By: Sonya Roy and Steve Hewitt
In recent years, non-experts, with the Harper government leading the way, have advocated and pushed for a conservative rewriting of Canadian history in an effort to find “heroes”. This “great man” rewriting of Canadian history focuses on White, middle-class politicians and businessmen, militarism, and monarchism and leaves out the experiences of ordinary people and related subjects such as the labour movement, social justice struggles, immigration, feminism and colonization. A perfect example of this trend is the 20 August piece in the Globe and Mail “Let’s give R.B. Bennett his due” which portrays Bennett through the lenses of “happy history” as some sort of benevolent and prescient Canadian “Daddy” Warbucks. In making this case, the authors, a collection of journalists, an ex-politician, and a former civil servant, fail to engage in any way with considerably less savoury aspects of his time in office that might help to explain why he does not have a monument on Parliament Hill and why he should not have one in the future.
That’s not to say that Bennett deserves the blame for the Great Depression. Canada’s millionaire prime minister clearly does not. His record responding to the economic calamity, however, does deserve scrutiny and not sanitizing or ignoring. Take his government’s response to record high unemployment. Some measures such as $20 million in unemployment relief after taking office proved insufficient to deal with the growing human cost of the economic collapse. Instead of attempting to address the dire plight of thousands of people, the Bennett government sought to silence those refusing to quietly accept their fate. His government’s big concern related to single unemployed men not because of their lack of jobs or misery but because they were seen as a potential threat to social peace. The solution of the Bennett government in 1932 was to put into practice a proposal by Major-General Andrew McNaughton and establish military-run relief camps throughout Canada where unemployed men could be sent to, in effect keeping them in quarantine far away from urban centres and potential agitators.
Established in every province expect Prince Edward Island, over 170,000 men would eventually spend time in the 200 plus camps during their existence. The inmates were not forced to go to the camps, so long as you consider the alternative – that they would not receive any social assistance thus facing the prospect of starvation – a choice. In return for an allowance of 20 cents a day, Bennett’s “slave camps” featured a life of drudgery and boredom, while the men were also deprived of basic democratic rights such as the vote. Not surprisingly, the camps quickly became unpopular and sites of protest. Seven thousand men walked out of the camps in British Columbia in 1935; over 1000 would gather in Vancouver and eventually take part in the “On-to-Ottawa” trek in June of that year as the men rode trains in an effort to reach Ottawa and protest their conditions directly at Bennett’s door. They were ultimately stopped in Regina by the RCMP and on 1 July, Dominion Day, a police initiated riot ensued in which a policeman was killed and dozens of strikers and citizens ended up wounded, many of them as a result of police gunfire.
Bennett himself had set the tone of brutality in 1932 when he issued a warning in Toronto about radicalism and advocated a solution:
We know that throughout Canada this propaganda is being put forward by organizations from foreign lands that seek to destroy our institutions. And we ask that every man and woman put the iron heel of ruthlessness against a thing of that kind.
Bennett’s “iron heels” would involve the heavy use of the police to crack down on dissent. To assist them in their efforts, in 1931 his government brought back Section 98 of the Criminal Code. The legislation, which was passed in 1919 during an era of anti-Communist hysteria, had remained on the books but not in use. That changed under Bennett’s government. The law, with some echoes of today’s anti-terrorism legislation Bill C-51, made it a crime not to attempt revolution but rather simply to promote “governmental, industrial or economic change within Canada by the use of force, violence or physical injury to person or property, or by threats of such injury.” In a reversal of normal justice, those accused were deemed guilty unless they could prove their innocence. This draconian legislation would eventually be repealed by Bennett’s successor as Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, but not before it had been used against the Communist Party of Canada and eight of its leaders who were all convicted in a high profile trial and sent to prison.
Likewise, it was during Bennett’s premiership that deportation of immigrants reached unprecedented levels. Indeed, during the Great Depression, due to Bennett’s reluctance that Ottawa assume more of the costs of relief, municipalities – burdened with the financial responsibility of helping the unemployed immigrants and grappling with limited funds and debts – frequently used deportation as a way to remove them and save on relief costs. For example, in Montreal, between 1930 and 1935, local authorities reported nearly 4000 immigrants to the Immigration Department for deportation. In Winnipeg, officials reported as public charges, immigrants who had received payment as low as $2 to $4, and in Saskatoon, recent immigrants applying for city relief were required to sign forms agreeing to deportation before they could get relief. Not all immigrants reported by cities’ officials were deported, but as historian Barbara Roberts has clearly shown, if the government’s official position was that the Immigration Department deported only the “unemployable”, in reality, thousands of immigrants were deported for simply being “unemployed” (public charge). As a result, between 1930 and 1935, 28097 immigrants were deported most of them for being a “public charge”. A significant proportion of them were of British descent and had arrived in Canada in the late 1920s, under assisted immigration schemes (i.e. the Empire Settlement Act) to work as farm labourers in the West.
Unemployed foreigners were not the only targets of the federal government aggressive deportation policies during Bennett’s premiership. Foreigners deemed to be agitators, labour activists, radicals or communists also were targeted and deported. The federal government gave itself special legal powers, notably Section 98 of the criminal code mentioned above, to deport radicals and agitators for political reasons. Some immigrants were even stripped of their naturalized citizenship so the Immigration Department could deport them.
This is not criticism being made from the present against the past. Even at the time, Canada’s controversial deportations practices drew criticisms from local charity organisations, social workers, politicians, political associations, and from foreign governments, at the forefront of which was the British government. It made newspapers headlines at home and abroad.
That reaction was difficult to imagine in June 1930, when Bennett opened his campaign in Quebec by stopping in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, a working class area in Montreal. For the occasion, thousands of people gathered at the Marché Maisonneuve to see and hear whom they hoped would be their future leader. That day, he told the enthusiastic crowd that “unemployment had become a national problem in Canada” and promised them that if elected he would put Canadians back to work again. Yet, two years into his premiership, judging the public work programs too costly, and with the unemployment rate reaching 25%, he ended them in favour of direct relief. In 1933, at the height of the economic crisis, close to 30% of the workforce was unemployed, and by 1935, almost one million people still relied on relief to survive.
In their 1999 study of Canadian prime ministers, J.L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer, hardly left-wing historians, offer a blunt assessment of Bennett’s time in office: “Bennett utterly failed as a leader….Everyone was alienated by the end–Cabinet, caucus, party, voter and foreigner.” They portray his failure in relation to politics. But the disaster of the Bennett years was even greater in human terms. Tens of thousands of lives already damaged because of the massive economic downturn were made substantially worse due to the policies of the government of R.B. Bennett. His is not the sort of record to be rewarded with a statue on Parliament Hill unless it is a memorial to the victims of the economic and political failure of the Great Depression and Canada’s 11th prime minister.
Sonya Roy is a PhD Candidate in the history department at McGill University and a member of the Montreal History Group. Her dissertation is focusing on unemployed transients in Montreal during the Great Depression. She is the editor of Manuel populaire de la citoyenneté : réponse au conservatisme canadien.
Steve Hewitt is a Senior Lecturer in American and Canadian Studies at University of Birmingham. He is interested in security and intelligence in the past and present and in a US/UK/Canada context. His work has covered a range of topics, such as state surveillance against Canadian universities, UK and US counter-terrorism, a history of informants, and of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
John Herd Thompson and Allen Seager, Canada, 1922-1939: Decades of Discord (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1985), 267-72; Richard J. Rajala, “From ‘On-to-Ottawa’ to ‘Bloody Sunday’,” in Dimitry Anastakis, Framing Canadian Federalism: Historical Essays in Honour of John T. Saywell (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 122. See also Bill Waiser, All Hell Can’t Stop Us: The On-to-Ottawa Trek and Regina Riot (Calgary: Fifth House, 2003).
“Communist Canada,” Canada: A People’s History, http://www.cbc.ca/history/EPISCONTENTSE1EP13CH3PA3LE.html
According to the Immigration Act, when an immigrant, within five years after landing in Canada, has been convicted of a criminal offence, or has become a public charge, or an inmate of a jail, it was the duty of official of any municipalities to send a written complaint to the Minister of Immigration, The Immigration Act (1910), Act to Amend the Immigration Act (1919)
Barbara Roberts, Whence they came. Deportation from Canada,1900-1935 (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1988), 162; Eric Strickwerda, The Wages of Relief. Cities and the Unemployed in Prairie Canada, 1929-1939 (Edmonton: Athabasca University, 2013), 63.
 Barbara Roberts, 38- 44, 160-162; Henry F. Drystek, “‘The Simplest and Cheapest Mode of Dealing with them’: Deportation from Canada before World War II,” Histoire Sociale/Social History, 15, 30 (November 1982), 431.
Barbara Roberts, 129. See also, Dennis G. Molinaro, “‘A Species of Treason?’: Deportation and Nation-Building in the Case of Tomo ?a?i?, 1931-1934,” Canadian Historical Review, 91, 1 (March 2010), 61- 85.