Saturday, May 8, 2010

The On-to-Ottawa Trek and the Regina Riot

Celebrations are planned for the 75th anniversary of the On-to-Ottawa Trek. Details here. A good read on the trek is Waiser's recent award-winning publication.

Bill Waiser, All Hell Can't Stop Us: The On-to-Ottawa Trek and the Regina Riot (Calgary: Fifth House 2003)

Reviews by Jeff Taylor
Athabasca University
Labour/Le Travail

THE ON-TO-OTTAWA TREK and the Regina Riot symbolize the extreme ruthlessness of the Canadian state's response to the unemployment crisis of the Great Depression. Government and police officials, taking their cue from Prime Minister R.B. Bennett and his bourgeois supporters, conveniently characterized the joblessness of the period as largely the fault of the victims and charged that those who organized the unemployed to demand a political solution to the problem were communists.

While the general story of the trek and its violent termination in Regina on Dominion Day, 1935, is well known, Bill Waiser provides the first substantial history of those events in this compelling and well-written narrative. Starting with the organizing among relief-camp workers in British Columbia, Waiser follows the trekkers through the Vancouver demonstrations that marked the beginning of the trek to events in Regina between their arrival in the city on 15 June and their departure in early July. He also provides a valuable discussion of the trekker trials and the Saskatchewan government commission of inquiry into the trek.

The main strength of All Hell Can't Stop Us is the detailed discussion of events in Regina while the trekkers were in the city and of the legal aftermath of the police riot that broke up a peaceful meeting. Making extensive use of the Regina Riot Inquiry Commission files and RCMP papers, Waiser shows that the trekkers were disciplined and orderly while their leaders made reasonable proposals to leave Regina. Federal government and police authorities, however, were intent on a showdown to the point of engaging in an irresponsible and unnecessary provocation that resulted in the riot and the loss of two lives (trekker Paul Schaack, Waiser tells us, died of injuries sustained in the riot, in addition to Regina police detective Charles Millar).

While the federal government and the RCMP were unrestrained in their desire to violently repress the trekkers, Waiser does reveal how James Gardiner's provincial Liberal government was relatively sympathetic to their plight and was negotiating with their leaders up to and including the evening of 1 July when the police riot began. In the aftermath of the riot, and largely to embarrass the federal Bennett government, Gardiner appointed the commission of inquiry that has provided so much of Waiser's primary material. Alas, there were limits to the extent of legal liberalism in the 1930s when the rights of workers and the unemployed were involved. The commissioners, who were members of the Saskatchewan legal establishment, concluded that the RCMP and the Regina city police were entirely justified in their actions.

Waiser also shows the degree to which the citizens of Regina supported the trekkers through donations of food and money, sympathetic statements, and attendance at supportive rallies. This did not happen spontaneously, however, and a further strength of the book is the story it tells of the broad coalition of citizens who formed the Citizens' Emergency Committee to support the trekkers and the subsequent Citizens' Defence Committee to aid in the legal defence of those charged as a result of the police riot.

Waiser's rich and detailed narrative touches on a number of theoretical and conceptual issues including state responses to economic crisis, police repression of dissent, organizing the unemployed, coalitions to support workers and the unemployed, and crowd behaviour. While the book's footnotes contain references to some Canadian and non-Canadian literature on these matters, the book would have been greatly enriched by situating the Canadian and Regina story in a broader context. How does this case study compare with similar stories in other countries during the thirties and in other time periods? How might those experiences help us to better understand the story that Waiser tells? All Hell Can't Stop Us does not answer these questions, but it is nonetheless a valuable contribution to our understanding of unemployed organizing and police repression in Canada.

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