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Bill Waiser is distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan and the author of many books, including All Hell Can’t Stop Us: The On-to-Ottawa Trek and Regina Riot.

Strikers from unemployment relief camps travel to Eastern Canada during 'March on Ottawa' in Kamloops, B.C., in June, 1935.Library and Archives Canada

Earlier this year, a trucker convoy descended on Canada’s capital to complain about federal policies and what it saw as government inaction. But going to Ottawa to protest was a Canadian tradition long before that.

In December, 1910, for example, 500 Prairie farmer delegates marched up Parliament Hill and into the House of Commons, where they took over proceedings. The next year, a small delegation representing Saskatchewan Treaty 4 bands brought their grievances directly to senior Indian Affairs officials. But perhaps the most popular protest to take to the capital and capture the Canadian imagination was the On-to-Ottawa Trek, in 1935 – even though the intended cross-country demonstration never actually made it beyond Regina.

In the 1930s, unemployment spiked over the course of the Great Depression, leading prime minister R.B. Bennett’s Conservative government to fear an uprising of single, homeless and unemployed men who might be susceptible to communism. In response, the federal Department of National Defence launched a program of relief camps in 1932, mostly in remote parts of the western provinces, which fed, clothed and sheltered men who had been wandering the country in search of work – many of whom, including my own father, were no older than teenagers – while paying them 20 cents a day for manual labour on make-work projects. By 1935, there were more than 200 of these camps, predominantly in British Columbia, with about 170,000 men passing through in three years.

The scheme to provide temporary relief to Western Canada’s transient male population was universally applauded at the start. But it did not take long for the relief camps to become the focus of discontent and disillusionment, especially when the federal government seemed to place greater importance on where the men were, instead of what they were doing. Whereas Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s U.S. administration created the Civilian Conservation Corps and put its army of unemployed to work on meaningful conservation projects in the United States, the Bennett government was content to let Canadian youth “mark time” in the DND camps, just as long as they were isolated away from potentially subversive influences.

So in April of 1935, hundreds of disgruntled men walked out of the camps in British Columbia and descended on Vancouver in a bold attempt to reverse what had felt like dead-end lives and to secure meaningful employment, in a direct challenge to Bennett’s handling of the Great Depression.

Vancouver citizens sympathized with the strikers, but no level of government was prepared to help the men – least of all the Bennett government, which blamed the communists for the camp walkout. Eventually, the men decided to go to Ottawa and present their demand directly to the Bennett government for “work and wages.”

It was quite the gamble. Ottawa was more than 4,500 kilometres away by rail, and even if the men made it through the Rockies, the wilderness of Northern Ontario still awaited them. Nevertheless, in early June, 1935, an estimated 1,000 On-to-Ottawa trekkers left Vancouver by freight train, riding atop boxcars.

No attempt was made to stop them, because police and government authorities overconfidently assumed that their resolve would melt away like the snow in the interior mountains. But the trekkers drew on the organizing network that had kept the strike going in Vancouver. They also quickly realized that they would never get to Ottawa, nor win over the public, unless they came together as a disciplined unit. That included expelling those who stepped out of line or proved troublesome.

Hundreds of dissatisfied, disillusioned men walked out of Department of National Defence unemployment relief camps throughout British Columbia as the Great Depression wore away at the country in April, 1935.City of Vancouver Archives

At prearranged stops, the men dismounted from the freight cars in unison, formed themselves into divisions and marched smartly, four abreast and singing. They also held “tag days,” in which they’d stand on street corners with tin cans and solicit donations while explaining their mission.

The trekkers’ behaviour and purpose resonated with other Canadians who had suffered through five terrible years of drought and depression. Here were hundreds of young men – who could have been their own sons – headed to Ottawa to tell the country’s political leaders that they were not doing enough to help ease their hardship and deprivation. It’s little wonder that many Canadians at the time referred to them as “our boys.” As Calgary activist Jean McWilliam wrote in a letter to Alice Millar, Bennett’s personal secretary: “I am heartily sorry for them. To me it is … a lost generation. … P.S. … I trust Mr. Bennett does not be too harsh on those lads. Some mother owns them.”

The Bennett government, though, viewed the trek as a revolution on rails: an army of men who had nothing to lose and could be expected to do anything. It also feared the trek’s growing momentum and what might happen if it reached Ottawa; not only had new recruits from Alberta swollen its ranks to 1,500, but hundreds more were expected to join as it moved west through Winnipeg.

The Bennett government consequently decided to put a stop to the trek as it rolled across the Prairies.

On June 12, 1935, the day the trek entered Saskatchewan, the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National railways complained that the men were trespassing on their trains and asked for federal help. In response to their plea, Ottawa instructed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to stop the unlawful movement at Regina.

In justifying federal action, then justice minister Hugh Guthrie branded the trek as a communist plot whose very purpose was “to disturb the peace, order, and good Government of Canada by unlawful means.”

Ottawa’s decision was met with fierce resistance from Saskatchewan’s Liberal premier Jimmy Gardiner, who was infuriated by the federal order to dump the men on the doorsteps of the provincial capital. He insisted that the railways take the men out of Saskatchewan, since they had brought them in.

He also predicted that massing the mounted police could lead to only one outcome: a riot. But Gardiner’s ranting and hand-wringing were dismissed as partisan theatrics. In the end, all the Saskatchewan government could do was prepare for the arrival of the trek, which had now numbered an estimated 2,000 men, on the morning of June 14, 1935.

For the next two weeks, the mounted police and the trekkers played a tense game of brinkmanship in Regina, each daring the other to make the first move. Negotiations between the trek leadership and Bennett government foundered because of the prime minister’s refusal to even recognize the legitimacy of the protest. By the end of the month, however, the men grudgingly conceded that there was no way out of Regina and that it would be foolhardy to engage the Mounties.

An end to the impasse, though, proved elusive. Ottawa, which insisted on seeing the protest as a threat to law and order, maintained that the men had to disband on federal terms – namely, through a special holding facility on Regina’s outskirts to process them. Sensing a trap, trek leaders turned to the Gardiner government for assistance on the afternoon of July 1, the Dominion Day holiday.

Later that evening, while the provincial cabinet was discussing that request, the RCMP, with the support of Regina City Police, executed arrest warrants for the trek leaders at a public rally at Regina’s Market Square.

The mounted police could have made arrests easily at any time during the day, but with clubs and tear gas at the ready, they tried to pluck the men from a peaceful fundraising meeting. That proved to be a mistake: The raid quickly degenerated into a pitched battle involving the police, trekkers and myriad citizens, and spilled into the streets of downtown Regina. Order was not restored until early the next day, and only after city police had fired directly into a crowd of rioters. The final toll, from one of the worst riots in 20th-century Canadian history: two dead, hundreds injured, and tens of thousands of dollars in damage.

The massive cleanup from the Regina riot was barely under way when the Saskatchewan government appointed a commission of inquiry. More than 350 witnesses provided 53 volumes of testimony and one inescapable conclusion: The police had provoked the riot by trying to arrest the trek leaders at a public rally. But in their two-volume report, the commissioners blamed the trekkers for the violence and completely exonerated the police.

It was not a surprising conclusion, given the apparent radical nature of the event. But it missed the broader significance of the trek. Far from being a sinister communist plot, the march eastward captured the profound sense of crisis that gripped the country during the 1930s – and the feeling that Canadians’ despair was not being heard by the government of the day.

Indeed, if there is a direct link between that trek and this year’s trucker convoy, it was this common belief, and the fact that neither prime minister recognized the protests or considered their demands. But that may be just about all they have in common. Rebuffed by Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, the leaders of the trucker convoy and their followers became ever more determined to hunker down in Ottawa, refusing to disperse until forcibly removed; in 1935 Regina, on the other hand, the trekkers stepped back from the brink, preferring to negotiate a peaceful retreat. They did not willingly want to take on the mounted police, fearing that any such action would undermine their purpose and support. And though they felt betrayed by the Bennett Conservatives, they never called for the overthrow of the government. The trekkers may have joked that the prime minister’s initials, R.B., stood for “rotten bastard,” but they would never have countenanced today’s epithet-filled slogans and signs about Mr. Trudeau.

Rev. Andrew Roddan of First United Church distributes food to the unemployed at Vancouver City dump, in Sept., 1931.City of Vancouver Archives

It will be interesting, however, to see how the Trudeau Liberals’ handling of the trucker convoy affects the next election. While Bennett’s Tories were ignominiously defeated in the general election of October, 1935 – reduced to a small rump in the House of Commons – the party’s political fate had already been sealed before the trekkers set off eastward. Still, the trek encapsulated all that had gone wrong with the federal government’s relief policies. Newly elected Saskatchewan CCF MP Tommy Douglas issued a warning in the House of Commons one year after the trek: “The point we fail to see is that agitators do not stir up trouble. It is economic dissatisfaction and insecurity. … Unfortunately we refuse to realize the urgency and dangerous nature of the situation until it is upon us.”

It is something we cannot ignore again.

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