Vancouver Feature: Mayor McGeer Reads the Riot Act

The labour camp strikers who assembled in Victory Square on April 23, 1935 wanted financial assistance from the city. Battered by the Depression and angry at conditions in the camps, the crowd of 2,000 demanded change. Mayor Gerry McGeer gave them an ultimatum instead.

Gerry McGeer was elected to office on a law and order platform. In his first week he confiscated 1,000 slot machines. To many, he was a zealous reformer. To many others, he was a megalomaniac. He certainly widened the chasm between supporters and opponents on April 23, 1935.

Many of the assembled men were striking the federal labour camps, where, according to George Woodcock “the men were given uncomfortable bunkhouse accommodation, food, medical care and 20 cents a day for a 44-hour work week, clearing brush, making roads and reforesting. They were free to leave when they wished, but there was nowhere they could go to get work.” It was a politically volatile climate, where many identified labour activists with Bolshevik insurrection.

The crowd sent a delegation to the mayor at city hall (then at the Holden Building, 16 East Hastings). McGeer had them arrested. Then he walked to Victory Square and read the crowd the Riot Act, ordering them to disperse. That night, the police raided the worker headquarters and in the riot that ensued police on horseback established order with nightsticks and arrests.

McGeer was condemned as a toady to moneyed interests and praised as an anti-communist crusader. As for the strikers, many boarded the freight cars that left Vancouver on June 3, 1935 on the “On To Ottawa” trek, another colourful chapter in Canada’s Depression-era history.