Eighty-three years ago, hundreds of men peacefully commandeered a train in Vancouver and headed for Ottawa. The out-of-work labourers from federal relief camps in remote areas of British Columbia sought improved working conditions at the camps.
Scores more protesters joined the trekkers as the train headed east.
The On-to-Ottawa Trek is just one of several Canadian labour protests that took place during the 1930s. Rampant unemployment and poor social support meant one in nine Canadians relied on emergency relief for day-to-day survival. Only about one in four working-aged Canadians worked steadily, and often even their jobs were precarious.
The government was particularly nervous about all the unemployed men wandering the country in search of work. Many of the men had learned in First World War trenches the value of questioning authority. Events in the former Russia had also galvanized communists and socialists worldwide and caused fear in governments.
To keep the men under control, the Canadian government set up relief camps in remote regions across the country. In exchange for primitive room, basic board and 20 cents in wages for each day worked, the men cleared land, laid airport runways and built infrastructure that we still use today. The men housed at the Otter Point relief camp, for example, cleared thick thousand-year-old coastal forest and built the West Coast Road from Sooke to the west side of Gordon’s Beach.
By residing in the camps, the labourers forfeited their right to vote in elections. As well, despite the often-dangerous work and remote locations, most camps had only the most basic first-aid supplies.
The government had miscalculated. Instead of snuffing out expectations of workers’ rights and similar socialist ideas, the camps focused the men and enabled them to organize. After months of strikes, rallies and protests, on June 3, 1935, about 1,500 relief-camp workers took their demands eastward.
When they reached Regina, however, the government insisted the railways stop the train. Only eight trekkers made it to Ottawa to negotiate with prime minister R.B. Bennett. The others remained in the Prairie city, camped at the Regina exhibition grounds near RCMP headquarters, to await news from Ottawa.
The meeting with Bennett took place July 22. Four days earlier, police violence had caused striking dockworkers in Vancouver to riot, and Bennett was having none of it. He accused the trekkers of being radicals, revolutionaries and criminals, and the discussion deteriorated from there.
On July 2, about 1,500 to 2,000 people — including many local residents — gathered in Regina to hear the leaders’ news from Ottawa. The RCMP and Regina police barricaded the area, and — following their Vancouver colleagues’ example — attacked the crowd. Striking labourers and residents with batons and firing revolvers above and into groups of people, they, too, sparked a riot.
Storefronts were destroyed. About 120 trekkers and residents were arrested. Hundreds of people were injured. Two died.
The premier of Saskatchewan accused the police of precipitating the riot. But in the House of Commons, only the trekkers were blamed. Bennett characterized the trek as a “revolutionary effort on the part of a group of men to usurp authority and destroy government.”
Again, the government miscalculated. The Depression’s impact on average Canadians — out of work, on emergency relief and worried — and news reports of events in Vancouver and elsewhere predisposed many Canadians to sympathize with the trekkers. When newspapers headlined the police’s role in the Regina riots, Canadians were outraged.
Three months later, they voted the Bennett government out of office.
Provincially run seasonal camps that paid slightly higher wages replaced the relief camps. More to the point, the political and social climate that the On-to-Ottawa Trek helped create made later labour improvements possible.
When war production made workers essential during the Second World War, government enacted legislation that obliged employers to recognize and deal with labour unions.
With the decline of the province’s resource industries and the rise of the global and gig economies in the past 20 years, only about one in three British Columbian workers belongs to a union today. However, we all benefit from the concessions organized workers won from employers and government in past decades — a minimum wage, employment insurance, a ban on child labour, parental leave and workplace safety laws that hold employers to account.