No Place to Turn|
Victims of the Depression get little help from the Canadian government
Before the Depression, James Gray was achieving the middle-class dream. In 1926, he had saved enough money to buy a mini-golf course - the latest fad among Winnipeg's growing leisure class.
<! -----------TABLE INSERT1 END--------->
|As the Depression started taking a toll on the middle class, Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett finally stepped in and gave provinces 20 million dollars for relief in 1932. (National Archives of Canada, P03933)
Then the Depression hit and Gray's business collapsed.
"I was not yet twenty-five," he wrote in a memoir, "but I could look back on ten years of psychopathic concentration on getting ahead in life. Then my number came up and I was confronted with the ego-shattering discovery that there wasn't a single employer in all Winnipeg who would give me a job. It was my own fault. I couldn't feed my family."
By 1933, a quarter of Canada's labour force was unemployed. And there were
few places to turn for those who lost their jobs.
Canada had a rudimentary social welfare system. There was no national unemployment program, a small old age pension scheme and little for the sick or destitute.
The responsibility for assisting the needy was placed on the provinces and municipalities. Help was haphazard at best and many provincial and local governments verged on bankruptcy during the bad times. Private charities filled some of the void.
As the Depression deepened and starting taking a toll on the middle class, Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett finally stepped in and gave province 20 million dollars for relief in 1932.
Among the first Canadians to go on the dole was James Gray.
"We received no cash. Vouchers covered food, fuel and rent. But we needed other things-many other things like tobacco and cigarette papers-toothpaste, razor blades, lipstick, face powder, the odd bottle of aspirin, streetcar fare...We could have cleaned our teeth with soap, But there was such a thing as morale even for the destitute."
Grays food rations ran out half way through every month and he had few job prospects in sight.
Bennett's government did little during the first years of the Depression to stimulate the economy or the job market. Like many leaders in industrialized countries, Bennett believed in the free-enterprise system - government had no place tinkering with the economy. Even if the economy was in chaos.
"The closest any of us on relief ever got to socially useful labour was sawing cordwood," remembered James Gray. "But we were drafted periodically for all the make-work projects, like raking leaves, picking rock, digging dandelions, and tidying up back lanes ... It was all justified on the grounds that exercise would be good for us, that working would improve our morale, and that, by providing us with a token opportunity to work for our relief, we would be freed of the stigma of accepting charity. None of these propositions had much validity."
Subsistence living took its toll on Gray. He visited a doctor assigned to people on the dole and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Gray remembered his encounter with the doctor:
"It must have been quite some time since he had encountered such a walking skeleton. I was five feet eleven inches tall and weighed 118 pounds with most of my clothes on. I got the bad news. The doctor was completely off hand about it."
Gray was one of nearly 100,000 Canadians diagnosed with tuberculosis during the Depression.
James Gray survived the disease and eventually found work as a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press at what was then the princely sum of 20 dollars a week. He drove across the prairies, reporting how others were trying to survive the Depression-era West.