"On to Ottawa Trek"
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"On to Ottawa Trek"
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"On to Ottawa Trek"
Thousands of jobless protesters head to Ottawa and become part of the worst riot of the Depression
On July 1, 1935, the simmering tensions of the Great Depression boiled over in Canada as police and jobless protesters clashed in the streets of Regina.
In April 1935, one thousand, five hundred men from British Columbia relief camps went on strike and congregated in Vancouver. (National Archives of Canada, P05844t)
In April 1935, one thousand, five hundred men from British Columbia relief camps went on strike and congregated in Vancouver. (National Archives of Canada, P05844t)

When it was over, one policeman was dead, 40 protesters and five citizens were wounded, and 130 men were arrested. The city was a ruin, the sidewalks covered in broken glass.

It was Canada's worst riot during the Depression.

The Regina Riot was the culmination of months of protests as thousands of unemployed men moved across the country in what became known at the "On To Ottawa Trek." The men wanted to coerce the federal government into finding them jobs.

The trek originated on the West Coast as a local demonstration. In April 1935, fifteen-hundred men from British Columbia relief camps went on strike and congregated in Vancouver.

The men resented the federal work camps set up at the height of the Depression to offer jobless single men subsistence living. Men earned 20 cents a day for a 44-hour workweek in the remote camps spread around the country.

"The Tory government of R.B. Bennett had decided a role for the single unemployed," striker Ron Liversedge noted. "They were to be hidden away to become forgotten men, the forgotten generation. How naive of Mr. Bennett. Never were forgotten men more in the public eye."

In Vancouver, strikers held demonstrations and elicited support from othercitizens. Vancouver women held a picnic to raise money for the strikers - 20,000 people attended. It was a signal to Prime Minister Bennett that it was time to take care of Canadas poor.

But the Prime Minister was blind to the message and virtually ignored the protests.
In early June 1935, one thousand relief camp strikers peacefully commandeered freight trains in British Columbia and began the "On to Ottawa Trek."  Pictured here, strikers en route to Eastern Canada during march on Ottawa. (National Archives of Canada, C
In early June 1935, one thousand relief camp strikers peacefully commandeered freight trains in British Columbia and began the "On to Ottawa Trek." Pictured here, strikers en route to Eastern Canada during march on Ottawa. (National Archives of Canada, C-029399)

By early June, discouraged by their lack of progress, strike leaders decided to move the protest to Ottawa. One thousand strikers peacefully commandeered freight trains and began the "On to Ottawa Trek."

There was a growing militancy along the way. In Calgary, the strikers demanded three days of relief assistance from the city. A meeting with the mayor had the air of intimidation, as the mayor and government officials were pinned in city hall by the crowd of desperate men.

"We told him we wouldn't let him out," Liversedge wrote. "That we were prepared to wait as long as he was prepared to go hungry. And we reminded him that we could outlast him since we'd been hungry a lot more often than he had."

They received three days worth of meal vouchers and were joined by hundreds of Alberta men.

The protesters seemed unstoppable; everywhere they went, momentum grew as the strikers picked up hundreds more recruits. They made stops in Calgary, Medicine Hat, Swift Current and Moose Jaw and by the time they reached Regina their numbers had doubled to 2,000.

In Regina, the federal government forbadethe railways to take the men any further.

Prime Minister Bennett finally agreed to meet with a delegation of strikers but the meeting ended badly as both sides exchanged words. The delegation returned to Regina having decided to disband the trek.

Meanwhile Bennett was determined to arrest the leaders

On July 1 several hundred strikers were meeting in Regina's Market Square to discuss strategy when they were suddenly interrupted.

"A shrill whistle blasted out a signal," Liversedge remembered, "The backs of vans were opened and out poured the Mounties, each armed with a baseball bat. In less than four minutes Market Square was a mass of writhing, groaning forms, like a battlefield."

The strikers erected barricades and threw stones, and the Mounties retaliated with their .38 revolvers.

The "On to Ottawa Trek" was over. The men dispersed, were jailed or slowly returned to the work camps. Bennett had won, but his reputation suffered. Within months his government would be voted out of office.


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