Category Archives: Winnipeg

Inquest into Police Killing of Craig McDougall Sees No Racism Despite Mistreatment of Family, Eight Year Delay

Racism and policing have gone hand and hand in the Canadian context. From the settler colonial violence of the RCMP through contemporary practices from carding to assaults upon racialized people and communities. The settler colonial character of the Canadian state continues in the current context in the disproportionate arrest and incarceration of Indigenous people and the exertion of violence, often lethal violence, against them.

Not surprisingly the Canadian state and the various institutions of criminal justice have stridently denied claims of racism. Inquiries into police violence typically offer findings that diminish or deny the part of racism in police actions. Such an outcome was delivered again on May 12, 2017 with the results of the inquiry into the killing of Craig McDougall, a young Indigenous man, by Winnipeg police, a force with a long and notorious history of racist violence.

Twenty-six-year-old Craig Vincent McDougall was shot and killed by police outside his father’s home on Simcoe Street in Winnipeg on August 2, 2008. Police claimed to be responding to a 911 call when they arrived at the home in the early hours of August 2.  They suggest that found McDougall outside the house holding a cell phone and a knife. One officer shot him with a taser. He was then shot with a firearm which killed him. A private investigator who examined the case has cast doubt on the assertion that Craig McDougall held a knife at the moment he was shot.

Incredibly, the victim’s family members were immediately arrested and put in handcuffs on the front lawn, an act of what criminologists term the dramatization of evil, designed to denigrate and humiliate people targeted by the system. Jonathan Rudin, an expert witness on Indigenous people, policing, and the criminal justice system, testified that the treatment of McDougall’s family after the young man was shot exemplified systemic racism as the victims were assumed by police to be criminals and were treated as such.

Still, despite the actions of police, the inquest concluded that there was no evidence of racism in the police actions. It offered the typical statist finding that police were justified in their actions. In the inquest report, Associate Chief Judge Anne Krahn wrote there was “no evidence of racism direct or systemic in the moments leading to the shooting of Craig McDougall.” The judge found the arrest of McDougall’s father and uncle to be a simple misstep. In her words: “there were missteps in the immediate aftermath of the shooting when Craig McDougall’s uncle and father were left handcuffed and detained without lawful authority.” Such is the normalization of racism in the Canadian criminal justice system. Atrocious actions become mere missteps.

Critics point out that treating the family members in such disrespectful and accusatory fashion exemplifies racism. One might add the little regard shown for the family or the community in the eight year delay between the killing and the inquest report. It could be suggested that such an egregious delay would never be accepted in the case of a killing (by anyone) of a white, privileged victim. Of course police, and police associations, seek to delay and divert inquests to benefit their own interests.

The inquest report even contradicts its own conclusions by making recommendations that imply racism by police. Among these recommendations are that the police service should consider delivery of implicit bias training for its members at regular intervals (a recognition of racist assumptions) and work with Indigenous organizations to develop programs.


No Hearing Needed to Know “Suicide by Cop” is Bogus

Phony criminology has been used to provide justification and cover for authorities throughout the course of the discipline. One can go back at least to the quackery of Cesare Lombroso who used facial structures and other physical features to reinforces prejudices of the impoverished working class as the born criminal (which also served nicely to direct attention away from corporate or state crime). One of the most pernicious and insulting “ideas” of phony criminology in recent years is the notion of so-called suicide by cop. This fake theory has been mostly promoted and peddled by cops and former cops posing as criminologists (and using this “research” to secure plum faculty positions in universities). It has been used largely to get killer cops off the hook in criminal proceedings and thus the suicide by cop specialists typically make their services available to police associations and defense teams trying to protect cops in the rare trials and inquiries that police who kill civilians are subjected to.

In 2017 an inquest will be held into the police killing of 44-year-old Roy Thomas Bell in 2007 in Winnipeg. The bogus notion of suicide by cop will play a key part in this. In January, a standing hearing will be held to determine who will be allowed to participate in the inquest.

Roy Thomas Bell was a former member of the Canadian Armed Forces who was killed in December 2007 by police officers responding to a 911 call. Friends of the victim suggest that he had been dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder after having served in the military for over 20 years prior to his release from the forces in 2004.

According to a provincial news release Bell threatened arriving officers with  some form of weapon described as nothing more than two sticks connected by a chain (would be nunchucks). Police had erroneously claimed at the time of the killing that Bell had a firearm and a bat. This was not proven out. Still police tased the man before firing their handguns, with multiple shots hitting the victim. Bell was transported to hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Witnesses at the time reportedly heard Bell say the officers should shoot him and this has given the police the in they needed to use the suicide by cop excuse. Never mind that the man only held basic nunchucks yet was shot seral times by police. Never mind too that someone asking the cops to shoot them would seem to pose little threat to them and would probably necessitate an alternative response. Any cop responding to such a request affirmatively should be seriously questioned.

The inquest has been called by the chief medical examiner under the Fatality Inquiries Act and will examine the circumstances and events surrounding the killing. Such inquests typically make non-binding recommendations about measures to lessen the likelihood of such incidents in the future.

There are real concerns here that phony criminologists will be allowed to participate and peddle their bogus suicide by cop obfuscations and legitimation. Thus such an inquiry can become an ideological tool to justify the killing by police in question as well as providing a precedent for justifying future killings on these nonsensical grounds.


Breaking the General Strike: The Mounties Kill Strikers Mike Sokowolski and Mike Schezerbanowicz in Winnipeg (Activists Killed by Cops Series)

The Winnipeg General Strike of May and June 1919 stands as perhaps the signal moment of working class resistance and open class conflict in the industrial Canadian context. It remains a still resonant example of working class militance, organization, resolve, solidarity, and vision. It stands too as an unmistakeable symbol of the violence, repression, and racism at the core of the Canadian state. The Winnipeg General Strike offers a clear reminder of the state connection with and willingness to act in support of capital, and to do so using all means in its monopoly of violence. It also shows the racism of the Canadian state and its willingness to divide and conquer workers on the basis of ethnic background and/or national origin. Finally it shows the readiness of the state, and its major cultural symbol (the RCMP in its earlier incarnation as the Northwest Mounted Police), to kill. Labor historian Edward Seymour describes the reaction to the strike by government authorities at all levels as simply “vicious” (1976, 19).

 

Class Rule in Winnipeg

Labor historian David Bercuson suggests that business in Winnipeg was anti-union from the start, with unions viewed as an impediment to the climate in which business and investment could grow and prosper in the emerging industrial center (1975, 1–2). While this was certainly true of virtually all other cities, Bercuson argues that what was somewhat unique in Winnipeg was the extent to which the city was run by business associations and the particular costs of trade with national and international markets given the city’s isolation and distance and the associated higher transportation costs compared with say Toronto or Montreal. This great distance from both supply sources and markets impelled an obsession with keeping costs (labor particularly) unsustainably low (Bercuson 1975, 2).

In addition to these factors, Bercuson adds another, more curious one. This, he says, was the history of Social Darwinism prevalent among the ruling elite in Winnipeg. He notes that many of Winnipeg’s industrial and political leaders were nouveaux riches who had humble beginnings but had made it rich in the growing boom town. They took their success as a sign of personal strength, even superiority, and saw this as a sign that they were natural, and legitimate, leaders. The self-made man could not sympathize with those who, because of personal weakness, needed to organize collectively with others (Bercuson 1975, 2).

Winnipeg had experienced many, often bitter, strikes in the first decades of the twentieth century. Workers sought recognition of unions and collective agreements while bosses were largely successful in keeping unions out of workplaces. Throughout, local government dominated by businesspeople, invariably sided with employers and owners.

 

 

The War Economy and Class Struggle

Economic pressures and political dissatisfaction contributed to growing tensions between labor and management by 1918, the last year of the war. While workers were making the sacrifices of the war, employees did not want to share any of the benefits of economic gains within the war economy.

Bercuson suggests that inflation during the war period played, in his view, the most important part in stoking industrial conflict over the war years and in the period immediately following the end of the war (1975, 4). Inflation meant that those workers outside of the war industries and munitions manufacturing especially who could not achieve significant wage gains were faced with declining standards of living and rising costs (Bercuson 1975, 4). In Winnipeg, few workers worked in the arms industries so most were faced with declining living standards throughout the war years and beyond.

At the same time, labor shortages among skilled workers in particular meant that conditions for union organizing were favorable. This was also fueled by general anger among workers over conscription, the compulsory military service program initiated by Prime Minister Robert Borden in 1917. Indeed the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada (TLC) came to advocate a national general strike against conscription in 1917 (Bercuson 1975, 5). While the planned general strike did not come off, it planted the notion of the tactic of mass opposition to government and capital in the general intellect of workers across the country.

This was a period before full legal standing and recognition for unions and employers could routinely seek and receive court injunctions against picketing during strikes. This allowed bosses to bring in scabs and continue production contributing mightily to the regular defeat of strikes. In Winnipeg in 1917 alone, three strikes had been defeated in this very manner (Bercuson 1975, 6).

 

The 1918 “General Strike”

In April 1918, strikes of three unions of civic employees generated discussions of sympathy strikes of all civic workers (Bercuson 1975, 6).  When the unions reached a tentative agreement with a committee including the mayor and members of council, the city council, through Alderman F.O. Fowler sought to add an amendment that city employees take a no strike pledge for the future. The “Fowler Amendment” looked to take away city workers’ right to strike and was supported by the Winnipeg Board of Trade and the Free Press. It was vehemently opposed by the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council (Bercuson 1975, 6).

In response to the Fowler Amendment, city firefighters stopped work the very next day. Ten days later, 13 trades, amounting to 7000 workers, had joined in the work stoppage. Water, fire, light and power, telephone, railway maintenance, and public transportation were impacted (Bercuson 1975, 7).

The Board of Trade futilely tried to keep operations running by supplying scabs. Desperate, and facing growing momentum for workers and a rising movement the city government turned to a new private grouping to negotiate with the unions. This Citizens’ Committee of One Hundred came to an agreement with the workers that was almost the same as the initial one of May 13, 1918. This new agreement was accepted by a somewhat chastened city council and the strike ended on May 24. According to Bercuson the “workers’ victory was almost complete” (1975, 7).

The conclusions of this 1918 general strike were unmistakeable. The general strike had won the day in a context in which unions acting alone were always losing. It was only this combined and coordinated power that had allowed the workers to win, let alone to win so convincingly. It was well recognized that each union acting on its own would have been defeated (Bercuson 1975, 7). Another outcome was to radicalize workers who now saw greater possibilities for gains and were not as willing to accept less. The employers had the government and courts on their side and could use them. Yet workers united in a general strike could defeat even that combined force of elites.

This was further reinforced when a hoped for general strike in support of the Metal Trades Council in July of 1918 did not materialize and the metal workers were defeated. And this even as the Metal Trades Council had achieved a combination of unions in the industry. The civic workers had gained support of workers in all industries.

In recognition of this fact, in December 1918 the Trades ad Labour Council passed a motion that gave it the power to call out on strike every union member in the city based on a straight majority of all the city’s union members (Bercuson 1975, 8). This mechanism would come into effect only a few months later.

 

A Radical Period and the Rise of the One Big Union

The end of the war brought new and renewed hopes that the sacrifices made by so many would be rewarded with a new social foundation of justice and improved social equality. Yet the hopes of most were soon dashed by governments that sought a return to the pre-war status quo. This led to growing discontent and resentment. Not only among industrial workers but among a cross section of Canadian residents, including returning veterans who felt cheated and lied to.

Another factor of inestimable significance in this context was the revolutionary wave sweeping Europe in the post-war period. Revolutions in Russia in 1917 and Germany and Hungary in 1918 suggested that real social change was no pipe dream and could be had for those willing to fight for it. There was no need simply to wait or be patient. Waiting was now seen as a chump’s game, a boss’s dream.

At a Western Labour Conference held in Calgary on March 16, 1919, participants moved for secession from the conservative, craft dominated TLC. They called for a new national labor body organized on industrial lines, rather than by each craft within an industry. The new grouping would be called the OBU, the One Big Union. In structure and approach it resembled syndicalist organizing as in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The OBU was an explicitly radical formation, not anarchist, supportive of the Bolshevik revolution and influenced by Marxism.

They sought a referendum to see if Canadian workers supported a national general strike beginning on June 1 in demand of the 30 hour work week (Bercuson 1975, 12). The OBU was formally launched during the first week of June at a founding convention in Calgary. At that point the Winnipeg General Strike was into its third week. The OBU provided the nightmare figure for government and employers in Winnipeg even though it had played no direct part in the strike to that point.

 

The Winnipeg General Strike

The Winnipeg General Strike was founded in conflicts in the metal and building trades during April and May of 1919. Lack of progress in making gains in wages, for the buildings trades, and union recognition, for the metals trade, led to a call for a general strike vote under the Trades Council motion of December 1918. Facing a stalemate the Building Trades Council called for a strike of their members for May 1, Mayday, 1919.

The Metal Trades Council, a grouping of craft unions representing workers in contract shops, auto repair, etc. had waged and lost nasty strikes in 1906, 1917, and 1918 (Bercuson 1975, 14). In 1919 they again pressed their attempt for higher wages and the 44 hour work week but were rebuffed by contract shop owners who felt every reason to be confident they could win against yet another union effort. The contractors had benefitted from use of injunctions and had deployed professional strikebreaking firms against the metal workers in the past (Bercuson 1975, 14). The recalcitrant metal works companies were Darwin Bridge, Vulcan Ironworks, and the Manitoba Bridge Company. The MTC sought a nine hour work day and full recognition for unions. On May 2, 1919, the metal workers responded to employers’ intransigence, especially that of the big employers, with a third strike in three years. They sought a shorter work week, wage parity with workers in the railway shops, and union recognition (Bercuson 1975, 15).

At this point the broader union movement in the city was ready for action in defense of their interests. Three trades were on or facing strike action. Others had recently concluded nasty negotiations and were left angered by the process. During the weekly Trade Council meeting of May 6, it was reported that a visiting worker of German origin, attending metal trades shops on behalf of his local, had been arrested. Upon release he spoke to the meeting of government backing employers (Bercuson 1975, 16). The Trades Council meeting decided to poll every union member in the city on their support for a general strike with a decision to be taken at the meeting of May 13. The results of the voting would show more than 11,000 workers in support of the general strike while only a tiny number of 500 were opposed (Bercuson 1975, 17). Thursday, May 15 at 11 AM was decided upon as the start time for the strike.

A Strike Committee was formed that would include three delegates from each of the unions represented on the Trades Council. They would act as the representative body for future negotiations during the strike.

The situation in the metal trades was dire as employers refused even the slightest hint of compromise. Efforts by Premier Tobias Norris and Mayor Charles Frederick Gray to avoid the strike were unsuccessful. A last ditch effort of May 14 by Gray, Norris, and the provincial attorney-general also failed.

At 11 AM on May 15, 1919, Winnipeg was on strike. The response to the call was near total. Within the first day more than 22,000 workers were out on strike (Bercuson 1975, 17–18). Participation by workers was unanimous in 94 of 96 unions involved in the strike (Bercuson 1975, 18). As Bercuson illustrates:

 

“Firemen left their stations, telephones were shut down, the city’s electrical workers left turbines and transmission equipment unattended; telegraphers and others responsible for keeping a modern city in touch with the world refused to work. At the waterworks a skeleton staff remained behind at the request of the Trades Council to provide a meagre thirty pounds pressure, sufficient for single-story dwellings. Commercial establishments of every sort, from moving-picture houses to restaurants were closed.” (1975, 18)

 

In British Columbia 60,000 workers walked out in sympathy strikes. Alberta railway shop workers walked out. Support was also strong in Ontario with 15,000 workers going on strike (Seymour 1976, 19).

To understand the participation of workers requires appreciation of the decades of bitter struggle preceding it and the sense among workers that there was no alternative option. This was a context of open class war and bitter hostility between labor and capital. Yet only one side was ready and prepared to use force.

Most strikers did not see themselves as a revolutionary force. For their part the strike leaders took a cautious approach, refusing even to condone peaceful pickets (Bercuson 1975, 20). To allow for distribution of essentials like milk and food the Strike Committee took the advice of J.W. Carruthers, owner of the Crescent Creamery Company, and issued cards to delivery workers informing the public that those doing bread and milk deliveries were not scabs (Bercuson 1975, 20–21). The Strike Committee issued cards stating: “Permitted by authority of Strike Committee” (Bercuson 1975, 21). For local government this was portentous, raising the prospect of workers taking over and managing effectively public services.

The mayor did not want civilians realizing that necessities of life could be provided by a structure outside of the government or its authority. Government did not want to allow the appearance that city administration could be taken over by city workers, who knew how to do the work and did it well, with no need for the government as a middle manager. In an error of strategy the Strike Committee succumbed to a vote of council on May 20 and complied by removing the cards the following day.

Prime Minister Borden, insistent in sending a strong anti-communist message and securing the Canadian state some recognition as a reliable emerging imperialist convoy, would not accept even a settlement that gave the appearance of some success for the striking workers. He would only allow total defeat for the strike or a capitulationist settlement that made clear the workers had been forced to swallow employer demands (Bercuson 1975, 22). Indeed the federal government would play an active and central role in the defeat of the strike. Commissioner A.B. Perry and the Royal North West Mounted Police (RNWMP) would be a major player in those government actions against the strike.

 

Police Force

Concerned that the regular police were not reliably anti-workers, anti-strike forces led by Brigadier-General H.D.B. Ketchen, commanding officer for the Manitoba military district proposed formation of an alternative force of “special police” to replace or add to the regular force (Bercuson 1975, 22). The city at the behest of Ketchen and Citizens’ Committee recruited the special police drawing primarily from anti-strike veterans and middle strata students. The “specials” were actually paid $6 per day, a wage that was higher than that paid to regular police, showing the hypocrisy and political character of the government and employers alike. It also showed the real lack of concern with legitimacy and the ease with which elites jettison such pretensions when their class interests are up against the wall. When the newly recruited special force was around 2000 members, most of the regular force, nearly 240 officers, was fired. From June 10, Winnipeg was under control pf thousands of men who were openly hostile to the strikers and the strike and who were entirely incompetent and untrained. The specials constituted a gang, a thug force, on city payroll. They immediately set about using physical violence to break up even small public meetings of strikers.

The connection of the police to the military and the engagement in social war by government were unmistakeable. A militia composed largely of volunteers was organized with about 5000 volunteers (Seymour 1976, 17). Ketchen coordinated activities of the NWMP and set up a training program for the newly recruited militia. Former officers were brought in to command the militia. The willingness of the federal government to use lethal force against civilians was clear. Ottawa secretly shipped machine guns to Winnipeg under cover of “regimental baggage” among the freight of the demobilizing 27th Battalion (Bercuson 1975, 23). Ketchen also had an armored vehicle made available for forces in the city. An armored car fitted with three machine guns and holding six sharp shooters was ready and available at Fort Osborne Barracks (Bercuson 1975, 23). The NWMP were issued four machine guns mounted on trucks (Bercuson 1975, 23). They had 60 mounted forces ready for quick deployment. Two mobile militia troops with a motorized machine gun section with two guns apiece, mobilized infantry escorts and a company of motorized infantry were also available (Bercuson 1975, 24). Ketchen had at least 800 troop forces available in addition to the specials and other militia members.

 

There Are No Neutral’s There: State and Capital United against Workers in Winnipeg

Opposition to the strike consisted of the powerful alliance of employers and government. They were supported by Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand, an anti-union, anti-strike grouping positioned as the voice of “neutral” residents but which was anything but. The Citizens’ Committee was based on the Citizens’ Committee of One Hundred and included members of the Board of Trade, the Manufacturers’ Association, and the Winnipeg bar (Bercuson 1975, 18). Notable members included elites such as H.B. Lyall, an official with Manitoba Bridge and Board of Trade member; A.L. Crossin, a broker with Oldfield, Kirby, and Gardner, an insurance and loan firm, who was also a member of the Board of Trade; J.E. Botterell a senior partner in Baird and Botterell, a grain and stock brokerage, who was also with the Board of Trade; and Isaac Pitblado, a senior partner of the law firm, Pitblado, Hoskin, and Company, that handled the personal business affairs of the federal Minister of the Interior, Arthur Meighen (Bercuson 1975, 18–19).  The Chair of the Committee was A.K. Godfrey, an executive with the Canadian elevator company who was the president of the Board of Trade in 1917 and 1918.

The Committee supported the employers against the workers and provided thousands of volunteers to scab on the strikers (Bercuson 1975, 18). They also waged an ideological battle against the strikers, branding the union leaders as Bolsheviks. In the words of one striker: “The man who goes out to fight for his master is a brave Briton. The man who comes home to fight for his Mrs. is a bloomin Bolshevik” (quoted in Seymour 1976, 21). With access to secret government conferences they also advised the contract shop owners over the course of the strike (Bercuson 1975, 18).

The Winnipeg General Strike made clear in unquestionable terms the role of the state as an active, forceful supporter of capital rather than a neutral arbitrator. Rather than being disinterested players in disputes, as much criminology and legal studies of the liberal democratic state insist, the state acted in an interested manner on behalf of capital. They actively and consistently took sides. Both the federal and provincial governments immediately intervened on behalf of employers. Striking workers faced the combined efforts and forces of employers and governments. This meant that they faced the legal, political, and military force of the state acting on behalf of the employers they sought to gain concessions from.

Gideon Robertson launched an ideological campaign against the OBU blaming it for trying to foment revolution. He also set a deadline for a forced return to work of post-office workers. Postal workers were ordered back to work under conditions that they sign a pledge not to strike in the future. As the deadline passed the majority of postal workers in Winnipeg were fired and replaced with scab volunteers (Bercuson 1975, 19). The federal government fired 190 postal workers in Winnipeg when they refused to sign the anti-strike pledge. This mechanism of ultimatum and imposed deadline became the preferred means for treating all government employees. It was used against railway mail clerks, provincial telephone employees, firefighters, clerks, and waterworks workers at the city level. Most refused the ultimatums and were fired.

The federal government under Borden was unified in their opposition to the strike and in their commitment to defeat the workers on behalf of capital and the national (bourgeois) interest. They condemned the strike as a revolution. As in other cases like On to Ottawa two decades later the Prime Minister and cabinet expressed a fear that workers would overturn the established (exploitative) order, and pose a real alternative to existing structures of authority. Minister of the Interior, and future Prime Minister, Arthur Meighen saw in Winnipeg the possibility of a single union in Canada with the power to call a single general strike. This was clearly a sign of the immense power of labor if it ever organized jointly and in a united manner.

And working class unity was key. In virtually every lengthy strike there is an attempt by employers and/or government to split the membership. Often this involves targeting some members as militants and blaming them for intransigence. This often happens through efforts to make a minor offer that might satisfy some conservative demands, gaining some member support, while ignoring or overlooking other significant demands. So-called radicals are then posed as being unreasonable or asking for demands that cannot be granted at the expense of the discomfort of other members who have to endure an unnecessarily long strike.

Four weeks into the general strike Senator Robinson made a move to divide strikers and isolate radicals on the strike committee. On June 16 he secured an agreement from the contract shop employers to recognize craft unions in their workplaces. This did not include recognition of the Metal Trades Council. Robertson published this agreement in the newspapers to move public opinion against the strikers. At the same time the Senator ordered the arrests of Strike Committee radicals under dubious circumstances. Unfortunately moderates on the committee fell into Robertson’s trap and began negotiations to end the strike under the June 16 offer conditions (Bercuson 1975, 25).

 

The Violence of Law: Pernicious Legal Action then and Now

At this point one of the shameful episodes in Canadian state history unfolded. Legislation was introduced in the House of Commons to amend the Immigration Act to allow for the deportation of British subjects not born in Canada. On June 6 the federal government had, in only one hour of discussion, passed amendments to the Immigration Act to allow easier arrest and deportation of so-called “enemy aliens.” In another attempt at divide and conquer the government sought to split workers on the basis of ethnicity, heritage, or national origin. The legislation passed three readings without debate in 20 minutes. It was granted approval by Senate and given Royal Assent in under an hour, which was the quickest passage of legislation in the history of Canadian parliament (Seymour 1976, 20).

Amendments were also made to the Criminal Code section on sedition. The infamous Section 98 was passed which made it a crime to belong to an association that had as a purpose the change of government, industry, or economy through use of force or through advocacy or defense of the use of force (Seymour 1976, 20). Note that this could punish someone simply for defending the use of direct action or armed struggle. The offense was punishable by a maximum sentence of twenty years. One could be imprisoned for up to 20 years simply for printing, importing, distributing, or selling any material that either advocated or defended the use of force (Seymour 1976, 20). The Section 98 was an explicitly anti-communist amendment aimed at criminalizing working class struggle, peoples’ resistance, and anti-capitalism.

Anyone targeted in this way could be subjected to seizure of any property belonging to or even suspected of belonging to such an association. The property could be seized without warrant and forfeited to the Crown if it had simply been shown that a person had attended meeting of such a group, distributed its literature, or spoken publicly in support of it in some way (Seymour 1976, 20). Notably there was a reverse onus in play, counter to legal standards in liberal democracies, such that an accused had to prove they had not acted in defense of such a group rather than, as is regular legal practice, the state carrying the burden of proof.

Significantly, and of great note, these measures are precisely the same as have been restored since 2001 in Liberal and Conservative federal government Anti-Terror Acts. This should be troubling to the contemporary reader.

In the early morning of June 18 several strike leaders and supporters were arrested including some under authority of the newly amended Immigration Act and taken to Stony Mountain penitentiary where they were held while the government worked to deport those it could. The arrested included R.B. Russell, secretary of the MTC, George Armstrong, a streetcar motor person, William Ivens, editor of the Western Labour News and a key spokesperson for labor, A.A. Heaps, a labor representative on Winnipeg Municipal Council, and John Queen, alderperson for Winnipeg’s Ward V (Seymour 1976, 20). The arrests provoked outrage nationally. The MTC in Toronto called for a general strike to release the strike leaders. Miners in Cape Breton wired Ottawa to say: “We pledge ourselves to do all we can to bring about a general strike all over Canada (quoted in Seymour 1976, 20). Meighen sought their immediate deportation. Others, including A.J. Andrews, were concerned this would turn public opinion against the government and it was decided the men would be released on bail if they agreed to participate no longer in the strike (Bercuson 1975, 25).

 

Not What They Fought For: Veterans Support the Strike

By this point, however, the flow of events was beyond the grasp of the Strike Committee and other forces were taking center stage. Among them were thousands of World War One veterans who, disillusioned by the lack of improvement in working and social conditions, which they believed they had fought for, after the war, were solidly in support of the strike and its aims. Returned veterans rejected a Citizens’ Committee request to oppose the general strike and the strikers. Quite the contrary, a mass rally of 10,000 ex-soldiers demonstrated at the provincial legislature to demand an immediate settlement to the strike, legislation to protect collective bargaining, and withdrawal of ultimatums to striking public sector workers (Seymour 1976, 19).

As the general strike went on these veterans groupings became more and more vocal and militant (Bercuson 1975, 25). They began organizing lively public demonstrations of support for the general strike. Starting at the end of May they undertook mass parades throughout the streets of downtown Winnipeg, often marching to the legislature, City Hall, or the Headquarters of the Citizens’ Committees (Bercuson 1975, 25). This was an open show of strength, solidarity, and resolve on behalf of the strike and in opposition to the forces of the government, business, and reaction. They also held loud rallies and assemblies in Victoria Park hosting speakers from the Strike Committee and others in support of the Strike (Bercuson 1975, 25).

In response to this reactionary veterans organized counter-demonstrations against the strike. The Mayor came to issue bans on parades on multiple occasions during the strike, bans which more negatively impacted strikers given the size and strength of the pro-strike veterans’ groupings.

In response to the arrests of radical strike leaders and the threats of deportation, and the restarting of street cars, the strike supporting veterans decided on June 20, in a mass rally outside City Hall, to hold a protest the following day.

The next morning, Robertson, Gray, and NWMP Commissioner A.B. Perry met with delegates of the veterans groups to try to avert the demonstration. They could not or would not agree to meet the veterans’ demands of removing the street cars from the streets, settling the strike within four hours, and speaking with the Citizens Committee to convey this (Bercuson 1975, 25). For his part Andrews threatened the veterans with resorting to “other measures” to stop the parade, a clear implication of possible force and violence by police (Bercuson 1975, 26).

 

Bloody Saturday

As mass crowds gathered across from City Hall in preparation for the march, Acting Police Chief Newton informed Mayor Gray that the force of specials was not prepared to deal with a crowd of that size. Newton agreed with Gray’s assessment that the NWMP be called in and Gray was off to the Mounties’ headquarters to ask Commissioner Perry to intervene. Perry was more than happy to oblige and directed 54 mounted officers and 36 in trucks to take the streets.

By the 2:30 PM parade start time several hundred people had already taken to the streets in an attempt to stop the street cars that had foolishly been driven into the area (which could only be taken as a provocation). Two cars were stopped near City Hall with one taken off its wires and its windows broken

It was at this point that the NWMP arrived on scene and charged the crowd. On multiple runs through the assembled gathering they swung batons on veterans and strikers. The police were met on the second charge with rocks and bottles from the crowd. On a third charge the Mounties brandished cocked revolvers (Bercuson 1975, 27). At 2:35 PM Mayor Gray entered a parapet at City Hall and gave formal reading of the Riot Act. He gave the assembled protesters 30 minutes to leave the streets or face arrests. Before he could even return back inside City Hall he heard the NWMP officers fire into the crowd of civilians.

The order to shoot was given by NWMP Inspector Mead who, perhaps in a moment of panic, had determined to put down the crowd following the second mounted charge. The first shots were fired only moments after Gray had given protesters half an hour to disperse and the shooting by police continued over a terrifying period of several minutes

In the volleys of shots striker Mike Sokowolski was killed instantly, shot in the heart. On the whole around 100 people were injured in the police assault. Striker Mike Schezerbanowicz, shot in the legs, would later die of gangrene resulting from his injuries as inflicted by police gunfire.

Police and the City tried in the aftermath of the police assault to blame protesters for firing a shot but it has been determined that no shots came from the crowd, the only shots came from police. The RNWMP officer in command provided the following account of the assault: “About 120 bullets in all were fired into the crowd of men, women, and children. They were not marching around the streets but standing in front of the City Hall. Many were running away when we fired on them” (quoted in Seymour 1976, 20).

Indeed the police claim of initial fire from their targets is a common and ongoing ploy used to justify shooting and killing civilians. It is an excuse that is used falsely in cases right up to the present day. Not a single NWMP officer was hit by any gunfire. Even Inspector Mead acknowledged that he gave the order to fire out of a desperate desire to disperse the crowd, not because he was responding to any shots fired by anyone in the crowd.

As fearful members of the crowd attempted to disperse they were set upon by NWMP officers and specials who took advantage of the situation to brutalize fleeing marchers and take out their animosity toward strikers and the strike. As if this were not enough the state piled on further. General Ketchen released the militia who arrived in the city’s downtown within minutes thanks to auxiliary transport provided by the Citizens’ Committee (Bercuson 1975, 27). The militia brought the militarized machine gun section supported by cavalry. More than 80 marchers were trapped by police and arrested.

By evening the NWMP, militia, and specials had secured several blocks of the downtown area and kept the scene clear until the next day.

After Bloody Saturday Winnipeg was placed under military control. Four days after Bloody Saturday the Strike Committee called off the general strike, effective June 26. After six weeks, the largest General Strike in North America at that time, the strikers had gained none of their demands. Thousands of workers were blacklisted after the strike. Union meetings were banned in Winnipeg (Seymour 1976, 21).

The violent alliance of state and capital had proven too much to overcome, even as the strikers could have won the day had capital not been able to rely on the force of the state.

And this is the key lesson. While many talk of the separation of state and market, the capitalist “free market” or invisible hand of the market, in Canada as elsewhere there has never been a capitalist market without the sustaining power of the armed monopoly of the state. And no such market could even exist without it.

 

Lessons Learned

The failure of the strikers was in failing to move to a dual power situation in which they would maintain and provide essential services on the basis of their control of labor power and knowledge and capacity of the services in question, outside of government or business. Furthermore, they underestimated or misunderstood the role of government, at all levels, in violently buttressing capital and the state’s willingness to deploy lethal force to maintain capitalist social order. The strikers never seriously considered the necessity of armed defense of the strike and left the military field to police alone. This despite the great support they held among veterans.

The Winnipeg General Strike posed a real material alternative to established state capitalist order. This frightened business and government both. Unfortunately the general strike requires that workers, as those who produce and deliver goods and services, assume some of the roles of economic and social service provision. In doing this in a spirit of solidarity rather than social service or charity, they can show a better way of social organizing and justice. They can also build relationships of solidarity with other civilians that social service and charity providers cannot. This is a basis of mutual aid as the organizing principle for social relations.

As David Bercuson suggests: “The rapid increase of labour’s power in Winnipeg was a shock to the cozy arrangements and alliances that had existed between capital and government for at least four decades” (1975, 29). Unfortunately the strikers failed to understand or assess the role of the state, taking a fatally liberal approach that the state would serve merely as honest brokers or reasonable arbitrators.

As Bercuson notes: “The leaders of the strike urged their followers to hold to a non-violent course so they could avoid open confrontation with the government and its police and military forces. They did not realize that this confrontation actually began at eleven A.M. the morning of May 15” (1975, 29). This was social war but it was only being waged fully by one side, that of capital and its allies in state.

Historian Irving Abella suggests that decades of trauma for the labor movement in Canada followed from the suppression of the Winnipeg General Strike (1975, xii). While the movement had high hopes and solid prospects prior to Winnipeg, the actions of the state and capital left the movement in disarray and started a process of declin

While union membership union membership and organization had expanded quickly during the war, after the state violence in Winnipeg, membership declined dramatically throughout the 1920s with organizations paralyzed and leadership divided against itself (Abella 1975, xii). This decline would not be reversed until the years of the Second World War when labor again made significant gains. And the decline was impelled by the force of the state and the use of police to attack, and kill, working people simply organizing to improve their lives.

 

References

Abella, Irving. 1975. “Introduction.” In On Strike: Six Key Labour Struggles in Canada 1919–1949, Irving Abella (ed.). Toronto: James Lorimer and Company, xi–xv

Bercuson, David. 1975. “The Winnipeg General Strike.” In On Strike: Six Key Labour Struggles in Canada 1919–1949, Irving Abella (ed.). Toronto: James Lorimer and Company, 1–32

Seymour, Edward E. 1976. An Illustrated History of Canadian Labour 1800-1974. Canadian Labour Congress: Ottawa

 

 


“Friendly Giant” Killed by Officer at Winnipeg Remand Centre Identified as Russell Spence (31)

Barely ten months into 2016 and there have already been four death associated with the Winnipeg Remand Centre. One victim who died during some type of struggle with an officer on October 12 has been identified as Russell Spence (31) of Winnipeg. Spence was involved in some sort of altercation with an officer during processing at the remand center. He became unresponsive at the center and was transferred to hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Names of victims have typically not been released by authorities but the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation learned of Spence’s identity on October 26. His family has come forward asking for information about the specific circumstances of his death.

Russell Spence has been described as friendly and harmless. In the words of his older brother Kevin Bittern: “Russell was a friendly giant. All his friends and everyone knew he would not hurt anybody, or start anything. I find this very suspicious about his death” (quoted in Taylor 2016). Bittern does not believe Spence was resisting because of the man’s previous experiences in dealing with police. He is upset that the family has been kept in the dark about the killing of their loved one. The family is seeking legal assistance and attempting to piece together Russell Spence’s last hours outside. They are looking for any witnesses to the police intervention against the victim.

The Independent Investigation Unit (IIU), the oversight body that examines cases of police harm to civilians in Manitoba, is investigating the death because the struggle was with either a police officer or a corrections officer. The IIU has not revealed which force the officer belonged to. There has been no comment from Winnipeg Police Service.

 

Further Reading

Taylor, Jillian. 2016. “Remand Centre Inmate Who Died after Struggle was a ‘Friendly Giant.’” CBC News. October 26. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/russell-spence-dies-struggle-remand-centre-1.3822179


Man Killed in Struggle with Police at Winnipeg Remand Center (October 12, 2016)

A man died following a struggle with police while being processed at the Winnipeg Remand Center on Wednesday, October 12, 2016. The man suffered some sort of medical emergency during the struggle and became unresponsive. He was transported by ambulance to the Health Sciences Centre and died while in hospital.

The Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba, the agency that investigates incidents of harm to civilians by police in Winnipeg, sent investigators to the scene directly. Manitoba Corrections is also investigating and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has been notified.

The Winnipeg Remand Centre is already the site of local controversy with Manitoba Corrections under fire over the death of Errol Greene earlier in 2016. Greene’s family has maintained that Greene was epileptic and did not have access to his medications over the course of several days. The family has criticized officials for not providing proper details about what happened to their loved one. They are still not clear whether Greene died at the remand center itself or some time later in hospital. The family called for a public inquest into his death in August but the government has still not agreed to this reasonable request.


Woman Killed in Crash during Pursuit by Winnipeg Police

A woman has been killed when the van she was a passenger in collided with a pickup truck and rolled over during pursuit by Winnipeg police on Boyd Avenue near Sinclair Street in the Burrow’s neighborhood. The crash occurred on September 13, 2016. The victim was one of five people, including another woman, two men, one of whom was the driver, and a 17-year-old boy, who were in the silver van that crashed following initiation of police pursuit. The four other occupants of the van are in stable condition in local hospital. The driver of the pickup truck was also in hospital in stable condition.

According to Winnipeg police spokesperson Constable Rob Carver, whose statements have not been independently confirmed: “The incident appears to have started when a general patrol unit in the area observed the vehicle with five individuals in it and decided that there was a reason to initiate a traffic stop. Overhead lights were activated and … the vehicle immediately fled and collided with the half-ton” (quoted in CBC News 2016). Curiously Carver went on to suggest that “[w]hile it is a pursuit by a technical definition, we did not actually apparently pursue the vehicle” (quoted in CBC News 2016). However, a short pursuit is still actually apparently a pursuit nonetheless. And in this case one with fatal consequences. No other details have been released by police or independent witnesses. Police have not revealed why they decided to pursue the vehicle in the first place.

The Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba, which examines all incidents of harm to civilians by on-duty and off-duty officers in Manitoba, is investigating this incident which resulted in the death of the woman passenger. The victim has not yet been named publicly.

 

Further Reading

CBC News. 2016. “Woman Dead after Van Fleeing Officers Crashes, Winnipeg Police Say.” CBC News. September 13. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/boyd-sinclair-crash-winnipeg-1.3760853


The Regina Police Riot and Killing of On to Ottawa Trekker Nick Schaack (Activists Killed by Cops Feature)

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.

 

Aftermath

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).

 

Conclusion

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.

 

Further Reading

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