There is much to learn in the present period from the social conditions and social and political struggles of the 1930s. It, like today, was a period of economic crisis, austerity, authoritarianism, and repression. The austerity regimes of the last four decades have dismantled much of the social safety net systems of welfare, social housing, unemployment insurance, and educational grants built up through the social struggles, like those of unemployed workers and the On to Ottawa Trek of the 1930s. The result has been a return to conditions of social isolation and regulation, individualization and privatization that characterized state capitalist policy and practices in the period of economic crisis of the 1930s.
One outcome of the period of neoliberal austerity has been the turn away from social welfare systems that view housing, welfare, etc. as social rights available to all on the basis of need (with obvious restrictions in terms of nationalist residency and citizenship) to a neoliberal system that views these as privileges available only to those who prove deserving (typically through their willingness to labor for the state or capital). Another outcome of neoliberalism has been the privatization of social services either in businesses, NGOs, or churches and religious organizations. A further outcome has been the increase in repression and the expansion f repressive institutions, from surveillance to police to prisons to community corrections to regulate and punish especially the poorest and most deprived as well as the increase in repressive force against organizations that challenge and contest the status quo and dominant forces.
These outcomes of the austerity politics of the present share stark similarities with socio-political conditions of the 1930s. The response of the Canadian government to mass unemployment and poverty was repression and regulation in the service of accumulation. In order to secure some shelter, food, and minimal pay, single unemployed workers were placed in labor camps and put to hard labor doing the work of infrastructure building according to the needs of the state and industry.
Notably the work camps were explicit elements of social war and had a specifically military character. On the whole the state response to unemployed workers and the response to organizing and resistance by unemployed workers shows the nature of social war and capitalist regulatory regimes for accumulation within the Canadian context.
This repressive workfare approach very much motivated the Conservative government of R.B, Bennett in the 1930s and motivated much of their response to unemployed workers and the On to Ottawa trekkers. And the Conservative government was fully prepared to use social war means, including lethal military force, to impose workfare discipline on unemployed workers and to break collective resistance movements. In upholding the state capitalist status quo the police in Regina would kill unemployed worker Nick Schaack in what is known, infamously, as the Regina Riot, a military police riot against striking camp workers and their supporters.
No Relief: Forced Labor Camps and the Regulation of the Unemployed
The economic crises of the Great Depression and the mass scale of unemployment left one in nine citizens in Canada relying on relief (Zuehlke 1996). Relief was not provided as a human or civil right but was rather meted out as a combined form of regulation, punishment, and forced labor by the Conservative Government of R.B. Bennett. The Bennett Government ordered the Department of National Defence to construct and manage work camps in which single unemployed men were put to work building roads and bridges, digging ditches, and undertaking other public works projects as condition of receiving relief. And that relief came at a rate of twenty cents per day.
In addition the tough, often unsafe and unhealthy work was done in the absence of adequate first aid or medical resources at work sites or in the camps. Furthermore, the work of the camps was not covered under the Workmen’s Compensation Act which offered some protections for workers in cases of job related injuries or illnesses.
Terrible working and living conditions in the militarily managed camps were matched with undemocratic regulation. Unemployed workers in the camps organized committees and representation but these were ignored by the military and government. Unemployed people in the camps were disenfranchised losing what they believed was a right to vote. All of this prepared grounds for dissatisfaction and unrest against camp management and the government.
The Workers’ Unity League (WUL), active in a range of working class struggles of the day worked to help unemployed workers in the camps form a Relief Camp Workers’ Union (RCWU) in 1933. They would organize a strike over conditions in and management in the camps. In December of 1934 unemployed camp workers abandoned the camps for a mass demonstration against the government in Vancouver, home of Prime Minister Bennett’s constituency office. In response the government offered first policing and then the promise of a government commission to investigate the concerns of camp workers. Purely a ploy to dissipate the movement by the government the promised commission never materialized. A second strike was organized for April 4, 1935. A mass movement by this point more than 1600 striking camp workers travelled to Vancouver (Waiser 2003).
The striking camp workers took forward a range of targeted demands that addressed the many concerns facing workers in the camps. The primary demands included pay and working condition improvements: wages of 50 cents per hour (up from 25 cents) for unskilled work; union wages for skilled work; guarantees of 120 hours of work per month; and Workmen’s Compensation Act coverage for all camp workers. There were also demands over governance and rights for camp workers. These included: recognition by camp management and government of the democratically elected workers’ committees; restoration of the right to vote in elections for camp workers. The strikers also called for the camps to be taken out of the control of the Department of National Defence. Notably the RCWU strikers also called for the rescinding of the notorious Section 98 of the Criminal Code, an explicitly anti-communist provision passed to repress opposition to government initiated as part of the earlier Red Scare and state violence at the time of the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919.
Public support for the relief camp strikers was massive. Governments at all levels failed to respond instead attempting to pass responsibility from one level to another. Bennett refused to travel to Vancouver to meet with any delegation of workers. He was in hiding. Receiving no adequate response to their initiative and no answer to their demands the strikers determined to take their movement and demands directly to the federal government in Ottawa. Their figurehead would be the outstanding organizer Arthur “Slim” Evans.
On June 3, 1935, hundreds of striking camp workers and unemployed people in Vancouver loaded onto boxcars heading east. What would become known as the “On to Ottawa Trek,” one of the great oppositional movements in working class history in the Canadian state context, was born. The Trek would end less than a month later in an infamous act of police state violence and the murder of an unemployed worker, Nick Schaack
On to Ottawa
The government, and particularly the Department of National Defence, seems to have anticipated winning a war of attrition in which the On to Ottawa Trek would disintegrate as trekkers became bored, tired, hungry, and/or cold, giving rise to feelings of hopelessness and demoralization.
This result never happened much to the growing concern of authorities. The rising support of local residents along the train route lifted the spirits of the trekkers and showed the mutual aid on which working class resistance has always relied for sustenance.
The stop in Golden, British Columbia on June six and seven, 1935 was particularly rejuvenating for the trekkers. It showed the support the organized unemployed had secured. A local farmer Mrs. Sorely formed a committee of the local Workers’ Protective Association and organized area farmers and townsfolk to prepare food and provisions for the arriving strikers. Trekker Ronald Liversedge recalls:
“It was incredible, it was heartwarming, it was beautiful.
The column of men halted, a thunderous cheer arose, and the men broke ranks and rushed over to embrace those quiet smiling, wonderful women of Golden. The little whitehaired woman had, with the aid of our advance committee, mobilized the farmers in that valley of Golden. With only twenty-four hours to work on, they had procured here a calf, there a quarter of beef, there potatoes, there carrots, turnips, onions, all in huge quantities, set all the women to baking bread, collecting cooking utensils, plates and mugs, with the end result which welcomed us on our arrival. All this had been accomplished with an absence of fuss and bother.
The people of Golden knew about us, and our struggles; they knew about the relief camps. Their welcome of us was the welcome of pioneers, heartfelt, deep, and sincere. Golden stood out in the memory of the trekkers as the most restful, tranquil episode of the whole trek.
Quickly the camp workers jumped in to relieve the men and women who had worked so hard to greet us. Squads of cooks, waiters, fire tenders, and water carriers were soon organized, and before long dinner was served. That never-to-be-forgotten meal! The weather was ideal, the outdoor site was superb, and our hosts were salt of the earth.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 149)
That the organized unemployed generally and the On to Ottawa trekkers specifically were viewed by the government through a social war framework is clear in the fact that the Department of National Defence kept steady watch on them. Reports were regularly filed to the National Defence Headquarters.
Notably the trekkers were not engaging in misbehavior or troublemaking. The District Officer Commanding for Military District Thirteen (Alberta and Eastern British Columbia) and the Officer Commanding in Regina both remarked upon the solid discipline, excellent organization, and decent conduct of the trekkers. And, of certain concern to the government if not the military they noted the favorable impression the trekkers made on the general public (Brown 1987, 150–151).
For their part the trekkers stayed on a specific strategic message focusing on their specific grievances and consistently stated demands upon the government rather than broader ideational or propaganda messages for radical social transformation which many of them, as well as their supporters, actually desired. In a leaflet distributed in Calgary the trekkers stayed on point with their focused appeals. It read in part: “We invite all political, economic, cultural and church organizations to give us their support in our just fight for the abolition of the present relief camp system” (quoted in Brown 1987, 154). They stayed true to their message and communicated it to one and all.
Their honesty was matched with a direct action approach. The military and provincial politicians in Alberta became tweaked when trekkers occupied and barricaded themselves inside of a Calgary Relief Office along with the Provincial Relief Officer, A.A. McKenzie, and Dr. Stanley the Conservative MP for Calgary East. The direct action occupation had won the trekkers $600 in meal tickets from municipal authorities on direction from the Alberta government.
McKenzie wrote almost immediately to the federal Labour Minister Gordon in breathless terms warning of a revolutionary tide. In the words of his wire this was placed in military terms:
“Regarding British Columbia single men. A dangerous revolutionary army intimidating and defying provincial and municipal governments by threats and actually holding officials as hostage until demands met. Their success having a far reaching effect that may be difficult to control.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 155).
Others in the military were also on alert. The local Officer Commanding reported to Ottawa his concerns following the support picnic on June 9. He warned: “Speaker today said public militant action will be taken by men any time needs no agreed to” (quoted in Brown 1987, 155). This concern of authorities seemed confirmed by the occupation of the Relief Office. His report also stirred government concern about a growing movement that would be bolstered if it ever reached Winnipeg. He reported: “Talk amongst men this is revolutionary movement, large numbers expected to join at Winnipeg and Toronto” (quoted in Brown 1987, 155).
Of real worry to the government was that the Trek was gaining widespread and growing support among the public and much of the mainstream press. Local authorities in Calgary were the ones being chastised for responding in such a panicked fashion to the unemployed. Notably the bugaboo of communism was not frightening the public or turning public opinion against the trekkers whose demands were so straightforward and viewed as legitimate. When the Trek left Calgary it had grown by hundreds of participants including a large group who had come from Edmonton after being cut off of relief for refusing to go to the camps.
The social and political context was one which was perilous for the ruling Conservative Party. The Conservatives had been virtually erased as a political presence in almost every province (Brown 1987, 151). The Bennett government reached levels still among the least popular governments in Canadian history. They were living on borrowed time even if they could not see it themselves.
The federal government came to the decision to stop the trekkers in Saskatchewan while the trekkers were still in Alberta. The success of the trekkers in Calgary and the popular public support they received there convinced the Bennett government that the Trek, far from losing steam and fizzling out, was gaining both momentum and support. In Calgary thousands of dollars were raised for the trekkers and a picnic was held in their honor. And the prospects for a huge boost in support and recognition were looming with arrival in Winnipeg, home of the Winnipeg General Strike and historic hotbed of working class radicalism in the West.
On to Regina
The Trek arrived in Saskatchewan on June 12. They had been preceded by advance teams who had secured accommodations and meal tickets for use at restaurants and made connections with local support groups. Public meetings were held in Swift Current and Moose Jaw, the first stops in the province, to let people know about the trekkers’ demands and aims. The plan for trekkers was to stay no more than two or three days in Regina and then continue east.
The trekkers landed in Regina on June 14, their numbers now swelled to about 1800 with anticipated arrival of hundreds more from a large camp at Dundurn outside of Saskatoon (Brown 1987, 160). The public were solidly behind the trekkers with a large Citizen’s Emergency Relief Committee operating to provide emotional and material support to the movement.
The police and military were watching and in communication with the government about events on the ground. District Officer Commanding, Brigadier Boak, reported on June 14 and June 15 of the broad support shown for the trekkers by both the public and city officials in Regina (Brown 1987, 160).
A mass gathering of 6000 turned up for a public meeting at the exhibition stadium to support the trekkers and hear about their demands and plans. The meeting passed three resolutions. One condemned PM Bennett’s decision to halt the Trek. Another asked for formal protest from the opposition parties against the Conservative government’s decision to send more police to Regina. The final resolution condemned the Conservative MP for Regina, F.N. Turnbull who had suggested that the militia be called in against the trekkers (Brown 1987, 161). The latter point highlights the government’s readiness to deal with the strikers militarily with force.
Slim Evans noted that the Trek was not only interested in in meeting with Bennett. They wanted to educate the public on conditions in the camps and build support for the unemployed on a broader basis. In his words in Regina: “But we’re not in a hurry to go down and see Mr. Bennett. We want to stop at all the cities along the way and tell citizens of the hopelessness of the relief camp situation” (quoted in Brown 1987, 161). And the people very much wanted to hear it.
By the time the trekkers entered Saskatchewan the Bennett government was nearing a crisis level. Deeply unpopular it was losing its legitimacy in the eyes of the public at a growing pace. Even more, many were beginning to question the very legitimacy of the capitalist state itself (Brown 1987, 156). The Calgary Albertan published an editorial which openly condemned the government. Referring to McKenzie’s complaints about the Relief Office occupation it read in part:
“He might have been the victim of a less disciplined, less organized body of men. But he was not; he really was co-victim with them of a Government at Ottawa which deferred men’s hopes—all our hopes—so often, promised us so much and given us so little that at length the chief sufferers have determined to go to Ottawa and ask the Prime Minister himself what he proposed to do about it.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 156)
The Regina Leader-Post pointed out the bankruptcy of the government’s approach and their reliance on violence:
“The camp strikers have become a body of national importance and the Dominion Government appears to have no policy except that of force.
So far as Saskatchewan is concerned the people who made it possible for the strikers to reach here by rail had better concern themselves with methods to get them out, and to get them out in the orderly fashion in which they came in.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 161)
Regina was determined to be the strategically beneficial spot to stop the Trek for the now desperate government. The RCMP training depot is situated there along with a large active RCMP force. Regina was also viewed as having a small organized labor movement, less radical than that of Winnipeg (Brown 1987). For the government the Trek had to be stopped before it could reach the center of working class radicalism in Winnipeg.
The decision to stop the Trek was opposed and derided by the public, mass media, opposition parties, and the provincial government in Saskatchewan. The Saskatchewan government had made plans to provide food and accommodation to trekkers while they were in the province.
Provocative Governance: Preparing a Riot in Regina
The federal government prepared to use both the militia and the regular army against the trekkers. There was some concern though about the readiness of the local militia to attack the unemployed.
When word came out on June 15 that the railway was acting against trespassing the trekkers determined to leave Regina by freight on June 17. They put out a request to residents of Regina to attend the railway yards to keep police from intervening against the trekkers. The trekkers knew the stakes. In a leaflet they stated: “Only the mass support of Regina citizens will force the Authorities to keep their hands off us on our way to Ottawa” (quoted in Brown 1987, 164).
While the provincial government tried to reaffirm its control over the police so as to allow the trekkers to leave, the federal Justice Minister Hugh Guthrie again reasserted the federal government’s authority over the RCMP and federal jurisdiction in the matter (Brown 1987, 163).
As the June 17 clash loomed, the federal government announced it was sending the Minister of Railways, Dr. R.J. Marin, and the Minister of Agriculture, Robert Weir, to Regina to hear the trekkers’ concerns. They would arrive there on the 17th. Still RCMP Assistant Commissioner Wood mobilized his forces to prevent boarding of trains and arranged with CPR to cancel the eastbound freight scheduled to leave Regina. The Riot Act was going to be read (Brown 1987, 164).
In a telegram to the federal Minister of Justice, the Premier suggested that the federal government was setting the stage for, even actively provoking, a riot. Indeed the federal government actions seemed designed solely to spark a riot—giving the government the excuse to unleash extreme repressive violence against the trekkers.
The tension on June 17 would be somewhat lifted on news that Slim Evans and seven other representatives of the Trek would meet with Marion and Weir. At the meeting Marion raised the proposal that Trek representatives travel to Ottawa to meet with the Bennett cabinet. The proposal was taken to the trekkers for discussion and for decision. After much debate a mass meeting of trekkers decided that a delegation of eight trekkers would travel to Ottawa. Many were concerned that this was only a government stall tactic to both separate some organizers from the mass group and to secure time to prepare an assault by police. The decision to halt the Trek while a delegation traveled to Ottawa would prove disastrous for the Trek though it was well received by the public and the mainstream press.
The Bennett government now had an opportunity to see a voluntary disbanding of the Trek. But to do so they would have to compromise and make some real concessions and provide real results. The RCWU was willing to listen to and respond positively to reasonable offers. Bennett would have benefited his government in an election year by gaining some public goodwill and legitimacy in the eyes of the mass media.
Tellingly the influence of the RCMP and the military played key parts in keeping the government from reaching a compromise. For the RCMP and Department of National Defence the organized unemployed were communist agitators who could not, and should not, be reasoned with. Should never be accommodate, and by nature threatened legitimate (i.e. government) authority. This position restricted what little inclination the government might have had for a mutually agreeable settlement. For the military forces and government, the communists must get nothing.
The RCMP officials acted on the assumption that talks would fail. From the start of the planned Ottawa meeting they pushed for a violent police intervention. Assistant RCMP Commissioner Wood even worked up a detailed plan to stop the Trek by force and repress the trekkers. On June 8 he communicated this plan to RCMP Commissioner MacBrien (Brown 1987, 170). He stated: “Energetic police action in this operation would, I am sure, have liquidated this movement, for a large percentage are boys who never have been in a relief camp and have joined this movement as they would a circus, not realizing what it was all about or what was back of it” (quoted in Brown 1987, 170). One might again note the patronizing view of unemployed workers held by the government and their wishful thinking about the composition of the movement. One might also note the liquidationist social war language.
The meeting between the Trek delegation and the federal cabinet occurred on June 22, 1935. It did not go well. Evans noted that the issue of the camps was systemic rather than limited to specific grievances He also raised concerns that an additional 60 RCMP troops had been transferred to Regina while the delegation was away, in violation of the agreed to terms for the meeting (Brown 1987, 170).
Incredibly in his time Bennett first asked where each of the delegates had been born. He then raised questions about the delegates on the basis of all but Evans having been born outside Canada. The xenophobia and racism of the Bennett government would not be concealed even in this meeting. That the government turned immediately to nationalist xenophobia showed their racist framework but also their reliance on divide and conquer approaches to working class unity.
Said Bennett during the meeting:
“We have listened with much interest as to what you men have had to say. With the exception of one of you, who has a record that we will not discuss, you were born outside Canada, and in the country from which you came I was told the other day there are one million men who have no work and never will have. In this country we have been passing through the same period of depression as the rest of the world.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 172)
Bennett then went on a red baiting rant against communism, “Soviet Committees,” the WUL, and the whole project of unemployed organizing. What really bothered him was a “rising against law and against the institutions of our country” (quoted in Brown 1987, 173). This unleashed a diatribe against the delegates. Bennett railed:
“You have not shown much anxiety to get work, not much anxiety to get work. It is the one thing you do not want. What you want is this adventure in the hope that the organization which you are promoting in Canada may be able to over-awe government and break down the forces that represent law and order. I never thought that I would come to the day when I would hear a Canadian at any rate say that a country that sends its policemen west or east for the purpose of maintaining law in the country is going to be subjected to censure on the part of those who themselves admit they are violators of the law, admitted here today. The police have moved west; they have moved east; they will move in increasing numbers whenever it is necessary to maintain law. Take that down.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 173)
Bennett, in an anti-communist furor, rejected any recognition of elected camp committees as a plot to establish Soviets in the camps. Tellingly the Prime Minister refused to take the camps out of DND control. Finally Bennett ignored the advice of Manion and offered the trekkers nothing in the way of even limited compromise.
A 1930s Solution: Military Containment Camps for the Unemployed
Federal DND and RCMP officials put the plan to stop the Trek into action on June 22, even as the delegation was meeting with the federal cabinet. In Winnipeg 860 new men had requested to join the Trek and authorities feared those numbers would swell over 1000 if the Trek reached the city.
Incredibly the government planned, in 1930s fashion, a containment camp to hold trekkers. The military character and focus on labor regulation of the camps was clear. On June 24 the District Officer Commanding in Regina, Brigadier Boak, was ordered to establish the detention camp at Lumsden, 20 miles from Regina (Brown 1987, 179). By June 25 the special camp had been built and was ready for inmates.
The Lumsden camp would be policed by the RCMP and administered by the military while being formally under the purview of the federal Department of Labour (largely for public relations purposes). Assistant Commissioner Wood of the RCMP framed it in these terms: “Absolutely essential that housing and particularly feeding be handed over to National Defence Department in order to secure control and liquidate movement” (quoted in Brown 1987, 179). Note the liquidationist language used repeatedly by the federal government. The trekkers were to be forced explicitly into military containment camps from which they would be dispersed to other work camps. The state capitalist nexus of military detention, forced labor, and social war is inescapably clear in this case. Work would make them free?
In Regina the RCMP had amassed its own force of 340 officers. Railway and city police would bring those numbers to around 500 (Brown 1987, 181). While the military would have been mobilized in open social war against the trekkers the large police force available made this not immediately necessary. Police forces were entirely suitable for waging this campaign of social war.
To force the trekkers to Lumsden the federal government cut off meal tickets unless the recipients went to the camp. That the government considered creating conditions for a police riot as an excuse to unleash police violence is clear. Assistant Commissioner Wood, in a report to Commissioner MacBrien suggested a police provocation would leave the trekkers with no choice but Lumsden. In his words:
“It is not expected that there will be many voluntary registrations tomorrow and that sooner or later there will be a demonstration in front of Mr. Burgess’ office which will bring about Police action. The situation is suitable for our purposes in that it is opposite the armouries and there is a large open space in all directions surrounding the building where we could use mounted men to advantage.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 182)
The RCMP were ordered not to allow trekkers to leave the city or province even by vehicle or on foot. A truck and two cars raised by trekkers to travel to Manitoba were intercepted outside of Regina with all drivers and passengers arrested by the RCMP, the vehicles impounded (Brown 1987, 185).
Five of the travellers arrested leaving Regina were charged under the infamous Section 98 anti-communist legislation. On June 28 the federal government decided to apply Section 98 to members of the RCWU which was declared an illegal association. The Trek leaders were to be arrested as would anyone claiming membership in the RCWU.
Even as the trekkers had decided to organize an orderly retreat under their own efforts back to their camps, the government was pushing the RCMP to proceed with Section 98 arrests. It was still not certain there was any legal basis for doing so. Showing its real intentions, even at this point the government refused to allow any negotiation with the trekkers in their attempts to disband of their own accord. For the federal government the only option was containment and dispersal from the special detention camp.
Police Riot in Regina and the Killing of Trekker Nick Schaack
The RCMP decided to arrest Trek leaders at a mass rally being held at Market Square on the evening of July 1, appropriately the nationalist “Canada Day.” The meeting was arranged to inform allies and residents in Regina of the status of the Trek. It was geared to non-trekkers. Almost 2000 people would show up to hear the speeches and gain updates on the Trek. Only around 200 of these were trekkers, most, aware of the Trek’s status, having decided to stay at the exhibition grounds. The vast majority of attendees were local residents curious about the Trek and supportive of it. Having prepared the ground to launch a police riot, the police would choose this moment and place, filled with non-trekkers, to carry out a bloodbath.
The RCMP never provided an explanation, even in the following inquiry, why they did not simply wait until the end of the rally to arrest leaders after the crowd had left (Brown 1987, 192). What seems clear is that Assistant Commissioner Wood wanted to seize this opportunity to make a show of force to trekkers and the supportive public more broadly (Brown 1987, 193). Why else attempt to arrest seven men in the middle of a mass rally of people supportive of the targeted men and their actions? The intent was clearly to humiliate the trekkers while sending a message of terror to other organized and organizing unemployed from Winnipeg to Québec.
Plainclothes officers were situated throughout the crowd with several near the speaker’s platform. The square was surrounded by RCMP forces in furniture vans. Mounted officers were positioned two blocks from the square. City police were at the ready inside the garage of the Regina Police Station located directly at the edge of the square (Brown 1987, 192).
The police assault on civilians began in chaos. Two troops of ECMP officers left their vans before the sounding of the supposed signal whistle. With the sound of the whistle the haphazard, prematurely launched, assault was joined by officers of the city police who quickly took to the crowd armed with baseball bats. RCMP forces advanced on the square and were taken up in hand to hand combat with civilian attendees (Brown 1987, 193).
According to the Regina Daily Star report:
“A whistle blew. The four doors of the city garage at the rear of the headquarters building, not 100 feet from the speakers stand, swung upward with a clatter and blue uniformed, helmeted constables, as well as plainclothes officers, ran out waving “baseball bat” batons overhead. People began to run.” (quoted in Stone 1967, 83)
As police violently cleared the square the battle spread into nearby neighborhoods with most trying to leave while others tried to defend retreating civilians against continuing police assaults. Cars were overturned and used as barricade. Rocks were thrown to slow the advancing troops.
Police began firing on the civilians wounding several people. There was no gunfire from residents or trekkers—they had no guns (Brown 1987, 194). Numerous eyewitnesses would report random assaults on bystanders by police who, sometimes in small gangs, simply attacked people without cause (Brown 1987, 194). The Regina Riot lasted more than two hours with police assaults slowing down only by 11 PM. More than 100 people were arrested.
The RCMP then laid siege to the Exhibition Stadium where most trekkers were staying. In an attempt to starve the trekkers out the military police refused food or water to people inside the facilities. Machine gun units were trained on the building, encircling it.
By July 5 arrangements had been made for trekkers to leave the city in two special trains of the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railways. The On to Ottawa Trek was over.
One trekker, Nick Schaack, simply an unemployed worker hoping for a better life, was dead, murdered by police who wanted violence, a victim of social war. Schaack, a worker up from the United States seeking work, was badly injured by police during their assault. Instead of giving him medical treatment for a serious head injury or taking him directly to hospital police threw him in jail where he lingered for several hours. Sadly he would die days later of the injuries inflicted upon him by police. Incredibly the police acted to cover up their responsibility for killing Schaack and his death was not associated with the riot until sometime later (possibly years). Not recognized as the working class victim of social war he was, Nick Schaack was placed in a grave that remained unmarked for 76 years. His name has still been largely forgotten in Canadian history.
States of Exception: Flimsy Democracy and the Conservative Government
The Bennett government took the decision to stop the Trek in Saskatchewan on their own without consultation with the Government of Saskatchewan and against that government’s wishes. The Premier of Saskatchewan was only informed by the Assistant Commissioner of the RCMP.
In Regina Bennett violated his own previously, and repeatedly, stated policy of not intervening unless officially called upon to do so by a provincial government. Yet he would intervene in Regina against the preference of the Saskatchewan government. Furthermore the Province maintained that policing and law enforcement were provincial responsibilities and the RCMP as the provincial force in Saskatchewan was under order of the Attorney-General. If the law was broken the province and police would act as they always did.
The federal government actively sought to, and did, circumvent this order of command by invoking the Railway Act which would give Ottawa authority to call in the RCMP. Bennett’s position had been that illegal trespass on CPR and CNR property was an issue for the railway companies and the provincial governments. But this view changed with the Trek in Saskatchewan and government crisis rising. The government used the excuse of a request for aid from the railways against trespassing. Yet that request came a day after Bennett’s decision had been made and seems to have been compelled by the government in any event. No request was made to the Province for assistance which was proper protocol given that the police would have been under provincial jurisdiction.
RCMP Commissioner MacBrien instructed the Assistant Commissioner in Regina to ignore the Premier and Attorney-General and carry out any federal orders as rail trespass was under federal jurisdiction and within the federal-provincial agreement on policing (Brown 1987, 162). MacBrien directed Wood: “Agreement expressly stated Mounted Police to remain a Dominion force. Also that federal policing duties are excepted from direction of Attorney-General” (quoted in Brown 1987, 162). Wood was also told that if needed he was to swear in railway police as special RCMP constables. He was also directed to prepare for the reading of the Riot Act and to do so himself as a Justice of the Peace if he could not find provincial or municipal officials willing to do so.
According to Premier Gardiner the federal government was acting in violation of the country’s own constitution. In his words:
“This constitutes taking the right to instruct police in matters of administrative justice entirely out of our hands. In our opinion your action may result in causing a riot in this province endangering life and property. A letter just handed to the government by the police to the effect that preparations be made to read the Riot Act indicates you hold the same view. We protest your action as being unconstitutional and would state that your lack of action before these men left British Columbia to bring two forces to grips in Regina was bound to produce a riot in Saskatchewan if the present orders are carried out. We strongly protest this flouting of the constitutional rights of the province and would once more ask you to reconsider your position. Your appeal to us to cooperate in every way to protect lives and property as well as to maintain law and order has been made most difficult to comply with as you have taken unto yourself all the power consigned to the government under the B.N.A Act to deal with such matters.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 165)
Manion expressed dismay with Premier Gardiner’s position and offered a thinly veiled threat against him should he not support an assault by CPR police. In Marion’s own words: “I expressed great surprise at his attitude, and said that he would be taking a very great responsibility, if he aided and abetted revolution in any such manner” (quoted in Brown 1987, 165).
Again, the primary concern for the Conservative government was putting down a popular working class movement at any cost—even against the concerns of other levels of government. And the formalities of democracy would not stand in the way, as they typically do not when liberal democratic governments seek to impose repressive measures on elements of the population deemed oppositional.
Bennett refused emergency debate on the situation requested by opposition members of parliament and there was no debate on a petition from British Columbia with 10,800 signatures calling for Election Act amendments to ensure that relief camp workers had the right to vote tabled by MP Angus MacInnis in May (Brown 1987, 152).
As the federal government took over more and more police functions under provincial jurisdiction they took on the appearance of an extralegal (fascistic) entity. Incredibly, RCMP leadership were not even certain of the legality of their actions in the province, given the federal assumption of provincial authority. Finally the government declared a national emergency to justify its usurpation of authority
The government made use of a phony, fraudulent “order in council” to effect special measures and Section 98. That order came under a provision of the Relief Act stating: “the Governor in Council my, when Parliament is not in session, take all such measures as in his discretion may be deemed advisable to maintain, within the competence of Parliament, peace, order and good government throughout Canada” (quoted in Brown 1987, 185).
This was a fascist turn of governance removing decision making from parliamentary oversight and giving power unilaterally to the Governor in Council. Yet no order-in-council had been passed nor could it have been since Parliament was sitting and thus there was no legal authority for the order-in-council.
Yet RCMP acted in laying Section 98 charges against trekkers. The feds had taken authority for themselves outside of the law and Parliament. The force even stated publicly that they were acting on legal authority conferred by order-in-council (an order that did not exist and would not have been legal in any event).
A report in the Toronto Daily Star suggested that Prime Minister Bennett had scrapped the Magna Carta and put Canada “in the unique position of operating a criminal law which the government refuses to make public” (quoted in Brown 1987, 187–188).
In times of open social war the state of exception prevails. The public order-in-council campaign did have the effect of dissuading people from aiding the trekkers which was now prohibited by RCMP order. No one in government or policing clarified publicly that there had been no order-in-council.
Red Scares and a War against Communism
Like the miners of Bienfait, Saskatchewan who had been fatally assaulted by the RCMP in 1931, the organized unemployed had support from the Workers Unity League (WUL). Support from the WUL, the RCWU, and the Communist Party helped them build connections and support from a range of Leftist community groups along the Trek route. These included groups like the Canadian Labour Defence League and community associations like the Ukrainian Farmer-Labour Temple Association (Brown 1987, 151). The local support groups provided food, shelter, meeting spaces, print services, and funds (Brown 1987, 151).
The desire to smash Leftist groups and working class resistance was an obsession for the Conservative government. And Bennett used the community supports as an opportunity to red bash the trekkers, and organized unemployed more broadly.
PM Bennett was explicit and arrogantly so in asserting that he would not engage with trekkers because of support they had from communists. In his words:
“I need hardly say that there are several well known communistic societies under varying names; they have sought to embroil the government in some discussion in respect to these matters, and we have declined to enter into any discussion with them.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 153)
Manion viewed the organizers as extremists and wrote to Bennett two days before the meeting with the delegation to suggest that repressive violence was necessary. In his words:
“My conviction is that this Communistic crowd who are leading the more or less innocent unemployed are determined to stir up what would be practically a revolution and I feel that undoubtedly strong measures will have to be taken to curb this movement. Somehow the leaders should be got at and if possible got out of the position of leading these unemployed.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 168–169)
Prime Minister Bennett accused the provincial government of coddling communists. His words to the Premier:
“Have not the slightest intention of withdrawing from the position which we have taken and proposed to use our utmost endeavour even though you decline to cooperate to maintain the fabric of our society and the institutions of the country against the illegal threats and demands of communists and their associates.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 184)
Bennett described the trekkers in a PR campaign as having “sinister purposes” (quoted in Brown 1987, 180). The sinister plan was of course of communist nature. Fumed Bennett to Parliament: “in reality an organized effort on the part of the various communist organizations throughout Canada to effect the overthrow of constituted authority in defiance of the laws of the land” (quoted in Brown 1987, 180). This is ironic given the disregard shown for the constitution and the “laws of the land” throughout this episode by the Bennett government.
These statements were only part of a broader Red Scare campaign launched by the government, RCMP, and military and repeated in mainstream media. This included replays of the personal, xenophobic, smears about Trek leaders being born outside Canada.
On June 28 the federal government made anti-communism the priority for law and policing with the invoking of Section 98. As the Toronto Daily Star reported, simply being a trekker would now render one a communist in the eyes of the law. Its report read:
“All strikers holding membership in any of the strike organizations are to be considered communists, it was officially stated at R.C.M.P. headquarters today. Under this ruling, Section 98 of the Criminal Code is being invoked and any striker tying to trek from one province to another is considered a Communist and liable to arrest as such. Any person giving aid or comfort to any such person is also liable to prosecution. R.C.M.P. senior officers said this included the relief camp workers’ associations and similar bodies which are affiliated with the Workers’ Unity League. The leaders are declared to be known Communists.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 187)
Clearly breaking any resistance was the government aim and Red Scare tactics would be the means. This was a rather cheap effort to red bait the public into turning on the trekkers by attempting to link them with communists, rather than simply being aggrieved working class people and victims of capitalism. It was also an effort to delegitimize the RCWU and organized unemployed workers more broadly. Notably communists had higher standing and regard among the general public than did the Bennett Conservative government.
In the days weeks, and months after the police assault the federal government continued its ongoing attempts to distort their role in fomenting the riot and to slander the trekkers and their efforts. Justice Minister Hugh Guthrie lied to Parliament in blaming the trekkers and attributing to them actions they did not perform. In his words:
“The attack was made in the first instance by the strike marchers, and the city police were called upon to defend themselves. Subsequently the mounted police joined for the purpose of maintaining order. Shots were fired by the strikers and the fire was replied to by shots from the city police.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 201).
Notably the strikers were not marching. Most were at the exhibition grounds. The police attacked a standing rally of mostly townspeople. Neither did trekkers or any civilians fire weapons nor even have guns on them.
Bennett continued his Red Scare mania. He described the organized unemployed efforts as “not a mere uprising against law and order but a definite revolutionary effort on the part of a group of men to usurp authority and destroy government” (quoted in Brown 1987, 202). Bizzarely he claimed the opposition parties and local politicians in British Columbia were in on it.
Much to the dismay of the federal government the provincial government in Saskatchewan launched a commission of inquiry into the causes of the riot and related issues of constitutionality. The Regina Riot Inquiry Commission (RRIC) clearly laid out the extent and intensity of state violence based on witness testimony.
The Regina Riot was without question a police riot. It was initiated entirely by the vicious, and reckless, actions of police at all levels. According to even the state-centric RRIC report:
“[T]he presence of the three troops of police in the vicinity, one of which was advancing towards the crowd, necessarily created some alarm among the people gathered on the Square and lent colour to the belief, which no doubt some of them entertained, that the police had come upon the Square for the purpose of breaking up a peaceable and orderly meeting.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 194)
Witness after witness would later describe the violence of police. The RRIC report documents some of this:
“A great deal of evidence was given as to the methods used by the City Police in dispersing the crowd. One witness described it as “swinging their batons and knocking down any persons they could get hold of,” another says, “They struck wherever the batons wanted to fall.” Another says, “I saw them hitting people with their clubs.” At least ten witnesses have given evidence upon this subject and the above quotations are indications of the general trend of their testimony with respect to it.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 194)
Specific accounts were harrowing. And there were many of them. The report describes many of these if only in brief:
“Such, for instance, is the case of three mounties pounding a man on the ground; three mounties and a city policeman beating one striker, one policeman clubbing an unconscious man near the General Theatre; four city policemen beating one striker; city police marching west on 11th Avenue shooting as they went, assault of one Belabek on July 2nd by Sergeant Logan.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 195)
Incredibly the RRIC concluded that reports of police violence were un-Canadian and thus, despite what eyewitnesses actually saw happen, impossible.
The Regina Riot Inquiry Commission also concluded that a compromise agreement could have been reached if the government had allowed its local officials some leeway in negotiating. Prior to the arrests of leaders the RCMP offered no communication with the provincial government about their plans. Tellingly since the RCMP was the provincial force. It is also notable given that RCMP officials knew that the provincial government was meeting with trekkers.
Charges against the more than 100 arrested by police included Section 98, rioting, and assault. Most would be released with charges dropped soon thereafter. Only eight were ever convicted, of minor offences. All of those charged under Section 98 had those charges withdrawn before any trial. The legal outcomes signalled significant vindication for the trekkers and supporters, even in the skewed terms of the law and criminal justice. The only criminal organizations and criminal events of July 1 were those of the state, particularly police, alone.
Across the country blame for the bloodshed in Regina was placed squarely at the feet of Prime Minister Bennett, who was now openly accused of preparing and provoking the riot in a desperately vain attempt to save his own electoral hide. Calls for the abolition of the camps grew louder with opposition parties and even some Conservatives calling for straight up work and wages programs. Mass protest events in support of the trekkers and against the government were held in cities across the country. Branches of the Citizens’ Defence Committee were established in numerous locales. They organized meetings, circulated information, raised money, and petitioned governments (Brown 1987, 203).
The national federal election of October 14, 1935 was held in the shadow of the Regina Riot, the Trek, and the continuing crisis of unemployment. The election would see the ruling Bennett Conservative government routed, dropped from 134 seats to 39. This was the lowest total for the party of confederation since confederation. They amassed only 30 percent of the popular vote nationwide. Their destruction was particularly prominent in Western Canada, holding only one seat in each of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.
The new Liberal government began shutting down the relief camp system in March of 1936 with the last camp closed on July 2 of that year. That same year Section 98 of the Criminal Code was rescinded (Brown 1987, 204).
The struggles of the unemployed did not end, of course. Neither did unemployment with the new government also ill-suited and unprepared to resolve the capitalist crisis. Notably the organized unemployed had helped to effects a shift in political outlook across the land. Their work helped move public opinion away from support for political repression in 1931 as seen in the attack on Bienfait miners, and to a position opposed to such reaction and repression by 1934. That was an outcome of direct action organizing and open, ethical, communication.
Brown notes that in 1937 when International brigades in Canada were formed to fight against fascism in Spain the largest constituency of volunteers to the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion came from vets of the relief camps and On to Ottawa (1987, 206).
The struggles of the organized unemployed contributed to the growth of working class militance throughout the 1930s. They also contributed to the forces that pushed states to develop social welfare policies in the postwar period, not from benevolence but out of a concern to dissipate social upheaval and defuse discontent that might otherwise topple the existing social structure.
Notably these struggles did not take conventional, approved forms such as electoralism, lobbying, or symbolic appeal (street protest). Rather the approaches of the organized unemployed pursued direct action, militant organization, and extra-parliamentary mobilization. The organized unemployed deployed disruptive rather than conciliatory tactics, though they were strategically attuned enough to make reasonable shifts in their approach. Rather than rely on appeals to authorities they sought to prevent harms from occurring by making it difficult for the state to pursue its aims.
“Direct action gets the goods” was a theme of these struggles and battles were waged in relief camps, workplaces, public squares, and government offices against bosses, politicians, and, especially perhaps, police. Notably, unlike the present period, as the battle in Regina shows, the organized unemployed and their direct action tactics were largely understood by the public and enjoyed widespread public support. Their struggles were understood as struggles for all working class people and the stakes had implications for all non-elites.
These are lessons for organizers and movements today. This is particularly so as neoliberal governments advance increasingly repressive measures and escalate police violence in social war. Clearly such governments are not, will not, and have not been swayed by appeals to justice or right or honor. Movements must change the conditions in which such governments operate and must be prepared to defend themselves.
Brown, Lorne. 1987. When Freedom Was Lost. Montréal: Black Rose Books
Liversage, Ronald. 1973. Recollection of the On-to-Ottawa Trek. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart
Stone, Gladys. 1967. The Regina Riot: 1935. Unpublished MA Thesis. University of Saskatchewan.
Swankey, Ben and Jean Evans Sheils. 1977. Work and Wages: A Semi-Documentary Account of the Life and Times of Arthur H. (Slim) Evans, 1890–1944. Vancouver: Vancouver Trade Union Research Bureau
Waiser, Bill. 2003. All Hell Can’t Stop Us: The On-to-Ottawa Trek and Regina Riot. Calgary: Fifth House
Zuehlke, Mark (1996). The Gallant Cause: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. Vancouver: Whitecap Books