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.

2 thoughts on “Riley’s Army

  1. Thank you for this piece of Canadian history. Your article is interesting and fact filled.
    It’s very much appreciated.

    Like

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