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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