KAMLOOPS — In April of 1935 they left their miserable camps and made their way to Vancouver. The camps had been set up in the middle of nowhere. Young men worked in the military-run camps for 20 cents a day under deplorable conditions in dead-end jobs with no end in sight.
The camps were designed to be harsh. Prime Minister Bennett had reluctantly set them up as a concession to the unemployed victims of the Great Depression. He was opposed to anything that looked like a handout, including even the appalling camps. He told a labour delegation in 1930: “Never will I or any government of which I am part put a premium on idles or put our people on the dole."
The camps didn’t have to be that way, says historian Bill Waiser of the University of Saskatchewan. “In contrast to the American Civil Conservation Corps, a popular federal work-for-relief program across the border, the make-work projects and isolating conditions of the Canadian relief camps aggravated the gloom of the men who were in them.”
About 1,500 desperate men arrived in Vancouver and were warmly received. Huge public rallies and parades were held. On Mother’s Day in Stanley Park, 300 women circled the men in the shape of a heart.
As is typical, provincial and federal governments wrangled over who was responsible for the men. Finally, the men decided to take matters into their own hands and trek to Ottawa aboard boxcars. About 1,000 left Vancouver in June of 1935. Governments made no attempt to stop them, convinced that the trekker’s tenacity would dissolve in the cold trip through the mountains.
By the time the trekkers got to Kamloops they were cold, hungry and dispirited. Unlike Vancouver, no warm reception awaited them. Nothing had been done to prepare for their arrival: Mayor W. J. Moffatt and the chief of police flatly refused requests for help.
Kamloops had problems of its own with hordes of desperate, unemployed men in formal camps and informal “hobo jungles” says Mary Balf, former curator of the Kamloops Museum, in her book Kamloops 1914-1945. In one case, on May 1, 1931, men flocked into the city to complain about the poor conditions in these camps. Police closed the bridge from North Kamloops to limit the numbers.
“The work camps continued rather haphazardly until the summer of 1936,” says Balf, “but never really worked well. . . frequently they were so badly managed that even the promised wages were not forthcoming.”
After 300 men joined the trekkers from Kamloops, they were revitalized. As word of the trekkers spread, they were soon regarded as folk heroes. Washtubs of stew awaited them when they arrived in Golden in June. Calgary citizens were struck by the youthful innocence of the men.
More men joined the trek in Alberta but not my father. He was in a camp in Jasper at the time building the national park. He never told me about the camp conditions in Jasper. Perhaps he preferred to forget the depression and the stigma of unemployment. Perhaps, like some of the projects in the U.S., the building of parks gave purpose to his work.
As the popularity of the heroic trekkers grew, the federal government began to worry that they might actually get to Ottawa. By the time they got to Regina, the feds decided they would go no further. On Dominion Day in 1935, Regina police and RCMP raided a rally attended by thousands of trekkers and supporters. A riot ensued with hundreds of injuries and two deaths.
The trek ended but not without a cost to the feds. In October of 1935, Bennett’s government was defeated. A year later the camps were closed down.