There’s this little event going on in Canada right now, I don’t know if you’ve heard about it, called the Freedom Convoy: A bunch of truckers and their supporters drove from Vancouver to Ottawa, straight across Canada, to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates. It’s turned into a whole thing, leading to the complete shutdown of Canada’s capital as well as several important international border crossings.
But if you look back into Canada’s past there’s another protest, one that I believe holds an important lesson for people today living through historic inflation and income inequality; it was called the On-To-Ottawa Trek and it saw disenfranchised workers crossing Canada by truck, car and rail to demand a better life. But instead of getting to park around Parliamentary Hill and blare horns all day, organizers were arrested and the movement was put down by police in Regina, Saskatchewan in a bloody riot.
When Americans know anything about history, it’s usually broad strokes about our more successful wars. Our own rich labor history isn’t taught in schools, and certainly no Canadian labor history. But the struggles that happened here are closely mirrored and intertwined with our neighbors to the north.
The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl were a double whammy of bad news in the U.S. and Canada in the ’30s. The hard times drove many single men out of their family homes to look for work, but work was nowhere to be found. Many of these men ended up in unemployment relief camps set up by the Department of National Defence. These camps were rough; men were provided with a meager 20 cents a day, three meals a day, clothes, medical attention and a cot for back-breaking labor while living in poor conditions far from home. These camps were placed far out in rural areas where men built roads or airstrips.
They felt forgotten about, pushed aside. While the men were welcome to leave at any time, where would they go? Without a home or a job, they were likely to be arrested for vagrancy. The camps were a last resort, thanks to a conservative government that did nothing to provide reasonable wage programs or unemployment relief. The government also wanted young jobless men out of the cities, thinking they were ripe for the temptations of Communist organizers. In the end it was sending these young men to the camps that would expose them to Communist ideas. The Workers’ Unity League (WUL) and the Relief Camp Workers’ Union (RCWU), Communist organizations both, would go on to organize strikers in the British Columbia camps.
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Over 7,000 workers walked out of the British Columbia camp and about 1,500 marched on Vancouver in a strike in April, 1935. Their demands were simple: 50 cents a day in pay, a six-hour day, five days a week schedule, compensation for injured workers, unemployment insurance, voting rights guarantees and separating the work camps completely from the Ministry of Defence.
Strikers occupied the city for two months, but it proved useless. Once they were out of the camps the federal government washed its hands of the men. By June, a convoy of 1,000 workers headed east to Ottawa to make their grievances known on Parliamentary Hill. The mass of protesters picked up steam (literally, as workers rode on top of freight train cars) as they traveled across a country devastated by poverty, plagues of grasshoppers and drought. By the time the trains, cars and trucks rolled into Regina, Saskatchewan, the On-To-Ottawa trekkers were 2,000 strong.
The swelling numbers of the protest made the conservative Prime Minster R.B. Bennett nervous. The federal government wouldn’t let them move any farther East, denying travel by train, foot or car. Negotiation with cabinet ministers went no where so the Trekkers sent eight men ahead to Ottawa to negotiate with Bennett directly while the majority peacefully stayed in Regina, their food and shelter provided by the people and government of Saskatchewan. The meeting with Bennett proved disastrous as the men returned, and organizers decided to release the strikers. It had all been a frustrating, heartbreaking failure.
Even though the strikers were disbanding, Bennett still wanted to see the organizers arrested. On July 1, Canada Day, several hundred workers met to figure out next steps when their gathering was interrupted by a policeman’s whistle. What came next was the worst Canadian riot of the Great Depression. The CBC interviewed striker Rob Liversedge about the event decades later:
“A shrill whistle blasted out a signal,” Liversedge remembered, “The backs of vans were opened and out poured the Mounties, each armed with a baseball bat. In less than four minutes Market Square was a mass of writhing, groaning forms, like a battlefield.”
The strikers erected barricades and threw stones, and the Mounties retaliated with their .38 revolvers.
Police fired wildly into the crowd. The strike not only failed, hundreds of rioters were injured and two people were killed in the melee — a detective and an unemployed American living in Saskatchewan. At least 130 rioters were arrested.
Following the riot, Trekkers drifted away from Regina, either returning to the work camps or hopping train cars, traveling from city to city to keep from being arrested for vagrancy. But their movement wasn’t quite the failure it initially seemed. Support throughout Canada was squarely with the workers. Bennett, who was elected on his promise to bring jobs back to Canada, lost his government a few months later to the liberal party. The new power in Ottawa would raise wages for workers and lay the foundation for the social safety nets Canadians enjoy to this day while conservatives would not be able to form a government in Canada for another 23 years. An inquiry into the Regina riot led to the work camps being closed in 1936 after 170,248 men had already passed through them.
It feels like we’re living in the exact opposite of what happened in 1935. On-To-Ottawa Trekkers fought for equal rights based on their lived experiences while the Freedom Convoy is based on conspiracy theories swirling around lifesaving vaccines at worst, or just a contrarian “cause I don’t wanna” attitude at best. Today, we have an unpopular minority—80 percent of Canadians are fully vaccinated—shutting down communities over a government actually caring about its citizen’s health while police do little to dissuade protesters even when they are blocking international border crossings.
Trekkers had nothing — no jobs, no homes — and still tried to make something of themselves while maybe, against all odds, improving life for all Canadians. They knew they’d experience violence from officials but they were largely peaceful, respectful, organized and ultimately popular even in the communities where they stayed. Even the mayor of Vancouver, who literally read strikers the Riot Act after they occupied a department store for two months, felt that the trekkers were being treated unfairly by the federal government.
To me, the men of the On-To-Ottawa strike are true patriot heroes of Canada. There’s a nobility to putting your life on the line in the quest for a more equitable future. It’s a far cry from terrorizing small border towns, facing down old women in their own neighborhood streets or thinking lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines are a conspiracy to kill white people.