75 years ago next week, on June 14th 1935, the On-To-Ottawa Trek was halted in Regina. The Trekkers–1,000+ unemployed single men–had set out by train from Vancouver 11 days earlier, picking up more men at stops along the way. Riding boxcars, they were determined to take their demand for work and wages to Ottawa.
In Regina, the Trekkers were stopped from continuing their journey by the RCMP on orders from Prime Minister R. B. Bennett. Negotiations resulted in 8 Trekkers being sent to Ottawa to meet with Mr. Bennett. The remaining Trekkers, now numbering about 2,000, waited in the Regina Exhibition Grounds, where food and shelter were supplied by Regina residents and the Saskatchewan government.
When talks broke down in Ottawa, the delegation returned, having decided to disband the Trek. They called for a public meeting on July 1st in Market Square, now the site of the Regina City Police Station, to update the public on events. It was attended by 3000 people, most of whom were Regina citizens, the majority of the Trekkers having opted to stay at the Exhibition Grounds.
Although the trek was dispersing, the federal government decided to arrest its leaders. At 8:15 pm, the Regina police and the RCMP charged the crowd, thus causing the Regina Riot. The conflict raged back and forth on Regina downtown streets, as the police threw tear gas and fired revolvers and Trekkers and their supporters fought back with sticks and stones.
In the end, 120 Trekkers and citizens were arrested and 100s on both sides were injured. Charles Miller, a policeman, was killed, and Nick Shaack, a Trekker, died later in hospital from head injuries sustained during the fighting. The police denied any Trekkers had been killed and hospital records were altered to conceal the actual cause of death.
1930s: ECONOMIC CONDITIONS
- In the early 1930s, the unemployment rate was 28% and 1 in 9 citizens were on relief. While there was help for families, there was none for single unemployed men.
- The Bennett government felt these men were a threat to society. In 1932, in an attempt to stop them from organizing, it instructed the Canadian military to set up work camps where single unemployed men were obliged to stay if they wanted to receive any welfare assistance. By 1935, more than 170,000 young men were housed in these work camps, all located in remote areas and run by the Ministry of Defense.
- The men called the camps “slave camps.” Upon arrival they were issued war surplus clothing, assigned to tar-paper shacks with 40 other men, and forced to work 6½ days a week for 20 cents a day. Any complaint was met with blacklisting, whereby the individual was marked as an agitator and barred from all relief camps.
- In an attempt to improve their conditions, the men in the camps formed the Relief Camp Workers’s Union. In 1935, the Union went on strike, demanding work at real wages; better food, clothing, and shelter; first aid equipment; an extention of the Workmen’s Compensation Act to include camp workers; an end to military discipline; and the right to vote in federal elections.
- The government ignored the strikers who then converged on Vancouver for two months of demonstrations, parades, and public meetings. Despite overwhelming public sympathy and support for “our boys,” the federal government refused to negotiate with the strikers.
- As a result, the strikers decided to undertake the On-To-Ottawa Trek.
2000s: ECONOMIC CONDITIONS
We like to think that conditions are much better today than they were in the 1930s. But are they really?
- Today, more than 3 million Canadians live in poverty. That’s 10% of the population.
- Today, 760,000 Canadian children are poor. That’s 1 child out of every 10 children.
- Today, 3 million Canadians live in inadequate or unsuitable dwellings or face shelter costs that are unaffordable. That’s 1.5 million households.
- Today, 300,000 people are homeless in Canada. 3,000 of those homeless people are in Regina.
- Today, 10,000+ people use the Regina and District Food Bank every month, half of them children.
In the 1930s, the majority of western Canadians were poor. Yet they supported the Trekkers, turning out in their 1000s to cheer them on, and providing food and clothing wherever the train stopped.
In Regina, 10,000 people attended a rally in Victoria Park, organized by the Citizens Emergency Committee to aid the Trekkers–an astonishing number given Regina’s population was only about 45,000 at the time. Indeed, public support for the Trekkers was so strong that on June 28, the federal government declared martial law, banning any form of public support for the Trek.
21st century Canada is a very affluent society. Yet even though most of us have money to spend on things we don’t really need–bottled water, cappuccinos, expensive shoes, flat-screen TVs, holidays in Mexico–we collectively resist supporting policies that would eliminate poverty in Canada, saying we don’t want to pay higher taxes or increase the cost of goods and services.
The establishment of a federal minimum wage, set at $12 and indexed to inflation, and the implementation of a national affordable housing program, with an annual budget of $2.5 billion, would go some way to eliminating poverty in Canada.
|As the struggle for social justice continues, we can find inspiration in the On-To-Ottawa Trekkers and their supporters, the Canadian people.
ON TO OTTAWA TREK AND REGINA RIOT 75TH ANNIVERSARY EVENTS
MONDAY JUNE 14: Marking the Arrival of the Trekkers in Regina
An evening of entertainment, including a film on the Regina Riot
Turvey Centre–Highway 6 North and Armour Drive
Organized by the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour and friends
For more information, call 525-0197
TUESDAY JUNE 29
2 Documentary Films on the On-To-Ottawa Trek: Boxcar Rebellion and The On-To-Ottawa Trek
Free at the Regina Public Library
Main Branch, Regina Public Library, downstairs theatre
THURSDAY JULY 1
Regina Riot Walking Tour
11:00 am-12 noon
Starts at the Police Station, 1717 Osler Street, and goes down 11th Avenue to Scarth Street
Take a look at the two On-To Ottawa Trek plaques on the Scarth Street Mall. Both are at the north end of the mall, on the east side. One is outside, near the stairs leading into the Globe Theatre. The other is inside the covered walkway, in front of Gilmour’s Corner.
During the Regina Riot, some of the fiercest fighting took place at the intersection of Scarth Street and 11th Avenue, right where we hold our weekly peace and justice vigil.