Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: June 2015

On to Ottawa Trek

Government accountability and history under siege

Eighty years ago this month, more than 1,000 single, homeless and unemployed men clambered atop a CPR freight train and set off for Ottawa.

Few expected the On-to-Ottawa Trek, as it became known, to make it through the mountains. But the trekkers were determined to confront prime minister R.B. Bennett and his handling of the unemployed during the Great Depression.

As the trek headed across the prairies in the late spring of 1935, gaining momentum and public support, the Conservative government ordered the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to stop the men in Regina. Violence erupted when the Mounties decided to arrest the trek leaders at a peaceful Dominion Day meeting.

The riot resulted in two deaths, hundreds injured, thousands of dollars of damage to downtown Regina, and a black eye for Bennett and his heavyhanded actions.

Two books had been already written about the trek and riot when I decided to tackle the topic in my All Hell Can’t Stop Us. But I had a new piece of legislation to facilitate my research – the 1982 Access to Information Act.

Through access requests, I was able to secure previously closed RCMP documents that demonstrated how senior police officials essentially viewed the trek as a revolution on wheels. They were prepared to use any means to crush the movement, even it if meant provoking a riot.

Prime Minister Bennett did not have to worry about access legislation at the time of the trek and riot in 1935. But imagine that he did and decided to pass legislation that retroactively exempted these particular mounted police records from access requests.

History would effectively be erased.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government are doing exactly that through the omnibus Budget Bill (C-59).

The records of the defunct long-gun registry have been made exempt from access requests or any other proceeding under the Access to Information Act. And the Harper government made this change retroactive, even though there was an outstanding access request for these records before the bill to destroy the records was given royal assent.

In other words, the Harper Conservatives are turning back the clock, as if the access request was never submitted.

Prime Minister Harper and Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney have both maintained that they are fixing a loophole. Sadly, this claim is reminiscent of comedian W.C. Fields, who insisted that he was looking for loopholes when caught reading the Bible later in life.

There are no loopholes in the Access to Information Act.

Canadians need open access to government records, subject to specific restrictions (including passage of time to protect privacy) to ensure transparency. That is how a democracy is supposed to work.

The Harper government – any government for that matter – cannot simply rewrite the access law to protect the RCMP or anyone else from being prosecuted for being in violation of the act. Nor should any government counsel anyone to break the law – in this case, the Access act.

Such a move is unprecedented and deeply troubling. It effectively means that Canadians can no longer hold the government to account on this matter. It also sets a terrible precedent.

Does a future policy change now mean those records can be destroyed, too? And what of the role of Library and Archives Canada and its legislated responsibility to determine the archival value of records?

Canadians need to get behind Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault and support her efforts to ensure that the access act is respected and enforced. Otherwise, our fundamental right to holding the federal government to account will be compromised, if not lost.

And we will have no one to blame but ourselves for allowing it to happen.

The trekkers certainly would not have stood for it.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Waiser is distinguished professor emeritus in history at the University of Saskatchewan. His father, Thaddeus, was a guest of R.B. Bennett in the Hope DND relief camp during the winter of 1933-34.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Only men given relief during Depression

Canada pursued a “gendered” relief policy during the Great Depression. Because society tended to look upon men as breadwinners, they mattered more than women.

Governments consequently introduced policies to help men weather the economic storm of the 1930s and ensure that they were ready and willing to go back to work when the recovery began.

Beginning in 1932, for example, the Department of National Defence created a national system of relief camps for single, homeless unemployed men.

And when the City of Saskatoon, in co-operation with the federal and provincial governments, built the Broadway Bridge as a relief project, married men, especially those with children, were given priority on the job.

There were no such programs for women in Saskatchewan, even if they had once been part of the labour force and lost their jobs. Nor did it seem to matter that they too had to put their lives on hold.

The care of the unemployed female was understood to be a family duty, the responsibility of husbands, fathers, brothers, even uncles or male cousins, certainly not the state.

In fact, in the early 1930s, there was a backlash against women and girls in the workplace. They were collectively blamed for exacerbating the employment crisis, accused of being “bread snatchers and home wreckers.” Women, it was argued, should be forced to do the right thing and give up their jobs to men and go home where they belonged.

This emphasis on traditional gender roles was ironically at odds with what women actually did to mitigate the impact of the Depression.

Many families survived these bleak years because women publicly complained about relief policies, challenging authorities to provide more adequate assistance or resisting attempts to make the process even more demeaning than it already was.

Women had to use their ingenuity in any number of ways in running the household.
Relief supplies, for example, tested a woman’s creative skills in the kitchen when it came to preparing meals. A monthly food voucher gave access to a standard, though rather limited, list of grocery items. Substitutions were not permitted.

Women also canned and pickled, using vegetables grown in makeshift gardens in vacant lots, as well as kept chickens, ducks or pigs in backyard pens to supplement the otherwise monotonous relief diet.

Mending and darning became an art, while any kind of spare material, such as rags, was saved and converted into something useful. “I hated one dress,” reminisced a young girl at the time. “Sometimes the stamp didn’t wash out very well and even though my mother had dyed the bags, I still had “Quaker Flour” and a circle across my back.”

As the Depression worsened and the number of unemployed grew, Saskatchewan cities tried to limit the number of relief recipients by insisting that applicants meet a residency requirement.

Then, in mid-November 1932, Saskatoon introduced a new relief application form that gave officials the right to enter homes at any time, day or night, to ensure that recipients were truly destitute and were not hiding luxury items such as a radio. The form also required relief disbursements to be repaid in full – by the confiscation of personal effects and property if necessary.

One Saskatoon woman remembered seeing her father cry for the first time when he was compelled to accept the city’s terms before he got food for his hungry children. He cried again at the loss of his self-respect, believing he had signed away his manhood.

Several Saskatoon families angrily refused to accept what a StarPhoenix editorial called “blackmail.” And when they were unceremoniously cut off relief, 30 women and children occupied city council chambers for two days in Saskatoon’s first sit-down strike, while the local police tussled with supporters outside the building.

The episode ended peacefully when the protesters secured some minor changes to the new relief policy, but it underscored what women were willing to do to see that the basic necessities of life did not come at the cost of their families’ dignity.

As one Depression child later realized, her mom did the best she could with what little they had.

Originally published in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Questions or comments? Email Bill Waiser at


Saskatchewan’s oldest graveyard is ancient

In April 1963, Earl Gray was out walking his land checking whether it was dry enough for seeding. It was a ritual he and countless other Saskatchewan farmers performed every spring.

On a south-facing hillside, where the wind had carved out a depression in the sandy soil, Gray spotted a human skull. He dutifully alerted the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment, and it was subsequently determined that the remains were quite ancient.

Excavations over the next several years revealed that the Gray homestead sat atop a burial ground that had been used for more than 2,000 years, starting around 5,000 years ago, and that it contained the remains of probably more than 500 people.

In many instances, bones from the skeletal remains of several individuals had been bundled and buried together, sometimes on top of other bone bundles. These bones had been collected after the dead had first been exposed to the elements. Skulls were found at one end of the bone bundles.

Only a few complete skeletons were unearthed. These individuals likely died nearby and were interred shortly thereafter. The people in the graveyard had also died young. Few of the remains were from people older than forty years, while more than half of the bones were those of children and infants.

Precious items were often found with children, a clear indication of their special place in these indigenous societies.

Some of the burials included dogs, whose skeletal remains showed distinct signs of stress from hauling loads on travois.

Other grave materials included fire-cracked rocks (from stoneboiling), scrapers, mauls, and hammerstones, and native copper and marine shell items.

Gray had stumbled upon the oldest known cemetery in Saskatchewan. That in itself was significant, but even more so because first peoples often left behind little evidence of their existence. It has either eroded away or not been found because it lies deeply buried.

On the Gray farm, the human remains were at least eighteen inches below the surface. That’s why decades of cultivation had not disturbed the bone bundles.

Describing and understanding the lives of these early people is difficult and open to considerable speculation. In fact, archaeologists have largely come to identify early societies in Western Canada and separate them into distinct complexes, traditions or phases by meticulously studying their projectile points and denoting any modification or innovation.

The remains at the Gray site are from the Oxbow complex – so named because their distinctive spear points, with side-notches, were first recovered in artifact assemblages at Oxbow, Sask. The bow and arrow had not yet been introduced.

The Oxbow people were more numerous than earlier cultures, but they were still a nomadic hunting society subsisting largely on bison.

Like other early societies throughout the world, they had struggled to meet the challenges of the environment, constantly adapting and finding ways to survive and flourish.

They also had their traditions and stories, their spiritual beliefs and practices, their interactions and trade, and their pleasures and their grief.

It is actually something of a disservice to these first Saskatchewan peoples to call them “prehistoric” and describe their timeline as “prehistory,” for it conjures up images of primitive, if not backward people. Nor do these terms help in imagining who they were and how they lived.

One thing is certain, though – it will never be known what they called themselves.

The Gray burial site has been formally recognized by the federal government as a place of national historic significance. The government of Saskatchewan has also declared the site a protected place and owns the land today.

But a bronze plaque has never been erected there. Its location is also not provided in any public documents.

It’s best that way. Those in the cemetery should be allowed to rest in peace – as they had done for thousands of years before Earl Gray made his accidental discovery.

Originally published in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix‚Ä®

Questions or comments? Email Bill Waiser at