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On to Ottawa!

For the week of Monday June 3, 2002

On June 3, 1935, about 1000 unemployed workers, victims of the Great Depression, left Vancouver for Ottawa by train. Along the way, they protested the lack of jobs and the working conditions in the relief camps.

On-to-Ottawa trekkers after the Regina Riot 1935

On-to-Ottawa trekkers after the Regina Riot 1935
© Saskatchewan Archives Board / R-A21749-1

In 1935, after six years of economic crisis, many Canadians relied entirely on government assistance in order to survive. Created in 1932 by the federal government, relief camps took in jobless single men considered likely to be socially disruptive. In exchange for room, board and pay of 20 cents a day, the men toiled eight hours a day six days a week, on public projects.

On April 4, 1935, British Columbia relief camps' workers called a strike and converged in Vancouver to demand real jobs for real pay. After two months of striking, they decided to set out on a march to Ottawa to express their discontent in person. Their discipline and willingness to negociate attracted the public's sympathy, who were also victims of the Depression. Unemployment was no longer associated with laziness but with the economic system and the failure of government measures to fight recession. To encourage the trekkers, local left-wing groups and charitable organizations prepared meals and organized meetings. Another 400 men joined the march in Calgary. Uneasy at the sight of this growing wave of unhappy, unemployed workers heading towards Ottawa, Prime Minister R. B. Bennett decided to halt the trek.

Strikers from unemployment relief camps en route to Ottawa

Strikers from unemployment relief camps
en route to Ottawa

© LAC / C-029399

On July 1, 500 police officers surrounded the Regina market where 2000 people, many of them city residents, were gathered. Suspected of communist plotting, the main organizers of the march were arrested and a riot erupted. During the night, the violence escalated, and police officers and trekkers were injured. On July 5, the marchers were forced to turn back. Nevertheless, other jobless workers from Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec followed their lead and travelled to Ottawa. In 1936, with Mackenzie King back in power, the relief camps were finally abolished, but the unemployment problem would continue up until the Second World War.

The On-to-Ottawa Trek marked a turning point in the way Canadians viewed the government's role in social policy and regulation of the economy. The On-to-Ottawa Trek is an event of national historic significance. The Right Honourable William Lyon Mackenzie King and the Right Honourable Richard Bedford Bennett are persons of national historic significance.

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