History

Maclean's and the 20th century

Looking back at Canada in the 1930s in a continuing series marking the magazine’s 90th-anniversary year

DAVID NORTH April 17 1995
History

Maclean's and the 20th century

Looking back at Canada in the 1930s in a continuing series marking the magazine’s 90th-anniversary year

DAVID NORTH April 17 1995

Maclean's and the 20th century

History

Looking back at Canada in the 1930s in a continuing series marking the magazine’s 90th-anniversary year

Unemployment and drought scarred the 1930s—a decade that would end in the flames of the Second World War. The economic debacle that became known as the Great Depression began in October, 1929, when the New York and Toronto stock exchanges collapsed. The ensuing bankruptcies cost thousands of Canadians their jobs and, at its worst in 1933, when the population of the country stood at 10.5 million, the unemployment rate reached 26.6 per cent, or 671,000 people. The workers who were still employed suffered crippling pay cuts, with average wages falling as much as 50 per cent. The hardships of that decade scarred a generation. In the words of historians John Herd Thompson and Allen Seager, millions “stared into the cold, grey face of disaster and would never forget the evil they saw there. They remembered animals dying in the fields for want of food, and children’s bodies twisted and malformed for want of vitamins.

They remembered Canadians rioting in the streets for bread, and other Canadians clubbing them over the head to make them stop.”

The Depression was at its cruellest on the Prairies where nine years of drought, dust storms and grasshopper plagues added to the misery. During that period, 100,000 people left the three Prairie provinces, more as the landscape became a desert punctuated by abandoned buildings and half-submerged fences. Hotels, railway stations, general stores, even schools and churches closed as communities withered. Many families came close to starvation and, in winter, children shivered in clothes made of grain sacks. In the April, 1932, edition of Maclean’s, writer W. J. Mather described the scene that confronted him in Saskatchewan, where hundreds of people had turned their backs on their farms, and headed north out of the dust bowl to once again undertake the back-breaking task of clearing the virgin bush. “It was not an adventure in pioneering of spirited youth,” wrote Mather. “But a pilgrimage of the middle-aged, beaten once but trying again.”

Through individual case histories, Maclean’s also detailed the lot of Canadians rejected by the system. In 1932, in an article entitled The Jobless White-Collar Woman, an anonymous writer described how, her savings exhausted, she had been reduced to begging for money and living off YWCA meal tickets. And in 1933, Arthur Lendrum of Toronto, who had struggled to keep his small company going for two years, told Maclean’s how he applied for relief after creditors had seized his house. When he finally made his way to collect his fuel and milk coupons, he learned as he walked “how a dog feels when he puts his tail between his legs and slinks.”

In mid-1933, Maclean’s reported that half that year’s university graduating class of 4,000 were unlikely to find work. That November, the magazine started a department, Youth Tells, in which a succession of young people recorded their heartbreak and bitterness. One of them, Winnipeg science graduate William Trott, commented sarcastically on Prime Minister R. B. Bennett’s assertion that a “golden opportunity” beckoned the nation’s youth. One of the most promising openings for a graduate engineer, Trott said sarcastically, was selling women’s hose.

During that cruel decade, bloody food riots erupted in many of the nation’s cities, and at the Kingston Penitentiary jailers shot at Communist Party of Canada secretary Tim Buck in his cell. Maclean’s printed lengthy extracts from the House of Hate, a book written by another inmate, Austin Campbell, which documented the appalling conditions in the jail. In a subsequent editorial, Maclean’s editor Napier Moore, stated: ‘We do not believe that deliberate brutality and cultivated callousness are sanctioned, neither by the requirements of justice nor by the public that pays to maintain these institutions.”

The upheaval in the 1930s not only forced Canadians to question their social and economic beliefs, it also strained to the breaking point

The Depression of the Dirty Thirties scarred a generation, and it took the onset of a world war to pull Canada’s economy out of the doldrums

both their faith in political institutions and the nation’s political fabric. Starved of tax revenues, crippled by soaring relief bills, dozens of towns went into default and provinces, too, ran out of money. The wrangling over funding between the federal government and cashstrapped provinces was only matched by squabbles over the interpretation of the British North America Act, the document that enshrined the division of powers between Ottawa and the provinces. As the clamor for reform of the act grew, most proposals, such as for establishing unemployment insurance, housing for the poor and the minimum wage, were ruled out because at the time they were seen to fall within provincial jurisdiction—and the provinces simply could not afford them. Maclean’s political writer Grattan O’Leary captured the nation’s frustration in 1935 when he wrote: “Bennett somehow manages to convey the idea that workers mean nothing to him, while his manner of dealing with the unemployed is, to put it mildly, unfortunate.”

Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who rode a wave of national discontent back into office in 1935, received similar treatment from O’Leary’s caustic pen when he revealed an unemployment policy that did little to help the destitute. It was an anti-climactic aftermath to the Liberals’ campaign slogan, “King or Chaos.” And O’Leary summoned it up in three sentences. “1. There are to be ncwmore spending programs of public works. 2. The relief dole is to be continued. 3. In the meantime, the government hopes that, with world recovery and betterment of trade, unemployment will cure itself.”

As the 1930s progressed, two other issues began to transfix Maclean’s readers: the threat of communism from Stalin’s Russia and the rise of German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. In 1937, George Drew, a lawyer, who would become premier of Ontario in 1943, returned from Moscow. He reported in the magazine that far from being a workers’ dream, the Soviet Union was a “paradise of corruption, inefficiency, squalor and terrorism.” Stalin’s qualifications for ruling the largest, and potentially wealthiest nation in file world, he said, included, “murder, imprisonment and constant violence.”

And while many commentators of the time were finding positive things to say about the rebuilding of the German economy under Hitler, Maclean’s sounded a more cautious note. In 1938, Floyd Chalmers, then a director and later president of the magazine’s publisher, Maclean Hunter Ltd., compared Hitlerism to prussic acid. Wrote Chalmers, who had just visited Germany: “Prussic acid is a very useful commodity. It produces gold and silver from the rocks of the North country. It kills bugs in dwelling houses. It produces rare beauty in photographs. But, used the wrong way, it is deadly.”

In the 1930s, Canadians also saw Japan as almost as much of a threat

as the European dictatorships. A 1932 article in Maclean’s warned that Japan’s seizure of Manchuria from China “gives rise to the belief that her ultimate intentions are the hegemony of the Orient.” And in 1936, an anonymous correspondent reported that “there could be no peace in Asia as long as the Japanese army remained a force.”

By the end of 1938, the threat of war in Europe had clearly superseded the Depression and drought as the most compelling topic in Maclean’s. Was another European war inevitable? Would it serve Canada’s interests better to join in, or to remain aloof and devote itself to healing domestic wounds? But Hitler’s invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, quickly erased any doubts the nation had. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany on Sept. 3, and King followed seven days later.

By the end of 1941, Canadian land forces in Britain, by then four divisions with 125,000 troops, were chiefly cast in the role of observers. It was a different story in the air, where increasing numbers of Canadian pilots were flying operational missions with RCAF or RAF squadrons. And in the North Atlantic, the fledgling Canadian navy was fully engaged on convoy duty, battling the storms and marauding U-boats.

Canadian industry, driven to ever greater efforts by King’s unstoppable minister of munitions and supply, Clarence Howe, turned out everything from ammunition to ships to supply the Allied war effort. From a standing start, aircraft production reached 4,000 planes a year; between 1939 and 1945, the tiny shipbuilding industry expanded to produce a total of 391 cargo ships and 487 escorts and minesweepers. It was a phenomenal effort that required the sweat of virtually every man and woman in Canada—and it effectively ended the Great Depression. The grinding poverty of the 1930s had been erased by war.

DAVID NORTH