PULLING DOWN THE BILL of his hat Jack Geddes squinted against the Prairie wind. Perched atop the boxcar of a moving train, Geddes could just make out the Alberta foothills. Beyond them, through the thick, black smoke belching from the steam engine, lay the snow-capped Rockies. Painfully hungry, the 18-year-old hobo layback on the boxcar’s iron catwalk, covered himself with his Hudson’s Bay blanket and let the rocking train lull him to sleep. Two days to Vancouver, he thought. And if relief couldn’t be found there, well, there were always the “slave camps.”
It was 1932 and Canada was in the relentless grip of the Great Depression. The country’s lifeblood—exports of natural resources like wheat, lumber, fish and miner-
als—had all but dried up, plummeting in value from $1.12 billion in 1929 to $576 million. More than one out of four people seeking work couldn’t find any. Prime Minister R.B. Bennett’s Conservative government initially responded to the crisis in 1930 with $20 million for public works projects. A huge sum for the time, but not nearly enough. Fear of communist rabblerousers stirring up the wandering unemployed prompted Bennett to establish relief camps, later called slave camps by those who lived there. Run by the Department of National Defence, the camps became powerful symbols of Ottawa’s lack of concern for the unemployed. In June, 1935, more than 1,000 of these desperate men set out from B.C. to confront Bennett in the nation’s capital. Fearing a snowballing rebellion, the government waylaid the On to Ottawa Trek in Saskatchewan and, on the July 1 holiday, crushed it in what became known as the Regina Riot, the most violent episode of the Great Depression. One man died and more than 100 were injured.
The Dirty Thirties offered little hope for too many. There was no unemployment insurance, no medical coverage, no old age pension. “There were no jobs and we weren’t wanted,” says 85-year-old Gene Llewellyn, who as a 16-year-old in 1933 left his Terrace, B.C., home to ease the burden on his parents. “We’d come into a town, and they’d run you out.”
The only alternative to riding the rails or eking out an existence in the hobo jungles that sprung up beside most major cities was to seek aid in the relief camps. No one expected the camps—established in October, 1932, to house and provide work for single, unemployed homeless men—to be around for very long. They were considered a temporary solution because most believed the Depression itself would be temporary. But by 1935 there were nearly 150 relief camps dotting the country, 53 of them in British Columbia largely because of its warmer climate. Workers spent 44-hour weeks doing construction or land clearing in exchange for three square meals and a 20-cent per day
allowance. For the men, the 20 cents solidified their belief they were working in slave camps. While authorities prohibited any attempt to form unions, the harsh lifestyle ironically gave organizations like the Communist Party of Canada a captive and receptive audience. “These men were just like any of us,” says Bill Waiser, author of Park Prisoners, a book about how Canada’s national parks were used as work camps. “They wanted jobs, they wanted a home and a family. Putting the men in camps, you focus their discontent. Then on come the communists who say, ‘You’re being exploited.’ ”
Still a proud member of the Communist Party, 90-year-old Robert “Doc” Savage of Quesnel, B.C., can’t recall who came up with the idea to take their demands to Bennett’s desk in Ottawa. Savage simply remembers organizing 400 men on the morning of June 3,1935, and leading them —along with more than 1,000 others—onto the boxcars and out of Vancouver’s rail yard singing the union hymn: Hold the fort, for we are coming. Union men be strong. Side by side we battle onward. Victory will come. “We were joyous,” says Geddes who grew up in Calgary but now lives in White Rock, B.C. “We were going to Ottawa and we were going to lay our problems at the feet of R.B. Bennett.”
People along the way prepared a welcome at nearly every stop. The local press called the trekkers “our boys” and westerners, who identified with their issues, generally embraced them. And at most stops, more single unemployed men piled onto the boxcars and joined the journey.
Ottawa believed the protest would run out of steam before the mountains. But when the train descended from the Rockies into Calgary, Bennett’s home riding, the prime minister prepared for a confrontation. Unwilling to risk the political fallout of a Calgary showdown, Bennett decided to draw the line in Regina. On June 14, the 50-car freight rolled into the Queen City. After the marchers disembarked to stretch their legs, Bennett banned them from getting back on. Stalling for time in the hope the trek would fizzle out peacefully, the prime minister invited a contingent of strikers, including Savage, to meet with him in Ottawa. Eight of the leaders sat down with Bennett for an hour on June 22, but the tone of the meeting was bel-
ligerent and ended in bitter failure.
Returning to Regina, Savage and the leaders faced new challenges. Their transportation had been cut off, the exits to the city blocked and rumours surfaced that a relief camp was being prepared to intern them all. Recognizing defeat, the trek leaders promised to disband provided they could leave Regina. The RCMP refused, insisting the only place the 2,000 men were going was to a specially prepared camp in Lumsden, 25 km northwest of Regina.
On July 1, after hours of bitter discussions with local officials, the march leaders called a meeting. That evening, between 1,500 and 2,000 people filled Regina’s Market Square. Most, though, were townsfolk with their families observing the local drama on the holiday Monday. As for the trekkers, most of them were watching a baseball game in another part of the city. More than 300 RCMP dressed in riot gear were concealed in large moving vans parked on three sides of the square, with another 50 nearby on horses. Dozens of local police waited in a garage right off the square.
As one of the leaders took the stage and began to speak, a whistle blew. Using baseball bats and billy clubs, the police waded into the crowd. “They opened the door and out they come beating the hell out of us,” remembers Geddes. “They chased us all over town.” RCMP threw teargas into Market Square to break up the crowd and the riot spilled into adjoining streets. A pitched batde raged for more than three hours. At one point, several people set upon a plain-clothes policeman and beat him to death. Late into the night, as about 300 rioters cornered a small troop of
police, the commanding officer ordered his men to fire over the crowd’s heads. Seventeen people were wounded, including five Regina residents. By morning, among the more than 100 people sent to hospital were 40 police. “The amount of people I saw with their heads bashed in was terrible, really terrible,” recalls Geddes.
The march had been crushed and some of its leaders arrested. But the severity of the riot sobered both protestors and government. The trekkers were allowed to return home or to the B.C. relief camps. Bennett, blaming the riot on communist agitators, endorsed an inquiry that whitewashed the authorities of any wrongdoing. According to Waiser, a University of Saskatchewan history professor: “In truth, it was a police-provoked riot. They raided a peaceful meeting and the people fought back.”
Bennett, however, did not escape the fallout. In the federal election campaign three months after the Regina Riot, the prime minister promised radical reforms, including health and unemployment insurance as well as a minimum wage. But it was too late. In October, 1935, William Lyon Mackenzie King soundly defeated Bennett.
Less than a year later, a federal investigation concluded that maintaining the relief camps was no longer “in the best interests of the state.” After housing 170,000 men over 3 lk years, they were closed. But for many of the hopeless men who lived in them and took part in the protest, the trek had provided a purpose. “We were pretty militant, but we had a reason to be,” says Llewellyn. “If you were going hungry in the richest country in the world you would have done it too.” Iffl
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.