Organized Labour Praises Conservative Prime Minister

3 September 1872

The notion that organized labour might celebrate a Conservative prime minister seems far-fetched. Think of Stephen Harper being feted by the Canadian Labour Congress. Doesn’t sound particularly likely. But something like that occurred in 1872 when Ottawa trades unions held a torchlit procession in honour of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, the leader of the Conservative Party.

Behind this incredible event was the growing trades’ union movement in Canada and their push for a nine-hour work-week. Typically, people laboured at least ten hours each day, including Saturdays. But, starting in Hamilton, and later spreading to Toronto, Montreal and other major cities, trade unionists in early 1872 took up the call for a shorter work-week. A major supporter of the movement was the Toronto Trades Assembly (TTA) which had been formed the previous year, consisting of fourteen unions, including the important Toronto Typographical Society.

At this time, union activity in Canada was essentially illegal, even though trade unions had been active in the country for at least forty years. Prior to 1872, Canadian law viewed any group of workers banding together to seek higher wages as a conspiracy to restrain trade. This was illegal under the Canadian criminal code.

March in support of the Nine-Hour Movement, Hamilton, Canadian Illustrated News, 8 June 1872.

In March 1872, the Toronto Typographical Society submitted a range of demands, including the introduction of a nine-hour work-day to the master printers, a.k.a. the Toronto newspapers, including The Globe, owned and edited by George Brown, the fiery journalist and Liberal politician. At the same time, the TTA organized a massive demonstration of more that 10,000 workers in support of the nine-hour work-day. This was to be a major test of the Nine-Hour Work-Day movement.

All but one newspaper rejected the demands, and the master printers retaliated. In The Globe, Brown wrote: “[I]t is impossible that an organized system from without can be allowed to be brought to bear on an establishment to coerce higher wages, or internal arrangements, contrary to the wishes of the proprietors.” Striking union members were fired, and fourteen leaders of the Toronto demonstration were charged for restraint of trade under the existing anti-union legislation. The judge’s preliminary ruling went against the strikers. He said that the facts disclosed by both parties were sufficient to establish guilt: workers had combined; the accused were members of the combination; and a strike had occurred. A second hearing was organized for early May 1872.

The very day set for the second hearing, Macdonald’s Conservative government introduced The Trades Unions’ Act, 1872. The bill, which was modelled after similar British legislation passed the previous year, provided that “the purpose of a trade union shall not, by reason merely they are in restraint of trade, be deemed to be unlawful so as to render any member of a union liable to criminal prosecution for conspiracy.” While giving with one hand, the Conservative government seemingly took with the other. It also introduced a second bill, An Act to Amend the Criminal Law relating to Violence, Threats and Molestation, that made picketing an offence.

In the House of Commons, Macdonald introduced the draft legislation, saying that “the English mechanic who came to this country, as well as the Canadian mechanic, was subject to penalties imposed by statutes that had been repealed in England, as opposed to the spirit of the liberty of the individual.” He added that the bill was the same in principle as the law in England and provided the same freedom of action and the same right to combine. He intimated that the issue of trade unions was under discussion in Britain and should the law be revised in that country, Canada would take similar steps. He also expressed concern that without parallel Canadian legislation, British workers would be deterred from emigrating to Canada.

At the second reading of the proposed legislation a month later, only one member of Parliament spoke against the bill, regretting the “late hour of submitting the bill,” just weeks before the end of that session of Parliament. Macdonald responded that there was nothing in the bill that “could do injustice to either employers or employees” and that a similar bill had passed without dissent in England as “the old law was too oppressive to be endorsed by free men.” He added that recent events in Toronto “had shown the necessity of adopting some amendment here.” Alexander Mackenzie, a senior Liberal Party member who later became prime minister, said he saw no reason for the objection.

The Trades Unions’ Act, 1872 as well as the amendment to the Criminal Code received Royal Assent on 14 June 1872, hours before the Governor General closed the fifth session of the first Parliament of the Dominion.

Organized labour was jubilant and showered Macdonald with praise, notwithstanding the amendment to the Criminal Code that made striking illegal. The fact that trades unions had been legitimized was sufficient. Ottawa trade unions organized a massive parade in honour of Sir John on his return from the western part of Ontario where workingmen in London, Hamilton and Toronto had already expressed their appreciation. Reportedly, it was the first political demonstration ever made by Ottawa labour.

After dusk on 3 September 1872, members of various trades unions in the capital along with the Fire Department marched to Macdonald’s home on Rideau Street where the Premier was escorted to a horse-drawn carriage. Also in the carriage were the Hon. Mr. Samuel Tilley, Minister of Customs, Joseph Currier, the Conservative member for Ottawa, Ottawa Mayor Martineau, as well as the Chairman of the unions’ welcoming committee, Mr. D. O’Donaghue.

The dignitaries were driven between two processional columns of uniformed Ottawa firemen bearing lit torches. A man holding the Union Jack led the parade, followed by the Band Brigade of the Garrison Artillery, the Stone Cutters’ Union and friends, the Typographical Union and friends, the Marshal (mounted), the Bricklayers’ and Masons’ Union and friends, the Plasterers’ Union and friends, the Carpenters’ Union and friends, Gowlan’s Band, and finally the carriages. Following the parade were an immense crowd of well wishers.

At roughly 9:00pm, Macdonald arrived at City Hall on Elgin Street. The crowd was called to order with the firemen standing in front of the building to provide light. O’Donaghue explained to the crowd why they had assembled in case anybody might still be unaware. He said that there previously had been a law that provided that no more than three men could combine together to form a trade union. This law prevented workingmen from telling employers the price they would be willing to sell their labour. “To say it was a great infamy to the workingmen was putting it very mildly,” he said. He noted the recent events in Toronto and praised Macdonald for giving workers equal rights and privileges to those enjoyed by workingmen in Britain. Looking at the assembled crowd, he added that he never knew that there were so many workingmen in Ottawa, and he looked forward to the day when workingmen could put a man of their own class in Parliament to represent them.

Another union man then read out a letter addressed to Macdonald expressing their gratitude and welcoming Sir John back to Ottawa.

Macdonald then stepped to the front to thank the members of the trade unions. He said “The unwise and oppressive action, pursued towards some of the workingmen of Toronto in causing them to be arrested as criminals, forced my attention on the necessity of immediately repealing laws altogether unsuited to and unworthy of this age, and opposed to the first principles of freedom.”

After Macdonald’s speech, many others stepped forward to say a few words. Samuel Tilly said that his first political speech made in 1848 was on behalf of a mechanic who was seeking to represent the men of St. John against a doctor and a lawyer. Joseph Currier, who was a prominent and wealthy lumberman as well as MP for Ottawa, claimed to have always been a workingman. Mr. Williams, the Secretary of the Trades Association of Toronto, said the demonstration indicated the gratitude felt by the workingmen of the Dominion for the services Macdonald had rendered them. Mayor Martineau followed with similar words in French.

The procession then reformed and escorted Sir John back to his residence.

Looking back at these events, many historians have cast doubt on how committed Macdonald was to the trade union movement. It was likely that he had ulterior motives. In a 1984 journal article that studied the 1872 trade union legislation, Mark Chartrand agreed that the growth of trade unionism in Canada had made a number of the statutes on the legal books “anachronistic and oppressive.” However, if it were Macdonald’s intention to remove shackles on the trade union movement, he argued that the 1872 changes “did little,” calling them “a virtually sterile concession to the trade union movement.” Other restrictive laws, including the amendment to the Criminal Code to ban picketing, remained in force. Consequently, while unions were legal, the means by which unions could achieve their purposes remained illegal. There were also provincial statutes. In Ontario, under the Master and Servant Act an employee could not refuse to go to work and had to obey the employer during the period of an employment contract on penalty of a fine or imprisonment. The act was often used to stop workers from organizing to obtain better working conditions. This act was not repealed until 1877.

Instead of bettering the lot of the working man, Macdonald was likely strongly influenced by the approaching election held after the parliamentary session ended in June 1872. The political winds were shifting against the Conservatives, so attracting the workingman’s vote was an astute political manoeuvre.

An even more compelling motivation for the legislation was to metaphorically stick his finger in the eye of his long-time political opponent, George Brown, the editor and owner of The Globe newspaper who was in the thick of the fight with the Toronto Typographical Society and its demand for a nine-hour work-day. Macdonald and Brown had been rivals for decades. The two had even fought over the location of the capital of Canada during the 1850s, with Macdonald calling Brown disloyal for not accepting Queen Victoria’s choice of Ottawa.

Regardless of his motivations and the minimal practical changes to Canadian trade union legislation, Macdonald gained the goodwill of workingmen. It might have been enough to tip the balance of the 1872 election in favour of the Conservative Party which retained power, albeit just—the first minority government.

Workingmen were less successful in achieving their aims. The printers’ strike in Toronto failed. The quest for nine-hour work-day was over—for now. According to the Hamilton Standard, The Globe had triumphed over its workers. The newspaper was now a non-union shop. In the opinion of the Hamilton newspaper, the printers’ strike had been ill-advised and had only led to considerable pecuniary losses.

While the Hamilton Standard may have been correct in a narrow sense, the printer’s strike marked an important step in the fight by organized labour in Canada for recognition, and their struggle for better wages and working conditions.

Sources:

Canadian Labour Congress, 2021. 1872: The fight for a shorter work-week.

Chartrand, Mark, 1984. “The First Canadian Trade Union Legislation: An Historical Perspective,” Public Law, 1 January.

The Globe, 1872. “Printers’ Strike,” 22 March.

————-, 1872. “The Printers’ Strike,” 26 March.

Hamilton Standard, 1872. As reported in The Globe under “Canada,” 15 June.

House of Commons Debates, 1872. Fifth Session, First Parliament, 7 May.

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1872. “No title,” 15 May.

————————–, 1872. “The Premier, Grand Ovation by the Workmen,” 4 September.

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.

The Eddy Lock-Out

11 January 1904

The great fire of 1900, which gutted most of Hull and LeBreton Flats in Ottawa, destroyed much of E.B. Eddy’s paper works located near the Chaudière Falls. However, within six months of the disaster, the eponymous E.B. Eddy Company was back in operation thanks in no small measure to the iron determination of its owner.

Ezra Butler Eddy was a man of many parts—a self-made entrepreneur, philanthropist, politician and church-going Presbyterian. By the early 1900s, his firm employed more than 2,000 people in his pulp, paper, and match empire. His paper and fibre products were sold across the Dominion. He owned exclusive cutting privileges to more than 1,000 square miles of timber land in the region. At various times, he was mayor of the City of Hull, and member of the Quebec legislature for the county of Ottawa. In other words, he was a powerful man.

He was also as hard as nails. He had to be to get to where he was in the rough and tumble lumber business. He ran his company accordingly. By his lights, he was a fair man, giving employment to the people of the region and paying competitive wages. His company was an “open shop,” hiring union and non-union men to run the paper-making machines. Eddy said he had nothing against unions. He was probably telling the truth, being a proud, honorary member of the Ottawa Bricklayers’ Union, an accolade he received after the great fire.

Ezra Butler Eddy, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, 3468801.

In addition to E.B. Eddy’s iron will, the quick recovery of his factories after the 1900 fire was also due to the hard work of his employees. They laboured long hours, longer than they had prior to the fire. The mills were in operation from Monday morning at 7:00 am to Sunday morning at 5.30 am. There were only two shifts. The day shift ran 78 hours per week, the night shift 65 hours. The men alternated shifts, sharing the difference in hours. On average, the men worked approximately twelve hours per working day, six days out of seven. There was no break for meals. By June 1901, the men had had enough. They wanted shorter hours with the same pay. Eddy refused, claiming losses sustained in the fire as the reason. The issue of shorter hours was put on the backburner.

About this time, the International Brotherhood of Papermakers set about organizing the Eddy workers. In 1902, the local branch of the union asked for shorter hours for Eddy’s papermakers. Again, the company said no since it would mean the loss of 50-60 tons of paper per week. Mr. Eddy also claimed that his company was already paying its employees the “highest wages going.” However, after lengthy negotiations, the company agreed to give shorter hours a “fair trial,” staring in January 1903. On average, the workers would work eleven hours per day for the same pay. The mills would close at 5.30 pm on Saturday. There was a catch however. According to Mr. Eddy, workers would have to become more productive, offsetting the lost production owing to the shorter hours. The workers said they would try their utmost to do so.

Initially, all seemed to go well. During the summer of 1903, Eddy appeared satisfied with his employees’ effort. But then things began to sour. A demand by workers for a pay increase was rejected. Instead, Eddy informed them that unless production increased during the remainder of the year, the short-hour system would be discontinued.

James Scully, President of the Hull Lodge of the International Brotherhood of Papermakers, Ottawa Journal, 13 January 1904.

At the beginning of January 1904, paper mill superintendents gathered their men and read them the bad news which was contained in a circular to all employees. The circular claimed that average daily output through the previous year had been neither what the workers had promised, nor what the company had expected. Consequently, the hours of employment would henceforth run from Monday, starting at 6.30 am, until midnight Saturday.

There had been no consultation or discussion with the union, or mill workers at large. With only two shifts, this change increased the average work week by roughly thirty minutes to 11 ½ hours. Eddy also urged papermakers to “try in every way to bring it [output] up to what it should be for the wages paid, the class of machinery installed and the facilities we have.” Wages for men in the plant ranged from $1.25 per day to $3.25 per day. Most were at the lower end of the scale. In contrast, top corporate officials were well compensated, with at least one earning $10,000 per year.

Members of the union, Hull Lodge No. 35 of the International Brotherhood of Papermakers, met to discuss Eddy’s statement. The union members said that despite the shift to shorter hours a year earlier, they were still working eleven hours per day while other trades were working ten hours or even eight to nine hours. Consequently, they could not comply with Eddy’s order to work still longer hours. They recommended that the company move to a three-shift system which would permit the paper-making machines to be used more intensively, but at the same time would allow for a shorter work week. The union also noted that seven other Canadian paper mills had introduced the shorter-hour system without reducing wages.

Eddy refused. He replied that the only way his company would return to the shorter hours would be if the men took a proportional reduction in wages. He added that the company had considered the matter fully, and that it was in the best interest of the employees to increase the number of hours worked rather than cut wages. That Saturday afternoon, the company issued an ultimatum. If the paper workers didn’t obey the order, they should consider themselves “discharged.”

The papermakers downed tools as usual at 5.30 pm, ignoring the order to work to midnight.

The next day, at High Mass at Notre Dame de Grâce in Hull, Rev. Father Duhau urged the men to return to work. He argued that prolonged idleness would entail suffering for families in the middle of winter. The Church would not support the men’s demand for shorter working hours.

On Monday, 11 January 1904, men reporting for work found they were out of a job. They were greeted by notices posted in both English and French saying that the company would accept applications from its “late employees” for re-engagement until the following Saturday. After that, it would proceed to fill all vacancies with other workers. The men had effectively been locked-out.

None of the union paper workers applied to be re-hired. Instead, they began to meet daily to discuss events, play cards, and smoke in a local hall. The men were enjoying the first real leisure that had had for years. A dance was organized for the workers at the Hull City Hall.

More than four hundred papermakers were affected by the lockout. A further one hundred other workers—teamsters, shippers, and finishers—were laid off. Women joined the labour fight. Miss Tottie Mullin, and Miss Dora Simon, both veteran employees of the finishing room of the paper mill who had been laid off, joined the union.

While attention focused on the men who were locked out, women too featured in the fight for shorter hours of work at the E.B. Eddy Company’s paper mill, 14 January, 1904.

The company’s deadline for re-hiring the paper workers passed without any of the union workers applying for their old jobs despite the Church again urging them to return to work under Eddy’s terms. Rev. Father Fréchette of Notre Dame de Grâce said that if farmers could work thirteen hours a day, he couldn’t see why the papermakers couldn’t do the same. The union said the conditions in the mills were not analogous to those in the fields.

A delegation of workers went to discuss matters with Mr. Eddy in person. The conversation was polite but terse. Eddy had a stenographer record the meeting verbatim. Eddy said that the men had the perfect right to chose not to work and leave his employ. At the same time, he had the right to run his business the way he wanted. Nobody, not even the Governor General, would dare to interfere, he said. He subsequently denied that he was fighting the union, saying that he was instead fighting for freedom.

You would think that there would be a lot of hard feelings towards Eddy within the community. Surprisingly, several wives of locked out workers told an Ottawa Citizen journalist that the E.B. Eddy Company was the finest in Canada. While they “kick against the extra hours of work and no pay with it, we haven’t a word but kindness to say of him.”

There were, however, complaints about working conditions in the mills. One woman commented that papermakers don’t live long at the mills. “I’ve never seen an old man there.” Workers were also liable to be hurt or maimed for life “if they are caught in the clippers.” Recall, this was long before workman’s compensation. Another complained that the men had to eat while working the machines. “They just spread the food out where they can reach it.” The mills were also so hot that men had to strip down to “no more than the law calls for.” While Eddy thought the men were well compensated, wives complained that men with big families couldn’t afford to send their children to school. The monthly fee of 20 cents per month per child for books was simply more than they could afford. Consequently, kids as young as thirteen had to go to work for less than a dollar a day.

The labour dispute went on for months. After the third week, the union began paying benefits to the locked-out workers–$3 per week to unmarried men, and $5 per week to married men. The union kept order so that the men didn’t hang around street corners or caused any disruption. There was no picketing.

A circular was sent out by James Scully, the president of the Hull branch of the papermakers’ union, and Harry Smith, the union’s secretary, seeking the support of organized labour. This public letter, which was published in the Ottawa Journal, was endorsed by P.M. Draper and C.S.O. Boudreault, the president and secretary, respectively, of the Allied Trades and Labour Council of Ottawa. Its authors wrote that Eddy had “without any regard for the severity of a bitter Canadian winter turned out his employees to suffer, or to die.”  They also claimed that the attitude of Eddy had “opened the eyes of all, that certain capitalists take no concern in the material interests of their employees, but seek one and only one thing, their own wealth and the satisfaction of a greed for money.”

Eddy did not take this lying down. He quickly filed a $50,000 law suit for libel against the four signatories of the letter. He also demanded an immediate apology from the Ottawa Journal.  The next day, the newspaper complied. While voicing its continued support for the papermakers, the newspaper said that the circular contained a number of false statements which discredited the union. The newspaper offered an abject apology to the company and in particular to Mr. Eddy. The Ottawa Citizen exulted that its competitor had to eat “a generous sized dish of crow.”

Using six non-union workers, Eddy got one of his great paper-making machines working within just a couple of days of the start of the lock-out. Within a few weeks, all seven of its machines were up and running. By mid February 1904, sufficient paper was being produced that Eddy could meet all his contracts.

Many of the company’s former employees drifted away, some to the shanties in the woods cutting timber. In late April 1904, the Hull Lodge, No. 35 of the International Brotherhood of Papermakers threw in the towel. A resolution of its members, signed by James Scully and Harry Smith, said that the fight for shorter work hours had been discontinued. Moreover, they asked that “any hard feeling that may have arisen through this trouble be allowed to drop and the same cordial relations shall exist between your company and your former employees, that existed previous to this trouble.”

It would appear that Eddy subsequently dropped his $50,000 libel suit against Scully, Smith and the leaders of the Allied Trades and Labour Council. Eddy died in early 1906 at the age of seventy-eight.

In June 1913, nine years after the lock-out, the E.B. Eddy Company announced that the two-shift system of eleven and thirteen hours used in its book paper division would be discontinued in favour of three eight-hour shifts. The three-shift system had been adopted a few months earlier for newsprint makers. The company said that it wanted to improve the working conditions of its employees. The three-shift system was exactly what the papermakers had recommended in 1904.

Sources:

Manitoba Free Press, 1904. “Work at Eddy Mill,” 15 January.

Ottawa Citizen, 1904. “Eddy Mills Lock Out,” 11 January.

——————, 1904. “Dramatic Interview With the Employes (sic),” 20 January.

——————, 1904. “Eddy Paper Makers’ Strike,” 25 January.

——————, 1904. “Severe on Mr. Eddy,” 25 January.

——————, 1904. “Writ For Damages,” 8 February.

——————, 1904. “The Hull Strike,” 16 February.

——————, 1904. “On The Timber Limits,” 22 February.

——————, 1913. “Gets Three-Eight-Hour Shifts,” 29 May.

Ottawa Journal, 1904. “Lockout At The Big Eddy Paper Mills,” 11 January.

——————-, 1904. “Ultimatum To Paper-Makers,” 13 January.

——————-, 1904. “The Eddy Company Start One Machine,” 14 January.

——————-, 1904. “Men Did Not Heed The Company’s Ultimatum,” 18 January.

——————-, 1904. “Still For Open Shop,” 19 January.

——————-, 1904. “Eddy Strike Not Settled,” 21 January.

——————-, 1904. “An Appeal For Assistance,” 1 February.

——————-, 1904. “The Eddy Strike,” 3 February.

Vancouver Daily World, 1904. “Eddy Will Sue Labor Leaders,” 6 February.

Strike! En Grève!

14 September 1891

For the majority of people in Canada during the nineteenth century, life was hard. If you managed to avoid the myriad of killer diseases that prematurely snuffed out the lives of many, you could look forward to long hours of backbreaking work, regardless of whether you lived on a farm, or in one of Canada’s growing urban centres, such as Ottawa. In the sawmills and lumber yards of the Chaudière, the typical work day started at 6am and finished at 6pm, with an hour off for dinner; often people were forced to work much longer. Sunday was the only day of rest. Wages were low. According to an 1886 Royal Commission, domestic servants earned $6-8 per month, with room and board. Adult male workers at John R. Booth or Erskine Bronson’s sawmills brought home $1.00-1.50 per day, while women doing piece work in Ezra B. Eddy’s match factory in Hull could look forward to the munificent income of $0.35-0.75 per day. Boys and girls earned a pittance. Fortunately, prices were much lower than today. Very roughly, a weekly wage of $7.00-$9.00 might be equivalent to $150-200 per week today. But work was often seasonal; the sawmills and lumberyards of the Chaudière closed during the winter.

Working conditions were also poor. Accidents on the job maimed or killed many each year at a time when there was no workmen’s compensation. If you couldn’t work, you weren’t paid. Match workers, usually women or girls called allumettières, faced the horrible prospect of contracting phossy jaw, the colloquial term for phosphorus necrosis, through their exposure to white phosphorus used to make match heads. Phossy jaw caused terrible jaw abscesses, organ failure, brain damage, and, ultimately, death. Respiratory disease was rampant among lumber workers who laboured in poorly-ventilated, dusty sawmills. Sawdust, dumped into the Ottawa River, polluted the water on which residents relied. In the cramped, unhygienic, wooden shanties constructed on LeBreton Flats and in Hull close to the Chaudière mills and lumberyards, typhoid and other waterborne diseases flourished.

Emblem of the Knights of Labor
Emblem of the Knights of Labor

In the late nineteenth century, mutual aid societies, co-operatives, and unions emerged with the objective of improving the lives of working people, a development encouraged by the passage of the Trade Unions Act of 1872 by the government of John A. Macdonald; hitherto, union activity had been viewed as illegal conspiracy. Early unions active in Ottawa included the Canadian Labour Protective Association (1872) and the Canadian Labour Union (1873). Also prominent were the Knights of Labor, an American union and political movement that had begun in 1869 as a secret society. Although the movement had its dark side in the United States, where it was involved in anti-Chinese riots in the west, it was progressive in other respects, supporting gender equality, and equal pay for equal work. It also welcomed black members, though it condoned segregation in the U.S. south. By the 1880s, it had hundreds of thousands of members, and had opened branch assemblies in Canada, including in Ottawa and Hull, despite opposition from the Catholic Church.

The Knights of Labor were prominent in the great Chaudière strike that began on 14 September 1891. For the next month, lumbermen and sawmill workers staged an impromptu and illegal labour walk-out over a pay cut unilaterally imposed by the lumber barons. The strikers also wanted a reduction in their long working hours. While strikes were legal back in those days, six months’ notice had to be provided to management. Napoléon Pagé, a journalist who had started the Hull assembly of the Knights known as the Canadienne, was a prominent strike leader, though the Knights of Labor never endorsed the strike given the legal requirements to call a walk-out; they officially favoured arbitration. Nonetheless, Pagé’s newspaper, Le Spectateur, became the voice of the striking workers. Also prominent among the leadership of the mill and lumber workers was J. W. Patterson, head of the Ottawa Trades and Labour Council, and Napoléon Fateux (or Fauteux). Fateux, a mill worker, was a particularly effective leader, counselling restraint and peaceful assembly. He warned against mixing strike activity with alcohol, and urged older workers to curb young hotheads.

1891 was a bad year for the Canadian lumber industry. Important markets in Britain and South America were weak owing to a global economic recession; the previous year, an international financial crisis had erupted when Baring Brothers, an important British banking house with a global reach, almost collapsed owing to huge losses on its investments in Argentina. The company was famously rescued by the Bank of England.  In response to weak demand and low lumber prices, the Chaudière lumber barons cut the weekly wages of sawmill workers by 50 cents. They also failed to live up to an earlier promise to reduce the work week to ten hours. When George Pattee refused a demand from workers at the Pearly & Pattee Lumber Company to restore the 1890 wage rate, on the grounds that he was only following the policy set by the lumber industry, his workers struck. Quickly, workers at other sawmills and lumberyards downed tools. At its greatest extent, some 4,000 workers had walked off the job—a huge proportion of Ottawa-Hull’s population, which perhaps totalled 50,000 at that time. Large public meetings were held in both Hull and Ottawa, attracting many thousands of people.

The strike was marred by violence and intimidation on both sides. On 15 September, more than two thousand workers marched from the wharf opposite the Booth mill in Ottawa across the Union Bridge to the Eddy match factory. There, the strikers confronted Ezra Eddy himself and other managers. A man, identified by the sobriquet “Red Moustache” violently kicked Eddy in the stomach before the mob dispersed. Later that same day, C.B. Wright, a sawmill owner, told a delegation of strikers that he was prepared to defend his mills “at the rifle muzzle if necessary.” Subsequently, Mr. Ruggles Wright fired blank rifle shots at workers in an attempt to intimidate them. In the ensuing affray, C.B. Wright was injured. There was more violence at the Mason family mill, where the father was roughed up, and his two sons, William and George, were cut by thrown stones.

Ezra Butler Eddy, 1827-1906, Owner of E.B. Eddy Company and sometime Mayor of Hull, Quebec
Ezra Butler Eddy, 1827-1906, Owner of E.B. Eddy Company and sometime Mayor of Hull, Quebec, Library and Archives Canada, PA25792

Ezra Eddy, who was also the mayor of Hull, persuaded two justices of the peace to call out the militia. Two companies of the Governor General’s Foot Guards and two companies of the 43rd Battalion were called up to report to the Drill Hall at 5am on 16 September. The part-time troops, who were mostly civil servants, were armed with bayonets and live ammunition, though their commander, Lt-Col. Anderson, warned them not to take offensive measures without the command of their officers. The soldiers marched from the Drill Hall to Eddy’s in Hull, where two companies were deployed to avert trouble; the remaining two companies were stationed at the Hurdman sawmill. Fortunately, nothing happened. The strikers remained peaceful, and the soldiers were quickly demobilized after a workers’ delegation, which included Napoléon Fateux and J. W. Patterson, convinced Ezra Eddy that the troublemakers were not mill men, but outsiders. The workers’ delegation also promised to assign men to protect private property.

This was not the end of the violence, however. At the end of the month, there was a serious clash at the Perely & Pattee Company when strikers attempted to stop lumber shipments leaving the mill. Chief McVeity of the Ottawa police force and his men responded with batons “in a lively style,” according to The Ottawa Evening Journal. Striking workmen responded by throwing stones and sticks. Serious injuries were averted by the timely arrival of Napoléon Fateux who succeeded in restoring peace. The ferocity of the police response led public opinion, which already broadly supported the strikers, to swing even more in their favour.

Church, civic groups, small merchants, and individuals contributed money and goods to help families of the strikers. At the peak, more than 200 families were being helped daily. Special shops for strikers were established in Place du Portage in Hull and in LeBreton Flats. Strike relief funds were also provided by other unions, both in the Ottawa area and outside, though the amounts raised were small.

By early October, cracks in the owners’ façade were beginning to show, especially after an attempt to use scab labour brought in from Pointe Gatineau failed when striking workers persuaded strike breakers to desist. As one brought-in worker explained, it was “better to stop work and live a little longer.” On 3 October, work resumed at the Hurdman mill in Hull. While the owners had not budged on pay, they instituted a ten-hour work day.

But the workers were also at the end of their tether. On 12 October, more than 1,100 men returned to work on the old terms; that is to say, no raise and no ten-hour day. More followed. As the Journal put it, “men were, with scarcely an exception, heartily weary of hanging around doing nothing, with empty pockets, on the threshold of winter.” Although most mill owners had provided no concessions, rumours of change were rife. The following day, Perely & Pattee reversed the 50 cent reduction on the face-saving grounds that the men had returned to work of their own free will. The other lumber companies quickly followed suit.

By the time the strike ended, at least 1,000 experienced millworkers and lumbermen, short of money, had left Ottawa-Hull. Some 600 went to the Saginaw region in Michigan, which had its own lumber industry. Consequently, the Chaudière lumber companies had difficulty in quickly restoring full operations. With the balance of power shifting towards the workers, the ten-hour work week was finally implemented in 1895.

Sources:

Kealy, Gregory S. 1995. Workers and Canadian History, Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Martin, Michael, 2006. Working Class Culture and the Development of Hull, Quebec, 1800-1929, http://web.ncf.ca/fn871/Media/Docs/Book1/Book1_WorkingClassCulture.pdf.

Morton, Desmond, 1998. Working People: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Labour Movement, Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

The Ottawa Evening Journal, 1891. “Violence,” 15 September.

————————, 1891. “Strikers’ Meeting,” 15 September.

————————, 1891. “The Strike,” 16 September.

————————, 1891. “Nothing Done,” 17 September.

————————, 1891. “Hard Knock,” 30 September.

————————, 1891. “Work Stopped,” 1 October.

————————, 1891. “Buzzing Again,” 12 October.

————————, 1891. “”Back to Work,” 13 October.

————————, 1891. “50 Cents More,” 13 October.

National Capital Commission, 2013. “Donalda Charron and the E.B. Eddy Match Company: Working Conditions,” Virtualmuseum.ca, http://www.virtualmuseum.ca.

Images: Knights of Labor, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knights_of_Labor.

B. Eddy, Library and Archives Canada, PA25792, http://freemasonry.bcy.ca/biography/eddy_e/eddy_e.html.