Famous Depression-Era Protest Commemorated

Posted by Daniel on Jun 4, 2010 - 5 comments

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the 75th anniversary of the occupation of Carnegie Library in downtown Vancouver by unemployed protestors in 1935. That event led to the organization of the On-To-Ottawa Trek, the largest protest against government inaction during the Depression. The trek is going to be commemorated this Sunday, June 6, at a meeting in Crab Park, starting at 1 p.m. when a plaque will be unveiled.

The men who took part in the trek were for the most part refugees from the work camps set up by the federal government as a response to the problem of unemployment during the Dirty Thirties. Conditions in the camps were woeful and early in 1935 many of the men went on strike and descended on Vancouver to make their case.

When the government refused to act, protest organizers decided to take their fight to Ottawa. On June 3, seventy-five years ago this week, about 1,000 men gathered at the railyards and climbed atop the boxcars of a freight train bound for Eastern Canada. A crowd of 2,000 well-wishers was there to see them off. Another group set off the next day.

Trekkers paused in Kamloops and Golden where more protestors joined them. The train reached Calgary on June 7 where a tag day raised $1,300, plus ample donations of food and clothing. Then it was on to Medicine Hat, Swift Current and finally Regina on June 14.

In Regina, authorities halted the trek. Prime Minister R.B. Bennett did not want thousands of angry protestors arriving in Ottawa and embarrassing his government. Following negotiations with Bennett's emissaries, a delegation of eight trekkers went on ahead to Ottawa to meet with the prime minister. But Bennett had no intention of accepting any of the protestors' demands and the meeting ended in insult and inaction.

Back in Regina, trekkers were caught in a police blockade, threatened with internment. On July 1 a rally of support was held in downtown Regina. Police moved in, provoking a riot that led to the death of one officer and the arrest of 120 people. It was the end of the Trek.

The following year the government admitted the relief camps were a mistake and closed them. For a full history of the On-To-Ottawa Trek, visit here.