It’s the time of year when kids write to Santa Claus with their Christmas wishes. Their letters sometimes say as much about the children themselves and the world they live in, as they do about the hottest toys and games.
More than 80 years ago, dozens of kids from Saskatchewan decided to write Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett about their needs.
Maybe it was because their families had hit rock bottom and didn’t know where or who else to turn to.
Or maybe they had been told by their parents that Canada’s millionaire prime minister might be moved to help them.
Whatever the reason, they sat down with pencil or pen and poured out their wishes on whatever paper they could find. The next challenge was to find or borrow the money for a stamp to ensure that their letter reached the prime minister in Ottawa.
Today, the voluminous correspondence, held at Library and Archives Canada, serves as poignant testimony to what children in the province faced during these desperate times.
Every letter was personally acknowledged by Bennett’s secretaries or, on a few occasions, by the prime minister himself. And even though it was jokingly suggested at the time that the Conservative leader’s initials stood for “Rotten Bastard,” he instructed his assistants to tuck a bit of money in the return letters.
These amounts were never large — usually from two to five dollars — but were undoubtedly a windfall for the children. The money came from Bennett’s own pocket, paid from a special fund established for this purpose.
One of the most common requests was for clothing.
James McLaughlin of Tessier needed footwear for “my little brother and myself … we have no shoes to wear daddy cant afford to buy us a pr.”
Edwina Abbott was just as desperate. She had no coat and was “awfully cold every day” on the long walk to and from school. “My parents can’t afford to buy me anything for this winter.”
There was also a demand for sporting goods.
Eight-year-old Horace Gardiner of Ardath wanted “a little red wagon to hitch (his) dog to … but my daddy has no money.”
Piet Hanson dreamed of skates. “All the other boys are skating,” he wrote, “and I think I could skate as good as most of them if I could get a pair of skates, second hand or new size seven.”
Fourteen-year-old Sean Kelly of Player, on the other hand, provided his shirt, pant, and shoe size for a complete baseball uniform. “The colours” he boldly suggested, should be “Black trimmed with white and a P on the front.”
Other children had more pressing needs.
George Roley asked for help with his education. “There is three of us in our grade,” he explained to Bennett, “and none of us can afford to buy the books which are necessary to continue in grade nine. If we could manage to get one set of books, we could all work together.”
Then, there was Barbara Offenhauser of Gurney who had been suffering headaches for two years because she needed eyeglasses.
“I find it so hard to read,” she pleaded, “I am sure you would be awful glad to get help if you were in need so much.”
One of the most touching letters was prepared by young Dody Brandt of Harley who wanted the prime minister to write a special letter for her and her little brother: “I just thought that I would write to you because I thought you would write Santa for me and tell him I was a good girl all the time, and Mama tells me her and Daddy have no money to give Santa for my little brother and me and we can’t hang up our stockings now … do you think Mr. Bennett he would forget Brucy and me … I hope he don’t.”
“Tell him I’m here and I’ll be so good,” she promised.
Dody got three dollars in the return mail, but no accompanying note. She never knew whether Prime Minister Bennett had written Santa Claus on her behalf.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: Bethel School group in the Estevan area, 1930s.
Photo credit: Western Development Museum
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People can tell you where they were when Paul Henderson scored the winning goal in the Canada-Russia summit series on Sept. 28, 1972. Or when American astronaut Neil Armstrong walked on the moon on July 20, 1969. Or when American President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
These events have left a lasting impression on people’s memory and are easily recalled as if they happened yesterday.
But what about Dec. 11, 1936? That was the day King Edward VIII announced in a radio broadcast that he had abdicated the British throne because he could not rule “without the help and support of the woman I love.”
Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock was in Saskatoon, staying at the Bessborough Hotel, when he was directed to the lounge to hear the king’s address at three that afternoon.
“There I heard him,” Leacock recalled in his book, My Discovery of the West. “There were just five or six of us, strangers to one another and without talk. We listened as did other groups all over the world.”
Edward’s announcement came as a surprise. Canadian newspapers had provided little coverage of the king’s deepening romance with the twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson through the summer and fall of 1936. The public was consequently unprepared for the December abdication crisis.
His departure as king also marked the end of a close relationship with Canada.
In the aftermath of the Great War, Edward Prince of Wales had been sent to the dominions to shore up support for the British Empire. His 1919 tour of Canada, captured on silent motion picture newsreel, was an unparalleled success.
Whereas his father King George V appeared stuffy and aloof, with one foot stuck in the Victorian era, the fashionably dressed prince cut a modern, dashing figure as the most eligible bachelor in the world.
Adoring crowds turned out to see the twenty-five-year-old heir to the throne wherever he went.
Canadian officials also went out of their way to ease Edward’s sensitivity about his short stature. For the official photograph at the Saskatchewan legislature, for example, Premier William Martin stood on a lower step.
The prince reciprocated the warm greetings by meeting and exchanging words with as many as he could.
The Regina Morning Leader declared that Edward “won his way into the hearts of the people in a way never before approached in this country.”
The prince returned to Canada three times in the 1920s. In 1923 and 1924, he holidayed at the E.P (Edward Prince) Ranch he had purchased in the Albertan foothills during his 1919 tour. He made time for several public appearances.
Then, in 1927, he represented his father at the diamond jubilee celebration of confederation in Ottawa.
This bond between Canada and Edward was expected to flourish when he became king in January 1936.
That was certainly the case at the dedication of the Vimy Monument later that summer. France had donated the land, and when Edward arrived to unveil the memorial to Canada’s war dead, he was welcomed to Canadian soil.
The king personally received Canadian mothers who had made the pilgrimage to see their sons’ names inscribed around the base of the monument.
But then, his abdication in December 1936 abruptly ended this Canadian connection.
There was little sympathy, let alone support, for the king and Mrs. Simpson.
“Apparently, it was all over in nine minutes,” Leacock wrote about Edward’s address, “The six strangers in the [Bessborough] lounge got up and went away. Round the town people listening in their offices said, ‘That’s too bad, eh?’ ”
“But mostly,” Leacock remembered, “people didn’t say much about the abdication and mostly haven’t yet.”
There was just polite acceptance after the initial shock that the popular Edward would be succeeded by his stuttering younger brother Bertie (George VI).
“The point is,” Leacock later mused, “that the people — the ex-king’s subjects — didn’t know just how they felt and don’t know yet.”
This article originally in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: Premier William Martin stands on a lower step to avoid drawing attention to the Prince of Wales’ height during his visit to the Saskatchewan legislature.
Photo credit: Saskatchewan Archives Board
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