Posted on 18 October 2011By David Murray. What the On to Ottawa Trek was about happened during “The Great Depression”. Poverty, unemployment, riding the freights, soup lines, flop houses, and hopelessness grew from economic failure of capitalism in the 1930′s.
To avoid starvation or risk of jail for vagrancy, thousands of single unemployed men were forced into isolated “relief camps” which the governments established in an attempt to control, and hide, the shame of a whole generation of young Canadians without work. Under the military control of the camps, with few rights and no future, young men built roads by hand-for pay of 20 cents a day.
However the young men in the camps had not lost their spirit or their dreams. With the help of the Workers’ Unity League, the Relief Camp Workers’ Union was organized.
On April 4 1935, thousands left the camps and headed to Vancouver to demand real jobs, and an end to the camps. While the civic authorities responded to the strikers’ audacious marches and protests with arrests and the infamous reading of the Riot Act, the citizens of Vancouver gave “our boys” overwhelming support, and assistance was organized by church groups, unions, the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation (NDP) , and many community organizations.
After two months in Vancouver, the unemployed resolved to take their plea for “Work and Wages” to the source of the problem: the Conservative federal government led by R.B. “Iron Heel” Bennett. On June 3 1935, about 1,200 workers climbed atop CPR boxcars on the Vancouver waterfront, and headed to Ottawa.
After great welcomes in Kamloops and Golden, the Trek survived the hazardous journey through the Rockies, and reached Calgary. At every stop, hundreds more young unemployed joined the protest. As it rolled east across the prairies, the Trek swelled to over 2,000, and many more awaited in Winnipeg and centres in Ontario. Public support grew across Canada.
R.B.Bennett ordered police and the CPR to stop the unemployed protest in Regina. The Trek held there, while Arthur Evans and seven others met Bennett in Ottawa. The Prime Minister berated the jobless,and dismissed all their proposals out of hand. Then on July 1 1935, a peaceful meeting of trekkers and Regina citizens was attacked by armed and mounted police.The Trekkers were herded into and held in Regina’s stadium. A contingent of unemployed in Winnipeg then attempted to continue the march east, but they too were stopped by armed police in Ontario.
They arrested Trek leaders, unleashing a riot in which at least two persons were killed, dozens suffered police gunshot wounds, and hundreds more were injured.
The Trek was broken on orders of the federal government, but the people of Canada swept Iron Heel Bennett from office short months later. His Liberal successor moved to abolish the relief camps, and gradually instituted unemployment insurance and other social reforms.
The story of the On to Ottawa Trek and the spirit of the trekkers remains an inspiration for today’s trade unionists and social activists who carry on the unfinished business of 1935: ending unemployment and poverty by providing work, wages, and decent social programs for all Canadians.
On to Ottawa Trek – Click Here