Canada: The Story of Us Episodes

Episode 7: Boom / Bust (1919 - 1937)

It’s the dawn of the 20th century, and Canada’s population is exploding. For many Canadians living in urban centres, this growth comes at a cost.

The early 20th century was a time of short-lived prosperity, followed by poverty.

Helen Armstrong of the Women's Labour League led women off the job in 1919. (Canada: The Story of Us)

It's the dawn of the 20th century and Canada's population is exploding. For many Canadians living in urban centres, this growth comes at cost. Deadly diseases plague cities. Labour strikes lead to violent conflict. Through boom times and bust, Canadians struggle to improve their lives and learn to care for others.


Workers fight for their rights in the Winnipeg General Strike (1919)

After WWI, thousands of soldiers return home to Winnipeg to pick up the pieces of their lives, only to discover jobs are scarce. Following the lead of the building and metal workers, who had gone on strike two weeks earlier, the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council calls for a general strike on May 15, 1919. At 11 a.m., roughly 30,000 workers walk off the job.

Women are among the strike's vanguard, led by Helen Armstrong of the Women's Labour League. She's one of the leaders of the strike and, through her hard work and rabble-rousing, she helps get over 2,000 working women involved.

On Bloody Saturday, the Northwest Mounted Police charge into a crowd of demonstrators on horseback. In the ensuing chaos, two strikers die and dozens are injured. A young Tommy Douglas witnesses the violence and is forever marked by the event.

Striking it rich in the Turner Valley Oil Field (1914)

Rancher William Stewart Herron knows there's oil under Southern Alberta's Turner Valley. It bubbles up out of the ground as natural gas. Pioneering cowboys used it for campfire fuel. The problem is, he also knows that the bulk of the oil is deep down below the earth and he has neither the equipment nor the know how to get at it. He teams up with veteran Canadian oil driller Archibald Dingman. Together, they discover and produce light oil — gasoline — helping found Alberta's petroleum industry and bringing a new economy to Western Canada.

Dr. Charles Hastings fights poverty and squalor in Toronto (1911)

When Dr. Charles Hastings' daughter dies drinking milk contaminated with typhus, he makes it his mission to change Toronto's horrid sanitation conditions. St. John's Ward (known as "The Ward") is home to the city's poorest immigrants. It becomes ground zero of this fight. In 1911, Hastings teams up with photographer Arthur Goss to show City Council just how bad the situation is. Hastings brings about significant public health reforms that make Toronto the model for all other North American cities.

Montreal: the original Sin City (1926)

With America bone dry under prohibition, two Canadian politicians facilitate the massive bootlegging industry in Montreal. Canadian bootleggers move billions of dollars of booze across the border. Montreal becomes a kind of prohibition-era Las Vegas, where big rollers frequent nightclubs with a high tolerance for their underground activities. What happens in Montreal stays in Montreal.

Eventually, the two crooked officials are caught and charged, but the boom of illegal alcohol has one positive note: it sets the foundations for what will become one of the North America's largest producers of legitimate booze, and eventually the cleanup and economic boom of mid-century Montreal.

Revitalizing the prairies in the depression (1929-37)

A massive drought threatens to turn the fertile prairies into a permanent desert. Farmers are leaving Saskatchewan, abandoning their once profitable farms. James Rugg and his family are amongst the few that stick it out, hoping some kind of crop will help hold the sandy soil down again. Experimental farmer Lawrence Kirk develops an almost-miraculous variety of crested wheatgrass that thrives in the dry conditions. With the help of Rugg, Kirk's grass is distributed across the province, revitalizing grazing pastures, stopping erosion and almost single-handedly restoring the vitality of the prairies.

Featured interviews
Adrienne Clarkson, Bruce Kuwabara, Charlotte Gray, Christopher Plummer, Colm Feore, David Finch, David Suzuki, Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Holness, John English, John Lorinc, Kristin Kreuk, Mark Kingwell, Michael Hawrysh, Michele Romanow, Pascal Bussières, Rick Hansen, Robert Lepage, Ron MacLean, Wendy Crewson, Zarqa Nawaz


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