In October 1932, Ottawa finally accepted responsibility for the single, homeless unemployed roaming the country in search of work and established a national system of camps under the auspices of the Department of National Defense (DND). The men were fed, clothed, sheltered and paid 20¢ per day in exchange for their labour on various make-work projects. Although the scheme was universally applauded at the beginning, it did not take long for the camps to become the focus of disillusionment and discontent, especially since Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett seemed to place greater importance on where the men were, as opposed to what they were doing. In April 1935, hundreds of disgruntled men walked out of DND relief camps throughout British Columbia and descended on Vancouver in a bold attempt to reverse their dead-end lives and secure some meaningful employment. But no level of government wanted to help the men—least of all the federal government, which believed that the Communist Party of Canada had orchestrated the protest. Eventually, the relief camp strikers decided to go to Ottawa and present their grievances directly to the Prime Minister.
An estimated 1,000 On-to-Ottawa trekkers left Vancouver by freight train in early June 1935. No one expected the men to survive the trip through the mountains; but the same kind of organizing zeal that had kept the strike going in Vancouver gave the trek a seemingly unstoppable momentum as it headed across the prairies. After the trek had left Calgary, picking up more recruits, the federal Minister of Justice publicly branded the trek a Communist plot and announced that the RCMP would stop the unlawful movement in Regina. Saskatchewan Premier J.T. Gardiner was infuriated by the federal order to dump the men on the doorsteps of the provincial capital like unwanted waifs; he also predicted that the massing of the mounted police could only lead to riot. But Gardiner’s ranting and hand-wringing were dismissed as partisan theatrics, and all the Saskatchewan government could do was prepare for the arrival of the trek, now numbering an estimated 2,000 men, in the early morning hours of June 14.
The much-anticipated Regina showdown turned into a prolonged stalemate between the trekkers and the police, lasting over two weeks. On June 17, two federal Cabinet ministers met with the trek leaders in Regina, and after failing to reach any kind of agreement invited them to send a delegation to Ottawa to deal directly with the Prime Minister. But instead of resolving the standoff, the Ottawa meeting degenerated into a shouting match between Bennett and trek leader Arthur “Slim” Evans. The trekkers refused to give up, however, and tried to send a group of men eastward by car and truck on June 27—only to have the convoy intercepted by the mounted police. With no way out of Regina, and with their own funds exhausted, the trekkers decided to end the trek and return to the West Coast. Ottawa insisted, however, that the men had to disband on federal terms, that is, go to a nearby holding facility at Lumsden where they would be processed.
Sensing the Lumsden camp was a trap, the trek leadership 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 meeting to discuss the trekkers’ request, the RCMP, with the support of the Regina City Police, decided to execute arrest warrants for the trek leaders at a public rally at Market Square. The mounted police could easily have made the arrests at any time during the day, but with clubs and tear gas at the ready, they chose to pluck the men from a peaceful fund-raising meeting. Not unexpectedly, the raid quickly degenerated into a pitched battle between the police, trekkers and citizens, which spilled over into the streets of downtown Regina. Order was restored early the next day, but only after the city police had fired directly into a crowd of rioters. The toll was two dead—not one, as usually reported—and hundreds injured, as well as tens of thousands of dollars of damage to downtown Regina. A provincial commission, which included former Premier William Martin, later blamed the trekkers for the riot while completely exonerating the police. The new Liberal government in Ottawa, meanwhile, insisted that its hands were tied by the findings of the Saskatchewan commission and refused to do anything further.