Saturday, June 05, 2010


Tomorrow, June 6, will be commemorated as the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the 'On To Ottawa Trek' in Vancouver BC (the trek actually began on June 3). At the height of the depression in 1935 unemployed men were housed in "relief camps" in remote areas of western Canada under the aegis of the Department of National Defence. In these camps workers laboured for 20 cents a day on public works, and the conditions were so atrocious that the Relief camp Workers' Union began a strike in April 1935 demanding such basic things as the provision of first aid equipment in the camps and the abolition of Section 98 of the Criminal Code that essentially made being unemployed a crime.

Eventually the strikers decided on travelling to Ottawa en masse to present their grievances to the federal government. This was known as the On To Ottawa Trek, and the hundreds who hopped freight trains in Vancouver to head east had swollen to three thousand after passing through various prairie cities by the time they reached Regina Saskatchewan on June 14. By this time the federal government had become a little nervous especially as the major population centres lay further east from this gathering throng. They invited 8 leaders to travel on to Ottawa to negotiate with the government providing the mass of the trekkers stayed in Regina.

While the protesters remained camped at the Regina Exhibition Grounds the 8 leaders met with Prime Minister R.B. Bennett on June 22. It didn't go well in Ottawa as the meeting degenerated into a shouting match before the 8 strike leaders were evicted from the premises. meanwhile back in Regina the government had chosen its battleground well as the city was the site of the major RCMP training grounds. Not only were the rail lines blocked to the trekkers but roads were also occupied by RCMP roadblocks determined to keep the protesters in Regina. Like most people in Regina to this very day the trekkers were desperate to get out of Regina (hey I used to live there).

The strike leaders arrived back in Regina on June 26. The protesters were essentially imprisoned in that city with no way forward and no way back, living in the open at the Exhibition Grounds. A public meeting was called for July 1 (then Dominion Day and now Canada Day) at the downtown site of what is now the Regina City Police Station. Only about 300 trekkers showed up, but they were supported by up to 2,000 local people. The meeting went peacefully enough until 8:17 pm when hidden squads of RCMP and Regina City Police came out of hiding and charged the crowd. The crowd fought back, and the battle continued for four hours in the downtown area. The police began using live ammunition. The final death toll was one plain clothes policeman and one striker. The striker died in hospital, and the hospital files were deliberately altered to conceal the cause of death, but this was later exposed. The police claimed 39 injuries in addition to their one death, but denied that they were responsible for the death of the striker.

In the aftermath the Exhibition Grounds were surrounded by police officers with machine guns, and a barbed wire stockade was erected around the area. The inmates of what had now become a prison camp were denied any food or water. The provincial government of Saskatchewan meanwhile was none too happy that the feds had chosen their capital city as the battleground. They invited strike leaders to negotiations. The negotiators were briefly arrested by the enraged police but released under pressure from the Province. Premier Gardiner sent a telegraph message to the federal government accusing the police of "precipitating a riot" while the Province had been negotiating with the strikers. In the end the Province got its way, and food was delivered to the strikers and arrangements were made to transport them back west free of charge to whatever destination they chose.

Meanwhile in Ottawa fantasy ruled supreme as the government claimed that the strikers rather than the police had opened fire. Prime Minister Bennett summed up the view of his Conservative government when he stated that the Trek was "not a mere uprising against law and order but a definite revolutionary effort on the part of a group of men to usurp authority and destroy government". It would be nice if this was true, but it wasn't. Because of their actions during the Trek- and for many other reasons of gross mismanagement and callousness during the depression- the federal Conservatives were reduced in the election later that year from 139 seats to a rump of 39, and the Liberals became the new government with a large contingent of the 'Progressive Party' from the west acting s allies on the left. The work camps were soon dismantled and replaced by seasonal camps operated by the provinces who paid more to the men.

For more on the On To Ottawa Trek and the Regina Riot see the website of the On To Ottawa Historical Society and the Wikipedia entry on this episode in Canadian history. Meanwhile from the National Union of Public and General Employees is the following item about how the beginning of the trek will be commemorated out in Vancouver.
Rally Sunday marks the famed ‘On to Ottawa Trek'
Thousands of young men rebelled in 1935 against Depression era relief camps and helped bring about a national unemployment insurance system.

Vancouver (9 June 2010) - Workers will mark one of the most important anniversaries in Canadian labour this Sunday in Vancouver - the 75th anniversary of the On to Ottawa Trek. The British Columbia Government and Service Employees' Union (BCGEU/NUPGE) is encouraging members to join in the celebration and commemoration.

The 1935 'On to Ottawa Trek'

A rally will be held at 1 p.m. in the city's Crab Park to raise awareness about modern-day poverty and to remember what happened to poor young workers 75 years ago. Crab Park is located at the north foot of Main Street where the trek began in 1935. The rally will feature speakers and the dedication of a plaque to mark the historic site.

Following the ceremony, a delegation will make a modern journey On to Ottawa to talk to the government about homelessness issues and the need for a national housing program.

The original trek began on June 3, 1935, when legions of young men, rebelling against poor working conditions and low wages in Depression era relief camps, boarded boxcars in Vancouver and headed for Ottawa to deliver an historic protest message to the federal government.

Hundreds of 'Trekkers' boarded Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) boxcars near the foot of Main Street and left the city. By the time they reached Regina, their numbers had swelled to more than 3,000.

Sadly, they were met in Regina by a wall of RCMP officers dispatched by R. B. Bennett, the unsympathetic Conservative prime minister of the day. The intervention prevented the Trekkers from continuing onto Ottawa. Only one of their leaders was permitted to travel on and meet with Bennett.

When the meeting proved fruitless, the remaining Trekkers in Regina rebelled on July 1 (then known as Dominion Day) in an uprising that was put down by arguably the most infamous and oppressive police riot in Canadian history.

But there was a price to pay for Bennett in his coldness and indifference to the plight of the working people. His Tory government was crushed in the next election, reduced from its 134-seat majority to a paltry 39 seats in the House of Commons,

The Liberal government that replaced the Conservatives then set about addressing many of the concerns raised by the Trekkers. Relief camps were abolished and the first steps were taken to set up what eventually became a national unemployment insurance system.

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