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 firstname.lastname@example.org.