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.

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