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Yukon College Papers by Murray Lundberg, 1993-1994

Changes in Canada in the 1920s and '30s

Murray Lundberg

Yukon College
March 2, 1994

Week 6 Questions (Chapters 10 & 11)

1) The twenties were an era of Protest Movements in Canada. Name those described in the text and describe what their roots were, their objectives, their influence, and their successes.

The Maritimes Rights Movement:

Background: The Maritimes were in a period of economic and political decline. Their political influence had been eroded in two ways; from 1882 to 1921, the number of Maritime seats in the House of Commons fell by 25%, to 31. The size of the House of Commons had increased substantially during the same period, so the percentage drop overall was even higher.

    Thousands of Maritimers had left in search of work, as manufacturing companies left for the larger markets of central Canada. Those idustries had been hurt locally by a combination of factors:

- tariffs which had protected Maritime industries had been lowered.

- freight rates on the Intercolonial Railway were around 200% higher than on the CNR. When the ICR was bought by the CNR and the head office moved, the ICR no longer promoted regional interests.

- there was a decline in demand for Cape Breton coal as a result of conversions to oil for heating and power production.

- the end of the railway construction boom collapsed the market for steel rails.

- shipbuilding was hurt by both the conversion to steel ships, and competition from the US, Britain, and other parts of Canada.

- the British Empire Steel Company was created by a merger of all of the principal Canadian shipping companies, and the Nova Scotia steel and coal industries. They attempted to cut the wages of miners and steel-workers, resulted in Canada's worst industrial warfare in Cape Breton from 1921-25.

In the belief that the Maritimes had a better chance to improve conditions if they banded together instead of working independently, A.P. Paterson led a group of business and professional men in forming the Maritime Rights Movement. Promoted the compact theory of Confederation in which the richer areas of the country would support those which were economically disadvantaged.

    The Maritime Rights Movement demanded increased federal subsidies for the Maritimes, encouragement of the use of the ports of Halifax and St. John, and improved tariff protection for the steel and coal industries.

    They sought support from the established political parties. The Maritime Liberal candidates pledged support, won all but 6 of the Maritime constituencies in the fall 1921 election. They were then unable to meet their promises, largely due to Mackenzie King's opposition to their call for higher tariffs, which would alienate western farmers. (Lib. had 116 seats, Cons. 50, Progressives 64)

    In the 1925 election, they switched support to the Conservatives (Cons. 116 Seats, Liberal 99, Prog. 24), who won all but 3 Maritime seats. When Mackenzie King returned to power in 1926, he appointed the Duncan Royal Commission to study the Maritimes' complaints. Though Duncan basically agreed with the Maritime Rights Movement's demands, calling for a 20% reduction in rail freight rates, higher subsidies, and assistance to the steel and coal industries, little was ever done.

    It has been said that the Maritimes Rights Movement looked to the past, with protest arising as a reaction to changes which threatened their past way of life. A more accurate view is probably that the Maritimes served as a hinterland for the betterment of central Canada, and felt abused. Though the Maritimes Rights Movement disbanded in the late 1920s, they did arouse a feeling of regional pride in Maritimers; A.P. Paterson helped fund a new Department of History at the University of New Brunswick.

The Progressive Movement:

Background: After the 1911 defeat of the Liberals and their policy of reciprocity, there was talk on the Prairies of creating a third party. When the 1917 election was won by a government made up of Conservatives under Borden, joined by some English-speaking Liberals, Prairie farmers hoped that their social reforms would include help to the agricultural sector. When that did not happen, Thomas Crerar, a Manitoba farmer serving as Minister of Agriculture, resigned with 9 other Unionist MPs to form the Progressive party.

    In provincial elections after the war, farmer candidates did very well:

- in 1919, the United Farmers of Ontario won the election.

- in 1921, the United Farmers of Alberta beat the Liberals who had held power since 1905. There was extreme drought in southern Alberta, at least as bad as that of the 1930s.

- farmer candidates also did very well in Manitoba, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.

    Encouraged by these provincial successes, the Progressive party supported farmer candidates in many constituencies for the 1921 election. The results showed serious regional differences:

- Liberals: won all of Quebec, most of Maritimes, only 22 seats in Ontario and west (116 total).

- Conservatives: 2/3 of seats were in Ontario (50 total).

- Progressives won 39 seats in West, 24 in Ontario, 1 in Maritimes (64 total).

- 5 independents, of whom 2 supported labour interests.

    Thomas Crerar headed Manitoba wing of Progressives, believed in a strong united party voting block; American populist (* see below) farmer Henry Wise Wood, president of the UFA, headed the Alberta wing. He believed that the policy of party politics was evil, that society naturally divided into economic interest groups, of which farmers were one, at that only by all groups working together would laws be passed which would serve the interests of all.

(*) populist: a member of the People's Party of the US, which advocated an increase in currency, free coinage of silver, public control of railways, an income tax, and limitation of private ownership of land.

    The Progressives could not settle their differences, and turned down the position of official opposition, and in 1922, Crerar resigned.

    Liberal PM Mackenzie King saw Progressives as "Liberals in a hurry", worked to attract the moderates in the party. He reinstated the reduced freight rates of the Crow's Nest Agreement, and slightly lowered the tariff. Crerar and a few other Progressives joined the Liberals, other aligned with the labour MPs to form the radical Ginger Group.

    In the elections of 1925 and 1926, the badly fractured party did poorly (24 seats in 1925), and by 1930 had effectively disappeared.

    The Progressives had attempted to preserve the family farm, uphold basic rural values, and ensure the political dominance of agriculture in an increasingly urban/industrial society. Though the party vanished, they had an impact in arousing pride in both the West and in farming, and their ideas of western protest lived on as the seed for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) party (arising from the Ginger Group) and the Social Credit movement.

    In the 1925 election, Mackenzie King promised a farm loan program, completion of the Hudson's Bay Railway, and transfer of natural resources in 3 Prairie provinces to provincial control, in order to win support from Progressives so he could maintain power.

2) The role of women, unions, native people, and culture continued to change during the 1920s. How? Why? What changed?


Background: Before WWI, women's place was in the home, as wife, mother, housekeeper, totally subservient to men. Those few that did work were relegated to a very limited range of jobs which reflected an expansion of their duties at home - nursing (but in a much more limited way than nurses today), teachers (but could not be married), domestic service. Chaperons were necessary for outings with men, to protect their virtue, which was necessary to get married. They had no vote, could not administer estates, etc.

    The gains made by women in the 1920s were more in philosophical terms than in actual social gains, but set the stage for future advances. Much of this change in philosophy was a result of the independence gained, or forced upon them, during the war.

- birth control measures were still not readily available, and large families were the social norm.

- though they held 20% of jobs by 1929, the jobs were still traditional (nurses, teachers, secretaries, sales clerks, menial factory work). Wages remained far below men's.

- "advanced" education still not widely available - in 1929, only 1/4 of secondary school students were women. Through the 1920s, though, the number of women graduating from universities increased fairly steadily, occasionally in non-traditional vocations such as engineering as medicine.

- rural women still worked extremely hard, though the outside farm work was becoming mechanized. The social reformers of the decade did make the public more aware of the problem, and suggested ways of easing the work-load.

- urban women were starting to develop a higher standard of living, with electricity, running water, oil heat, and labour saving devices such as refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, and electric stoves.

- in Quebec, women were still very far behind, with "L'action francaise" calling women the protectors of French Canadian culture, through protection of traditional family values.

- the growing sense of independence was reflected in much freer styles of dress, smoking, and drinking at parties.

- in 1929, women became legal "persons", as a result of efforts by Nellie McClung, Emily Murphy, Irene Parlby, Henrietta Edwards, and Louise McKinney.

- soldiers returning from Europe had been through hard times, wanted to have fun, and so often encouraged women to loosen up.


There were two main forms of unions, representing labour in somewhat different manners, but both controlled by men.

- The Trades and Labour Congress (TLC) was a conservative group supporting craft unions, which represented the individual trades (thus one business could have several unions representing its workers). (developed from the European guild system).

- The All-Canadian Congress of Labour (ACCL) was created in 1927 to represent industry-wide unions. They were considered radical because of their support of strikes (which were often violent, and seldom successful).

- as well, there were 2 church-sanctioned unions in Quebec, for industrial workers and farmers.

- white-collar workers generally saw themselves as being "above" unions.

    The return of soldiers from overseas (often with "war brides") created high unemployment rates. Unions initially expanded in an attempt to protect men's place in the workplace, then because of a lack of success, membership collapsed by mid-decade.

    The number of women in the workplace actually increased after the war, at least partly because they would work much cheaper than men. As well, the number of civil service jobs expanded greatly.

    Unions seldom represented women, and in 1929, apologized for a strike by female cotton workers in Hamilton, telling the gov't that they were only women, and didn't know any better.


Cultural and religious intolerance increased:

- Protestant ministers were disturbed by the increase in alcohol consumption, especially by non-Protestant immigrants.

- the Ku Klux Klan in Canada targeted Roman Catholic immigrants in southeastern Ontario, and Asian immigrants in BC.

    English-Canadian culture in art and literature flourished, and the romantic image of the "North" as the true spirit of Canada was enhanced by work such as that of The Group of Seven and Emily Carr.
(Group of Seven (8): Frank Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Franz Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, F.H. Varley, and Tom Thomson).

    The Canadian Club was formed, and established chapters across the country "to foster patriotism by encouraging the study of institutions, history, art and literature of Canada".

    In terms of popular culture, English-speaking Canadians became more Americanized, joined American-based clubs, reading American magazines and newspapers based on American styles (sensational headlines, slick advertising, comic strips, US wire service-generated international news), and listening to high-powered US radio stations. Theatres were largely US-controlled, and featured American productions. By the end of the 1920s, Americans had even bought out most Canadian hockey teams. Canadians did very well in international sports, with Percy Williams becoming "the world's fastest human" at the 1928 Olympics, and the "Bluenose" winning a series of international trophies.

3) Why is the Great Depression of the 1930s important in Canada? How did governments react? How did people react? Who else was involved?

    The depression was triggered by enormous growth throughout the Western world during the 1920s, with extensive credit given to producers and manufacturers, to the point where overproduction of many goods was the norm, as were heavy protective tariffs, resulted in a collapse of international trade, and thus of prices of raw materials and finished goods. In 1929, the crash of the New York stock market signalled the collapse of that falsely-inflated economy.

- between 1929-32, industrial production in Canada fell by 1/3.

- the GNP fell by 40%.

- imports fell by 55%, exports by 25%.

- unemployment peaked in May 1933 at 32 percent.

    The Prairies were particularly hard hit by fluctuating wheat prices, which went from $2.37/bu. in 1919 to $1.00 in 1922, rebounded to $2.00 in 1928, then collapsed to $0.34 in 1932. For farmers in the Palliser Triangle (southcentral Saskatchewan and adjoining Alberta and Manitoba), the economic problems were compounded by an extreme drought, with virtually no rain falling from late 1930 until the fall of 1937. From 1928-32, Saskatchewan's per-capita income dropped by 71%, Alberta's by 61%. (Dry-land farming techniques not yet developed - ie not turning soil over, dugouts)

    In the Maritimes, US tariffs resulted in a 75% decrease in income, for PEI potato farmers, and hurt the fishing industry badly.

    The virtual lack of a social safety net resulted in extreme poverty for those people who lost their jobs and had to resort to charity. Other results were:

- a loss of self-respect which led to suicide, family abuse, men abandoning their families to look for work, or just to try to avoid the shame of not being able to support their families.

- falling wages because of the surplus labour situation. Men were sometimes fired, and replaced with children or young women who would work cheaper. Falling wages were sometimes caused from the retail side, with large stores forcing lower prices on producers, who had to lower wages to survive. The highly profitable tobacco industry, however, paid very low wages just because they could. Regional and gender differences in wages were extreme. The rise of piece-work rates increased stress considerably, as workers tried to work faster and faster.

- resentment against working women grew, as they were seen as taking jobs which men needed more. Married women were sometimes fired by employers who agreed.

- for children, poverty resulted in inadequate clothing and malnutrition, which in turn caused disease, and poor school attendance and achievement.

- marriage and birth rates dropped. For the first time, birth control was widely debated; though advertising contraceptives was illegal, it was done, and in at least one court case, the woman was acquitted because she was working "for the public good". The number of women who died from abortions increased significantly.

    Those people who had good jobs did quite well with collapsing prices for virtually everything.

    Various forms of escapism became popular. Radio programs like "Amos 'n' Andy", "Hockey Night in Canada" were popular, as were magazines and movies featuring romance, glamour and fantasy. When the Dionne quintuplets were born in May 1934, the roads to Callander, Ontario were crowded with people trying to get a look at them.

    Religion took various angles to dealing with the Depression;

- the Roman Catholics said that it was divine punishment for mankind's sins.

- some Protestants (social gospellers) insisted that the realization of the Kingdom of God meant replacing capitalism with socialism.

- many groups toured Canada promoting the message that if people could not gain salvation in this world, they could at least prepare for it in the next.

    Co-operatives, credit unions and other forms of commercial self-help often faced bankruptcy themselves, and promoted the need for regulated markets, easier credit (though that was one of the triggers of the Depression), and increased social services and working conditions.

    Labour unions were active, particularly in organizing women, although their interests were always secondary to those of men. Disputes with management were often bitter, and not often successful, partly because of a virtual lack of government support. Three miners were killed in Estevan in 1931, and Ontario Premier Hepburn formed his own security force in an attempt to break the GM strike in Oshawa in 1935. The Communist Party was influential in Canadian unions for a few years.

    The Conservative government in 1930 provided $20 million in relief aid. By 1934, 2 million people (20% of the population) were on relief. Between 1930-38, relief and farm assistance cost the feds $350 million, the provinces and municipalities another $650 million.

    Initially, public works projects were common, but the system became overwhelmed by the numbers of needy, and direct handouts were easier, and often less costly.

    Federal and provincial grants were given to cities and municipalities to varying degrees; in 1940, the city of Montreal declared bankruptcy. Cities competed to attract industry through cheap land, tax exemptions, and low utility rates. Residency requirements were instituted for welfare eligibility, to eliminate drifters. Various other eligibility requirements were used across the country to try to keep numbers down.

    Welfare rates varied considerably: Ontario paid $8.07 in winter months, New Brunswick only $1.67. In Chicoutimi, a family of 15 got $13.00!

    Charlotte Whitton reported that 40% of people on welfare did not need it, and that abuse was rampant, that some people on welfare had improved their lifestyles. As a result, PM Bennett reduced direct relief contributions in 1934, and made women in some categories ineligible: single mothers, widows with young children, those with husbands in jail, etc.

    Anti-immigrant feelings ran high; between 1930-35, at least 30,000 immigrants were deported for being on welfare ("when cheap labour became redundant labour, the Dept. got rid of it"). When Britain objected, the policy was curtailed. Jews were widely discriminated against, often instigated by Fascist groups which were springing up, but also not allowed to immigrate.

    Relief camps were started in 1932 by the DND, with men working for 20 cents a day. In 1935, workers went on strike in Vancouver, and started the "On-to-Ottawa Trek", with Communist help. In June, 2,000 were stopped by police in Regina, and only a few allowed to continue to Ottawa, where they received no support from the PM. A subsequent riot in Regina resulted in a policeman being killed, with many injuries. The trek ended there.

    In 1932, the British navy was called to Newfoundland to control rioters protesting falling fish prices and a 50% unemployment rate. The end result was the reversion of Nfld from Dominion to British colony, with Britain then paying off their debts.

    In New Brunswick, a massive public works program took money from social programs, resulting in the highest illiteracy and infant mortality rates in the country.

    British Columbia under Duff Patullo started the most progressive series of social programs in Canada. He tried to start North America's first public health insurance system, but doctors stopped him.

    In July 1930, Conservative R.B. Bennett came to power after promising to find work for all who wanted to work, and to use tariffs to force Canada's way into world markets. Some say that Bennett's own fortune made him insensitive to the suffering going on, but that is debated.

    Bennett's New Deal of January 1935 offered a reform of capitalism, including instituting unemployment insurance and a minimum wage. He also brought in the Farmers' Creditors Arrangement Act to bring farm payments down to what the farm was capable of producing, the Canadian Wheat Board to stabilize prices, and the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act (PFRA) to look after erosion, water conservation and land reclamation. He established the Bank of Canada to regulate monetary policy, and the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission to try to prevent US takeover.

    Many of Bennett's proposals were declared ultra vires by the Privy Council (UI, wages and working hour standards, and natural products marketing). He lost the 1935 election to the Liberals under King.

    In 1937, C.D. Howe, King's transport Minister, formed Trans-Canada Airlines, flying Montreal - Vancouver in only 18 hours.

    The Depression resulted in the formation of at least two new political parties. Social Credit was started by "Bible Bill" Aberhart as part of his weekly religious radio broadcasts in Alberta in late 1932. In 1935, his party won a landslide victory in the provincial election. They soon brought in many reforms: moratorium on debt collections, crop insurance, and reforms in labour relations, social welfare and education. Many measures were overruled, and Aberhart's retaliation cost him many seats in the 1940 election.

    The CCF was formed in August 1932 by a coalition of labour and farm interests, very much male-dominated. They also drew support from a group of Toronto and Montreal professors whose goal was political education and reconstruction. The CCF had definite socialist goals of eliminating capitalism, stated in the "Regina Manifesto", their platform statement of 1933. After a poor showing in the 1934 Saskatchewan provincial election, many of the more radical socialist policies were dropped or amended. In 1961, the CCF became the NDP.

    Communist and fascist groups were also popular during the Depression, but the government even used deportation to keep a lid on them. Bennett promised to stamp out Communism with "the iron heel of capitalism".

    The Depression was ended, not by any particular government policy, but, "luckily", by the war. King did not really believe that the government should meddle with the economy or social reform.

Instructor's comments:

    Very well done.


See a pdf of the paper.