Saskatchewan Relief Commission

Saskatchewan Relief Commission Emergency Relief Order form.
Saskatchewan Archives Board R-B2465-1

In 1931, J.T.M. Anderson's Conservative government created the Saskatchewan Relief Commission to administer the provincial relief program. During its two-and-a-half year existence, the Commission managed the spending of $31.5 million. Henry Black of Regina was named to head the Commission; a relief officer, supported by a local voluntary committee of four, was appointed to manage the relief effort in each affected rural municipality. The process was straightforward as each applicant sat down with the relief officer and completed a four-page questionnaire. Before being forwarded to the Commission in Regina, each questionnaire had to be vouched for and approved by the local committee. In each and every case, an undertaking to repay was taken since the vast majority of those in need of relief were not bankrupt, nor were they paupers or indigents in the ordinary sense. In fact, many had substantial assets - their farms - but there was no market for farm property or assets. The Commission thought of itself as supplying short-term credit, thus allowing individuals to retain their self-respect. There were two repayment options, depending on the type of relief obtained: a straight promissory note was signed, or a lien was attached on a crop. No attempt was made to enforce collection of these notes. Up to May 31, 1934, $40,542 of direct relief notes had been repaid, and over $2.5 million had been repaid on the seeding advances; the Relief Commission also accepted wheat as repayment at 70¢ a bushel.

In 1931, three-quarters of Saskatchewan's population was wholly dependent on agriculture: when the crops failed, the result was disastrous, and in 1931-32 approximately one out of every three Saskatchewan residents received some form of relief. Whereas Saskatchewan had been self-sufficient in animal feed, by August 1933 almost $3 million worth of feed had been imported from Alberta and Manitoba. One hundred villages throughout the province lost their tax base completely. As a result, the Commission started to look after the needs of the single, homeless unemployed men of Saskatchewan. It operated camps and dining halls in Regina, Moose Jaw and Saskatoon, using these as bases to place the men in jobs on farms. During 1932-33, 9,627 single homeless unemployed men were taken care of in the camps. The Department of Highways also put hundreds of men to work on road projects and bush-clearing. Married men were offered three days of work, single men one day; the salary was 25¢ an hour - about the price of two quarts of milk at the time. No cash was paid: rather, men received purchase orders for the necessities of life. The Relief Commission distributed two kinds of relief: direct relief which included food, fuel, clothing and shelter; and indirect relief (agricultural rehabilitation), which included feed, binder twines, harness, seed, or mechanical supplies.

During the second year of the Commission's existence, actual distribution of relief supplies was done by the rural municipalities. In all cases, the goods were purchased from local merchants. In total, the Commission provided approximately $6 million in direct food relief, $3.3 million in fuel, $2 million worth of clothing and shelter, $7 million worth of seed, and $8 million worth of gopher poison, grasshopper poison, harness, and garden seeds. Between 1931 and 1934, $50,000 worth of coal was purchased for various school divisions, and 28,000 packages of flower seeds were distributed through the parishes in affected areas. Many competent salesmen and executives, who had previously earned up to $500 per month, were walking the streets and more than willing to accept a relatively low-paying job at the Relief Commission. Having this caliber of employee on hand was in some measure responsible for the extremely low overall program administration cost of 3.18%. There were, however, allegations of abuse. In response, in 1931 Commission chairman Henry Black placed advertisements in many Saskatchewan weekly newspapers, appealing to citizens' patriotism and asking for information on anyone suspected of taking advantage of relief distribution. In all, Black received about a dozen replies; typical of the responses was a letter from a woman who said that neighbours of hers were keeping a dog and that Black should force them to get rid of it. On August 15, 1934, a month after taking office, J.G. Gardiner's Liberal government disbanded the Saskatchewan Relief Commission and fired most of its 160 head office employees.

Don Black