Labour Demonstrations: The On-To-Ottawa Trek


The Second World War broke out in 1939, twenty-one years after fighting ceased in the First World War. WWI left belligerent countries broke and fatigued. The 1920s and 1930s presented their own ups and downs, including extreme global economic booms and busts. Though there were hints at the time, we can see through hindsight the lead up to the beginning of WWII throughout the 1930s. In this blog series, important local, national, and international economic and cultural events and attitudes are discussed as Canada and the world prepared to engage in another massive global conflict.

The Great Depression of the 1930s resulted in widespread unemployment across Canada. What began as a strike and protest in the Vancouver area quickly escalated into a national concern when over 1000 strikers boarded trains to take their concerns directly to Prime Minister R.B. Bennett in Ottawa. This national labour demonstration is known as the On-to-Ottawa Trek.

The federal government had established Unemployment Relief Camps to employ single Canadian men who were out of work. Unhappy with their working conditions, men in Vancouver began to strike in April 1935. Growing discontented with the lackluster response of the local authorities and no real change to their situation, the strikers decided to take their strike to the Prime Minister. On June 3, 1935, two months after the protests in Vancouver began, strikers boarded trains and headed east.

Strikers from unemployment relief camps en route to Eastern Canada during the On-to-Ottawa Trek in June 1935 in Kamloops, B.C. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Strikers from unemployment relief camps en route to Eastern Canada during the On-to-Ottawa Trek in June 1935 in Kamloops, B.C. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The strikers stopped in Calgary, Medicine Hat, Swift Current, and Moose Jaw. With each stop the strikers picked up recruits. In Calgary, the On-to-Ottawa Trek gained hundreds of men. As the strikers neared Regina their numbers had almost doubled to 2000 men. When the strikers reached Regina they were met by the RCMP who had been dispatched to intercept the strikers before they reached Ottawa. The Trek was halted, and the police blocked the strikers’ access to the trains to continue their journey east. However, the strike was not suppressed entirely, as a small delegation of strikers was allowed to continue to Ottawa to address the Prime Minister with their concerns. The rest of the men were to remain in Regina.

The meetings with PM Bennett did not end well for the strikers. Defeated, they returned to Regina to disband and disperse the rest of strikers. However, Bennett decided to order the arrest of the strike leaders, which instigated a riot in Regina on July 1, 1935. A violent interaction between strikers and the RCMP occurred, resulting in many arrests and injuries. Within a few days, the defeated strikers left Regina and boarded trains heading west. The suppression and violence of the strike in part lead to the decline in popularity of Prime Minister Bennett and his Conservative government during the 1930s. In October 1935, Bennett lost the general election to Liberal candidate William Lyon Mackenzie King, who would serve as Prime Minister through the end of the Second World War.