be administered and how relations with the Indigenous communities would be undertaken. The Proclamation stated: “And whereas it is just and reasonable, and essential to our interest and the Security of the Colonies, that the several Nations or Tribes of Indians, with whom We are connected, and who live under our Protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of such Parts of Our Dominions and Territories as, not having ceded to, or purchased by Us, are reserved to them, or any of them, as their Hunting Grounds.”

Another provision of the Proclamation forbade private purchases of land from Indigenous peoples, with this right reserved to the Crown. This provision set the basis for the negotiation of future treaties between the Crown and Canada’s indigenous peoples.

Notwithstanding this 1763 Royal Proclamation, Europeans quickly settled on indigenous territories. Following the American War of Independence, which ended in 1783, the Crown gave grants of land to Loyalist refugees coming north to Canadian territory according to their rank and service. These grants were given without the consent of the First Nations.

Here in the greater Ottawa area, Loyalists received grants of land on the Rideau River, including at such places as today’s Merrickville, Burritt’s Rapids, and Smiths Falls. Grants of land along the Ottawa River from Carillon westward to Fassett on the north shore in Quebec and at Hawkesbury in Ontario were also handed out.

In addition, European settlers began settling on indigenous territory in the National Capital Region in 1800 with the arrival of Philemon Wright in what is now the Hull sector of Gatineau. Initially hoping to farm, settlers almost immediately began to exploit the seemingly inexhaustible supply of pine for sale in the United Kingdom and later the United States. Settlement accelerated with the building of the Rideau Canal and the naming of Ottawa as the capital of Canada in 1857.

The clearance of vast tracks of land for farms, lumbering and urban development irrevocably altered the landscape of the Ottawa Valley. By the 1920s, less than four percent of the original, old growth forest was left. For the Algonquins, who had lived for untold centuries in harmony with nature, their way of life was also irrevocably changed. As no treaty had been made with the Crown, the Algonquin First Nations had been marginalized on their own territory. Canada’s capital continues to sit on unceded Algonquin territory in contravention of the 1763 Royal Proclamation.

Territorial claims of the Ontario Algonquins, Province of Ontario

Today, there are ten recognized Algonquin First Nations with a total population of about 11,000. Nine Algonquin communities are in Quebec—Kitigan Zibi, Barriere Lake, Kitcisakik, Lac Simon, Abitibiwinni, Long Point, Timiskaming, Kebaowek, and Wolf Lake. The tenth, Pikwakanagan, is located in Ontario. There are three additional Ontario First Nations that are related by kinship—the Temagami, the Wahgoshig and the Matchewan.

In October 2016, the Algonquins of Ontario reached an agreement-in principle-with the federal government and the government of Ontario to settle all land claims covering some 36,000 square kilometres of land in the watersheds of the Ottawa and Mattawa with a population of 1.2 million. Algonquin territorial claims in Quebec were not covered by the agreement. The agreement-in-principle is viewed as a major milestone towards reconciliation and renewed relations. If ratified, the agreement would lead to the transfer of 117,500 acres of provincial Crown land to Algonquin ownership, the provision of $300 million by the federal and provincial governments, and the definition of Algonquin rights related to lands and natural resources in Ontario. No land will be expropriated from private owners. The agreement would be Ontario’s first, modern-day, constitutionally protected treaty. As of time of writing (2021), a final agreement had not yet been reached.

Sources:

Algonquins of Ontario, 2021. Our Proud History.

Belshaw, John Douglas, 2018. “Natives by Numbers,” Canadian History: Post Confederation, BC Open Textbook Project.

Boswell, Randy & Pilon, Jean-Luc, 2015. The Archaeological Legacy of Dr. Edward Van Cortlandt, Canadian Journal of Archaeology, 39: 294-326.

Di Gangi, Peter, 2018.  Algonquin Territory, Canada’s History, 30 April.

Hall, Anthony, J. 2019. Royal Proclamation of 1763, The Canadian Encyclopedia, 7 February 2006.

Hele, Carl. 2020. Anishinaabe, The Canadian Encyclopedia, 16 July.

Ontario, Government of, 2021. The Algonquin Land Claim.

Neville, George A. 2018. Loyalist Land Grants Along the Grand (Ottawa) River 1788, Bytown Pamphlet, No. 103, Historical Society of Ottawa.

Pelletier, Gérard, 1997. “The First Inhabitants of the Outaouais; 6,000 years of History,” History of the Outaouais, ed. Chad Gaffield, Laval University.

Pilon, Jean-Luc & Boswell, Randy, 2015. “Below the Falls; An Ancient Cultural Landscape in the Centre of (Canada’s National Capital Region) Gatineau,” Canadian Journal of Archaeology, 39 (257-293).

The Green Valley Restaurant

30 June 1947

The Green Valley Restaurant, Prescott Highway, Ottawa

For more than fifty years, the family-run Green Valley Restaurant was a landmark on the Prescott Highway, later known as Prince of Wales Drive. Despite being far from the downtown core, the restaurant was an enduring favourite of Ottawa diners. It garnered a reputation for fine dining. Thousands made their way out past the Experimental Farm, tempted by the Green Valley’s traditional offerings of prime rib of beef, leg of lamb, chicken pot pie, salmon, trout and scallops. For those who still had room, a wide range of home-style desserts were served, including carrot cake, coconut cream pie, and cheesecake with raspberry sauce.  A dessert favourite among the younger set was the “Mickey Mouse” – scoops of ice cream decorated with chocolate wafers ears and maraschino cherry eyes. A Sunday brunch attracted the after-church crowd. The restaurant became the place to celebrate birthdays, Mothers’ Day, weddings and wakes.

Green Valley Cabins, Prescott Highway, Ottawa.

The Green Valley had an unlikely genesis in the depth of the Great Depression when Waldorf John Stewart, who had moved to the spot with his wife, Florence Irene, neé Mulligan, in around 1933, built an attractive play house for their young daughter Miriam on their property. Visible from the highway, travellers to the Ottawa area began stopping and asking whether they could rent it for short stays. Recognizing an investment opportunity, Stewart built twenty-four tourist cabins, which became known as the Green Valley Tourist Court. The new hostelry was open on a seasonal basis from May to mid-October. The new business was named after his wife’s nearby family farm. Stewart also began selling ice cream and hot dogs to holiday makers and day trippers from Ottawa out for an afternoon drive.

Waldorf J. Stewart, Ottawa Citizen, 18 September, 1956.

At the end of June 1947, Stewart expanded the food side of the business, opening the Green Valley Restaurant for guests staying in his cabins as well for the general public. He advertised his new restaurant in both the Ottawa Citizen and the Ottawa Journal noting that meals would be prepared by chef “Gustave,” formerly of the Engineers’ Club of Montreal and the Phi Delta Theta Fraternity of McGill University. The restaurant was an instant success.

The following year, Lyall M. Gillespie, married Stewart’s daughter Miriam, and joined the family business. Gillespie who had university degrees in business and commerce, took an active interest in the restaurant, doubling its capacity to 120 guests with the construction of the “Pine Room,” and expanding its menu.  Later, Gillespie left another enduring mark on Ottawa’s tourist fabric. As a member of Ottawa’s Board of Trade, he was the person responsible for persuading the federal government to hold a regular “Changing of the Guard” ceremony on Parliament Hill. So successful was the event among Ottawa’s tourists and residents that Prime Minister Diefenbaker made the temporary, summer season event a permanent feature of Ottawa’s tourist calendar in 1959.

Within a few years, the Green Valley Restaurant had eclipsed the tourist accommodations’ side of the business. In 1956, the restaurant expanded again with the building of the “Walnut Room.” Capacity increased to 225 guests. A gift shop called “Now and Then,” sold souvenir items, chinaware and jewellery. The expansion, along with the construction of new cooking facilities, which included two walk-in freezers, a poultry-prep station, a pastry station, a vegetable-prep station, as well as a dishwashing section and a dessert table, cost $300,000—a huge investment, roughly equivalent to $3 million in today’s money.

Green Valley Restaurant and Tourist Court, Prescott Highway, Ottawa

These changes vaulted the Green Valley Restaurant into the top echelon of Canadian restaurants. Duncan Hines recommended it in his book Adventures in Good Eating that described good eating places in North America. Hines, now best known for the eponymous brand of cake mixes and icings owned by Proctor and Gamble, was an American pioneer in rating restaurants for travellers. The Green Valley was also recommended by the Automobile Association of America, Gourmet Magazine, and Diners’ Club, one of the first purveyors of credit cards. It was also voted by readers of the American Business magazine as the fourth-best restaurant in Canada for business people to entertain clients. Not bad for a family-run eatery on the outskirts of little Ottawa! Graham Kerr, a.k.a. the Galloping Gourmet, was also a frequent patron of the Green Valley Restaurant while he and his family lived in Ottawa for the filming his world-famous television show.

In 1967, Waldorf Steward died, and the Green Valley Tourist Court and Restaurant passed into the hands of his daughter Miriam and son-in-law Lyall Gillespie. That same year, the cabins were closed, leaving the firm to concentrate on its restaurant business. Two years later, Miriam died leaving the firm to her husband Lyall who later ran the business with his second wife, Linda, until his death in 1987. Linda Gillespie with brother John Meyers subsequently managed the business.

Advertisement, Ottawa Journal, 30 June 1947.

By this time, the restaurant was deeply entrenched in the fabric of Ottawa’s hospitality industry. One much loved restaurant tradition was its Christmas tree. Each Christmas season, the restaurant decorated a neighbouring forty-foot spruce with 2,500 coloured lights. Seen for miles, it became a welcome beacon for drivers on the Prescot Highway.

In 1985, this festive tradition was threatened when the owner of the land on which the tree stood decided to develop the property. The land had originally been part of old Green Valley Tourist Court acreage, but had been sold off in 1972. With the tree slated to be cut down to make way for an entrance way, Ottawa residents rose up in arms in an effort to save the landmark tree. A petition to keep the Christmas tree attracted a thousand signatures, while several hundred people protested in person. Mayor Dewar was warned that she would be “a grinch” if the tree was cut down.

During the negotiations between the developer, the restaurant and the city to find a way of saving the tree, somebody tried to kill it by drilling holes around the base of the tree’s trunk and injecting it with an unknown fluid. Arborists opined that the tree, which was already stressed by the cutting of its roots to build a nearby watermain, was unlikely to survive. The magnificent spruce was cut down. Fortunately, the Christmas tradition was maintained when a local tree company donated a replacement tree that the restaurant owners planted on their property.

In 1995, the Green Valley Restaurant passed out of Gillespie/Myers family hands when the business was sold to an outsider, Ron Karam, a lawyer. But for its patrons, little changed. Karam retained the name and the oldy-worldy atmosphere of the restaurant, and its staff.

However, by this time, the still popular but increasingly old-fashioned restaurant was losing ground to more hip downtown eateries. The Green Valley was disparagingly referred to as catering to the “blue rinse set.”

Festive family meal, 1961, National Film Board, Library and Archives Canada, 40301886.

In 2002, the business was sold again. This time to restauranteur Peter Thorp who was the owner of Oscar’s on Queen Street, a purveyor of wood-fired pizzas. At the end of May of that year, the Green Valley Restaurant served it last prime rib. A month later, the redecorated restaurant reopened as Gilmour’s, named after John Gilmour, the pioneer Ottawa lumberman.

Gilmour’s, the successor restaurant to the Green Valley, did not last long. On New Year’s Eve, 2002, just months after it opened, the restaurant was destroyed by fire.

At 7:30pm, while staff were catering to the needs of roughly twenty guests, smoke was detected coming from one of the back vents to the restaurant. The alarm was sounded, and staff and guests were evacuated. There was little hope of stopping the blaze. The building was made of wood with little or no fire stops or flame-retardant materials. Extreme heat prevented fire fighters from entering the building for a time. While the fire was contained by midnight, the fire department remained on the scene until about 6:00am the following morning. Damage was estimated at $1.5 million–$1 million for the building and another $500,000 for its contents.

The building was not replaced. Today, all that is left of the venerable Green Valley Restaurant, an Ottawa landmark for 67 years, is its driveway blocked by concrete traffic barriers.

Sources:

Ottawa Citizen, 1948. “Green Valley Restaurant Newly Enlarged,” 19 May.

——————, 1956. “Green Valley Expands With New Walnut Room,” 18 July.

——————, 1956. “Stewart’s Green Valley Restaurant, 17 September.

——————, 1967. “Stewart, Waldorf John,” 3 February.

——————, 1985. “Huge Christmas Tree vandalized,” 11 July.

——————, 1985. “Developer submits new plan to keep Christmas tree alive,” 13 July.

——————, 1985. “Ottawa Tradition Continues,” 29 August.

——————, 1987. “Local restauranteur dead at 66,” 21 January.

——————, 1987. “Green Valley Restaurant offers consistency, tradition,” 25 August.

——————, 1992. “What’s on the menu?,” 1 October.

——————, 1996. “Recipe for trouble?,” 25 May.

——————, 2002. “Favourite haunt of the blue-rinse set seeks younger clientele, 22 May.

——————, 2002. “After 67 years the Green Valley succumbs to changing tastes,” 12 June.

——————, 2003. “Landmark goes up in flames,” 2 January.

——————, 2003. “How Green was this Beloved Valley?”, 7 January.

Larocque’s

11 September 1971

The early 1970s was a cruel time for Ottawa’s locally-owned department stores. Familiar companies, which had serviced Ottawa residents for generations, seemed to fall like nine pins, replaced by national chain stores. Freiman’s on Rideau Street was bought out by The Hudson Bay Company. Murphy-Gamble’s, the grand old lady of Sparks Street, became a Simpsons. Meanwhile Eaton’s moved into the Ottawa market, launching an anchor store in the new Bayshore Shopping Centre in Nepean. But perhaps no loss was felt as badly as the closure of Larocque’s, the Lowertown emporium that catered primarily to Ottawa’s francophone community. On 11 September 1971, the Ottawa Journal revealed that the venerable store, a fixture at the corner of Rideau and Dalhousie Streets for more than fifty years, would be closing its doors for good at the end of the year. Staff had already been given their notices. It was the end of an era.

Larocque Department Story, Fall 1971, Going out of business, Ottawa Jewish Archives

The store began its career in 1909 when Joseph Alphonse Larocque launched his eponymous dry-goods business at 270 Dalhousie Street. It was a small store, just 400 square feet, but it was a great success. In 1911, Larocque expanded, buying out the stock of the Parisian Milliners, a neighbouring store on Dalhousie Street, at just over 50 cents on the dollar. He advertised hats and feathers for sale at bargain prices. In March 1913, the J. A. Larocque Company supported the inaugural issue of Le Droit, Ottawa’s French-language newspaper. The store advertised that it had Japanese silks for sale in all colours at only 21 cents a yard, and was the only distributor in Lowertown of Butterick Fashions’ dress patterns. The store also noted that it was the sole distributor of the “famous” D & A corsets made by the Dominion Corset Manufacturing Company of Montreal; all sizes were available. A few months later, the Ottawa Citizen reported that J.A. Larocque was “an energetic businessman who gives personal direction to his business.” The newspaper added that his department store had made “rapid strides in the business world of late,” and that his window displays indicated the high quality of his merchandise.

J. A. Larocque Company, advertisement, Le Droit, 27 March 1913.

Less than ten years later, J.A. Larocque was ready to enter the major leagues of Ottawa department stores. In 1922, he began to assemble parcels of land on east side of Dalhousie Street between Rideau and George Streets. The final piece of the puzzle was his purchase of an irregular piece of property owned by the City of Ottawa. The city had acquired the lot when it widened Dalhousie Street. Larocque’s initial offer of $6,000 didn’t meet the city’s reserve price and was rejected. However, his second bid of $8,000 was accepted. In total, Larocque paid slightly more than $60,000 for the land on which he could build a modern, three-story department store.

Building the new department store may have been a financial stretch for Alphonse Larocque. At the same time as he was purchasing the lot from the City of Ottawa, he downsized his operations at 270 Dalhousie citing excessive rent on half of his premises. He announced a big sale and moved what was left of his stock into the store’s annex which was located around the corner at 119 Murray Street.

Regardless, however, work proceeded on his new department store a few blocks south on Dalhousie Street. The building was designed by architects Millson, Burgess and Hazelgrove, with Alex Garvock acting as the general contractor. Construction began in early August 1922, a little later than planned, but was completed and ready for business by mid-May 1923. The three-story building with a basement was built at a cost of roughly $200,000. Including land and stock, the enterprise had a value of $500,000—a huge sum of money in those days. Given its corner location, it had the most display windows of any Ottawa department store, with sixteen on Dalhousie Street, and two on each of Rideau and George Streets. There were three entrances, with the main entrance on Dalhousie Street. Conveniently, all Bank Street and St Patrick Street streetcars stopped outside its door, while Somerset Street cars brough customers to within a block’s walk. Advertising copy of the time boasted of the store’s home-like atmosphere and its courteous and experienced staff of fifty bilingual clerks.

Announcing the opening of J. A. Larocque’s new store at the corner of Dalhousie and Rideau Streets, Ottawa Citizen, 11 May 1923.

The business did not thrive. Unlike its competitors, it did little advertising. This was probably a sign of weakness rather than strength. Making a virtue out of a likely necessity, the store posted a small advertisement in the Ottawa Citizen in November 1924 describing itself as “the store that does not advertise.” The stored clamed that it devoted the savings from not advertising to lowering prices. It was not enough. J.A. Larocque Company Ltd went bankrupt in September 1926. Its goods were sold off at 46 ½ cents on the dollar.

The department store went into liquidation and was purchased by Vineberg Goodman & Company, a Nova Scotian department store chain that had begun operations in 1904. By 1927, it had outlets in New Glasgow and Truro. It subsequently added an Antigonish branch. Vineberg, Goodman & Co. thought highly of itself. In a 1930 advertisement placed in the Ottawa Citizen, the company claimed to be a business of “transcendent importance in the Maritime Provinces.”

The firm was owned by Harry and Sol Goodman of Pictou County, Nova Scotia, and the Vineberg family of Montreal. The Vinebergs were related by marriage to Harry Goodman. In January 1927, the new owners, changed the name of their new Ottawa business from J.A. Larocque & Company to Larocque Registered, thereby conserving the well-known local brand of the business.

Bankruptcy Sale, Le Droit, 23 September, 1926.

Despite the change in ownership, Larocque’s remained true to its French-Canadian heritage, continuing to offer bilingual service to its customers. In October 1930, on its 27th anniversary (the anniversary of the 1904 start of the Vineberg, Goodman & Company in Nova Scotia), it sponsored a Larocque radio show of French-Canadian folk songs and dance music. The program featured the Larocque Orchestra over CNRO, Ottawa’s radio station owned by the Canadian National Railway, the forerunner of CBO radio.

In 1931, the Goodmans and the Vinebergs went their separate ways, with the Vineberg family taking sole control of Larocque Registered in Ottawa. That year, Joseph Hirsch Vineberg moved to Ottawa with his family from Montreal to become the manager of Larocque Registered. Two years later, he took full control of the company.

Coincidently, that same year Alphonse Larocque staged a comeback, launching another J.A. Larocque department store. The new store opened at 269 Dalhousie Street at the corner of Murray Street, just across the street from where he started his original business in 1909. Confusingly, there were now two Larocque department stores on the same street within just a few blocks of each other. However, in 1934, the second J. A. Larocque Company failed. Ignominiously, its stock again bought out by the Vineberg family and sold off at bargain prices at Larocque Registered at the corner of Dalhousie and Rideau Streets.

Larocque Registered prospered for more than four decades with its principal clientele being Lowertown’s francophone community. When Joseph Vineberg retired in 1947, control of the firm passed to his sons, Nordau S. Vineberg and Lloyd V. Vineberg who became president and vice-president of the company, respectively. Joseph Vineberg passed away in December 1967.

Four years later, Larocque’s also passed away from Ottawa’s retail scene, its loss a shock to its largely francophone staff and clientele. Even as late as mid-September 1971, the department store was still promoting its charge accounts. The Vineberg brothers explained that Larocque’s was caught in a retail no-man’s land, too small to compete with the national chain stores that were entering the Ottawa market, but too big to compete with specialized boutiques.

Vacant for a few months, the old Larocque store became for a while the temporary home of Caplan’s Department store, which was in mid-1972 in the process of a “million-dollar expansion” behind its main store on Rideau Street.

The former Larocque Department Store, now Mercury Court, May 2019, Google Streetview.

Between 1989 and 1993, the former Larocque Department Store, was remodelled and modernized by Barry Padolsky Associates Inc., and is now the home of this architectural firm. Called Mercury Court, the north end of the roof of the building is adorned with the “flying Mercury” weathervane that used to be located on the top of the Sun Life Assurance building at the corner of Sparks and Bank Streets. Mercury Court is also the home of businesses and the Embassy of Sweden.

Sources:

Doors Open Ontario, 2020.Barry Padolsky & Associates, Mercury Court,  https://www.doorsopenontario.on.ca/en/ottawa/barry-padolsky-associates-inc.

Le Droit, various issues.

Jewish Federation of Ottawa, 2020. Vineberg Family Fonds, https://www.cjhn.ca/en/permalink/cjhn86800.

Ottawa Jewish Archives, 2014. Larocque Department Store, 1923-1971, Facebook, 20 August.

Ottawa Citizen, “no title,” 25 September 1911.

——————, “Assignees Wind Up Several Small Business Firms,” 30 September.

——————, 1913. “J.A. Larocque,” 5 December.

——————, 1922. “Sale of City Property,” 19 April.

——————, 1922. “Announcement,” 19 April.

——————, 1924. “The Store That Does Not Advertise,” 19 November.

——————, 1930. “27th Anniversary Sale,” 7 October.

——————, 1971. “Enter the giants,” 25 November.

——————, 1972. “Caplan’s moves temporarily into old Larocque store,” 29 July.

Ottawa Journal, 1923. “Ottawa’s New Department Store,” 19 May.

——————-, 1971. “Ottawa department store to close,” 11 September.

Saltwire.com, 2017. Goodman Family added to Wall of Fame, https://www.saltwire.com/news/local/goodman-family-added-to-wall-of-fame-156351/.

Urbsite, 2020. J.A. Larocque’s Dalhousie Duel, http://urbsite.blogspot.com/2020/01/12-days-of-department-stores-8-ja.html.

Vineberg, Robert, 2021. The Store, A Personal History of Laroque’s, Historical Society of Ottawa, forthcoming Bytown Pamphlet.

President Roosevelt Comes To Ottawa

25 August 1943

Canada, the United Kingdom and the rest of the British Empire had been at war with Nazi Germany for almost four years. While the hostilities, which had already claimed the lives of millions, was far from over, there was a glimmer of light at the end of a very long tunnel. After the entry of the United States on the side of the Allies following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the tide of war had slowly begun to shift. By the summer of 1943, Russian forces had finally broken the German line at Kharkov and were racing across the plains of Ukraine towards the Dniester River. Sicily fell to American, British and Canadian troops in mid-August. And out in the north Pacific, Kiska was retaken by American and Canadian forces who made an unopposed amphibious landing on the Aleutian island after Japanese forces secretly retreated. The Régiment de Hull was part of the Allied contingent at Kiska. The francophone soldiers were popular with the U.S. troops who adopted Allouette as their campaign song.

Prime Minister Mackenzie King, President Roosevelt, and Prime Minister Churchill, Quebec City, August 1943, Library and Archives Canada, 3194622.

Also that August, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met at La Citadelle in Quebec City at a meeting hosted by Prime Minister Mackenzie King. There, leaders planned their next steps in the war against the Axis powers, including opening up a new front in Europe. There was also a focus on the Pacific theatre with a meeting with a representative of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, the leader of the Chinese Nationalist government. Other secret negotiations include cooperative work on the development of an atomic bomb. As well, leaders began to look toward post-war security and prosperity.

Following the successful conclusion of the Quebec Conference, Roosevelt came to Ottawa. It was the first visit to the nation’s capital by a sitting president of the United States. Roosevelt was no stranger to Canada, however. His family owned a summer home on Campobello Island in New Brunswick, a place where he vacationed regularly prior to becoming President. Afterwards, owing to the rigours of the office, his visits became few and far between—only three trips in 1933, 1936, and 1939, respectively. He also visited Quebec for an official visit in 1936, and had met with Prime Minister King for the dedication of the 1,000 Island Bridge in 1938. On that occasion, he went to Kingston where he was awarded an honorary degree by Queen’s University. He also briefly stopped in Halifax in 1939 on his way back to the United States from Newfoundland.

His visit to Ottawa on 25 August 1943 was announced to the press the day before, though the exact timing of his arrival was kept a secret for obvious security reasons. However, a press report said that Ottawa citizens would have their first official glimpse of the President at 11:50am when the presidential car was scheduled to drive through the East Gate onto Parliament Hill. The historic event was also to be carried live over CBO radio staring at 11:30am.

Governor General Lord Athlone, President Roosevelt, Presidential Aide Rear Admiral Brown, and Prime Minister King. The president is holding the arm of Admiral Brown, Centre Block, Parliament Hill, August 1943, Library and Archives Canada 3194412.

Roosevelt arrived in his personal train, pulling up to a specially-built platform on Nicholas Street located at the Rideau Canal’s Deep Cut. He was greeted by thousands of Ottawa residents who had waited for hours to see the President in the flesh. The official greeting party included Lord Athlone, the Governor General, the U.S. Minister to Canada (Ambassador) Ray Atherton, and Ottawa’s mayor Stanley Lewis, wearing his gold chain of office. Accompanied by Lord Athlone, Roosevelt got into an open-air, black limousine for the short drive to Parliament Hill, preceded by a large motorcycle escort. Secret Service personnel stood on the car’s running boards and ran beside the vehicle. More than 1,800 Canadian service men and women lined the route. As the presidential car made its way to Parliament Hill, Roosevelt waved his white Panama hat in acknowledgement of the crowd’s cheers and applause. As the presidential motorcade swept through the East Gate to Parliament Hill, a mighty cheer went up. The RCMP band began to play The Star-Spangled Banner.

On the Hill, RCMP and Secret Service people formed a security cordon around the speaker’s podium set up in front of the Peace Tower. Facing the dais were seats for distinguished guests, including senators, members of Parliament and members of Ottawa’s diplomatic corps. Close to two hundred journalists also covered the proceedings. On the greensward in front of the Central Block, some 30,000 Ottawa residents, taking advantage of a half-day holiday, stood in the bright sunshine to hear the President speak. The crowds had actually began to assemble as early as 9am. People also lined up five deep behind barricades along the roads. Others leaned out of windows and stood on rooftops. Only two earlier visits rivalled the greeting given to the American President—that of the King and Queen in 1939 and Winston Churchill’s visit in December 1941. While this was a first time for most people to see the President, for many his voice was familiar owing to Roosevelt’s famous “fireside chats” that he gave regularly to the American people. Like today, U.S. radio waves were easily picked up by Canadians who lived close to the border.

Prime Minister King introduced President Roosevelt to the cheering throng “as an undaunted champion of the rights of free men and a mighty leader of the forces of freedom in a world at war.” But, as described by the Ottawa Citizen, most Ottawans saw the visit as that of a “good neighbour.”

After the prime minister’s introduction, Roosevelt carefully approached the podium and its battery of microphones supported in part by the strong arm of his naval aide, Rear Admiral Wilson Brown. While it was no secret that his legs were paralysed owing to polio contracted during the 1920s, Roosevelt avoided being seen in public in a way that made him appear physically weak. The president stood to address the massive crowd in front of him. The Ottawa Journal commented that “no one who watched him being led slowly to the speaking stand could other than admire the sheer courage of the man in his victory over physical disability.”

Roosevelt reiterated his faith in what he called the “Four Freedoms” that he had originally articulated in 1941. These freedoms were freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Looking to the future, his aim was a healthy, peaceful life for everyone in a world where no nation would be in a position to commit an act of aggression against a neighbour. He also stressed the United States’ “determination to achieve victory in the shortest possible time” through “the essential co-operation with our great and brave allies.” The crowds roared their approval when the president announced that Canadian, British and American fighting men had just won great victories in Sicily and at Kiska in the Aleutians.

In his folksy manner, he spoke of the recently concluded Quebec Conference. He said that he had sat down with Churchill and Mackenzie King “in the manner of friends, in the manner of partners, I may even say in the manner of members of the same family.” He likened the Axis powers to “a band of gangsters,” and that the Allies had been forced to call out “the sheriff’s posse to break up the gang in order that gangsterism may be eliminated in the community of nations.” At Quebec, he said, there was no secret that the leaders had discussed the post-war world, adding that concerted action can accomplish great things. He didn’t want to return to “the good old days,” which he thought weren’t particularly good. Instead, he wanted to aim higher to a world with a greater freedom from want ever yet enjoyed, and attain freedom from violence by driving out “the outlaws and keeping them under heel forever.” While this goal couldn’t be achieved immediately, he opined that “some day, in the distant future perhaps—but some day with certainty, all of them [the destroyers] will remember with the Master – “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

Roosevelt ended his speech with a few sentences in French in which he extolled the union of French and English in Canada seeing it as “an example to all mankind.”

The president’s words were greeted with great acclaim from the assembled crowds on Parliament Hill. People laughed and cheered when Roosevelt mocked the Axis leaders. But they saved their warmest response for when Roosevelt spoke of feeling at home in Canada, and that Canadians feel at home in the United States.

After speeches of thanks from the speakers of both the Senate and House of Commons, the president and his entourage were driven the short distance to the War Memorial. There a presidential aide laid a wreath of flowers while President Roosevelt stood at attention by the car. The RCMP band played the old hymn Abide With Me. This was followed by an official luncheon, hosted by the Governor General, at Rideau Hall.

After the luncheon, the president and his party were taken on a whirl-wind tour of Hull and the Gatineau Hills with a stop at Kingsmere, the prime minister’s country home, where King pointed out various sights of interest. There was one unscheduled stop along the way. On the Chelsea Road, the president changed from his open car to a closed one. The explanation given was that the president’s car was behaving oddly and the automobile change was precautionary. As in Ottawa, Western Quebec folk turned out in their thousands to watch the presidential motorcade.

The last engagement on the president’s Ottawa visit was a final conversation with the Prime Minister and the Governor General over tea at Laurier House, King’s residence.

At the end of a successful day, the President returned to his official car. With motorcycles leading the way, his motorcade swept up Nicholas Street to where the president’s train waited for his return to Washington.

Two months later, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill again met, this time with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in Tehran, Iran, to co-ordinate their military plans against Nazi Germany and Japan, and to discuss the fate of Eastern Europe in the post-war era.

Sources:

Evening Citizen, 1943. “Roosevelt Ceremony Will Be Broadcast,” 24 August.

——————-, 1943. “Troops Joining In Welcome For The President,” 24 August.

——————-, 1943. “Welcome, Good Neighbor!,”25 August.

——————-, 1943. “F.D.R. Impressed with Great Sight Parliament,”

——————-, 1943. “30,000 People Gathered On Parliament Hill, Had Many Chances To Cheer,” 25 August.

——————-, 1943. “Guard of Honor Was Provided By Armed Services,” 25 August.

——————-, 1943. “Thousands Out To Welcome F.D.R. On Secret Arrival,” 25 August.

——————-, 1943. “Uptown Region Is Packed With Holiday Throng,” 25 August.

——————-, 1943. “Mr. King Terms F.D.R. Champion Of Freedom,” 25 August.

——————-, 1943. “Four Departments United To Handle Traffic For Visit,” 25 August.

——————-, 1943. “Text Of Statement By Churchill, Roosevelt,” 25 August.

Ottawa Journal, 1943. “Roosevelt Cheered By Ottawa, Advises Axis Surrender Now,” 25 August.

——————-, 1943. “President Wins Crowd’s Affection,” 25 August.

——————-, 1943. “General Peakes Commends Hull Regiment,” 25 August.

U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Canada, 2020. Presidential Visits to Canada, https://ca.usembassy.gov/our-relationship/policy-history/presidential-visits-to-canada/.

The First Ottawa Airmail

15 August 1918

You may be surprised to learn that communication by air has a very long history, dating back thousands of years. Until the arrival of the telegraph in the mid-nineteenth century, the fastest way of sending messages was by air—via pigeon. Historians believe that the ancient Greeks took advantage of pigeons’ innate ability to find their way home from distant locales to report news of the Olympic Games. In modern times, more specialized birds, commonly called messenger or homing pigeons, were used. To communicate via homing pigeon, the birds must first be sent to the distant location. When needed, a small message written on lightweight paper was strapped to the leg of a pigeon who, when released, would instinctively fly to its home roost, wherever it might be. Once back at its dovecote, the message could be retrieved by its keeper.

Cher Ami, the pigeon credited with saving a U.S. battalion in 1918, Wikipedia.

Homing pigeons flew combat missions in both world wars. In 1918, the pigeon “Cher Ami” was awarded the Croix de Guerre with oak leaves for delivering messages in Verdun. Later working for the U.S. Signal Corps, the bird managed to fly through German lines in October 1918, despite having been severely wounded, including losing a leg and eye, to deliver a message from a cut-off U.S. battalion. She (notwithstanding her masculine name) was credited with saving many lives. After her death in 1919, her body was preserved and put on display at the Smithsonian Institute. In the United Kingdom, thirty-two messenger pigeons have been awarded the Dickin Medal, which was established in 1943 to honour animal heroism in wartime.

Here in Canada, Major-General Donald Cameron convinced the Department of Marine and Fisheries in 1890 to experiment with homing pigeons to carry messages between Halifax and Sable Island. However, high pigeon mortality led to the cancellation of the experiment after five years.

Balloons have also been used to carry mail. Reportedly, the first official U.S. air mail delivery occurred in August 1859 when more than 130 letters were delivered from Lafayette to Crawfordville, Indiana, a distance of 30 miles. Balloons were also used to carry mail and military dispatches out of besieged Paris in 1870-71 during the Franco-Prussian War.

Cover of one of the letters carried by Henri Pequet between Allahabad and Naini, 1911, India, Wikipedia.

The first airmail as we commonly know it, i.e., via airplane, occurred just seven years after Orville and Wilbur Wright took to the skies at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, thereby ushering in the era of heavier-than-air flight. It occurred in February 1911 in Allahabad, India in the context of the United Provinces Exposition and the Maha Kumbh festival. Henri Pequet, a French aviator, carried more than 6,000 letters and cards five miles from Allahabad to Naini in a two-seater Humber biplane. The trip was an experiment conceived by Captain Walter Windham in co-operation with the Indian postal authorities to see what an airplane might be able to accomplish should a city come under siege. In addition to the regular postal fee was a six annas charge to help fund the construction of a youth hostel, the Oxford and Cambridge Hotel, in Allahabad.

Canada’s air mail service was inaugurated by Captain Bryan Peck on 24 June 1918 when he flew official correspondence from Montreal to Toronto with the consent of the Deputy Postmaster General in Ottawa. It was the first of several experimental flights to test the feasibility of an air mail service.

Peck, a Montrealer stationed at the Leaside aerodrome in Toronto, had arrived in Montreal a few days earlier from Toronto via Deseronto, Ontario in a Curtis JN-4 biplane, landing at the Bois Franc Polo Fields. Corporal W.C. Mathers accompanied him. While his flight to Montreal was mostly uneventful, the last part of it was completed in a full gale. His return flight to Toronto with Canada’s first official air mail was even more challenging. He initially tried to leave on 23 June 1918 but was forced back to Montreal owing to heavy rain. Airplanes of this time had cockpits that were open to the elements. He finally left Montreal the next day. Reportedly, he flew at an altitude of only twelve metres owing to his airplane being over-loaded with whisky. At that time, Prohibition was still in force in Ontario. Letters carried on this inaugural flight were hand-franked with a special triangular post mark reading “Inaugural service by aerial, Montreal, 23-6-18.”

Two weeks letter, Katherine Stinson, an American pilot, made the second Canadian airmail flight, flying from Calgary to Edmonton. She carried 250 letters in a Royal Mail postal bag.

Ottawa’s turn came on 15 August 1918 when Lieutenant Tremper Longman of the Royal Air Force stationed at the Leaside aerodrome in Toronto carried official letters from Toronto to the capital. Again, it was an experimental flight aimed at demonstrating the feasibility of transporting letters by air. The idea of the flight had been proposed by Col. W. Hamilton Merritt, the President of the Aerial Club of Toronto. Like Captain Peck on his earlier flight to Montreal, Longman flew a JN-4 Curtis biplane. He left Camp Leaside at 9:45 am, stopping at Camp Mohawk in Deseronto, Ontario to refuel and to have lunch. He arrived at the military encampment at the Rockcliffe Ranges outside of Ottawa at 3:09 pm. (This was before the construction of the Rockcliffe aerodrome.) His flying time was 3 hours and 40 minutes.  He figured he could do it quicker once he had become familiar with the route. He had relied on maps and a compass to find his way to Ottawa. He said the capital was easy to locate, his route taking him over Smith’s Falls.

The Curtis biplane used to carry the first airmail between Ottawa and Toronto. The caption on the photograph is either incorrectly dated, or this is actually a photograph of the second flight between the two cities. The same aircraft was used for both flights. Department of National Defence, Library and Archives Canada, 4748717.

Longman, who was met by Ottawa postal officials, carried dispatches for the Governor General, Sir George Foster, who was the acting Premier at the time in the absence of Sir Robert Borden, the Postmaster, the Assistant Postmaster, and the Secretary-Treasurer of the Ottawa Motor Club.

Two days later, Lieutenant Longman left Ottawa to deliver the first airmail from Ottawa to Toronto. After checking his engine, he hopped into the cockpit. With a cheery wave, he was off, leaving ten minutes early at 6:50 am. Weather conditions were perfect—a clear sky and a slight wind. Before heading southwest towards his Deseronto stop, he circled the military encampment at Rockcliffe.

There were no witnesses to his departure other than the Assistant Postmaster and a Post Office inspector who had dropped off the mail bag containing one hundred letters, most of which were replies to letters he had brought to Ottawa two days earlier. The letters carried the usual 3 cent stamp with a postal mark reading “By Aerial Mail.” The Ottawa Journal claimed to have sent the first letter to be carried from Ottawa by airplane. The newspaper’s letter was addressed to Mr. J.R. Atkinson, the President of the Toronto Star.

In honour of Lieutenant Longman’s airmail flights, the Journal published a short poem entitled “The Airplane:”

My engines throb, and propellers spin, for I yearn to caress the blue; if the mail’s in the sack, toss it up on my back—it’s my duty to see it through. Soon the earth drops away, and the towns in array, marks the rout I must wing, o’er the land, with His Majesty’s mail, through the heavens I sail, in response to young Longman’s command.

As this was a test flight, there was no promise of a repeat performance. However, less that two weeks later on 26 August, Lieutenant Arthur Dunstan, also of Leaside Camp, brought the second bag of airmail to Ottawa from Toronto in the same Curtis biplane that Longman flew. In his mail sack were roughly 130 letters, including registered mail, special delivery, and 100 ordinary letters, each of which bore a stamp of the Aero Club of Ottawa sold for the benefit of the RAF Fund for Prisoners of War.

On 27 August 1974, the National Postal Museum in Ottawa issued a colourized version of the above photograph as a postcard and 8 cent stamp in honour of the first Toronto to Ottawa Airmail Service. It incorrectly stated that the first flight occurred August 26/27, 1918.

Dunstan’s flight was described as “exciting” as he had to dodge several storms on his way to Ottawa. Just before landing, he ran into a rain squall. He also experienced a strong tail wind which fortuitously shortened his flight. Instead of travelling over Smith’s Falls, the route chosen by Longman, Dunstan’s flight path took him via the 1,000 Islands at an altitude of 2,000 feet. He flew directly to the Rockcliffe Ranges where huge canvas strips had been laid out to form the letter “T.” Dunstan brought his plane to a standstill almost directly on the canvas.

Touching down at 4:10 pm Dunstan was surprised to find out that he was almost an hour late. Owing to a mix-up in Toronto, Dunstan thought that his expected arrival time was 4:30 pm rather than 3:00 pm. He left on the return flight to Toronto the following day.

In early September, Lieutenant Edward Burton of the RAF made the first same-day return trip between Toronto and Ottawa with the mail. Setting out from Leaside camp at 7:45 am, he arrived at the Rockcliffe Ranges at about 12:45 pm. Unlike for Dunstan’s flight, no landing strips were prepared for Burton as the neighbouring army camp was in quarantine owing to a case of smallpox. He was met by the Postmaster, A.G. Acres and his assistant. After taking a quick but hearty lunch with the Postmaster, Burton left roughly an hour later with 136 letters. As with previous flights, he stopped over at Deseronto to refuel before proceeding with the rest of his journey. Low clouds forced him to fly at an altitude of only 1,000 feet.

Although these initial flights demonstrated the feasibility and speed of an air mail service, the Canadian postal authorities were slow to adopt the airplane. It wasn’t until 1928 that the Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa corridor received regular air mail service. A cross-Canada, Vancouver-to-Halifax service wasn’t inaugurated until 1939.

Sources:

Canadian Museum of History, 2021. A Chronology of Canadian Postal History.

Durr, Eric, 2021. How pigeon helped save lost battalion, Military.com.

Ottawa Citizen, 1918. “First Mail By Aeroplane From Toronto Arrives,” 16 August.

——————, 1918. “Thinks Air Will Be Recognize Routes,” 17 August.

——————, 1918. “Rockcliffe Camp Under Quarantine,” 27 August.

Ottawa Journal, 1918. “Aviator Tremper Longman Leaves Ottawa at 6:50 am With First Airplane Mail,” 17 August.

——————, 1918. “Flyer Is Off With First Aerial Mail Sent From Ottawa,” 17 August.

——————, 1918. “Brings 130 Letters By Airplane Post,” 27 August.

——————, 1918. “Arrives With Mail, Starts Right Back,” 4 September.

Times of India, 2013. “World’s First Air Mail started during Maha Kumbh in 1911,” 19 February.

Chain Letters and Pyramid Schemes

22 June 1935

For many, the lure was irresistible. For only a small investment, they could make big money. It was a heady prospect, especially for the poor and unemployed. And in the mid-1930s, there were many such people. With the Great Depression still holding a powerful grip over the North American economy, the promise of quick money attracted thousands. All that somebody needed was a dime, some letter paper and envelopes, and the names of five people to give or send them to.

While similar schemes had surfaced from time to time in the past, there was nothing quite like great “Prosperity Club” or “Send-a-Dime” chain letter of the spring of 1935. Some claim that the scheme was started by a woman in Denver, Colorado, but we don’t know for sure. Regardless, it quickly spread across the United States, Canada, and even leaped across the Atlantic to Britain where it was called the Sixpenny Prosperity League.

Almost overnight, there were thousands of participants. Post offices were inundated with chain letters leading to postal backlogs and overtaxed postal workers who had to sort and deliver them. Early participants in the scheme made money, with news of their good fortune attracting more players into the Prosperity Club. But for most, the glitter turned out to be fool’s gold.

The wonders of multiplication! For a chain letter to remain unbroken by level 15, more than 6 billion people would have to sign up.

The concept was simple. Letter recipients were asked to send a dime to the person named on the top of a list of names contained in the letter, cross that name out, and put their name at the bottom of the list. Then, the person was to make five copies of the letter and send them to five other people. If this happened five times, the name of the recipient would reach the top of the list and would reap the reward of 15,625 dimes, or $1,562.50 if the chain remained unbroken on the next iteration. It was almost magical. The problem was that it was unsustainable. After only a relatively few iterations, the entire population of the world would have to participate to keep the chain alive. The Prosperity Club was a classic pyramid scheme.

This fact did not deter people. Most were mathematically illiterate or didn’t stopped to think about the odds. And many of who figured out that the chain would be quickly broken thought it was worth ten cents for a chance at making a small fortune. Those who joined early and whose names appeared near the top of the list stood to make significant money.

The Prosperity Club letter was quickly duplicated by other chain letters. Churches got into the act. One enterprising pastor in Kansas City claimed that St. Paul wrote the first chain letter—his epistle to the Galatians. He said his church’s revenues went up 75 per cent as a result of a “go-to-church” chain letter. Another pastor in Texas organized chain letters for every age group to raise money for his church in amounts starting as low as one cent so that all could benefit from the chain letters’ bounty.

Even Hollywood got a piece of the action. Out in 1935 was the movie Make a Million, staring George Sharrett, Pauline Brooks and George E. Stone. It was the story of a million-dollar chain letter started by a college professor. It was also an attack on the economic system that led to the Great Depression. The film showed at the Imperial Theatre in Ottawa that October.

A double bill at the Imperial Theatre–Make a Million and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Ottawa Citizen, 29 October 1935.

U.S. and Canadian post offices officials were not amused by the chain-letter fad, and quickly tried to put a break on such quick-money schemes. Operating in a legal grey zone in Canada, the Canadian post office said that chain letters were a “racket” and directed such letters, if they could be identified, to the dead letter branch.

While most participants were innocent players, some chains were started by the unscrupulous who sent out thousands of letters with their names at the top of the lists. When trusting people send them their dimes, the initiators of the chains stood to gain hundreds of dollars.

When Ottawa Mayor Nowlan received a chain letter that had assured him of the receipt of $1,562.50 if he sent his dime and copied the letter to five friends, he declined the opportunity and broke the chain. He also ordered a stack of similar letters addressed to city aldermen which had been left with the elevator man to be destroyed.  

One winner of the chain letter fad in Ottawa that spring was a young delivery boy who had been arrested for riding a motorcycle without a licence. Pleading guilty, but unwilling to either pay the $12 fine and court costs or go to jail, he asked the judge to delay his sentence a week. His request granted, the boy organized a chain letter in the meantime and “earned” enough money to pay his fine when next he appeared in court.

On Saturday, 22 June 1935, a new get-rich-quick opportunity took Ottawa by storm. It was the $1 for $10 scheme. That morning, an upstairs office at 193 Sparks Street opened for business, taking the names and dollar bills of investors. The scheme promised a payout of $10 to “investors.” Every time twelve new names were added to the list, the broker paid out $10 to the person whose name was at the top of the list, keeping $2. Unabashedly a pyramid scheme, payouts depended on new investors joining the scheme.

Business was brisk, so brisk that the elevator man said he would need a holiday after all this was over. Some players, unwilling to wait for the elevator, preferred to run up the three flights of stairs to get their names on the list as quickly as possible.

When a Citizen reporter went to the office at 11:00am that morning to see first hand what was happening, he saw frenzied investors lining up to put down their dollar bills to get their name on the list. He also claimed to have seen dozens of investors paid $10. Some reinvested their winnings. He described the office as resembling a “telegraph boys’ headquarters.” Telephones jangled, with dozens of messenger boys running in and out for those who were unable to get to the office in person.

Under a banner head line on the following Monday, the journalist reported “Ponzi was a piker!” The jailed Boston financier and fraudster had only promised a 50 per cent return in 45 days—“small pickin’s” compared to the 900 per cent offered by the Ottawa scheme. (Ponzi paid the abnormally high rate of return guaranteed to investors by using the incoming funds of new investors.) The article noted, however, that if somebody was in tenth position on the list,120 new investors would have to join before they received a payout. At the fiftieth position, 600 new names would have to be added to the list.

To meet the demand, additional offices quickly popped up on Rideau Street in the Transportation Building, and on Bridge Street in Hull. This was followed by a curbside office at the corner of Cooper and Bank Streets. Two young men with a sign posted above them on a telephone pole, took in money from would-be punters until the police moved them on for blocking traffic. A third Ottawa outlet opened in the Ritz Hotel at the corner of Bank and Somerset Streets. When a reporter visited that office, two harried clerks, with their shirt sleeves rolled up, sat on a bed gathering up bills into rolls of various denominations. So busy were they taking in the money, there were reportedly having difficulty in paying out, their accounting system on the verge of collapse. They later called the hotel manager for a bigger room.

Besides the $1 for $10 list, the offices also offered alternatives for the would-be investor. For the faint of heart or those of lesser means, you could put your name onto the 50-cent list which offered a return of $2.50 as soon as six more people joined up. For those wanting to take a more significant plunge, there was a $10 list that returned $100 after twelve other gamblers joined. This list was apparently the least popular—no big surprise since that was the equivalent to roughly $200 today.

Although the police pursued a “hands off” policy for the time being, the head of the police morality squad toured the local “investment offices” to collect information on how they operated. Meanwhile, Crown Counsel J.A. Ritchie consulted a mathematician. Ritchie is reported as saying “I think it could be demonstrated that as the list grows it would take more than the entire population of the Dominion to pay off some of those on the list.” But without guidance from the authorities and a lack of complaints from the public, the police stayed their hand. As the law waited for the green light to close the offices, business boomed as a steady stream of both men and women eagerly signed the lists and parted with their hard-earned dollar bills.

Other enterprising Ottawa businesses joined the game. A number of Lower Town grocery stores began giving $1.00 grocery vouchers to every fifth person who paid 25 cents to place their name on a grocery list. Reportedly, housewives flocked to the stores once word got around. An Ottawa hotel set up a similar beer racket with the pay-off being 27 bottles of beer. This one quickly caught the attention of liquor licensing officials.

With the law vague on the legality of chain letters, Crown Counsel Ritchie urged the federal government to amend the Criminal Code to outlaw such schemes. Very quickly, the government leader in the Senate, Arthur Meighen, moved an amendment to the Code saying that it was “an attempt to define and prohibit the new so-called chain letter scheme of getting rich quickly.” In the dying hours of the 17th Parliament of R.B. Bennett in early July 1935, both the Senate and House of Commons approved an anti-chain letter amendment to the Code with little or no discussion.

Here in Ottawa, after raking in thousands of dollars, the so-called investment offices were closed. By this point, however, business had already begun to slow, the market saturated. Of course, those on the bottom of the list who still waiting for their pay-outs were out of luck. Their money was gone. The newspapers did not report the size of their losses.

In modern times, pyramid investment and marketing schemes have remained a thorn in the side of investors and regulators. The biggest of all time was the New York-based Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities ran by the now deceased Bernie Madoff. The business, with accounts totalling US$65 billion, went spectacularly bust in 2008. Madoff’s company, which had operated for many years, was a giant fraud. Like Ponzi, Madoff hoped that investors, lured by the promise of high returns, would roll over their investments instead of redeeming them. The minority who took money out were paid off by inflows provided by new investors. Meanwhile, Madoff skimmed off millions.

This went on for years until people realized what Madoff was doing and that their financial statements were fictitious. Even those who had bailed out early lost money in the end as liquidators of Madoff’s firm clawed back their fraudulently-earned profits which were then shared out among the losers. Bernie Madoff died in April 2021 while serving a 150-year prison sentence.

Despite Madoff’s notoriety, people continue to fall pray to pyramid schemes and similar frauds. In 2020, an Ontario man was arrested in a $56 million Ponzi scheme under which he allegedly promised high returns to investors for investing in a company selling debit card machines.

Morale of this story: be wary of any investment or marketing scheme that looks too good to be true. It probably is.

Sources:

Global News, 2020. “Ontario man returned to Canada to face charges in $56 million debit terminal Ponzi scheme,” 14 September.

Mortal Journey, 2010. Send A Dime Chain Letter (1930’s), 19 November.

Ottawa Citizen, 1935. “Chain Letter Craze Labelled “Racket” By Canadian P.O.,” 9 May.

——————, 1935. “Amazing Scenes In Oklahoma As Chain Letter Fad Spreads,” 11 May.

——————, 1935. “Attendance At Church Better, Revenues Grows,” 13 May.

——————, 1935. “Mayor Nowlan Frowns On Chain Letter Idea,” 4 June.

——————, 1935. “Launch New ‘Get-Rich-Quick’ Scheme In Ottawa, 24 June.

——————, 1935. “How Boy Obtained Money For Fine,” 4 July.

——————, 1935. Chain Letter Schemes Are Failure in Britain,” 6 July.

Ottawa Journal, 1935. “Doing Business At Street Corner,” 27 June.

——————-, 1935. “Senate Moves To Stop ‘Get-Rich-Quick’ Schemes In Canada,” 4 July.

——————-, 1935. “Ban Is Placed On Chain Plan,” 5 July.

Senate Debates, 1935. Criminal Code Bill, 17 Parliament, 4th Session, Volume1, page 466, 4 July.

Rockcliffe Relief Camp

10 July 1935

It was the Dirty Thirties. Across the country, factory after factory were falling idle as demand dropped precipitously as the Great Depression deepened. In the countryside, low agricultural prices combined with persistent drought in the Prairies spelt ruin for thousands of farmers. The rate of unemployment rose to levels never before experienced.

To make matters worse, there was not much of a government safety net for those affected. There was no unemployment insurance, little in the way of welfare, and no government-provided health care. The situation for young, single men was especially dire. They were not part of the “deserving poor,” but were expected to fend for themselves. But how could they when there were no jobs to be had anywhere? At risk of being thrown into jail for vagrancy if found loitering on street corners, thousands took to the roads or rails, going from town to town in search of casual labour, a bowl of soup and a place to doss down for the night. These were hard times.

 In 1930, the Conservatives under R.B. Bennett were elected to do something about the growing unemployment problem. But conditions only deteriorated. Authorities feared that young, idle men would become radicalized by communist propaganda. The Communist Party of Canada was banned in 1931, its leaders arrested. But this did little to stop left-wing agitation for change.

Worried about the growing ranks of unemployed, young men, many of whom had never held a steady job, General Andrew McNaughton, Chief of the Canadian General Staff, came up with the idea of establishing temporary, relief camps across the country for the estimated 70,000 single, unemployed, homeless, and malnourished men that were tramping the roads. In such camps, such men would receive food, shelter, clothing, medical care, a 20-cent per day gratuity and, most importantly, would regain their self-esteem. In exchange, they would work on worthwhile government infrastructure projects.

The federal government seized the idea and launched a relief camp program via an Order-in-Council on 8 October 1932. By the following month, thousands of men had signed up. In total, 144 relief camps were established across Canada, of which 57 were in British Columbia and 37 in Ontario. Most of the camps were located in relatively remote locations with the men working to improve a cross-Canada system of aerodromes and landing strips in support of the nascent Trans-Canada Airlines, the forerunner of Air Canada. Other projects included road-building and tree-planting. The government also hoped that if the camps were located far from urban centres, the young men inside them would be less exposed to radical views.

While most projects were located far away from urban areas, there were exceptions. Relief camps were established in Trenton and, most importantly for this story, in Rockcliffe, just outside of Ottawa, to improve aerodrome facilities and runways.

The Rockcliffe relief camp took in its first residents at the end of October 1932 when thirty men at the Employment Service Bureau in Ottawa signed on. They were immediately taken to Rockcliffe where they were fed, and provided with serviceable clothes. Work began the next morning with the residents constructing huts to accommodate the expected influx of men to follow in the coming months.

Road Works, Rockcliffe Relief Camp, March 1933, People’s History

Initially, the general sentiment towards the relief camp program was favourable. Newspaper editorials were positive. In November 1932, the head foreman at the Ottawa Relief Unit, Rockcliffe wrote a letter to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen saying that on behalf of the unit he expressed his appreciation for the comfort and entertainment provided in their off-hours as well as the thoughtfulness of Wing Commander Godfrey, the commanding officer of the air base and relief camp, for providing entertainment, including games and cards. He also thanked Mrs. Godfrey who had supplied 150 books and magazines. He added that members of the Ottawa Air Station had been co-operative and courteous, and that the base chef had provided culinary tips to the camp’s cook so that he could serve the best possible meals with their food rations.

From time to time, musical entertainment and vaudeville shows were put on for camp residents by RCAF personnel stationed at the camp and outside groups such as the Salvation Army. Athletic contests were also held to keep men occupied during their off hours.

Many believed that that Rockcliffe camp was among the best. This was likely true due to its proximity to Ottawa and hence the destination of VIPs wishing to see what a relief camp was like. In January 1933, the Governor General, the Earl of Bessborough, toured the camp. He was accompanied by the Minister of Labour and General McNaughton himself. The distinguished visitors were received by Wing Commander Godfrey. A week later, another official visit occurred. On this occasion, one of the guests was future Ottawa mayor Charlotte Whitton. At the time, Whitton was a well-known child and family advocate as well as a staunch supporter of relief camps as a means of dealing with high unemployment.

Frontier College, which had been established in 1899 to provide education in northern lumber camps, eventually provided education to residents in the Rockcliffe relief camp. But resources were very limited. An instructor sent out an appeal for well-liked magazines such as Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Popular Aviation, National Geographic, and Weekly News Illustrated. He also requested donations of popular fiction by such modern authors as Zane Grey, D.H. Lawrence and J.B. Priestly.

By 1935, there was more than 500 men residing in the Rockcliffe relief camp. In addition to building a number of frame accommodation buildings, they cleared and levelled the aerodrome’s landing field, erected a three-storey building to house the RCAF photographic section, and constructed sewers and water mains.

Despite broad public support at the launch of the relief camp program, signs of discontent quickly emerged. In August 1933, the Workers’ Ex-Servicemen’s League held a meeting in Ottawa protesting the “military slave camps” at Rockcliffe and elsewhere. The following year, a Rockcliffe camp resident praised the self-discipline and courtesy of the men but had little good to say about the accommodations or the food. He said that there were 50 men in a house intended for a single family. However, despite the close quarters, the house was kept orderly and clean. Nights were quiet from lights out at 10:00pm until wake up at 6:30am. While the “No talking signs” in the dining room were generally ignored, table manners were good, and were “far above the quality of the repasts.”  

Camp administrators kept close tabs on the men. When a camp resident left without permission in 1934, he was tracked down and arrested by the RCMP, and charged with theft of government property—the clothes on his back. Marked with a “broad arrow with the letter ‘C’”, the second-hand clothes were said to have had an unlikely value of $12.65. The poor man was jailed.

In June 1935, things became tense at the Rockcliffe camp. Workers in relief camps in British Columbia, organized in part by communist party members, had begun their famous trek to Ottawa to present their demands to the Bennett government. The most important of their demands was fair pay for the work they did. They wanted 50 cents per hour for unskilled labour, and union rates for skilled workers. The RCMP reported that a bulletin had been circulated amongst trekkers that camp workers from Rockcliffe were preparing to meet them when they reached Ottawa. At the Rockcliffe camp, captains and lieutenants were secretly elected in each hut to represent the men.

The BC strikers’ trek to Ottawa was suppressed in Regina on Dominion Day, 1935 by RCMP and railway police on the orders of the federal government with the loss of two lives and many injured. However, the Rockcliffe men were not deterred. On 8 July, 1935 they went on strike for better pay and living conditions. Their demands were more modest than those of the BC strikers. The Rockcliffe men demanded $1 per day for an eight-hour work day. Other demands included: a better variety of food; sleeping quarters in accordance with provincial health requirements; the replacement of the military administration of the camp by the Department of Labour; and an immediate and impartial investigation of the conditions in the camp by the Department of Labour.

Striker leaders said that all 500 camp residents had joined the strike which began at 8:00am after breakfast. Wing Commander Godfrey disagreed with this count, claiming that an official check at meal-time showed that not more than 150 had answered the strike call.

A dozen strike leaders, including their principal spokesman, J.S. Downham, were expelled from the camp on orders of the Department of National Defence. Two detachments of RCMP officers and the entire RCAF force of officers and men stationed at the Rockcliffe Air Station were there to enforce the order. The policemen were armed with their service revolvers and “riot” sticks. Some of the RCMP officers were on horseback. For a few minutes, it was a tense standoff. But the situation eased when the strike leaders agreed to go peacefully. As the leaders were led away, the surrounding strikers jeered and mocked the police. Men shouted out to their leaders: “We’re behind you all the way” and “We’re not through yet.” The twelve went back to their huts to pack their belongings. They were then given their evening meals, paid their allowances, and driven to Ottawa.

Reporters rushed out to the camp from Ottawa to interview the strikers who aired their grievances. The major complaint was pay. Men resented working alongside bricklayers and carpenters hired from Ottawa, who were earning $1.10 per hour and $0.70 per hour, respectively, far more than the camp workers. “We must eliminate slave camps,” said one striker. Another said that he “wanted to earn enough to get a stake to seek an outside job.”

Wing Commander Godfrey said he was acting upon orders from the Department of Defence. He also noted that the men had struck without putting in any official complaint to him and until that point they had been satisfied with camp conditions. He claimed that most men realized that the camps were just a means to keep them fed, housed and occupied until they could get jobs outside.

Despite the ejection of the leaders, the strike went on. After lunch the following day, a strike bulletin was posted on the door of the dining room telling strikers not to go to work until further notice. “Show your spirit in this fight,” it added.

The situation came to a head on 10 July 1935. At 7:30am, all 508 men in the camp were ordered onto the athletic field. Many remained in their huts. On the opposite side of the field were 36 mounted RCMP officers who put on an intimidating show of force.

Wing Commander Godfrey gave the men an ultimatum from headquarters: “Work or Get Out!”. While he said he was powerless to address the pay issue as this was government policy, he could tackle some of the other complaints. Regarding meals, he said there had been cases where the contractor had supplied meat unfit for human consumption. It had been returned. However, he would immediately look into the quality issue. He also promised that the huts would be re-organized to give each man “increased air space.”

He then asked all those willing to work to stay on the field and demanded that those who chose not to work to leave the camp immediately, or be forcibly ejected. As strike diehards walked off the field, they jeered at those who remained, calling them “scabs” or worse. Meanwhile, camp administrators and police conducted a hut-by-hut search of men who had not appeared at the parade. These men were given the same choice—work or get out.

In the end, 138 men were ejected from the Rockcliffe relief camp. They were taken by truck to downtown Ottawa where they were dropped off, most at the corner of Rideau and Charlotte Streets. They had little beyond the clothes on the backs and their meagre allowance. Some assembled at 11:00am in Cartier Square and then walked to Plouffe Park at the corner of Preston and Somerset Streets when they had heard that arrangements for foot and shelter would be found there.

The men dispersed peacefully. Some found temporary shelter and food at the Union Mission. Others went to stay with relatives, or dossed down in parks or in train boxcars. Mayor Nolan told the men to find work or leave town; the city would not support them.  He advised them to return to the camp as they were the federal government’s responsibility.

Some took the mayor’s advice and asked to be reinstated. Most did not. What happened to them was not recorded. For the more than 350 men who remained, life returned to what it had been. With so many men evicted, their accommodations became more comfortable.

In October 1935, the Bennett government was trounced in the general election over its handling of the Great Depression. The Liberals under Mackenzie King returned to power. Among their promises was a commitment to close the relief camps. As a first step, in April 1936 the men were given wages of $15 per month, instead of the daily 20-cent gratuity. By June, the camps were closed. Some 10,000 camp workers, including most of the Rockcliffe workers, found government-subsidized maintenance jobs with the railways. But for the rest, regular employment was not found until the outbreak of war in 1939.

Sources:

MacDowell, Laura Sefton, 1995. “Relief Camp Workers in Ontario during the Great Depression of the 1930s,” Canadian Historical Review, LXXVI, No. 2, University of Toronto Press.

Ottawa Citizen, 1932. “Thirty Men For Work On Local Landing Field,” 31 October.

——————, 1932. “Thanks Air Station Officials,” 17 November.

——————, 1933. “His Excellency Visits Airport,” 10 January.

——————, 1933. “At Rockcliffe Airport” 18 January.

——————, 1934. “Took Camp Clothes,” 15 March.

——————, 1934. “Relief Camp Life,” 29 March.

——————, 1935. “Remove 11 Alleged Strike Leaders From Rockcliffe Camp,” 9 July.

——————, 1935. “Some Strikers Now Anxious To Return To Camp,” 11 July.

——————, 1935. “Work Or Leave City Is Mayor’s Ultimatum To Strikers,” 12 July.

——————, 1935. “Tells of Start Of Camp Strike At Rockcliffe,” 15 July.

——————, 1936. “Books and Magazines Wanted,” 1 April.

Ottawa Journal, 1933. “Will Protest Against War Preparations,” 4 August.

——————-, 1935. “Relief Men go On Strike At Rockcliffe,” 8 July.

——————-, 1935. “138 Men Are Ejected From Rockcliffe Camp,’ 10 July.

——————-, 1936. “Rockcliffe Camp Will Be Closed,” 10 June.

RCMP, 1935. Report on Revolutionary Organizations and Agitators in Canada, Weekly Summary, Report No. 762, 3 July.

Windsor Star, 1935. “Expel 200 From Camp,” 10 July.

On-To-Ottawa Trek

22 June 1935

An important milestone in Canadian labour history is the 1935 trek to Ottawa by striking British Columbian relief camp workers which culminated in the Regina Riot on Dominion Day, 1935. Striking for better wages and working conditions, the men rode freight cars eastward, their objective, Ottawa, to put their demands for change in front of the Conservative government of R.B. Bennett.

The peaceful trek got as far as Regina when the RCMP arrested the trekkers’ leaders on orders of the federal government. This action precipitated a riot. Hundreds of rioters and police were injured and two were killed—Detective Charles Millar and Nicklas Schaack, an unemployed American living in Saskatchewan, who was critically injured and died some weeks later. There were also many thousands of dollars in property damage.

On-to-Ottawa Trek, Canadian National Railways fonds, Library and Archives Canada

The Regina Riot had its roots in the Great Depression which followed the October 1929 stock market crash. The impact of the crash was magnified by poor economic policies in major countries. Monetary policy was initially used to maintain the gold standard rather than to support demand. Fiscal policies were tightened as governments reduced expenditures as their revenues declined. Industrial countries raised tariffs on imports of foreign goods in an effort to protect local industries and maintain employment. But with all countries doing likewise, international trade plummeted, hurting everybody. Drought ravaged farms through the US mid-west and the Canadian Prairies.  Farm incomes plummeted. Saskatchewan, the breadbasket of Canada, also had to contend with a plague of grasshoppers. One third of its farmers were destitute by 1933 with the rest not far behind. Urban centres were not spared either. The collapse of demand caused massive layoffs in the manufacturing sector and in service industries. The number of unemployed reach levels never before seen.  

To make matters worse, there was little in the way of welfare, unemployment insurance, or other government programs to assist the hundreds of thousands who lost their jobs. Instead, they were forced to rely on charitable institutions which were themselves stretched thin by reduced donations and increased demand. The plight of single, able-bodied men was particularly dire. They were supposed to be able to take care of themselves. But with no jobs to be had, they became desperate, reliant on soup kitchens to survive. As unemployed men loitering in the streets could be jailed as vagrants, thousands moved from city to city, hitching rides on freight trains.

Although R.B. Bennett’s Conservative government had been elected in 1930 to fix the unemployment problem, matters got worse. In response, the federal government opened relief camps across the country for single, unemployed men in October 1932. These camps were the brainchild of General Andrew McNaughton, a friend of the prime minster and chief of the Army’s General Staff. McNaughton was worried about a lost generation of young men, some of whom had never held a job. By giving them temporary employment doing meaningful work, the general hoped that these men would regain their self-esteem and be able to more easily rejoin the workforce when jobs became available. The government also recognized that unemployed, rootless, young men were most at risk of falling prey to communist propaganda. By taking them out of the city and giving them something to do, the hope was that such men would be less likely to become radicalized.

The men were put to work building aerodromes, airfields and roads across the country. Prior to the onset of the Depression, the government had begun a program to build Canada’s air infrastructure in support of the new Trans-Canada Airlines. But the program had been stopped owing to a lack of money. The relief camps were ideal way to resuscitate it. Most of the work camps were locate in remote areas. One exception was the camp located in Rockcliffe outside of Ottawa where men were put to work upgrading the facilities at Rockcliffe Airport.

Men in the relief camps were given food, shelter, clothes, cigarettes, and medical care, which had a value of roughly 80 cents per day, as well as 20 cents cash per day. This small amount of cash was not intended to be a wage but was viewed by the government as a gratuity. At the peak, roughly 30,000 men were in the camps which were run by the Ministry of Defence, the department with the most logistical experience. (In total, 170,248 men spent time in the camps over the four years they were in operation.) While run by the military, there was no military discipline. General McNaughton even insisted that the military personnel supervising the camps wore civilian clothes.

In the camps, men worked eight hours a day, Monday to Friday with Saturday afternoons and Sunday off. The work was hard and was unsuitable for many unused to the rigours of such labour. There were complaints about the quality of the food, shoddy accommodations, and very limited recreational materials. Often camps lacked radios, and what reading material was available was supplied by private donations. Residents griped that there were far too many women’s magazines. Books were also in short supply, especially during the long, cold winters. But the biggest complaint was the paltry 20 cents a day they were paid. While the government insisted that it was a gratuity and not a wage, the men saw differently. They argued that they were being treated like slaves.

For its part, the government said it could not afford anything more, and that men were in the camps voluntarily. While technically true, the alternative was jail for vagrancy. Moreover, given only 20 cents per day, the men could not easily get into towns to find employment or diversion. There was also a lack of female companionship. Instead of alleviating despair, the camps magnified it. Men risked expulsion from the camps should they form committees to present grievances. Additionally, they had difficulty voting in elections since the camps were not considered residences. Consequently, to exercise their franchise, they had to return to the riding where they were registered—something few could afford to do.

Amidst growing discontent came Communist organizers in the form of the Workers’ Unity League (WUL) and the Relief Camp Workers’ Union (RCWU) established in 1930 and 1934, respectively. The aim of the WUL was to establish revolutionary unions to fight against capitalism While the RCWU’s short-term goal was to improve the lot of camp residents, its longer-term aim was the overthrow of capitalism.

In early 1935, relief camp workers in British Columbia struck for better pay and working conditions. Strikers poured into Vancouver to seek relief and to demonstrate. Joined by local unemployed people and many civilian sympathizers, strikers occupied the Hudson Bay Company’s store. Strikers had also gone to other major department stores to demonstrate but had been thwarted by locked doors. Vancouver Mayor McGeer read the demonstrators the Riot Act, and police dispersed the crowds. The mayor blamed communist agitators and an ineffectual federal government which had washed its hands of any responsibility saying that once the strikers had left the relief camps, they had become a provincial responsibility. After strikers occupied the local museum, the city gave them $1,500 as a bribe to behave. With these funds as well as funds raised from sympathetic labour groups and individuals, the relief camp workers stayed in the city until early June 1935. At this point, with their funds almost exhausted, Arthur “Slim” Evans, organized more than 1,000 men to board freight trains to present their demands in person to R.B. Bennett. Evans was not a relief camp worker, but was self-acknowledged member of the Communist Party and a paid organizer of the Workers’ Unity League. The trek to Ottawa had begun.

The men had six demands. Most importantly, they demanded satisfactory wages—50 cents per hour for unskilled labour and union wages for skilled workers with a six-hour, five-day, work week, and a minimum of twenty working days per month. Other demands included: the separation of the camps from the Ministry of Defence; the recognition of democratically-elected camp officials; workmen’s compensation for workers injured on relief projects; a system of unemployment insurance on a non-contributory basis; and a guarantee to workers of their right to vote.

Arthur “Slim” Evans, Tales from the Chesterfield

The ride eastward was orderly and peaceful. The President of the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada urged moderation saying “To defy constituted authority could not help but lead to greater suffering and misery and retard the introduction of measures which would improve their conditions.” He blamed the government’s unwillingness to pay “fair and reasonable wages” to relief camp workers for growing support for Communistic doctrines.

Although the trekkers were illegally riding the freight trains, railway officials went out of their way to facilitate their movement, even changing timetables and making unscheduled stops to accommodate them. Cities along the route did what they could to get them out of their jurisdictions as quickly as possible, even if this meant giving them money.  The orderliness of the men encouraged public sympathy.  

The trek got as far as Regina. There, the federal government refused to allow the trekkers, now numbering about 2,000, to go any further east by rail, road or foot. The provincial and municipal authorities were not pleased. They just wanted to see the back of the trekkers. The city provided shelter and two meals per day to the strikers in order to help keep the peace. In mid-June, the federal government sent two Cabinet ministers, Robert Weir, Minister of Agriculture and R.J. Manion, Minister of Railways, to meet with the strikers. A truce was organized while eight representatives of the trekkers, led by Arthur Evans, travelled at government expense to Ottawa to meet with the prime minister. In the meantime, the federal government took over feeding the men, providing them three 20-cent meals per day. However, fearing an eventual showdown, the government sent RCMP officers from Ottawa and Montreal to reinforce the police presence in Regina.

Arthur Evans and seven colleagues arrived in the capital a day ahead of their meeting with R.B. Bennett. Wearing rough, workmen’s clothing with blue and white armbands with the words “On to Ottawa,” the strikers’ representatives were met at Union Station by officials of the National Unemployment Council of Canada and local unemployed men and women. Also there were representatives of the RCMP who escorted the trekkers to their rooms at the Keewatin Hotel on Sussex Street.

Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, Library and Archives Canada

On Saturday 22 June 1935 at 11:30am, Evans and company met with the prime minister and his cabinet. It was not a happy event. Evans was there to present demands not negotiate. Even if Evans was prepared to negotiate, Bennett was in no mood to compromise. Instead, the meeting quickly degenerated into a shouting match. The prime minister rejected all of the trekkers’ demands. He said that the camps were providing single men with better food, clothing and shelter than the average Canadian was enjoying. The 20 cents a day was a gratuity, not a wage, and the government could not afford more. There was no compulsion or military discipline, and the government would neither assist nor recognize “Soviet” committees. He added that the economic situation was improving, that the number of men in the camps was declining, with many getting jobs in government work projects. More ominously, he said that law and order would be maintained, saying to Evans: “You cannot take the government by the throat to work your sweet will and seek to overawe it: we will stamp out Communism with the help of the people.”  Bennett also pointed to Evans’s criminal record, including his jailing for embezzling union funds, and the fact that among the eight trekker representatives only Evans was Canadian-born.

For his part, Evans called Bennett a liar. He protested the blacklisting of members of workers’ committees so they were unable to obtain jobs elsewhere, and said the government was raising “a Red bogey.” He argued that he had been jailed for diverting funds to starving miners in Drumheller rather than sending the money to union fat cats in the United States. The delegation rejected Bennett’s classification of them as foreigners, noting that they weren’t considered foreigners in the last war. Saying that the government had breached the earlier truce by sending RCMP officers from Ottawa and Montreal to Regina, Evans concluded that there was nothing left to do other than return to Regina to inform the workers of Bennett’s attitude and continue their trek to Ottawa.

The Trekker Delegation, Ottawa Citizen, 22 June 1935

Following the B.C. delegation’s fruitless meeting, Bennett and his cabinet met a similar group of workers from Ontario and Quebec who made their own list of demands, one of which was the immediate granting of the B.C. workers demands. Additional demands included the complete cessation of immigration to Canada, and the elimination of forced labour and sweatshop labour. Reflecting the presence of Mrs. M. Richmond from Niagara Falls, the sole female delegate, they sought more aid to women and girls.

Bennett’s reaction was equally negative to these demands, which he either rejected outright, or said was outside of federal responsibility.

The next night, Evans and the other western delegates along with representatives of eastern groups addressed a mass meeting of unemployed at the Rialto Theatre on Bank Street. In front of a packed house, Evans admitted his membership in the Communist Party. He said that a national call for the “On-To-Ottawa Trek” would be issued by the Workers’ Unity League, the Relief Camp Workers’ Union, the National Unemployment Council and other labour organizations. He said the trek would continue, “irrespective of the RCMP and railway police in Regina.”

The eight-man BC delegation then returned to Regina, setting the stage for the inevitable confrontation that was to come on Dominion Day. At stops along the way, Evans challenged and frightened the government. At Sudbury, he said that “a bloodbath would follow any interference by the police with the marchers, and declared the streets of Regina would be red with blood should any clash occur. Even more frightening as far as the federal government was concerned, Evans said that soon 50,000 men would mass in Ottawa.

Even before the violent conclusion of the trek in Regina, public reaction was negative towards the Bennett government. Even Mayor McGeer of Vancouver, who had put down the Hudson Bay store invasion earlier that year and who had been called “the future Hitler of Canada” by Evans, was appalled. He said that Bennett’s “woefully tactless and undignified belligerent and intolerant attitude” would arouse labour strife and belligerent opposition to constitutional authority.

Three months after the suppression of the trek to Ottawa, R.B. Bennett’s Conservative government was crushed in a general election, ushering in the Liberals under William Lyon Mackenzie King. The Conservatives would not form a government for the next twenty-three years. Following a government inquiry into the Regina Riot, the relief camps were closed in June 1936.

Sources:

Atherton, Tony, 2017.“For We Are Coming”, Tales from the Chesterfield, 12 January.

BC Labour Heritage Centre, 2019. “So vividly I remember”, April 17.

Canada, 1935. In the Matter of the Commission on Relief Camps British Columbia,” (The MacDonald Report), Ottawa.

History Docs. 2001. “Who was to blame for the Regina riot?”

McConnell, William, 1971, “Some Comparisons of the Roosevelt and Bennett New Deals,” Osgoode Law School Journal, November, Volume 9. No. 2.

MacDowell, Laurel Sefton, 1995. “Relief Camp Workers in Ontario during the Great Depression in the 1930s,” Canadian Historical Review, LXXVI, 2.

Nanaimo Daily News, 1935. “Fifty Thousand To Mass In Ottawa Soon, Predict Evans, Communist Leader,” 25 June.

Ottawa Citizen, 1935. “On to Ottawa Trek,” 11 June.

——————, 1935. “1,000 Men May Leave Manitoba Capital on March to Ottawa,” 22 June.

——————, 1935. “Govt. Receiving Strikers Today; R.C.M.P. Depart,” 22 June.

——————, 1935. “Evans Paid Organizer of Workers’ League,” 24 June.

——————, 1935. “Striking Campers Urged To Refrain From Violent Acts,” 24 June.

——————, 1935. “Angry Exchanges As Demands Of Relief Strikers Rejected,” 24 June.

—————–, 1935. “Claims 30,000 Unemployed To Join In March,” 24 June.

—————–, 1935. “Says Situation On Unemployment Coming To Head,” 24 June.

—————–, 1935. “McGeer Assails Bennett Stand On Men’s Plea,” 24 June.

—————–, 1935. “Strikers Cry, ‘On to Ottawa’As Leaders Return,” 26 January.

Ottawa Journal, 1935. “Strikers Are Held In Camp By Mounties,” 2 July.

Snider, Michael, 2013. On to Ottawa Trek/Regina Riot, The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Stone, Gladys May, 1967. The Regina Riot: 1935, Thesis, University of Saskatchewan.

Waiser, Bill, 2016. “History Matters: Second Regina riot fatality covered up,” Saskatoon Star Phoenix, 5 July.

Riley’s Army

4 June 1922

The Great War ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. Roughly 619,000 Canadians served in the Canadian armed forces during the war, of which more than 54,000 died. Still more perished as members of the British armed services. A further 172,000 Canadians were injured. Officially, another 9,000 men suffered “shell shock”—today called post traumatic stress disorder. Unofficial estimates are far larger. Some historians believe that as many as ten to twelve percent of Canadian solders who served in the trenches of France suffered some form of mental illness owing to their war experiences.

This booklet told returning soldiers what to expect upon demobilization, Wartime Canada.ca

Despite the end of hostilities, returning servicemen faced a new type of struggle, this time with their own government and fellow citizens for jobs, pensions and recognition. Government propaganda had characterized the soldiers as stalwart heroes, fighting for King, Country and Democracy. They had also been promised good jobs on their return to a grateful country. A government pamphlet prepared for demobilizing soldiers read: “When you come back, we want to stand with you as comrades to contribute our united best to the strength, prosperity, goodness and greatness of our beloved land.” Canada would be a country “fit for heroes to live in.”  The reality was far different. Jobs were in short supply. Veterans, many of whom had voluntarily given up promising careers to fight in horrific conditions for their country, faced unemployment and poverty.

This is not to say the federal and provincial governments didn’t try to help. Hundreds of millions of dollars were poured into pensions and relief programs for returning veterans. In March 1918, the federal government established the Department for Soldiers’ Civil Re-establishment (DSCR) with a mandate to provide veterans with medical care, vocational and commercial education, employment assistance, advice, and pensions. The government also undertook an extensive inventory of jobs throughout the country in an effort to match returning solders to vacant jobs. Programs were established under which returning veterans eager to farm could receive up to 160 acres of Crown land and access to loans. A host of private agencies and organizations also provided assistance, including the Red Cross and the YMCA. As well, veteran organizations, such as the Great War Veterans Association (GWVA), provided support.

Despite these funds and a lot of good intentions, many returning veterans suffered. It didn’t help that the wind-down of military orders contributed to a decline in economic activity and a major economic recession in Canada just as service personnel were arriving home. While official numbers are scant, according to the GWVA Canada’s unemployment rate was as high as 25 per cent at the beginning of 1920. There were simply not enough jobs for all. Instead of being greeted as returning heroes, veterans found that their old jobs filled, with few new ones on offer. Businesses were reluctant to hire ex-servicemen with disabilities. Those men who did find employment were the most junior and hence the most likely to be laid off as companies downsized.

With private businesses unable or unwilling to provide employment, veterans turned to the government for additional assistance. However, with heavy war debts, the federal government’s ability to assist was constrained. There was also discontent about how government programs were being managed. Owing to prevailing social views on mental illness, “shell-shocked” veterans had difficulty in obtaining the pensions they deserved. Land settlement programs were poorly conceived and administered. The Crown lands used to re-settle veterans often had to be cleared before they could be farmed. Many settlers lacked the necessary skills. When agricultural prices fell, settlers found it difficult to service the loans they had taken out to buy equipment. To make matters worse, some of the land used to re-settle veterans was taken from indigenous peoples without their consent while few First Nations’ veterans received land grants due to discrimination. The Canadian government also dithered for years over the distribution of its share of “Canteen Funds”—the profits of army canteens established co-operatively by Commonwealth forces. Owing to mismanagement, little went to the men who had patronized the canteens.

Unemployed veterans assembling at Queen’s Park, Toronto, Regina Leader-Post, 12 May 1922.

Despite more than two dozen veteran organizations lobbying the government for veteran assistance, some ex-servicemen felt that their voices were not being heard. In early May 1922, a crowd of unemployed veterans assembled in Queen’s Park in Toronto to hear E.C. Macdonald speak of his plans for a march to Ottawa to lobby the newly-elected federal government of Mackenzie King for more financial aid and improved rehabilitation methods for ex-servicemen. He was warmly applauded.

Less than two weeks later, close to 300 men under command of “General” Macdonald left from College Street in Toronto, heading for the Kingston Road on the trek to the capital. The rear of the parade was commanded by Frank Riley, about whom we’ll hear more later. The marchers had been mostly under the care of the DSCR during the previous winter owing to their unemployment. With their allowances cut off earlier in the month, they were now desperate.

Leadership of the march on Ottawa, E.C. Macdonald is second from right, missing is Frank Riley, Regina Leader-Post, 12 May 1922.

Prior to their departure, deputations of unemployed veterans had raised provisions and money from prominent Toronto stores. The provisions were placed in two trucks that went in advance of the army. As the army’s resources were insufficient to sustain the men for the expected two-week long trek to Ottawa, “General” Macdonald hoped that communities along their route would help house and feed the trekkers.

Right from the start of the trek, there was dissention. “General” Burgoyne, who led ex-soldiers from Hamilton, pulled out of the march and returned home, complaining about the treatment given him by Toronto hikers. “General” Macdonald also expelled all hikers with “red” tendencies.

Despite these problems, the men left downtown Toronto, heading for Dumbarton on the first leg of their journey. The veterans, wearing their service medals, were divided into several companies with “General” Macdonald and two Union Jacks leading the way.

For the most part, the “General” was not disappointed with the trekkers’ reception along the route. Town after town put up the foot-weary men in local armouries, provided entertainment, usually a local military band, and gave them a hot meal. The mayor of Brockville actually sent a fleet of trucks to pick up the men in Mallorytown so they didn’t have to spend the night in the open air. Instead, the men dossed down in the town’s armoury, and were given breakfast before they set out for Prescott.

At this point, something happened. “General” Macdonald, who had spent three days in a Kingston hospital with fatigue, was driven to Prescott to attend a secret army meeting. Suspicious of spies, reporters were not allowed in. At the end of the discussions, Macdonald had been ousted as the head of the army. While he was permitted to continue on the trek in the ranks, the bemused and shocked Macdonald left, complaining that the hike had been his idea. “They’re just a rabble now and are being led by a Siin Feiner [Irish radical] and a Toronto “Red,” he said.

In his place had stepped Frank Riley. Little known until this point, Riley was interviewed by the press. Reportedly, while he talked a lot, he said little. He did reveal that he was a “north of Ireland man” and that he had a deep-seated grudge against the GWVA and its leadership who Riley saw as overpaid bureaucrats who did little to help unemployed veterans.

An Ottawa Journal journalist reported that Riley “modestly laid claim to being familiar with eight professions, including medicine and news reporting.” The clash between Macdonald and Riley was attributed to vanity. Each man was envious of the publicity given the other. Riley refused to discuss what happened though Macdonald later attributed his ouster to being too strict and autocratic with the men. A few days later, before the trekkers had reached Ottawa, Riley, accompanied by the army’s treasurer, made a quick overnight trip to Ottawa to seek Macdonald’s arrest for criminal libel for calling him a “Sein Feiner” and a “Red” and for taking $80 from the army’s treasury.

From that point on Frank Riley was the undisputed leader of the trekkers who became known as “Riley’s Army.”

Riley’s Army of 269 unemployed veterans reached Ottawa shortly before noon on Sunday, 4 June 1922 after spending two nights in Manotick. Three miles short of the city at the Hartwell Locks, the army was met by 36 Ottawa veterans. At the head of his men, “General” Riley paraded through the streets of Ottawa, arriving at the end of Preston Street at 10:00am standard time. The army marched through near-empty streets. Riley was unaware that Ottawa observed daylight savings time. With it being an hour later than he had expected, most Ottawa residents were in church. With a police car preceding the parade and another pulling up the rear, the men marched to Howick Hall at the Exhibition Grounds at Lansdowne Park, where Ottawa’s mayor, Frank Plant, had organized billets.  The mayor had also authorized meals for the veterans; something he did without the approval of City Council.

At Howick Hall, Mayor Plant congratulated the men, noting that he had heard only the best reports of their conduct throughout the trek. While it was not his place to comment on their grievances, he said that he would organize meetings between army representatives and the federal government.

That night, the trekkers dined in Howick Hall on veal, beef, lamb, pork, cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes and hot biscuits with pie, cake for dessert, accompanied by tea and coffee, courtesy of Mayor Plant.

The next morning, Riley’s Army marched from Lansdowne Park to Parliament Hill, where the men camped out on the west lawn. Riley and the rest of his twelve-member executive met with Prime Minister Mackenzie King and cabinet colleagues in the offices of James Murdock, the Minister of Labour. The meeting only lasted an hour. Riley presented the men’s demands, which included a medical re-examination of all returned soldiers, the elimination of the employment branch of the DSCR, an increased disability allowance, a $1.10 per day gratuity for every day a soldier had served in the army, the official recognition of his army as the veterans’ representative, and immediate action to relieve distress. He also denied rumours that he was a Bolshevik or a Sinn Feiner.

For his part, the Prime Minister said that the government was sympathetic to the plight of veterans but offered little in the way of additional assistance. He noted that the Minister of the Militia had lost a son in the war, and Dr. Béland, the minister in charge of the DSCR, had spent three years in a German prison. Riley was informed that the government had already spent $475 million so far on veterans in the form of pensions, medical treatment, education, land and relief.

After the meeting, Riley addressed his army and curious onlookers on the lawn of Parliament Hill. He told the men that the government had been evasive. For a while, things got tense with Riley saying that army should continue its siege of Parliament until the men got their way. However, after consultations with the army’s executive, Riley changed his mind. He ordered the veterans to return to Lansdowne Park from where they would hike back to Toronto to protest their treatment. J. S. Woodsworth, the outspoken MP of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, also addressed the army. He said that the army represented thousands of ex-soldiers throughout Canada. He warned that if the government didn’t listen to their grievances, there would be a reckoning. Woodsworth received a hearty cheer.

That evening, the Prime Minister, accompanied by James Murdock, the Minister of Labour, spoke briefly to Riley’s Army at Howick Hall. Again, no promises were made. However, Mackenzie King asked for the names and regimental numbers of all members of the army to ensure that the men received all the treatment they deserved.

Riley remained unsatisfied with the government’s response. He spurned the government’s offer of train transport back to Toronto, insisting that the men would trek back the way they came. However, after the men had assembled and had left the Hall at about 9:30pm, a downpour began. Wet and bedraggled, Riley reconsidered his stance. His army finally left by train in the following morning at a cost to the government of $1,883.25.

A few days later, Riley again addressed a crowd of unemployed veterans at Queen’s Park where he proposed a second trek to Ottawa. Even though only a couple hundred answered his call, far fewer than the 5,000 Riley had hoped for, off he went on a second trek just a week after the conclusion of the first. This time, the trekkers only got as far as West Hill, twelve miles from downtown Toronto, before stopping. A telegram from James Murdock promising jobs to the trekkers stopped them in their tracks. Men were told to make an application to the Toronto office of the DSCR. Whether they got the expected jobs is unknown.

News of Riley’s Army then disappeared from the nation’s newspapers. Relief for veterans was to bedevil the government for years to come. The Pension Act alone was modified sixteen times during the inter-war years. In 1930, Mackenzie King introduced the War Veterans’ Allowance Act. The issue of how the Canteen Funds would be disbursed was finally settled after years of wrangling. Interestingly, Riley’s suspicions regarding the GWVA and its management proved to be accurate. In 1925, it was revealed that an advance of Canteen Funds to the GWVA in 1921-1922 went to paying the salaries of the organization’s executives and to finance its newspaper. Nothing was spent on unemployment relief for veterans.

Sources:

Campbell, Lara, 2000. “‘We who have wallowed in the mud of Flanders,’: First World War Veterans, Unemployment and the Development of Social Welfare in Canada, 1929-1939,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, 2000, 11(1), 125-149.

Canada, Government of, 1919. Canada and Her Soldiers, St. Clement’s Press, London.

Canadian Museum of History, 2021. The Effects of Unemployment.

Canadian War Museum, 2021. The Cost of Canada’s War.

Gazette, 1922. “Riley’s Army Of Veterans Hiking Back To Toronto,” 6 June.

———, 1922. “Riley’s Men Are Promised Jobs,” 13 June.

Globe, 1922. “Unemployment on Increase In Canada,” 26 April.

——–, 1922. “Jobless Army Begins March Upon Ottawa,” 20 May.

——–, 1922. “Recruits Join Jobless Army,” 22 May.

——–, 1922. “Veteran Army At Prescott,” 31 May.

——–, 1922. “Hikers Hiking Home, Voicing Displeasure With Visit To ‘Hill,’” 6 June.

——–, 1922. “Left Ottawa in Rain,” 7 June.

——–, 1922. “Hikers Return to Toronto Ready to Make ‘Hike’ Again If Ultimatum Not Granted,” 7 June.

——–, 1922. “Jobless Army Halts On Its Second March At Words Of Premier,” 13 June.

Leader, 1922. “Men Who Would Lead The March To Ottawa,” 12 May.

———, 1922. “Riley And Army Accept Offer Of Train Ride,” 7 June.

Ottawa Citizen, 1922. “Expected to Reach Brockville Tonight,” 30 May.

——————, 1922. “Veterans Pushing On To Prescott,” 31 May.

——————, 1922. “Makes Charges Against Former Leader of Army,” 3 June.

——————, 1922. “‘General’ Riley And His Army Enter Capital,” 5 June.

——————, 1922. “Macdonald in Toronto,” 5 June.

——————, 1922. “Army of Unemployed Veterans Is Not Satisfied With Answer Given: Tense Scenes on Parliament Hill,” 5 June.

——————, 1922. “Riley and Men Spend Hours At Mercy Of Weather,” 6 June.

——————, 1922. “Asks 5,000 More To Hike To Ottawa,” 9 June.

Ottawa Journal, 1922. “Hamilton ‘General’ Quits,” 22 May.

—————–, 1922. “Hikers’ Army Now On Way To Spencerville,” 1 June.

Province, 1922. “Unemployed Veterans To March To Ottawa, Led by E.C. Macdonald,” 8 May.

Scotland, Jonathan, 2016. And the Men Returned: Canadian Veterans and the Aftermath of the Great War, University of Western Ontario.

Wartime Canada, 2021. Veterans Programs.

Lord Lansdowne’s Triumph

26 May 1887

The nineteenth century was a miserable time for Ireland and its people. The potato famine and British misrule led to widespread starvation, and massive emigration. Millions of Irish immigrants left for North America during the mid-1800s, of which almost 500,000 came to Canada, with most stopping at the quarantine station at Grosse Île in the St. Lawrence River near Quebec City. More than 5,000 would-be Irish immigrants are buried on that island, now the home of the Irish Memorial National Heritage Site. The influx of Irish settlers was so great that it had a big impact of Canada’s demographics. By 1871, roughly one-quarter of Canada’s population was of Irish descent.

5th Marchioness and Marquess of Lansdowne, Library and Archives Canada, 34449704.

Ireland’s pain didn’t stop with the end of the potato famine. Declining produce prices during the 1870s and 1880s led to a further wave of Irish emigration as tenant farmers, unable to pay their rents, were evicted from their homes, often forcibly with the help of the police and army. Irish nationalism began to exert itself, with growing agitation for Home Rule, under which Ireland would have its own Parliament. Some nationalists, such as the Fenians, wanted independence, and were willing to use violence to achieve that goal.

Part of Ireland’s problem was that few Irish farmers owned their land. In 1870, 97 per cent of Irish farmland was owned by absentee landlords, many of whom lived in England.  Their properties were managed by land agents, who had a reputation for avarice. In response to falling commodity prices, the British government in 1881 took steps to judicially lower rents by 20 per cent, lengthen tenant land leases, and provide aid for small Irish tenant farmers to buy their land. But the measures were insufficient. Produce prices continued to fall, and many tenant farmers were unable to pay even their reduced rents.

One might ask what this sorry tale has to do with Ottawa. The answer lies in the appointment of the 5th Marquess of Lansdowne as Canada’s Governor General in 1883. Lord Lansdowne was a very wealthy man with huge estates in England as well as in Kerry County and Queen’s County (today’s County Laois) in Ireland. He proved to be a competent and well-liked Governor General, active in promoting the sciences and charitable organizations. He was also an able diplomat, helping to settle a fishery dispute between Canada and the United States. A fluent French speaker, he was popular in Quebec. He also travelled widely, especially out West, and was sympathetic to the plight of the Indigenous peoples living there, including the Métis, and tried to improve their lot. The one black mark against him from today’s vantage point was his unwillingness to pardon Louis Riel in 1885 despite a plea for clemency from Queen Victoria. Civil war was not something he could countenance, however strong the provocation.

William O’Brian in 1917, Wikipedia

Given Lansdowne’s popularity, it came as something of a surprise to Canadians when William O’Brian, the fiery editor of the Irish nationalist newspaper United Ireland and member of the British Parliament, announced his intention of coming to Canada to denounce the governor general as a rapacious rake-renter—the term then used for a landlord who charged exorbitant rents. O’Brian claimed that Lansdowne was depopulating his Luggacurran (now spelt Luggacurren) estates in Queen’s County through his evictions. O’Brian said Lansdowne was “unjust, cruel and oppressive” and called him “the exterminator of 500 human beings.” His mission to Canada was to expose Lansdowne’s behaviour to Canadians and to oust him from his job as governor general. O’Brian added that he felt “assured that when the liberty-loving Canadians have heard the true account of Lord Lansdowne’s cruelty to the tenantry, they will not permit themselves to be governed by such a man.” He told the press that he wouldn’t be surprised if he were met with a warrant of arrest from the governor general once he arrived in Canada.

Even before O’Brian arrived in Canada, most Canadian newspapers across the political spectrum thought O’Brian’s trip was a mistake. Toronto’s Globe, which considered itself a friend of O’Brian, said it would do well if he turned around and went back to Ireland. The paper said that Canadians disapproved of attacks upon “the defenceless representative of the Crown,” who, given his position, was unable to respond to O’Brian’s accusations. Moreover, Lansdowne was not the ruler of Canada as O’Brian claimed, and didn’t have the power to arrest anyone. He was “simply a gentleman who represents Her Majesty,” and is “directed by his responsible constitutional advisers (i.e., the elected government).” Even American newspapers, typically pro-Irish, thought O’Brian’s trip was a mistake. The New York Times opined that O’Brian’s attempt at “showing up” Lord Lansdowne was a “tactical error.”

O’Brian arrived in New York after his cross-Atlantic trip on the Umbria in early May 1887, accompanied by Mr. Denis Kilbride, one of Lansdowne’s evicted tenants. They quickly took a train to Canada and began a series of anti-Lansdowne speeches in Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto, Kingston and Ottawa before returning to Ireland via Boston.

Many were apprehensive that O’Brian’s rhetoric would lead to unrest in Canada. The Ottawa Evening Journal likened O’Brian to “moral gunpowder” left lying around in quantities that might easily be set alight with the most serious results. The newspaper advised that O’Brian be allowed to come and go peacefully even though it felt that his attacks on the governor general were cowardly and totally unfair.

O’Brian’s speeches were very well attended, in large measure due to his prominence in the Irish nationalist movement. There was, however, trouble in Toronto where supporters and opponents squared off against each other. Rocks were thrown, and O’Brian was struck a glancing blow. An anti-O’Brian mob chanted “Pay your rent.” O’Brian blamed the unrest on Orangemen—Irish Protestants—who were put up to it, he alleged, by Lord Lansdowne who co-incidentally happened to be in the middle of a three-week visit to Toronto. O’Brian’s allegation, for which he offered no proof, riled Canadian newspapers still further. Subsequently, O’Brian faced another barrage of stones in Kingston.

O’Brian’s anti-Lansdowne speech in Ottawa, sandwiched between his visits to Toronto and Kingston, was fortunately marked by nothing worse than noisy demonstrations and counter-demonstrations. The event was held in the Roller Rink in front of 1,500 people. The stage was decorated with the Union Jack and the American Stars and Stripes. Banners with “Home Rule for Ireland” and “Cead Mile Failte [Hundred thousand welcomes] to Ireland’s Patriots” hung from the rafters. Pictures of the Irish nationalist politician Charles Stewart Parnell and the former British Prime Minister William Gladstone who favoured Irish Home Rule, were positioned on either side of the stage.

Triumphal Arch of Evergreens at Sparks and Elgin Streets. The top of the old city hall can just be seen behind the arch. 26 May, 1887, Library and Archives Canada, 3422099.

Despite their best efforts to discredit the Governor General in Ottawa and elsewhere, O’Brian and Kilbride failed badly. If anything, their speaking campaign backfired; Lord Lansdowne’s popularity soared. There were several reasons. First, the attacks were widely seen as unjust. Second, Lord Lansdowne was good at his job. The Ottawa Daily Citizen opined that he was “one of the most painstaking, carful and conscientious administrators Canada has ever known.” Third, the Fenian threat and the assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee were still fresh in the memories of many Canadians. O’Brian’s trip to Canada was seen as reviving grievances that were best left in Ireland.

In Ottawa, plans were put in place to welcome Lord and Lady Lansdowne on their return to the capital from their three-week trip to Toronto. A Citizens’ Committee organized the decoration of streets and a grand parade. As this was to be a citizens’ welcome, there was to be no military escort or parading societies which might dilute the civic emphasis or invite dissention. Mayor Stewart declared a half-day holiday for the event.

On 26 May 1887, Ottawa was en fête, its streets filled with people, many having arrived by carriage and train from outlying communities. The parade route was decorated with coloured banners, bunting and flags. A two-storey arch was built at the corner of Sparks and Elgin Streets out of evergreens. Somewhat oddly, high up on it was a moose head with immense antlers. Across the arch, two big banners saying “God Save the Queen” and “Welcome Lansdowne” were hung.

Lansdowne’s train puffed into the old Union Station in LeBreton Flats to the acclaim of some 6,000 people who had crowded in and around the station to greet the governor general. The vice-regal carriage was quickly uncoupled and pulled into a siding where Mayor Stewart in his robes of office, his wife, senators, MPs and members of the Citizens’ Committee, greeted Lord and Lady Lansdowne as they disembarked.

The vice-regal couple, along with Mayor Stewart and the chairman of the Citizens’ Committee, were driven off at the head of the parade in a “four-in-hand” carriage. Riding escort were 125 prominent members of the Ottawa community.  Musical accompaniment was provided by the band of the Governor General’s Foot Guards, the Hull Band, the St Anne’s Band and the Hazeldean Band.

The parade went from the train station along Queen Street West, past the Pump House which was decorated with a welcoming banner. When the vice-regal carriage came near, a fountain of water shot high in the air. The parade wended its way down Wellington Street, rounded the corner at Bank Street. At the Sparks Street intersection, the Governor-General’s carriage was unhitched, its horses replaced by fifty “young men of muscle” from the Rifle Club.

Massed children and others at Cartier Square to greet Lord and Lady Lansdowne, 26 May 1887, Library and Archives Canada, 3422097. This photo is misidentified in the Archives as being taken at Union Station in LeBreton Flats.

At Cartier Square, the couple was greeted by a crowd of about 20,000 people, of which 2,500 were children waving tiny Union Jacks. After an official greeting from Mayor Stewart, Lord Lansdowne replied. He remarked that he didn’t think his trip home merited such a welcome.  He had not “suppressed a rebellion or annexed a new province to the Dominion” but had rather spent three agreeable weeks in the provincial capital. Alluding to O’Brian, he said that since he had last been in Ottawa, Canada had been invaded. He understood that the invaders had hoped “to put to flight a certain high official,” but unless he misunderstood the occasion, “the people of Ottawa are not particularly anxious to get rid of [him] just at present.”

Following laughter and cheers, the parade resumed its way to Rideau Hall, the Rifle team pulling Lord Lansdowne’s carriage the entire way. At the bridge into New Edinburgh was another arch of evergreens with a banner welcoming the Governor General. Arriving at his home, Lansdowne thanked Ottawa citizens from the bottom of his heart.

Looking back at the event, the question remains of whether Lord Lansdowne was the rapacious rent-racker who evicted hundreds of poor tenant farmers as O’Brian charged.

Some five hundred people were indeed evicted for non-payment of rent. According to O’Brian, some were old and infirm. A new mother and baby were also apparently turned out.

However, Lansdowne didn’t have a reputation as being a harsh landlord. In England, 504 Wiltshire tenants sent a public letter of support for Lansdowne that was published in Dublin’s Irish Times. They said that they were greatly satisfied by their treatment, and that Lansdowne had not only reduced their rents, he had built cottages for labourers, and spent a considerable portion of the rents on improvements. Lansdowne’s tenants in Kerry County, Ireland had also reportedly received rent reductions on the order of 30 to 35 per cent in 1886.

The dispute with Lansdowne’s Queen’s County tenants was over the size of reduction they deserved. They wanted the same rent reduction that was accorded Lansdowne’s Kerry County tenants. Lansdowne’s land agent refused since the Queen County estates were far more productive. In order to force Lansdowne’s hand, a rent strike was organized. The strike failed, and the tenants were evicted.

One of the organizers of the rent strike was the same Denis Kilbride who had accompanied O’Brian on his Canadian tour. O’Brian’s case against Lansdowne was not helped when it came out that Kilbride was a man of considerable means rather than some destitute tenant who had eked out a living on a hardscrabble plot of land. His rented 868-acre estate even had a gate house. Kilbride also admitted that he could afford to pay the rent due, but chose not to. As well, many considered him to be a rack-renter himself as he sub-let land at large mark-ups to sub-tenants.

An account by a local teacher, now in the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin, written several decades after the evictions says that Lord Lansdowne had dealt fairly with his Luggacurren tenants. He had seen that they had “good slated houses” and had supplied them with free iron gates. “In fact the houses on the Estate were the best in Ireland.” But owing to the “Pay No Rent” policy started by Kilbride and others, the evictions took place. While some farmers subsequently paid their rents and returned, the majority did not.

Lord Lansdowne left Canada later that year to become the Viceroy of India, his reputation intact. In 1890, Lansdowne Park in Ottawa was named in his honour. He died in 1927. William O’Brian finally saw major Irish land reform in 1903 with the passage of the Wyndham Land Purchase Act which provided subsidized loans to farmers to buy land. By the 1920s, virtually all Irish farms were owned by their former tenants. Irish Home Rule finally arrived in 1920 when Ireland was partitioned. The southern portion became the Irish Free State in 1922. It became the Republic of Ireland in 1937. 

Sources:

Delaney, Mrs, 1938. “Luggacurren,” The Schools’ Collection, County Laois, Stradbally, (roll number 16576), National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin, https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4770050/4769332.

Globe, 1887. “Lord Lansdown and His Tenants Memorandum,” 11 March.

——–, 1887. “The Lansdowne Estate,” 7 April.

——–, 1887. “Lord Lansdowne’s Estates,” 14 April.

——–, 1887. “A Word with Mr. O’Brian,” 6 May.

——–, 1887. “The Irish Troubles: Lord Lansdowne’s Agents Defend Themselves,” 7 May.

——–, 1887. “Evolution of a Riot,” 20 May.

Glynn, Irial, 2012. “Irish Emigration History,” University College Cork, https://www.ucc.ie/en/emigre/history/.

Harris, Carolyn, 2019. “The Marquess of Lansdowne, Governor General of Canada,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, https://thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/henry-charles-keith-petty-fitzmaurice-5th-marquess-of-lansdowne.

Indianapolis Journal, 1887. “Editor O’Brian In Canada,” 12 May.

Kingston Whig, 1887. “The ‘Cause of Ireland’ Injured,” in Ottawa Evening Journal, 19 May.

Montreal Star, 1887. “Mr. O’Brian’s Victim,” in Ottawa Evening Journal, 4 May.

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1887. “O’Brian’s Visit,” 3 May.

————————–, 1887. “The Governor-General In Toronto,” 5 May.

————————–, 1887. “Mr. O’Brian And The Governor-General – Scandalous Attacks,” 19 May.

————————–, 1887. “Luggacurran,” 19 May.

————————–, 1887. “Cause And Effect,” 27 May.

————————–, 1887. The Address To His Excellency,” 27 May.

————————–, 1887. “The Reception To-Day And What It Means,” 26 May.

————————–, 1887. “The Address To His Excellency,” 27 May.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1887. “Coming To Canada,” 2 May.

——————————, 1887. “Thanks To Lord Lansdowne,” 4 May.

——————————, 1887. “Mr. O’Brian’s Coming,” 4 May.

——————————, 1887. “What Is Truth?” 6 May.

——————————, 1887. “Luggacurran,” 6 May.

——————————, 1887. “To-Morrow’s Public Meeting,” 11 May.

——————————, 1887. “His First Attack,” 12 May.

——————————, 1887. “Noise and Fighting,” 18 May.

——————————, 1887. “The Attack on Mr. O’Brian,” 19 May.

——————————, 1887. “O’Brian in Ottawa,” 20 May.

—————————–, 1887. “The Governor-General,” 26 May.

—————————–, 1887. “Welcome To Lansdowne,” 27 May.

——————————, 1887. “The Governor-General’s Supplementary Letter of Thanks,” 28 May.

——————————, 1887. “Yesterday’s Demonstration,” 28 May.

New York Times, 1887. “The Root of the Matter,” in Ottawa Evening Journal, 5 May.

San Francisco Examiner, 1887. “A Crusade!” 2 May.

Taaffe, Frank. 2015. “Luggacurran Evictions,” Eye on the Past, http://athyeyeonthepast.blogspot.com/search/label/Luggacurran%20evictions.

Wilson, David. 1989. “The Irish in Canada,” Canadian Historical Society, Booklet No. 12.