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The rail riders' riot

Dirty Thirties protest for honourable work and wages ended in bloodshed

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/5/2013 (1553 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In June 1935, reporters Charles Woodsworth of the Winnipeg Tribune and James Kingsbury of the Toronto Daily Star were assigned to cover the On to Ottawa Trek. Woodsworth disguised himself as a transient and joined the journey in Swift Current, remaining undercover for five days. Kingsbury employed a more direct approach. He asked permission from the trek's leaders to cover the story and, when they agreed, he shadowed their movement for two weeks from Vancouver to Regina.

Somewhere in the rolling prairie between Calgary and Medicine Hat, James Kingsbury clung to the coal car of the rocking westbound freight train as it hurtled along the tracks.

On-to-Ottawa trekkers on a rest break in Swift Current. It was here that Winnipeg Tribune reporter Charles Woodsworth, dressed as a hobo, joined the strikers.

On-to-Ottawa trekkers on a rest break in Swift Current. It was here that Winnipeg Tribune reporter Charles Woodsworth, dressed as a hobo, joined the strikers.

 Relief-camp strikers from Manitoba trek through the mosquito-infested forests of northwestern Ontario. They marched through the night without food and water, but turned back before reaching Kenora.


Relief-camp strikers from Manitoba trek through the mosquito-infested forests of northwestern Ontario. They marched through the night without food and water, but turned back before reaching Kenora.

Strikers in an unidentified town head to the trains.

Strikers in an unidentified town head to the trains.

On to Ottawa trekkers on their uncomfortable, wet perch atop boxcars.


On to Ottawa trekkers on their uncomfortable, wet perch atop boxcars.

Looking back down the "drag," he could barely make out the forms of the human cargo grasping the tops of 50 boxcars. However, the 32-year-old Toronto Daily Star reporter knew on each was a determined group of British Columbia relief-camp workers, almost all single and many barely out of their teens. They were huddled closely together in an attempt to keep warm in the heavy rain and biting wind.

Only those with verified strike cards were allowed to board the On to Ottawa train several hours earlier in Calgary, though there had been a handful of exceptions. A few dogs and cats had been carried on board as mascots, and on one of the cars were the pretty West Coast O'Brien sisters -- Catharine, 22, and Yvonne, 19. When Kingsbury had last seen the two women, they were attired in their mannish best: slacks, windbreakers and tams. Now, he knew, their clothes were soaked and their faces blackened with soot.

Teased by the men as a "scenery hog," Kingsbury was glad he was wearing the blue jumpers he had purchased in Kamloops. However, they offered no safeguard against the nightmarish coal dust and flying cinders from the speeding locomotive.

-- -- --

By the summer of 1930, almost 400,000 Canadians were jobless; three years later, the percentage of Canada's unemployed, excluding agricultural labour, was 26 per cent. Many men took to riding the rails, criss-crossing the country in a fruitless and frustrating search for work and food.

In 1932, in an effort to control the gangs of roving, restless and unemployed men, the federal government of Prime Minister Richard B. Bennett established work camps throughout the country. While the media and business groups hailed the camps as innovative, men who left the camps were blacklisted from further relief and could be jailed for vagrancy. In February 1934, Vancouver Sun columnist Bob Bouche investigated several British Columbia camps and wrote a critical six-part expos© on what the inhabitants called "slave camps."

A year later, approximately 1,800 B.C. relief-camp strikers, led by Workers' Unity League organizer Arthur H. Evans, descended upon Vancouver. For two months, Evans, 42, led a series of military-like protests to voice dissatisfaction, lift spirits and force the government into providing work-and-wages programs. On April 23, close to 100 strikers occupied the city's Hudson's Bay store. Three weeks later, another large group accomplished a dramatic seizure and sit-in of Vancouver's museum and library. Finally, with the help of various civic, labour, ethnic and political groups, the camp workers organized a May Day parade in Stanley Park that numbered more than 20,000 strikers and supporters.

Despite these events, B.C. Premier T. Dufferin Pattiullo and Vancouver Mayor Gerald Gratton McGeer refused responsibility for the strikers' welfare. At a meeting of some 900 strikers on May 30, a suggestion was made from the floor to take the protest to Ottawa. The idea took hold and Evans accepted it.

On June 3, more than 800 men left Vancouver on board the nightly CPR seaboard freight; a second contingent of 545 followed the next day. Their purpose was to inform the country of their cause and lay complaints before Parliament. The journey on the rails soon became known as the On to Ottawa Trek.

-- -- --

As the train left Calgary, trek marshal Jack Cosgrove, a 35-year-old Calgarian and Great War veteran, invited Kingsbury to forsake the windy catwalk and join him, Glasgow-born George Black, and other trek leaders in the coal-and-water tender.

Cosgrove wore goggles for protection from the hunks of coal that periodically whipped off the top of the locomotive's coal heap. Kingsbury didn't, and his eyes and ears were soon filled with cinders. He also looked enviously at the piece of canvas rolled around Cosgrove and his buddy, Thomas. Kingsbury was amazed that the two men were sleeping against the tender's toolbox. Suddenly, the train slowed to one of its infrequent stops and the majority of the 1,600 soaked "rod-riders" quickly climbed down the boxcars' ladder rungs. Many stamped their feet and several lit cigarettes. A few from the lead boxcar ran up past the tender and warmed their numbed hands on the piston casing of the big locomotive. Then it was time to scramble back aboard.

How had Kingsbury ended up on the train with the trekkers? The story had begun on June 4 in Vancouver, when Kingsbury approached trek leaders, showed them his credentials and asked to join the march. When asked what kind of reporter he was Kingsbury replied, "A reporter, period. A reporter who reports what he sees without any attempt to slant the news one way or another. I am not a columnist. I don't mould opinion. I report news truthfully as it happens."

They accepted him and as one trekker would later write, "He kept the faith with us, and he kept faith with the public."

For two weeks -- June 4 to June 18 -- Kingsbury accompanied the riders as they travelled from Vancouver to Regina. During this time, he wired bylined dispatches totalling more than 6,000 words.

Kingsbury's first story, filed June 5 from Kamloops, was headlined "O'Brien Sisters Join Strikers In Box Cars." He quoted the Kamloops police chief saying "the men have given no trouble and have been very orderly." The next day, Kingsbury wrote "Provincial Police Cheer Rod-Riders At B.C. Border." In this account, he reported how 24 B.C. provincial police "gave the boys a big cheer and a wave of their hands as the train passed the boundary." On June 10 from Calgary, he wired "$600 Worth Of Meals Is Given To Strikers." In it, he commented: "Struck by the youthfulness of the great majority of the strikers, citizens invited several to their homes for dinner."

On June 14, 10 days after leaving Vancouver, the trekkers arrived in Regina on an eastbound cattle train. On board were 1,350 strikers, one undercover Mountie and a second secret operative with the CPR. As the strikers, carrying rucksacks, potato bags and blankets, stepped off the train and lined up with military precision, Kingsbury reported "cheering and singing" and men wearing shirts plastered with "On To Ottawa" and "Cheer the Boys on Their Way." They were greeted by more than 200 people, many of them women and children. Among the welcoming party was Chief Inspector Fred Toop, a 27-year veteran of the city's police force, who "walked among the men and exchanged jokes with them good-naturedly." The next day at a meeting attended by 6,000 citizens, the trekkers approved the protest resolutions to be presented to Prime Minister Bennett, Opposition Leader Mackenzie King, Co-operative Commonwealth Federation Leader J.S. Woodsworth, and Regina member of Parliament F.W. Turnbull.

After the gathering, Kingsbury quoted Matt Shaw, a member of the men's publicity committee: "We will not be trampled on any more."

On the same day the trekkers reached the Saskatchewan capital, Bennett decreed all CPR and CNR trains would carry them no further. The authorities marshalled 245 RCMP and 85 railway police in Regina to enforce the order. However, in an apparent conciliatory gesture, Bennett also sent Railways Minister R.J. Manion and Agriculture Minister Robert Weir to negotiate with the men. The result was an invitation by the cabinet for Evans and seven other strike leaders to come to Ottawa. This time, the trekkers rode the train on cushions in first-class passenger cars, their fares paid by the federal government. The rest of the strikers remained in Regina with George Black, 32, in charge. They would be provided three meals a day in city restaurants and housed in the exhibition grounds and other quarters.

In his June 18 story, headlined: "Eight To Ride Cushions To Ottawa, Trekkers Remain Regina Guests," Kingsbury interviewed an elated Evans, who three days earlier had referred to the prime minister as Mr. Bombastic Bennett.

"This is a tremendous victory for us," Evans said. "It is proof of the power of organization. But our success is largely due to the great amount of public support we have gained."

Kingsbury then followed Evans and the other trek leaders to the CPR station. Kingsbury wrote of the send-off by Regina's citizens: "Hysterical women called out encouragement to the strikers, others marched by their sides, children and girls and youths formed up behind them. There was a sprinkling of middle-aged men and women. Some of the girls broke into the ranks to trot at the sides of seemingly happy, youthful rod-riders."

-- -- --

A few minutes past noon on June 12, Charles Woodsworth, 26, disembarked from the westbound CPR passenger train in Swift Current. Given the many shabbily dressed transients drifting in and out of the community during the Depression, it is unlikely anyone would have suspected the unshaven young man with worn clothes was actually a university-educated reporter from the Winnipeg Tribune.

Why was he disguising his identity and what was he doing in Swift Current? Known only to his news editor, Woodsworth's assignment was to remain incognito for as long as possible, infiltrate and then report on the army of single and unemployed strikers.

Woodsworth watched a dozen rough-clad, sunburned young men wearing On to Ottawa tags coming down the street towards the train station. He knew they were the advance guard of hundreds of other trekkers soon to arrive from Medicine Hat on the tops of more than 50 boxcars. As the trekkers approached, Woodsworth wondered whether his own hobo-like appearance would be convincing. Would they suspect his real identity? Could they possibly know he was the son of CCF Leader James S. Woodsworth? Above all, would they let him join the trek?

He soon had his answer. The men invited him for a dinner of stew, bread and butter, coffee and pudding at a local caf© and then directed him to sign up for the journey in the local CCF offices. There, he was promptly issued a stamp card and became No. 222 of Group 19, Division No. 4.

The next few hours went smoothly for Woodsworth. He joined the rest of the trekkers at the Swift Current athletic grounds, marched down to the train and then "hand over hand" climbed up the iron ladders of the boxcars.

To the neighing of horses and bawling of cattle in the coupled freight cars, the train soon left for the 178-kilometre trip to Moose Jaw. Sitting nervously on top of one of the swaying boxcars, Woodsworth found himself in the company of young men -- most in their 20s but some as young as 16 from B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan as well as a few from farther east. He rode the rails from Swift Current to Moose Jaw and then on to Regina. Once there, he remained incognito for three more days, eating relief meals, tramping in the long parades and bedding down with the trekkers -- and secretly slipping away to send stories on his experiences to the Tribune.

Woodsworth's first dispatch from Moose Jaw on June 13 was headlined "Cheering Crowds at Moose Jaw Greet On to Ottawa Army of Strike Marchers." His lead read, "Hooting automobile horns and cheers from dense crowds jamming bridges over the railway tracks greeted the On to Ottawa cattle car cavalcade on its arrival here Wednesday at sundown... Atop 52 boxcars loaded with cattle and horses, the 1,200 suntanned and smoke-grimed British Columbia relief camp strikers cheered back...

" 'Hello below,' they shout from their swaying perch to curious children and adults waiting to see the marchers at every wayside station. 'Hello sweetheart,' they wave to some girl, white teeth gleaming in faces black as coal heavers."

The next day, Woodsworth sent his first story from Regina, where trekkers had arrived at 6 a.m. from Moose Jaw "miserably cold, (and) chilled to the bone" from the overnight ride in drenching rain and freezing wind. He noted "a crowd of sympathizers was gathered at one of the crossings as the long train pulled in... Descending swiftly from the cars, the men marched in orderly formation to the exhibition grounds where they are to be quartered for the time being."

Would the men cause disturbances and be disruptive while in Regina?

Woodsworth doubted this, emphasizing the army-like discipline of the trekkers. "The men are told off for duty and they do it cheerfully," he wrote, "They obey orders promptly and without fuss."

In his third dispatch, headlined "Regina Mass Meeting Expresses Sympathy With Marchers' Aims," Woodsworth described how strike leaders and representatives of 24 local organizations addressed a meeting of 6,000 Regina citizens. Woodsworth directly quoted strike leaders for the first time. The first was Regina native Matt Shaw, 24, a member of the trekkers' advance team.

"R.B. Bennett and his murderous thugs will not prevent us from proceeding to Ottawa," announced Shaw. "We will go despite his forces of steel and fire, because we have behind us the sympathy of the Canadian people."

The meeting's chairman -- George Black, a former Black Watch soldier from Glasgow -- spoke next. "There will be no trouble unless the authorities attack us. And we are not helpless."

In his next report, titled "Tribune Reporter, Tagged For Not Reporting, Pushed To Preserve His Incognito," Woodsworth divulged personal feelings about the trekkers. "Certainly my sympathies are with them. In these few days... I have grown to like them tremendously. They are just so many young chaps like myself only unfortunately they have no jobs. That is the tragedy... There are boys from all over Canada in this trek... Most of them are young, clean-cut fellows. Given the work and real wages they demand, I don't think they would shirk. But, they are sick, with justice I think, of camps, the life of which they describe as one of discouragement and absolute hopelessness."

Despite a close call on June 16, Woodsworth was able to maintain his secret identity. "Sunday, I got into trouble. My group captain spotted me at the stadium where we are quartered and accused me of breaking discipline by not reporting for two days." Luckily Woodsworth was able to talk his way out of being charged with desertion.

Woodsworth's final undercover story was filed on June 18 and headlined, "Rank and File of Jobless Army Hangs About Waiting For Something to Happen." He provided details of "a typical day for the rank and file of this amazing hobo army," particularly the use of meal tickets. After this dispatch, Woodsworth returned to Winnipeg. Within 10 days, he would be back on the story but no longer undercover.

-- -- --

After the trains were stopped in Regina on June 12, the eight strikers' representatives selected to continue on to Ottawa met Bennett and 11 cabinet ministers in the prime minister's East Block office on June 22. A confrontation soon developed between Evans and Bennett. At one point, the prime minister accused Evans of being an embezzler; Evans shot back, calling Bennett a liar and telling him he was unfit "to be premier of a Hottentot village."

When the trek representatives returned empty-handed to Regina, the men were informed the march was over, and on Dominion Day, they made several proposals to formally end the excursion. First they approached the federal government and when Ottawa refused, they turned to Saskatchewan Premier James G. Gardiner. The men asked to be returned to their camps in B.C. or to their homes. They also requested to be dispersed under the direction of their own organization or, failing this, by the Saskatchewan government. Finally, with the exception of Evans, the trekkers wanted to be exempt from prosecution for their activities up to June 30.

As dusk was descending, Gardiner and his ministers gathered to consider the requests. Shortly after 8 p.m., he was called out of the cabinet meeting to take a phone call informing him trouble had started.

Trek leaders Evans and Black were addressing about 400 trekkers, 1,000 holidaying citizens, including many women and children, and several undercover constables from a makeshift stage on the back of a truck in the middle of an open square. The local police cleared a path and plainclothes officers arrested Evans and Black. However, the authorities' action triggered pandemonium, and fighting ensued in the square. In the confusion, uniformed officers fought with trekkers, bystanders and even some of their own undercover agents. City Detective Charles Millar, a 15-year veteran who was on duty in the nearby police station, joined the fray and was fatally bludgeoned.

Soon, violence spread to the downtown. Blue-clad city police and steel-helmeted RCMP officers on foot and horseback clashed with angry rock-throwing trekkers, who were aided at times by local citizens including women and teenage boys. The confrontation lasted until after 11 p.m. and resulted in injuries to scores of locals, police and trekkers, arrests of over 100 individuals and extensive damage to public and private property.

By the end of a night filled with hand-to-hand fighting, tear-gas grenades, overturned cars, horseback charges and shooting by police, many downtown storefronts were in shambles. By midnight, some 1,500 trekkers were penned in by Mounties at Exhibition Stadium.

-- -- --

Although he would go on to a successful journalism career with the Tribune, Vancouver Daily Province, Ottawa Citizen and Toronto Daily Star, Woodsworth would never forget his undercover experience with the trekkers. "A newspaper reporter has some strange experiences," he would write. "To be a private in the largest hobo army ever to cross Canada and be accepted without question as a genuine recruit is one of the strangest and most interesting experiences I have ever had."

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