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Riding Mountain's Relief Camp All Stars

For the Week of Monday, February 5, 2018

On February 6, 1933, the Relief Camp All Stars played hockey on Clear Lake in Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba.

Riding Mountain workers in a gravel pit in 1933. Many of these men were in the park orchestra, which performed on Saturday nights in the park town-site, Wasagaming.
© Parks Canada, Western Regional Office, Webster Collection

It was a brief reprieve from the hardships of relief camp life during the Great Depression. The Dominion Parks Branch had established relief camps in 1931 as part of a federal initiative to address high unemployment. In exchange for food, shelter and wages, men built facilities and infrastructure in the national parks. A similar system had been implemented during the First World War, when enemy aliens were put to work on construction projects in Canada’s national parks.

Originally a forest reserve, Riding Mountain became a national park by act of parliament in 1930. At this park, alone, there were 10 relief camps. The men worked hard for eight hours a day, six days a week, and in their time off relaxed with games and sports. Although they were well fed, living conditions were poor. Housing ranged from crowded log bunkhouses to portable tents to uninsulated tarpaper shacks. Conditions were even worse at camps administered by the Department of National Defence, where workers eventually staged protests that culminated with the On-to-Ottawa Trek in 1935.

The Relief Camp All Stars on Clear Lake in 1933. The original uniforms were green and white, the National Parks colours.
© Parks Canada, Western Regional Office, Webster Collection

When Clear Lake froze during the winter, Riding Mountain Superintendent James Smart distributed hockey equipment to camp workers, who organized their own hockey league with five teams. In 1933, their best players formed an all-star team: Osmack, Beatty, Abramson, Sweet, Brodack, Dinsdale, Galbraith, Johnson, Pickup, and Broda, a goalie who later became a five-time Stanley Cup champion with the Toronto Maple Leafs! Their Sunday matches against nearby towns regularly drew crowds of a thousand. In 2017, Riding Mountain staff staged a heritage hockey game on Clear Lake in tribute to these players.

Relief camp workers were essential to the development of Riding Mountain and other national parks: Prince Albert, Elk Island, Waterton Lakes, Jasper, Banff, Yoho, Kootenay, and Point Pelee. They built essential infrastructure and landmark structures that are still standing today, including Riding Mountain Park East Gate Registration Complex, a national historic site. To learn more about the Great Depression in Canada, read Bennett’s New Deal and On to Ottawa! in the This Week in History archives.

Parks Canada launched This Week in History 20 years ago! Check out @ParksCanada and visit the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada website.
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