Look back in anger

Pierre Berton finds villainy in the 1930s

VICTOR DWYER September 10 1990

Look back in anger

Pierre Berton finds villainy in the 1930s

VICTOR DWYER September 10 1990

Look back in anger


Pierre Berton finds villainy in the 1930s

After producing 35 titles, and at the venerable age of 70, Pierre Berton has written his first angry book. Canada’s most-read author has taken on the Great Depression, and the project has made him furious. “It’s my first book that really made me mad as I wrote it,” he said in an interview. “I suddenly realized that a lot of what happened back then was appalling. It was a surprise, and I think that helped me to write a better book.” Berton’s 36th work, The Great Depression,

1929 to 1939 (McClelland &

Stewart, $29.95), excoriates prime ministers William Lyon Mackenzie King and R. B.

Bennett, business giants including the Eatons, and the press for a callous disregard for ordinary Canadians during those dark years. Said Berton: “I’ve done all the research, I’ve soaked it up, and I believe I’ve earned the right to say I think that this guy was an idiot and this guy was a clown.” He added: “I’ve been accused of creating Canadian heroes. It’s never been my purpose. In any case, the villains are much more interesting.”

A gripping and often disturbing survey of the centug ry’s leanest years, The Great 2j Depression is arguably Ber| ton’s best book. It crowns a g career that has yielded some g of the most popular titles pro£ duced in Canada, 15 of them looking back to the country’s roots. Ever since the appearance of his first Canadian history book, Klondike (1958), which told the story of the Yukon gold rush of 1898, Berton has topped the domestic best-seller lists with lively glimpses into the past.

Among his most popular books have been The Last Spike( 1971), about the building of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, The Dionne Years (1977), which told the story of Canada’s Dionne quintuplets, and Vimy (1986), an examination of the First World War battle in which the Canadian corps captured France’s Vimy Ridge. But the restlessly curious—and highly nationalistic—author has also turned his attention to such disparate subjects as the Anglican Church, in The Comfortable Pew (1965), and

the U.S. movie industry’s misrepresentation of Canada, in Hollywood’s Canada (1975).

For Berton, the effort has been financially rewarding. Mindful of his past success in the bookstores, Toronto-based McClelland & Stewart gave the author a $610,000 advance for The Great Depression and an upcoming series of four books about the history of Niagara Falls. And the millionaire author, who lives in Kleinburg, Ont., just north of Toronto, with

his wife, Janet (they have eight grown children), will receive royalties of at least 15 per cent on sales of those five books—an arrangement that could net him well over $500,000 if they sell briskly. Said Berton of his publishers: “They treat me well, but then, I treat them pretty well, too.” Indeed, the 75,000-copy first printing of The Great Depression reflects the publishing house’s confidence in Berton.

His success has been the result of hard work and determination. “Just the basic research for my books routinely takes six months,” Berton told Maclean’s. “Those first months of research are really terribly depressing—because you don’t think you have a story. It’s not till you get in really deep that you get to the interest-

ing stuff.” In the case of The Great Depression, that groundwork, which the author carried out with the help of his full-time assistant, Barbara Sears, involved such daunting tasks as reading the 8,000-page report of the 1935 Regina Riot Inquiry Commission. The hefty document was an examination of the causes of a riot that broke out between the police and several hundred relief-camp workers travelling from Vancouver to Ottawa, where they had planned to stage a protest rally.

Berton also put advertisements in newspapers to find people who had interesting stories to tell about the Depression. The author then travelled across Canada for dozens of interviews, including one with octogenarian Steve Brodie of Victoria, who recounted crossing the country in a boxcar 75 times because he could not find a steady job.

Berton himself was relatively untouched by the Depression. In 1929, when the stock market crashed, he was a nine-year-old living in the Yukon, where the events to the south had only

a mild impact. The following year, his father, Francis, retired from his job as a civil servant in the North and moved the family to Toronto. Then, in 1932, the family relocated to Victoria, where Pierre went to high school and college. With his father’s small pension, the Bertons lived a modest but comfortable life. “Frankly,” said Berton, “for me, in many ways the Thirties was a wonderful time.”

As the author plunged into his research, he realized just how devastating the era was for a lot of other Canadians. “What I didn’t want to do was color the book with too much nostalgia,” he said, “because, for most people, it wasn’t a good time.” Describing the “mindless optimism” that prevailed in “an overdevel-

oped, overstocked country” in the 1920s, The Great Depression vividly captures the abject terror that gripped ordinary people when the stock markets collapsed and the capitalist system ground to a halt.

Like Berton’s best historical works, the book’s strength lies in his ability to blend detailed accounts of influential personalities, events and movements with stories about the lives of everyday Canadians. There are scores of fascinating anecdotes, including the story of Toronto bookkeeper Lottie Nugent, who invested her life savings, and borrowed heavily, to play the market. A few months later, unable to repay her loans, she calmly entered her

room in a downtown boarding house and killed herself by turning on the gas.

Despite the hard times that followed the crash, many of Canada’s political and economic leaders chose to ignore the misery experienced by many of their fellow Canadians—and Berton seems to take pleasure in describing the elite’s shortcomings in scathing detail. He portrays the Liberal Mackenzie King as alternately smug and hypocritical in the face of great decisions. In his diary entry forjan. 1,1930— three months after the crash—King thanked God “with all my heart for protecting me through the year now drawing to a close.”

Although the Prime Minister enthused in his journals about the “spirit of mutual aid” that informed his Christian beliefs, he steadfastly refused to match those sentiments with adequate federal money for the victims of the crash. In fact, he wrote elsewhere in his diary that he hoped those who still had their jobs would be selfish enough to ignore the jobless and would not add their voices to the growing chorus demanding unemployment benefits.

Berton paints an equally unflattering picture of the country’s private employers, who, he maintains, exploited the vulnerability of their workforce to profit from the Depression. The New York City-based Woolworth chain of department stores, for one, formulated a policy of keeping its female employees on call, “never knowing,” Berton writes, “when they would be offered work, and unable to look for other jobs.” In 1932, the company demanded, and got, a 10-per-cent wage cut from its employees—while showing a net profit of $1.8 million.

The T. Eaton Co., meanwhile, made it impossible for some of its employees to take rests at its Toronto clothing factory. Winnifred Wells, who worked as an “examiner” there,

testified to the Royal Commission on Price Spreads in 1935 that, since the Depression, Eaton’s had removed the stool that she would occasionally use to take brief breaks. She reported that she hated going home on the streetcar, “because if I sat down I could not get up again, my knees and my legs would be so stiff.” In Quebec, several of the biggest garment manufacturers implemented industrywide blacklists of employees who had been fired for complaining of being paid below the legal minimum wage.

For many of the millions who could not find work, conditions were even worse. In 1932, unemployment reached a staggering 36 per cent in Ontario. To single men, the government of Conservative Prime Minister R. B. Bennett, who led the country from 1930 to 1935, offered what Berton terms “the gift of 20 cents a day” to work in one of dozens of relief camps spread across the Canadian countryside. Breeding grounds of bacteria and disease, the poorly funded camps were virtual prisons for the men who lived in them. They

were finally closed after King’s re-election in 1936—but only after the bloody Regina Riot of the previous year, in which the RCMP shot 12 unarmed former relief-camp inmates on their way to a protest in Ottawa. Writes Berton: “Although the Canadian government tried to make it appear that the relief camps were part of a plan to save the youth of the country, the real reason was to save the country from its youth—to get the jobless out of the way and prevent revolution.”

According to Berton, the fight against real and alleged Communists became a routine excuse for federal, provincial and local governments to trample on democratic rights. Individuals labelled “Communist” by the federal authorities were routinely deported— including some of German descent who ended up in Hitler’s death camps. Berton recounts that one man, Hans Kist, was sent back to his native Germany by government officials after he participated in a strike in Fraser Mills, B.C. The Nazis, agreeing with Canada’s assessment of Kist as a “thoroughgoing troublemaker,” tortured him to death.

City officials in Sudbury, Ont., banned all meetings of more than two persons after Communists there trieti to organize nickel miners in 1930. Seven years later, Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis introduced the notorious padlock law, which gave police in that province the power to lock any building used for what officials considered to be “Communist gatherings.” Not until the book’s closing chapter does Berton’s anger at the ineptitude and hypocrisy of such men as King and Bennett reach its peak. Priming for „ war, King suddenly became generous g with the public purse. Interspersing I the narrative with earlier quotes by u both Bennett and King about the danger of spending public money for the common good, Berton demonstrates his genuine contempt for those former Canadian leaders. Relating a story of two former relief-camp workers who meet on a warship heading for Germany, Berton spells out the sad irony of their situation: “The government had once paid them 20 cents a day and treated them as bums. Now it was paying 6V2 times as much and treating them as heroes.”

Although The Great Depression presents a searing attack on governmental and economic elites, Berton says that he did not set out to write a political tract—“It’s not a left-wing book, but you can’t write a book about the Depression without being considered leftwing, because the right-wingers were in charge, and they bungled it.” He added, “Those are the facts; it’s about time this book was written.”

With passion and fury, Pierre Berton has cast a harsh light on one of the darkest comers of Canada’s past. The country’s image of itself may never be quite the same.