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Why homeowners ran 'the Marathon of Despair' in 1981

Fed up with high interest rates, some Canadians laced up their shoes to take their protest on the road in November 1981.

Protest against high interest rates also involved burning a miniature house

'Marathon of Despair' begins

41 years ago
Duration 1:09
Frustratd by high interest rates in 1981, a group of Canadians launches a mobile protest.

Fed up with high interest rates, some Canadians laced up their shoes to take their protest on the road in November 1981.

"The so-called Marathon of Despair passed through Toronto today," said Peter Mansbridge, hosting CBC's The National on Nov. 15, 1981.

"The runners are carrying lunch buckets full of ashes from a symbolic house-burning in St. Catharines, Ontario."

The marathon's name was apparently a nod to Terry Fox's Marathon of Hope, which had captivated Canadians the year before.

'A Canadian disaster' 

The same day they launched the run, protesters set this miniature house on fire to dramatize their concerns about high interest rates. (The National/CBC Archives)

With interest rates up to 18 per cent, despair was more prevalent than hope for a lot of Canadians with mortgages to pay.

The marathoners were planning to run to Ottawa as a form of protest, but first they had to deliver the ashes to the federal housing minister, Paul Cosgrove.

When it turned out he wasn't home, the runners enlisted Len Harrison, president of the St. Catharines District Labour Council, to make the dropoff to Cosgrove's wife.

The ashes of the symbolic burned home were placed in a lunch box to be presented to the housing minister, but he wasn't around to accept them. (The National/CBC Archives)

"It's a Canadian disaster," Harrison said as he left the ashes and a telegram asking Cosgrove to resign because of high interest rates.

"And they're in league with the banks to take it all off us!"

The runners, wearing matching red tank tops with an image of a broken heart, cheered as they departed.

On to Ottawa 

'Marathon of Despair' reaches Ottawa

41 years ago
Duration 2:23
The protesters running to the capital are joined by more people coming by train.

Five days later, they were almost there.

"The fact that interest rates have been falling in recent weeks doesn't seem to have taken the steam out of the cavalcade marching on Ottawa," said reporter Sheldon Turcott in a follow-up story from Nov. 20, 1981.

Organized by the Canadian Labour Congress (C.L.C.), throngs of people bearing signs and placards could be seen marching on the platform at the city's train station.

"We want [politicians] to understand that the real world is being affected by this economic idiocy, and this callous disregard for people," said Dennis McDermott, president of the C.L.C.

The National Union of Provincial Government Employees supported the march on Ottawa, which was an echo of a similar protest in 1935. (The National/CBC Archives)

Later in the day, a group called The Spirit of '35 arrived.

They were named to evoke the 1935 On to Ottawa trek, which saw thousands of the unemployed board trains to march on Ottawa as a protest against unemployment during the Depression.

"The enthusiastic train protesters are just a taste of what's in store for tomorrow," said Turcott, as the crowd could be heard singing Solidarity Forever.

According to the Globe and Mail, about 100,000 people attended the protest on Parliament Hill on Nov. 21, 1981.

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