The Occupation of Carnegie Commemorated

Posted by Daniel on May 18, 2010 - 4 comments

Thanks to The Tyee website (here) for reminding me that today is the 75th anniversary of the occupation of Vancouver's Carnegie Library (pictured above in a 1902 photo by Phillip Timms; Vancouver Public Library 982) by a group of unemployed protestors during the Depression.

By the beginning of 1931 the jobless rate in BC was 27%, the highest in Canada, and Vancouver's streets were the scene of regular demonstrations in support of the poor and the unemployed. In mid-April a delegation of activists from across the country met with the prime minister, R.B. Bennett, in Ottawa to push for an unemployment insurance scheme. "Never," was the PM's response. Instead his government banned the Communist Party and began arresting its leaders. In the autumn, city crews broke up the so-called Hobo Jungles, camps for the homeless that had sprung up around town, under the pretext that they were promoting disease.

Later that year the first work camps opened. Unemployed men were put to work at menial jobs in return for room and board and a cash allowance that fell as low as 20 cents a day. BC opened 237 of these camps, which were eventually absorbed into the federal work camps which opened during the winter of 1932-33.

As the Depression deepened, the men in the camps grew restive. The work was pointless; the living conditions were spartan; the pay was an insult; the military-style discipline was offensive. The whole situation was justly compared to slave labour. During the winter of 1934-35 disgruntled men began to drift away from the camps down to Vancouver. Once again the streets filled with protest marches and the parks with demonstrations.

On May 18, 1935, seventy-five years ago today, a group of about 250 young men occupied the Carnegie Library at the corner of Hastings and Main. Like all the other protests, this one was meant to focus attention on the inadequacy of the government's unemployment policies. After eight hours the men left, having been promised some cash and told they would not be arrested.
The significance of the event is that it led a couple of weeks later to the beginning of the infamous On-To-Ottawa Trek when unemployed men boarded CPR freight trains and headed off to Ottawa to take their protest right into the prime minister's office.

At two o'clock this afternoon people at the Carnegie commemorated "The Sandstone Lady's" role in these tumultuous events. There is a good history of the Carnegie Library here.