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Authors: Pierre Berton

The Great Depression

BOOK: The Great Depression
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“The historian of the future, when he writes about Canada and the Great Depression, will comment upon the remarkable ineptitude of Canadian public men when faced with this emergency. He will write of the obstinate refusal of governments to face realities; of their pitiful and tragic tactics of ‘passing the buck’ to one another; and of their childish expectation that providence, or some power external to themselves, would come to their rescue and save them from the consequences of their refusal to look into the future, foresee events that loomed black in the sky, plain to be seen, and take such steps as were possible to mitigate the fury of the storm. The severity of the condemnation will be measured by the extent of the power which was not used and the responsibility that was denied.”

Free Press
, March 18, 1933

Copyright © 1990 by Pierre Berton Enterprises Ltd.
Anchor Canada paperback edition 2001

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication, reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system without the prior written consent of the publisher — or, in the case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a license from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency — is an infringement of the copyright law.

Anchor Canada and colophon are trademarks.

National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication Data

Berton, Pierre, 1920–
    The Great Depression 1929–1939

eISBN: 978-0-307-37486-8

1. Depressions – 1929 – Canada. 2. Canada – Economic conditions – 1918–1945. I. Title.

FC577.B47 2001            330.971            C2001-930600-8
F1034.B468 2001

Cover photo: © Hulton Archive

Published in Canada by
Anchor Canada, a division of
Random House of Canada Limited

Visit Random House of Canada Limited’s website:


Books by Pierre Berton

The Royal Family

The Mysterious North


Just Add Water and Stir

Adventures of a Columnist

Fast Fast Fast Relief

The Big Sell

The Comfortable Pew

The Cool, Crazy, Committed World of the Sixties

The Smug Minority

The National Dream

The Last Spike

Drifting Home

Hollywood’s Canada

My Country

The Dionne Years

The Wild Frontier

The Invasion of Canada

Flames Across the Border

Why We Act Like Canadians

The Promised Land


Starting Out

The Arctic Grail

The Great Depression

Niagara: A History of the Falls

My Times: Living with History

1967, The Last Good Year

Picture Books

The New City (with Henri Rossier)

Remember Yesterday

The Great Railway

The Klondike Quest

Pierre Berton’s Picture Book of Niagara



The Great Lakes


Pierre Berton’s Canada


Great Canadians

Pierre and Janet Bertone’s Canadian Food Guide

Historic Headlines

Farewell to the Twentieth Century

Worth Repeating

Welcome to the Twenty-first Century


Masquerade (pseudonym Lisa Kroniuk)

Books for Young Readers

The Golden Trail

The Secret World of Og

Adventures in Canadian History (22 volumes)

The worst of times

Nobody could tell exactly when it began and nobody could predict when it would end. At the outset, they didn’t even call it a depression. At worst it was a recession, a brief slump, a “correction” in the market, a glitch in the rising curve of prosperity. Only when the full import of those heartbreaking years sank in did it become the Great Depression – Great because there had been no other remotely like it and (please God!) there would never be anything like it again.

In retrospect, we see it as a whole – as a neat decade tucked in between the Roaring Twenties and the Second World War, perhaps the most significant ten years in our history, a watershed era that scarred and transformed the nation. But it hasn’t been easy for later generations to comprehend its devastating impact. The Depression lies just over the hill of memory; after all, anyone who reached voting age in 1929 is over eighty today. There are not very many left who can remember what it was like to live on water for an entire day, as the Templeton family did in the Parkdale district of Toronto in 1932, or how it felt to own only a single dress – made of flour sacks – as Etha Munro did in the family farmhouse on the drought-ravaged Saskatchewan prairie in 1934.

The statistics of those times are appalling. At the nadir of the Depression, half the wage earners in Canada were on some form of relief. One Canadian in five was a public dependant. Forty per cent of those in the workforce had no skills; the average yearly income was less than five hundred dollars at a time when the poverty line for a family of four was estimated at more than twice that amount.

This army of the deprived was treated shabbily by a government that used words like “fiscal responsibility” and “a sound dollar” as excuses to ignore human despair. Balancing the budget was more important than feeding the hungry. The bogey of the deficit was enlisted to tighten the purse strings.

R.B. Bennett, who presided over the five worst years of the Depression, said he was determined to preserve the nation’s credit “at whatever sacrifice.” But the burden of that sacrifice did not fall on the shoulders of Bennett or his equally parsimonious opponent, Mackenzie King. It fell on those who, in spite of the politicians’ assurances to the contrary, were starving and naked – on the little girl in Montreal who fainted one day in school because, as her teacher discovered, it wasn’t her turn for breakfast that morning; on another little girl in Alberta who could go to school only on those days when it was her turn to wear “the dress”; on the Ottawa landlord who collapsed in the street from hunger because none of his tenants had been able to pay their rent; on the New Brunswick father who awoke one cold winter night in a house without fuel to check on his three-month-old baby, only to find her frozen to death.

The most shocking statistic of all reveals that the federal government from 1930 to 1936 spent more of the taxpayers’ money to service the debt of the Canadian National Railways than it did to provide unemployment relief. That debt was the legacy of the great Canadian boom. The builders of the Canadian Northern and the Grand Trunk Pacific (not to mention the government’s own National Transcontinental), revered as audacious and far-seeing captains of industry, left a questionable legacy. The bondholders enjoyed a free ride on the backs of the people. Where was “fiscal responsibility” then? Without that burden of debt the government could have doubled its relief payments to every family in Canada.

Had there been no railway debt, would either Mackenzie King or R.B. Bennett have taken that more generous route? One doubts it. Neither had any co-ordinated plan of relief. Like the business leaders who backed them, they were convinced the Depression couldn’t last and so made no long-range plans to deal with the crisis. Planning, after all, was a dirty word in the thirties, a subversive notion that smacked of Soviet Russia.

Both the Liberal and the Conservative governments stumbled from crisis to crisis, adopting band-aid solutions that often became part of the problem. At every level of government the authorities attacked the symptoms and not the cause, trying vainly to hold down the lid on the bubbling kettle of protest. If single transients clog the streets of the big cities – get them out of sight.
If radicals demand a better deal for the jobless – jail them. If “foreigners” ask for relief – deport them. If farmers stage hunger strikes – disperse them with police billies. At no time did those in charge consider the practical advantages of allowing the dispossessed to let off steam unmolested.

Every level of government tried to evade its responsibilities for the unemployed. Ottawa washed its hands of the problem, as Ottawa often does, and tried to lay it on the provinces. The provinces tried to lay it on the municipalities. The municipalities tried to lay it on the local taxpayers, who couldn’t cope with it because so many were themselves out of work. Then everybody – taxpayers, municipalities, and provinces – turned on Ottawa.

Relief was given grudgingly. The Calvinist work ethic belonged to an earlier century, but it lived on into the thirties. Conventional wisdom dictated that any healthy man could always find a job; that if he was idle, it was deliberate; that to ask for public charity was shameful; that those who got too much wouldn’t want to work. Thus, it was held, relief should provide no more than the bare necessities and should never approach the level of “real” wages.

BOOK: The Great Depression
13.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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