Unemployment During the Great Depression

Unemployment among Canadians in the Great Depression reached an estimated 30% of the work force by January 1933—a proportion never seen before or since. Saskatchewan was particularly hard hit because of the collapse of agriculture and the construction industry—the two main employers in the province at the time. Before World War II there was no unemployment insurance or “safety net” provided by the state, so that being unemployed was the worst catastrophe that could befall working people. The single unemployed had to rely on private charity, and the married unemployed on a mixture of charity and very sporadic municipal relief. Pressure from the organized unemployed and the public compelled all levels of government to begin programs to deal with the situation. In Saskatchewan, these would include “work for relief” projects in the cities, a program to place the unemployed on farms for $5 a month, provincial relief camps of which there were at one time twenty-three in the province, and government-subsidized soup kitchens and hostels. The inadequacy of such arrangements led to protests on a continuous basis.

Before 1930 the unemployed had never been organized in significant numbers or for any length of time: they had no bargaining power and often moved from one locality to another in search of work, which made it difficult to develop organizational loyalty and stable leadership. This time, the massive numbers and horrendous conditions necessitated organization, and within a couple of years there existed organizations of the unemployed in most cities and in many of the larger towns in Canada, including Saskatchewan. Some of the unemployed organizations developed locally and almost spontaneously, but many of the most effective were organized by the National Unemployed Workers’ Association (NUWA), which grew rapidly after its formation in 1930. The NUWA was in turn affiliated to the Workers’ Unity League (WUL), a radical labour federation which led many of the trade union and working class struggles of the first half of the 1930s. The NUWA organized associations of the married and single unemployed, unemployed war veterans, as well as the wives and families of the unemployed, and often formed district associations and even block committees in some localities. By 1932, the city of Saskatoon alone had six such organizations.

By the very nature of their situation, the unemployed had to be unorthodox and often disruptive in making their demands upon governments. They took up petitions and sent delegations to confront politicians and government officials. They also participated in street demonstrations, mass outdoor rallies, and strikes on relief projects and in relief camps. These led inevitably to clashes with the police, which in turn stimulated more unrest. Events in Regina and Saskatoon over an eight-month period in 1932 illustrated the extent of the unrest and growing disorder. A May Day parade in Regina involved an estimated 10,000 participants and spectators, and resulted in scattered violence and nine arrests. In October, several hundred workers involved in a Regina relief project went on strike. On November 7, about eighty RCMP and city police dispersed a rally of unemployed in Saskatoon, which resulted in what the Canadian press called “the bloodiest riot ever seen in this city”: dozens of unemployed and policemen were injured, and several people arrested. Similar, though usually less spectacular, occurrences became frequent in Regina and Saskatoon and several smaller cities in the province.

Disturbances became a major phenomenon throughout Canada, and would become more pronounced in 1933. May Day parades were banned that year in Regina, Saskatoon and Moose Jaw. There were police raids on labour halls and the offices of alleged radicals. On May 8, a demonstration of unemployed was broken up by RCMP and city police at a relief camp on the outskirts of Saskatoon. Many people were injured, and RCMP Inspector L.I. Sampson was killed after being struck by a rock and dragged by his horse. Twenty-two people were later convicted of charges ranging from rioting to unlawful assembly, to assaulting police. Government authorities were alarmed that disorder might become general and continuous. They feared the single homeless unemployed most of all because they were the most difficult to intimidate. It was for this reason that the federal government established relief camps under the auspices of the Department of National Defence (DND) and forced thousands of single homeless men to go to these camps or face arrest for vagrancy. The Dundurn camp in Saskatchewan became the largest in the province: it could accommodate 2,000 people when full. This DND program may have calmed matters slightly in the cities, but merely transferred the trouble to the camps, which were very unpopular from the beginning. Many camps were soon organized clandestinely by the Relief Camp Workers’ Union (RCWU), and were plagued by strikes and disturbances throughout their existence.

Matters came to a head in the early summer of 1935 when the unemployed walked out of their BC relief camp and into Vancouver, where they would soon commence the On-to-Ottawa Trek to take their grievances to the Bennett government. Bennett ordered the Trek stopped in Regina, and the result was the so-called Regina Riot on July 1, which occurred when police attacked a crowd of trekkers and Regina citizens. Scores were injured, and one policeman and one trekker were killed. Many people were arrested and the Trek was disbanded, but they had driven the nails into the coffin of the Bennett government, which was overwhelmingly defeated in the federal election of October 1935. (See On-to-Ottawa Trek and the regina riot.)

The organized unemployed did win some improved conditions for relief recipients, and they left some immediate and long-term legacies. The hated federal relief camps were abolished by the new Mackenzie King government in 1936. A federal unemployment insurance system, always one of the main demands of the organized unemployed, was implemented in 1941. The organized unemployed of the Great Depression were in many ways pioneers of the socially positive state developed in Canada from the 1940s.

Lorne A. Brown


Further Reading

Brown, L. 1987. When Freedom Was Lost: The Unemployed, the Agitator, and the State. Montreal/Buffalo: Black Rose Book.