80th Anniversary of the On-to-Ottawa Trek and the Campaign for Unemployment Insurance

80th Anniversary of the On-to-Ottawa Trek and the Campaign for Unemployment Insurance

Eighty years ago, on July 1, 1935, millionaire Conservative Prime Minister, R. B. Bennett ordered the RCMP to crush the On-to-Ottawa Trek involving thousands of young unemployed men. (That is one of the stories I tell during my Protest, Strike and Rebellion walking tour in downtown Ottawa.)

The Trek brought together unemployed activists from hundreds of government-created and military-run ‘relief camps’ that housed single unemployed men engaged in manual labour in remote locations.

After six years of the depression, 2,000 unemployed workers from the Communist Party-led Relief Camp Workers Union (RCWU) in British Columbia started a cross-country trip from Vancouver to Ottawa, campaigning for replacement of the relief camps by work, wages and an unemployment insurance program. Riding the rails and stopping in each city to explain their cause and rally support, participants in the On-to-Ottawa Trek were gaining public support with stop in their cross-country journey.

In Regina, two members of the federal cabinet asked the Trekkers to send a small delegation to meet Bennett in Ottawa right away. The Trekkers elected RCWU leader Slim Evans and seven others to travel to Ottawa. When the delegation met the millionaire PM in his East Block office on June 22, it was merely the latest in a series of Ottawa meetings Bennett had held with representatives of unemployed organizations.

That June 1935 meeting is partly remembered for the heated exchanges between Bennett and the Trek leaders, and the PM’s unwillingness to change. It was also a delaying tactic by the Conservatives, buying enough time for the RCMP to plan their suppression of the movement. On July 1, 1935, the police attacked a peaceful outdoor meeting by the Trekkers in Regina, creating a ‘riot’ as Trekkers and citizens fought to defend themselves.

Appalled by Bennett’s transparent brutality, his government was devastated at the polls in October 1935. Much of what the Trekkers had campaigned for would be enacted by the next government in the years after 1935.

While there are several good accounts on the On-to Ottawa Trek available, few sources talk about the special role Ottawa played as the site of various national meetings and demonstrations organized by the depression-era unemployed workers movement.

Unemployed organizations used Ottawa for a large demonstration in 1931, a Workers Economic Conference in 1932, a National Congress on Unemployment in 1933, and a Workers Congress on Unemployment and Social Insurance in early 1935. In addition, after the On-to-Ottawa Trek was smashed in Regina, hundreds of unemployed workers from various smaller marches originating in Ontario did make it to Ottawa in July and August, 1935.

To learn more about the events in Ottawa, book a spot in my walking tour: Protest, Strike and Rebellion in Canada’s Capital.