On July 1, 1935, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, together with the Regina city police, forcibly raided a peaceful public rally on Regina’s Market Square and arrested the leaders of the On-to-Ottawa Trek.
The joint police operation quickly degenerated into a pitched battle with trekkers and citizens that spilled over into the streets of downtown Regina.
Order was not restored until the early hours of the next day, but only after the Regina police fired their guns directly into a crowd.
The riot resulted in hundreds of injuries, ten of thousands of dollars in damages, and one official death — plainclothes Detective Charles Millar, who died when struck on the head by an unknown assailant on the square.
It was a miracle that no one else was killed. Rumours persist to this day that some of the rioters were secretly buried.
But there was a second riot death that authorities did their best to cover up.
One of the rioters during the Dominion Day melee was 52-year-old Nicklas John (Nick) Schaack, an unemployed farm hand from Watertown, South Dakota, who had lived in Saskatchewan since 1910 and joined the trek in Regina.
Schaack was subdued in a vacant lot and then taken to the RCMP Training Depot guard room.
According to a cellmate, Schaack was in “a very bad way.” Lying on the lower bunk, he had a swollen face, two split lips, and blood oozing from one ear.
Cpl. James Lyons, the provost in charge of the barracks cells, summoned the RCMP surgeon, Dr. Samuel Moore, who diagnosed a mild concussion and recommended the application of cold compresses.
By morning, Schaack had reportedly recovered. “He was not quite right,” Corporal Lyons observed, “but he could get around. He didn’t eat anything, but he had — he had some coffee.”
Schaack made a brief court appearance later that day and was then taken to the Regina jail. He was committed to trial on July 11 — 10 days after the riot.
The only witness at his preliminary hearing was Const. John Timmerman, the Mountie who had made the arrest. The constable testified that he had confronted Schaack, carrying a rock in each hand, and that “he went down almost immediately after I hit him.”
Schaack’s bail hearing was scheduled for July 18, but by that date he was too ill to attend. His fate might have been gone unnoticed if not for the activities of a mothers’ committee, part of the Regina Citizens’ Defence Committee established to help imprisoned trekkers.
During their first trip to the Regina jail on Aug. 14, the women learned that Nick Schaack was seriously ill. He had trouble eating and standing and spent his days confined to his cell bed.
At the urging of the mothers’ committee, Schaack was eventually sent to the General Hospital on Aug. 25 — the same day charges against him were dropped.
Schaack’s condition steadily worsened. He suffered a heart attack and then developed pneumonia. On Oct. 9, the hospital superintendent wrote Schaack’s family in South Dakota that he was unlikely to recover and that if he did, he would be transferred to the Weyburn mental hospital. He died nine days later.
But the story does not end there. Every effort was made to ensure that Schaack was not named a riot fatality.
His attending physician at Regina General Hospital, Dr. E.K. Sauer, had initially regarded Schaack’s case as “purely a mental one,” but then claimed that the trekker had died from pneumonia, precipitated by a heart disorder.
Several months later during the Regina Riot Inquiry Commission hearings, Sauer offered a more convoluted explanation. “He was just getting over a scratch over his forehead,” Sauer remembered, “there was nothing wrong with him.” But when asked for the cause of death, the doctor responded “tumour of the brain,” but insisted that it was not caused by any injury that Schaack had sustained.
The other curious thing about Schaack’s death is that his hospital record is inexplicably wiped clear. All that appears on his card is his name.
Nick Schaack was quietly buried Oct. 21 in the Regina cemetery. His family could not afford to take his body back home to South Dakota for burial.
His grave lies within sight of the headstone of the other riot victim, Detective Charles Millar.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: The R.B. Bennett government called on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to stop the 1935 On-to-Ottawa Trek in Regina.
Photo Source: Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan (R-A21749-2)
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