In 1935, about 1,500 residents of federal Unemployment Relief Camps in British Columbia went on strike and traveled by train and truck to Vancouver, Regina and Ottawa to protest poor conditions in the Depression-era camps. The strike leaders were eventually arrested, resulting in the violent Regina Riot.
Striking Camp Workers
In early April 1935, during the Great Depression, a strike and protest by Unemployment Relief Camp workers was organized by the Workers' Unity League (WUL), and led by WUL officer Arthur "Slim" Evans. The League was affiliated with the international Communist movement. The protest was motivated by concern for improved conditions and benefits in the camps, and the apparent reluctance of the federal government to provide work and wages programs.
In Vancouver the strikers organized themselves into divisions, undertook alliances with civic, labour, ethnic and political groups, held demonstrations, and spoke with government officials, among them British Columbia premier Dufferin T. Pattullo and Mayor Gerald McGeer.
The two-month protest included the occupation of the Hudson's Bay store and the city museum and library, and a May Day parade of some 20,000 strikers and supporters to Stanley Park.
Negotiations with Ottawa
When local governments refused to take responsibility for the strikers' welfare, and when the men themselves began to grow restless at the apparent failure of their protest, Evans and his associates decided to take the movement to Ottawa. On 3 June, more than 1,000 strikers began the "On to Ottawa Trek," determined to inform the nation of their cause and to lay complaints before Parliament and Prime Minister R.B. Bennett.
The strikers commandeered freight trains and made stops in Calgary, Medicine Hat, Swift Current and Moose Jaw before arriving in Regina. There the railways, supported by an order from the prime minister, refused further access to their trains. Negotiations with the federal government resulted in the dispatch of eight Trekkers to Ottawa to meet with Bennett, while the remaining marchers waited in the Regina Exhibition Grounds, with food and shelter supplied by townspeople and the Saskatchewan government.
The talks in Ottawa quickly broke down and the delegation returned to Regina, having decided to disband the Trek. A rally was called for on 1 July to secure last-minute assistance from the townspeople. Although the Trek was dispersing, Bennett had decided to arrest its leaders. That day Regina constables and RCMP squads moved into a rallying crowd of some 300 to arrest Evans and other speakers, thus provoking the Regina Riot.
The conflict raged back and forth on Regina streets, as Trekkers assaulted police with rocks and clubs. The fracas ended by midnight, after the rioters had returned to the Exhibition Grounds. One city constable was killed, while several dozen rioters, constables and citizens were injured, and 130 rioters were arrested. Four days later, the Saskatchewan government helped the marchers on their way, most returning on passenger trains to Vancouver.
The repression of the Trekkers and Bennett's antagonism towards Evans contributed to Bennett's political decline. The protest also increased the public exposure of the Communist Party of Canada during the desperate times of the Depression.