One of the great challenges of the 1930s was what to do with the single, homeless unemployed.
By the fall of 1932 and the failure of yet another prairie harvest, more than 100,000 homeless souls wandered the country, trying to survive by their wits. Many were single men, including Great War veterans, who had eked out a living in Canada’s resource industries, moving from job to job and from region to region.
There were also several thousand young people, fresh-faced teenagers who had quit school to help support their families and then left home so that they would not be a burden.
Most transients, as they were called at the time, gravitated to larger cities and towns in their search for work and, more importantly, relief. But municipalities could not meet the needs of their own unemployed and consequently refused to provide assistance to anyone who had lived in the community for less than a year.
This residency requirement sentenced many to life on the move.
Ottawa, for its part, hid behind the constitution and refused to assume responsibility for the growing jobless army, even though the federal minister of labour after a June 1931 tour of western Canada cautioned, “young men can hardly be expected to starve quietly.” All Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett would do was provide emergency funds under the 1932 Relief Act that enabled western provinces to run their own relief camps for the homeless.
The Saskatchewan government used the federal funding to set up camps on the edge of cities, in provincial parks, and in Prince Albert National Park.
But in Saskatoon, the province took over an existing relief camp that the city had operated on a “temporary” basis for almost two years at the city’s exhibition grounds.
The Saskatoon camp was a troubled one.
The superintendent was a former army officer whose authoritarian manner became a source of alienation and friction. The men wanted a voice in camp affairs, but complaints about the food and living conditions elicited the stern response that they should be satisfied that they were not out on the street.
The growing population only increased the tension. On Feb. 2z1, 1933, there were 391 men in the camp. That number climbed as the depression tightened its grip on the province — to 630 on April 7 and then 870 on May 5.
The Saskatchewan government sought to defuse the volatile situation by transferring men to other camps — starting with so-called troublemakers. A batch of 50 was to be taken to Regina by train on May 8, 1933.
They were not expected to go willingly. A police spy on the inside warned that any attempt to remove men would be met with stiff resistance.
Government authorities went ahead with the operation, ready to use force if necessary. When the group to be relocated took refuge in the dining hall, surrounded by their supporters, two mounted RCMP troops galloped into the camp to disperse the angry crowd and help the city police remove the men.
In the ensuing melee, Inspector L.J. Sampson, who commanded the mounted police force, fell from his saddle, with his feet caught in the stirrups, and struck his head on a telephone pole while being dragged helplessly by his horse.
“That poor young man died right in front of our eyes,” recalled Bill Hunter, the future Saskatchewan sports promoter, who watched the riot with some childhood friends.
Reeling from Sampson’s tragic death, the RCMP attributed the trouble to outside agitators who threatened the safety of the country in provoking the unemployed.
Premier J.T.M. Anderson agreed.
Two days after the relief camp riot, he publicly declared Saskatoon the headquarters of Communism in Saskatchewan and personally pledged, “As long as I live in public life I shall do all in my power to drive those disciples of the Red Flag out of Saskatoon and out of the province.”
A.C. Williams, who identified himself as inmate #395, offered another perspective. In an April 1933 letter to the chairman of the Saskatchewan relief commission, he argued that blaming “a bunch of hooligans” conveniently glossed over camp conditions.
“We … are here through no fault of our own,” Williams proudly insisted, “we (should) be treated and fed as men and not as animals.”
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo:RCMP mounted troop on riot duty in Saskatoon, May 8, 1933.
Photo Source: GLENBOW ARCHIVES NA-2796-31
Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.