The Great Depression

Compared with other countries, Canada has been exceptionally fortunate to avoid catastrophes, natural and manmade. But we have not escaped entirely, and no account of the century would be complete without mention of some of our dark times.

July 1 1999

The Great Depression

Compared with other countries, Canada has been exceptionally fortunate to avoid catastrophes, natural and manmade. But we have not escaped entirely, and no account of the century would be complete without mention of some of our dark times.

July 1 1999

The Great Depression



Compared with other countries, Canada has been exceptionally fortunate to avoid catastrophes, natural and manmade. But we have not escaped entirely, and no account of the century would be complete without mention of some of our dark times.

Seventy years after it began, the Great Depression remains very much alive in the Canadian memory. The hardships of the Great War had been succeeded by the booming Twenties, and many people had made fortunes. But the 1930s were a time of trial and deprivation for a nation that had no government social welfare programs and one that relied on the charity of churches and dogooders to keep the poor from starving.

Beginning in the summer of 1929, the economic downturn gathered momentum with the “great crash” on Wall Street in October. For four years, conditions grew steadily worse until, in the spring of 1933, a slow economic upswing began. This uneven recovery excluded the unemployed and Prairie farmers, and it was interrupted by another severe recession in 1937-1938. Only the economic stimulus provided by the Second World War finally pulled Canada out of the mire.

The Depression cut Canadas gross national product by 42 per cent between 1929 and 1933. It reduced industrial activity in 1933 to 57 per cent of the 1929 level and it wiped out commodity prices. Imports fell to 30 per cent of their 1929 level. On the Prairies, “King Wheat” was dethroned. The price of a bushel of wheat that had averaged $ 1.43 in the last half of the 1920s was

54 cents in 1932, the lowest price in history. At the same time, grasshoppers and drought reduced yields from 18 bushels an acre to 11. The effect was calamitous—net cash income from Prairie agriculture in 1932-1933 was a mere 28 per cent of what it had been four years earlier.

In the cities, the story was almost as bleak. Declining wheat shipments caused the railways to lay off men. Manufacturers watched their sales dwindle—no one had

any money—and responded by cutting their workforce. Corporations saw profits shrink to nothing and released executives, stenographers and clerks. The result was huge unemployment. The jobless rate in the last year of the boom had been 4.2 per cent. In 1933, it was 26.6 per cent, and 1.4 million urban ^ Canadians and up to a half-million farm residents were on relief. Saskatchewan, most dependent on wheat, was I hardest hit—more than 200,000 people depended on the Saskatchewan Relief Commission for the bare necessities § of life. The Canadian population in 1931 was 10.4 ^ million, so almost 20 per cent were effectively destitute. But it was an ill wind that did not bring good news

I for some. During the Depression prices dropped, and g* those with fixed incomes benefited. A pensioner could ; I prosper, and mid-level federal civil servants in Ottawa, i I despite a 10-per-cent pay cut, easily hired cooks and

II maids from the depressed Gatineau region across the I Ottawa River. John David Eaton, of the then-great

I department store chain, obliviously recalled that “you

could take your girl to a supper dance at the hotel for $10, and that included the bottle and a room for you and your friends to drink it in. I’m glad I grew up then. It was a good time for everybody. People learned what it means to work.”

But most of the unemployed couldn’t find work. Some men took to riding the rods on freight cars. Many ended up in British Columbia because of its warmer climate, and some were prey to political agitators. “The menace of single men,” as some called it, troubled the federal Conservative government of R. B. Bennett, which set up relief camps run by the army. The pay was 20 cents a day—and the men derisively called themselves “The Royal Twenty-Centers.” In 1935, they staged a march on Ottawa. Beginning in British Columbia, the march was broken up by RCMP clubs in Regina. No one had any answers to the economic mess.

In many cases, these unemployed single men became the soldiers of the Second World War, fighting for a system that had let them down. During the war, the federal government introduced unemployment insurance and family allowances, and in 1945 it declared full employment to be government policy. The system, if not completely fixed, at least had been renovated.

A hurricane called Hazel

It wasn’t technically a hurricane by the time it reached the Canadian side of Lake Ontario late on Oct. 15, 1954.

But Hurricane Hazel, which began off Grenada in the Caribbean and caused at least 500 deaths as it swept across Haiti and the East Coast of the United States, was still carrying enough punch to destroy lives and property. Moreover, as Toronto broadcaster and author Betty Kennedy explains in her moving book on the subject, Hazel was tracking towards “a city that had never known even a slowing hurricane, in an area where no hurricane had a logical right to be, on a path unheard-of for a tropical storm.”

The Toronto region, the most heavily populated area of the country, was unprepared. Weather reports mentioned the coming hurricane, but did so in such a matter-of-fact way that few expected a catastrophe. Rain and bad weather was predicted, sure enough, but not winds of 55 m.p.h., gusting to 72, propelling heavy rain like bullets. Not nine inches of rain in the 300 square miles of the Humber River watershed. Not 83 deaths and vast property damage, estimated by Kennedy at $100 million in 1979 dollars.

And all in a matter of hours.

Bridges and roads were inundated. Rivers, one onlooker remembered, became like “fast-moving freight trains.” The rich agricultural land of the Holland Marsh, north of Toronto, as another recalled with a shudder, was “just one vast lake. All you could see in the distance sticking out of the water was the steeple of the Springdale Christian Reform Church.”

Five volunteer firemen lost their lives in the Humber.

Not far away, Hazel struck Raymore Drive so hard that it obliterated the street, killing 36 people and leaving 60 families without a home. Hazel hit Brampton, Barrie, Woodbridge and Orangeville—moving as far north as Bruce County’s cottage area. In Southampton, a train was turned on its side a short distance from the station. Passenger Bertha Whittaker recalled the windows disintegrating. “I was sitting there with the water running around me and blood running down my face. I sat there and prayed, for an indefinite time, until the firemen rescued me.”

At the front of the train, engineer Gordon McCallum and fireman Stewart Nicolson were unable to escape from the cab. They died when the boiler burst.

Like Hazel in 1954, recent floods in the Saguenay district and Manitoba and the 1998 ice storm in Quebec, New

Brunswick and eastern Ontario demonstrated nature’s savage contempt for modern technology. In the ice storm, the highly populated area of Montreal’s South Shore was robbed of power for up to a month. More than 200 Quebec communities declared a disaster, and the National Capital Region and about 60 municipalities in eastern Ontario announced a state of emergency. Emergency accommodation was found for 100,000 people in Quebec, 21,000 in New Brunswick and at least 10,000 in Ontario.

Greed and crime are always in evidence during natural disasters, but generosity and volunteerism are much more common. In the aftermath of Hazel, the Red Cross and Salvation Army fed and lodged victims of the hurricane while the military helped with the often grim task of mopping up. Acting Sgt. Fred Kelly and soldiers from Camp Borden checked flooded areas around the Lambton Golf Club, finding two bodies as they dragged the Humber River with poles. “Fred Kelly’s work held special terrors,” Kennedy reports, “for he knew that his 16-year-old brother was among those drowned.”

The military, with its ability to mobilize quickly and in strength, is an increasingly important and welcome component of disaster relief. Operation Recuperation, mounted during the 1998 ice storm, was the largest peacetime deployment of the Canadian Forces. Some of the communities affected did not want to let the soldiers leave when their work was finished.

The natural catastrophes that punctuate our existence may be regional in character, but their impact is national. They are a reminder that the country is more than an assortment of place names. It is a community, no matter what may divide Canadians.

Standing up to the FLQ terrorists

It struck like a bolt out of the blue. Canadians, both Englishand French-speaking, were shocked when the news came through on Oct. 5, 1970. James Cross, a British trade official in Montreal, had been kidnapped by armed men who proclaimed themselves members of the Front de libération du Québec. Their demands for his return included a ransom of $500,000 in gold, liberation of “political prisoners,” safe pasI sage out of the country and publicity for the FLQ’s manifesto, a quasi-Marxist mishmash of grievance and humiliation. Five days later, Quebec’s labour minister Pierre Laporte was snatched in front of his own house. Was no one safe?

The October Crisis sprang out of the Quiet Revolution that had rapidly modernized Quebec and out of the impatience of hotheads with the slow march towards Quebec independence. Since the early 1960s, terrorist bombs had been planted in Montreal and Quebec City, armouries had been raided for weapons, and there had been several deaths. Now, the FLQ had escalated the separatists’ war.

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Pierre Tmdeau was not one to trifle with terrorists. A philosophical anti-nationalist, Trudeau believed in Quebec’s participation in Canada as a full partner, and to him terrorism was anathema. His government flady refused the FLQ’s demands.

Although polls showed almost no public support for the kidnappers’ methods, opinion-makers in the media, the trade unions and the political class in Quebec were divided. On Oct. 14, a group of prominent figures including Parti Québécois leader René Lévesque and Le Devoir publisher Claude Ryan issued a statement calling for an “exchange of the two hostages for the political prisoners.” At the same time, radical students called for a student strike in support of the FLQ. The situation seemed to be slipping out of control.

On Oct. 15, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa asked Ottawa to send troops into Montreal and Quebec City. The next day, Trudeau proclaimed the War Measures Act, a First World War statute that gave the government extraordinary powers to arrest anyone it deemed to pose a threat to public order. By noon the first day, more than 150 people had been arrested, and another 100 were jailed by evening—a list that included singer Pauline Julien and writeragitator Pierre Vallières. People concerned about the War Measures Act, Trudeau declared, should “not become so obsessed by what the government has done today in response to terrorism that they forget the opening play in this vicious game.” In Quebec and Canada as a whole, polls showed enormous support for the government.

The FLQ response to the government actions, however, was to murder Pierre Laporte on Oct. 17. The minister’s body was found in the trunk of a car in the Montreal suburb of St-Hubert, and an ashen-faced Trudeau icily told the country how Laporte had been “cowardly assassinated by a band of murderers.”

The crisis continued and the troops remained on the streets of Montreal into December. A negotiated deal on Dec. 3 freed Cross and allowed his captors to go to Cuba in exile. On Dec. 28, the police caught Laporte’s murderers.

Opinions may vary on the way Trudeau dealt with the October Crisis, but of one thing there is no doubt: there have been no terrorist bombs, no kidnappings and no political murders since he acted with such toughness.

The cod were gone, the fishery closed

On July 2, 1992, fisheries minister John Crosbie announced the closure of the northern cod fishery at a news conference in St. Johns, Nfld. The irony was striking. Crosbie was Newfoundlands minister, its champion. His family had become rich from fish. The closing of the fishery was the toughest moment of a 30-year political career. He seemed a traitor to his people.

As Crosbie spoke, fishermen who had been barred from the room attempted to break down the doors to get inside. But the minister did not need that reminder of how serious his action was. On a scale of disasters, he admitted graphically in his memoirs, the removal of the cod from the Newfoundland economy was comparable to eliminating the entire automobile manufacturing sector from southern Ontario overnight.

The bountiful cod had been king for centuries. In the early 1500s, Europeans were assured that the fish was plentiful enough to be scooped from the waters in baskets. Cod was the magnet for the settlement and development of Newfoundland and the Labrador coast, and a significant factor in the livelihood of the Nova Scotia coast as well.

Even in 1992, after years of cuts in the governmentimposed Total Allowable Catch, the northern cod was still the biggest single fishery on the East Coast—worth $700 million to the Canadian economy and accounting for 31,000 jobs directly or indirectly, most of them in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Now that was at an end. True, Crosbie had instituted a two-year moratorium only, but it was extended as the evidence poured in to demonstrate that the northern cod was not coming back. The stocks had plummeted in 1991 by one-half from the previous year, then dropped by two-thirds between 1991 and 1992, by three-quarters from 1992 to 1993, and by four-fifths between 1993 and 1994. Cod had been fished to “commercial extinction,” in the sobering phrase of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.

There was plenty of blame to go around. Modern technologies had produced highly sophisticated ships with the capacity to dredge up huge and often indiscriminate catches. Vessels from

Canada and elsewhere overfished with ruthless abandon. Scientists, meanwhile, had been overoptimistic in their forecasts of stock sizes. And politicians, says Crosbie, had an understandable inclination “to put the interests of fishermen— who were voters—ahead of the cod, who weren’t.”

The fishermen received substantial help from Ottawa, notably the $1.9-billion TAGS program (The Atlantic Groundfish Strategy), which ran from 1994 to 1998. In fact, such aid packages were consistent with a pattern of federal financial assistance going back many years. Unemployment insurance had long been a big part of the Newfoundland and Nova Scotia economies. “In recent years,” Crosbie asserts, the fishermen’s “economic survival has depended less on the fish they caught than on their ability to qualify for financial support programs.”

There has been some recent good news about crab and shrimp harvests in Newfoundland and increases in haddock numbers on Georges Bank off Nova Scotia. On the Pacific coast, however, a drastic drop in some salmon stocks was exacerbated by a sevenyear dispute with the United States, which was only resolved in June.

The bigger truth is that our oceans have been added to the world’s increasingly long list of endangered species. As the Harris Panel on the northern cod problem put it a decade ago, there is a choice to be made. Canada and the international community can opt for environmental integrity or “we will obviously invite the inevitable disaster that we will undoubtedly deserve to have visited upon us.”

The massacre at the Ecole Polytechnique

“You are all a bunch of feminists, and I hate feminists,” Marc Lépine yelled as he entered Room 303 of the yellow brick Ecole Polytechnique at the Université de Montréal. Brandishing a .223-calibre Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle, he segregated the women engineering students from the men. He ordered the 50-odd men to leave, and they did. Within moments in that early evening of Dec. 6, 1989, six women had been murdered. When he finished his 20-minute rampage through the building, Lépine had injured 13 people and killed 14. All of the dead were women.

He then turned the gun on himself, so his suicide note was the major testimony to a hideous act. Clearly he had been the victim of abuse as a child; clearly he saw women at the root of his troubles, even though it was, apparently, his father who had treated him so viciously.

Lépine’s was the worst single-day mass murder in Canadian history, but it was the brutal misogyny of the act that was so striking and horrifying. The killings turned a

searing spotlight on brutality towards women. Two years after the massacre, however, the respected columnist George Bain questioned the emotional (and he thought sexist) manner in which the event was being remembered and memorialized: a “madmans killing of 14 young women has been translated into a symbol of something much larger.” Canadians, he contended, were not far from turning “mourning into a macabre sort of annual allmen-are-vile festival.” In Bains view, the problem was one of violence in society as a whole.

But although Statistics Canada reported that beatings, robberies and murders had increased by 50 per cent during the 1980s, sexual assault cases were actually up even more dramatically.

The Montreal Massacre led directly to a rewriting of federal gun laws. Heidi Rathjen, an Ecole Polytechnique student who had been at school the night of the killings, co-founded the Coalition for Gun Control after graduation. Concerned that “we are beginning to resemble the United States,” Rathjen worked steadily at the issue until Parliament in 1995 passed Justice Minister Alan Rock’s legislation, which included provisions for the licensing and registration of firearms.

Inevitably, some disputed the diagnosis that controls on the availability of guns would make Canada a safer place. Although Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has said the National Rifle Association is one American export Canada does not want, the rhetoric of that organization was much in evidence in the post-Montreal Massacre debate. Guns didn’t kill people, people killed people, and gun control wouldn’t prevent bad people from getting their criminal hands on guns. The government, argued the NRA and its supporters, was penalizing responsible Canadians by overregulation, and wasting effort and resources that would be better directed to the prevention of crime. And really, deep down, didn’t the government want to confiscate everyone’s guns? Or so the argument went.

On the edge of the millennium, school killings are frighteningly commonplace. The Ecole Polytechnique massacre, and this year’s fatal shooting at W. R. Myers High School in Taber, Alta., serve to remind us that Canadians are far from immune to the deadly contagion. EH