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While Winnipeg waited

Although not a single striking relief-camp worker reached Winnipeg from the On to Ottawa trek, the event still affected the city.

Throughout June and early July, the Winnipeg Free Press reported on developments as hundreds of unemployed men converged on the city from relief camps at Shilo, Lac du Bonnet, Duck Mountain and Cross Lake.

One Manitoban with a vested interest in the trek was Premier John Bracken. With the province already looking after more than 4,700 unemployed men, he was concerned about additional stresses on Manitoba's finances as well as the effect of 2,000 trekkers descending on the city.

On June 10, Bracken telegraphed Prime Minister Bennett requesting he halt the marchers in Saskatchewan. Failing this, he asked Bennett to have the Department of National Defence organize a camp for the men in Winnipeg. When Bennett ordered the trek halted in Regina on June 12, Bracken's requests became moot.

But men from the Manitoba camps continued to arrive in Winnipeg with the hope of making their own On to Ottawa journey. By June 18, they were being provided with beds at various hotels and two meals a day at the Water Street dining hall.

How many men in Winnipeg were ready to join the trek had it reached the city? A June 19 Free Press story reported 250 relief camp workers met in the James Street Labor Temple and more than 600 listened to trek leader Arthur Evans speak when he stopped in the city en route to Ottawa. On his return to Winnipeg on June 25, more than 1,000 listened to him. By June 29, the newspaper was reporting 1,300 men, including recent arrivals from the camp at Shilo, had officially registered for a trek to Ottawa. The next day, perhaps as many as 2,000 men were ready to leave for the nation's capital.

But on July 1, authorities prevented 600 strikers from boarding eastbound freight trains. As a result, the men barricaded themselves in the Princess and Ross dining hall demanding three meals a day and a central building for billeting until the government would let them travel to Ottawa. They vacated the building the next day and marched peaceably to the exhibition grounds, where canvas tents were provided for 1,000.

Two final attempts were made to reach Ottawa. On July 10, an advance party of eight strikers made it as far as Kenora before becoming stranded. Six days later, 400 men left on foot but soon turned back. According to one historian, the reasons for the failure of the Winnipeggers to successfully march east was a combination of "poor planning, inept leadership and fatigue."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 18, 2013 J3

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