Shaw, Matt (1910–97)

Matt Shaw was born in 1910 at Pilot Butte, Saskatchewan, and raised in the Assiniboia area. As the Dust Bowl and Great Depression struck in the early 1930s, Shaw joined the tens of thousands of young unemployed men who were “riding the rails,” looking for increasingly scarce jobs. When the federal government of R.B. Bennett established a network of relief camps in remote areas to house jobless, homeless men, Shaw was one of the first and most effective opponents of what he called the “slave camps.” He joined the Relief Camp Workers Union (RCWU), which was an affiliate of the Communist-led Workers Unity League, and became one of the union’s most prominent and successful leaders and platform speakers. As was the case with many RCWU organizers, Shaw entered the relief camps under different names in order to avoid the blacklist with which the authorities kept out agitators. Shaw’s original family name was Surdia, but it was while using the alias Shaw that he became widely known, and he continued to use that name after the Depression.

Matt Shaw was not only on the On-to-Ottawa Trek: he and Bill Davies preceded the Trek by a day or two, and had the immense task of arranging food and lodging for 1,200 hungry young men involved in the Trek. Shaw was jailed for a time after the Regina Riot, despite the fact that at the time he was in Toronto doing fundraising for the Trek. During World War II, Matt Shaw served with the RCAF. After his military service, he returned to Regina and worked as a skilled mechanic. In later years, he and his wife Marion operated a store in McLean, Saskatchewan, before retiring in Regina.

Matt Shaw was a lifelong radical and champion of the working class. He was also one of the great orators of the left-wing of the labour movement. Even in his later years, he could deliver persuasive and inspirational speeches without ever referring to written notes; trade union audiences marveled at his spellbinding oratory. He died in Regina in October 1997, at the age of 87.

Garnet Dishaw