It was not a quiet end to the occupation of the post office in Vancouver. (B.C. Archives photo)

It was not a quiet end to the occupation of the post office in Vancouver. (B.C. Archives photo)

T.W. Paterson: Tent cities: An eerie reminder of the Dirty ’30s.

Father’s Day, 1938, has gone down in provincial labour history as ‘Bloody Sunday.’

Father’s Day, 1938, has gone down in provincial labour history as ‘Bloody Sunday.’

There’s a sense of deja vu to today’s homeless issue that hearkens back to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Obviously, we’re not suffering from a recession such as that which paralyzed the western world for a decade, 90 years ago. Today, many, if not most, Canadians appear to be financially stable in their jobs or retirement.

But, for the past several summers the homeless, hundreds of them, have been in the news, particularly here on the Island, with their contentious tent cities. Mental health issues, drug use and the resulting garbage have provoked hostility rather than empathy from many, including civic officials who’ve responded in some cases with court injunctions based on health and safety concerns.

Last week, a Nanaimo councillor warned of the danger of “anarchy” if that city’s tent city wasn’t closed down, and Saanich council is presently trying to clear away illegal squatters in a municipal park.

The parallel between today’s homeless and those who were thrown onto the streets as a result of the stock market crash of October 1929 ends there. That was when the economies of most democratic nations were devastated for an entire decade; only the threat of war and the need to boost military spending brought the return of robust employment and personal incomes.

Most of the homeless of the 1930s were young men, many of them veterans of the First World War, for whom there were no jobs and, to our national shame, no real government assistance. They were virtually on their own. So they rode the rails from the prairie provinces to the milder clime of the west coast and congregated in hobo jungles in the Greater Vancouver area.

Vancouver city council, which had to deal with this invasion, had little help from Victoria or Ottawa. The latter’s response, under R.B. Bennett’s Conservative government, was to create work camps, run with military discipline, where unemployed were housed and fed while being put to work on public projects such as roads and the like — for 20 cents a day.

Those who refused this so-called “relief” lived by their wits, by begging, by doing odd jobs for pocket change — or whatever.

Growing disenchantment and frustration sparked public demonstrations and the occupation of, in Vancouver, city buildings. Police were used to forcibly disband public protests. Years later, Ronald Liversedge, one of those protestors, would recall with bitterness that he’d never met a Canadian policeman or policewoman who wouldn’t “break his head” if ordered to do so.

Governments that couldn’t bring themselves (a la the Roosevelt administration south of the border) to create employment through massive public works projects began to fear that the unemployed were being manipulated by Communist agitators. Meaning that the unemployed weren’t just a public drain and a nuisance — they were seen to be a threat to national security.

By April 1935, the city was flooded with unemployed men, many of them refugees from the work camps, who were subsisting on public relief, such as it was, on handouts, on holding illegal tagdays, and by begging in the streets. Although the public was generally sympathetic to their plight, the council of newly-elected Mayor Gerry McGeer was not.

The pot boiled over on April 23 when thousands of unemployed and sympathizers marched through the streets, then occupied the Hudson’s Bay Co. store. When police attempted to evict them and made 19 arrests, the store was heavily damaged before the protestors carried on, peacefully, to Victory Square. After declaring that he couldn’t do anything for them, and police arrested several for vagrancy, McGeer proceeded to the square to read the Riot Act.

At this, the crowd dispersed. Over the next several weeks McGeer did attempt to get the federal government to improve conditions in the work camps and to help the city cope with ever increasing numbers of unemployed, but to no avail.

This impasse set in motion the legendary “On to Ottawa” trek of unemployed — a story in itself. The momentary peace in Vancouver ended abruptly in mid-June when a weeks-old longshoremen’s strike turned violent and armed city police and RCMP charged into 1,000 strikers with tear gas and batons. By the time the “Battle of Ballantyne Pier” ended, dozens were injured and dozens more were under arrest.

For two more years Vancouver served as the frontline for the discontented unemployed, the hungry and the homeless although many had resigned themselves to the work camps situated about the province. Come 1938, however, the Liberal government in Ottawa began closing the camps and the inmates began to drift into the city in growing numbers. Again, survival for many of them was by begging and accepting handouts.

When, in May 1938, Mayor Miller, McGeer’s successor, banned panhandling, 1,200 enraged protestors occupied the post office, the Georgia Hotel and the art gallery. The hotel owner was able to negotiate an evacuation for $500. The protestors were on their best behaviour so as not to alienate the public and both gallery and post office remained open to use by those wishing to do so.

When police chief W.W. Foster asked the occupiers to return to their homes, having made their point, he was jeeringly informed they had no homes to go to. They in turn asked that he arrest them, knowing that he was in no position to deal with 1,000 prisoners. Days, then weeks, of impasse followed as police appeared to merely stand by. All the while, however, Foster was negotiating for intervention with the RCMP.

Those occupying the art gallery were talked into voluntary evacuation by a show of force by police and through the mediation of the CCF leader of the provincial opposition, Harold Winch.

But the post office was a different story. To quote Wikipedia: “Because it was a federal building, the RCMP led the assault… The men responded to the first round of tear gas by smashing the windows for ventilation and arming themselves with whatever projectiles they could find. The RCMP entered the building and forcibly ejected the men, who were subjected to a cordon of police armed with batons upon leaving the building. City police outside assisted the Mounties. Of the 42 hospitalized, some with serious injuries, only five were police and all of those were Vancouver police constables.”

At this, another, large crowd quickly formed and began marching through the streets, smashing store windows as they went.

By afternoon, police faced as many as 15,000 angry unemployed and sympathizing citizens who charged police brutality and demanded that Premier Duff Pattullo resign. He was unmoved, saying that he thought the unemployed had been shown “too much sympathy already,” and Prime Minister Mackenzie King, parroting his predecessor, said he considered it to be a provincial matter.

When, likely in desperation, many of the unemployed returned to relief camps around the province, the threat of further wholesale violence in the streets began to dissipate. Only 14 months later, Canada would be at war and the so-called Great Depression, with its overwhelming unemployment and poverty, would be ended.

In the opinion of provincial historian Margaret Ormsby, Vancouver, which had been western Canada’s epicentre of discontent throughout the 1930s, was “more scarred” than any other city in the country.

That was then. Today, it’s the “homeless” and their tent cities. Tomorrow—?

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