Economically, the Great War resulted for
Canadians in an era of precarious prosperity,
which came to a sudden end in 1929 when
the stock market crashed. At the time, the
event was viewed as a brutal — but
temporary — correction of the economic
trend; things were expected to pick up soon,
and on sounder bases. No one could imagine
how deep-reaching was the crisis striking
the industrialized world. The Great Depression
lingered. It was to last almost ten years.
Before the crash, exports made up more
than a third of Canada’s revenue.
The United States, the main market for these
exports, react to the economic meltdown
with protectionist measures. European countries
follow suite and move to support their producers,
especially in the agricultural sector. In
the Prairies, agricultural production had
boomed during the Great War; but now, not
only did European countries buy less, but
Canadian producers has also to face competition
from the USSR, which had resumed grain exports
The contraction of foreign markets for
grain, pulp and paper, minerals and manufactured
goods deals a severe blow to the agricultural
and industrial sectors. As incomes fall,
jobs vanish. The price of grain plummets.
A bushel of wheat that used to sell for
$1.03 in 1928 is worth only $0,29 in 1932;
there is no profit possible from cultivating
the land. The decline in the purchasing
power of Canadians impacts on domestic markets
and contributes to the slowing down of the
manufacturing sector. Unemployment rises
steadily. In 1930, 390,000 workers are without
a job, i.e., some 13% of the total workforce.
In 1936, that figure reaches 26%. Between
1929 and 1933, the average annual income
of Canadians drops from $471 to $247.
Both my father and
mother were hard-working people and took
their respective duties seriously: the
family had food on the table, we had a
roof over our heads and we were dressed
warmly. Although we were poor, we were
not among the poorest…
Landry, Memories of My Father
The situation is even worse in the Prairies
than in Central or Eastern Canada. Between
1929 and 1937, an unprecedented drought
hits Wheatland. The top soil is dried up
by the heat and blown away by the wind,
piling up against fences and along roads.
In 1937, locust swarms storm the crops,
leaving only straw behind them. The Promised
Land of Bounty is turning into a dust desert.
That year, two thirds of Saskatchewan’s
rural population is depending on public
welfare for subsistence and 95% of municipalities
are on the verge of bankruptcy.
I’ll tell you
what that Depression was like. It was
survival of the fittest and I read my
Bible more now than I ever did and I never
read of hard times like that, like we
had in the middle of the Thirties. They
was Dirty Thirties all right...
Broadfoot, A Hot Sucking Wind
The government sets in place welfare and
work camp programs to help the poor and
the unemployed, but fails coming up with
efficient measures for improving the economy.
Unemployment and poverty lead to demonstrations,
and conflicts between workers and employers
are at times brutally quelled by the police.
This climate of uncertainty and urgency
favours the development of communism, which
in turns breeds fear in parts of the population.
The Communist Party of Tim Buck will take
part in all the struggles of the workers
and will be severely repressed. New political
parties are born from that situation. The
Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF),
under J.S. Woodworth, opposes Tim Buck’s
marxist communist doctrine. The Social Credit
of preacher William Aberhart is born in
Western Canada and enjoys some success.
None of these parties, however, succeeds
in garnering sufficient electoral support
and traditional political parties, the Conservatives
and the Liberals retain power. With the
October 1935 federal elections, the Conservatives
of Prime Minister R.B. Bennett are defeated
by the Liberal Party of W.
L. Mackenzie King, who succeeds him
as Head of the Government.
from unemployment relief camps
enroute to Eastern Canada during
“March to Ottawa”,
Kamloops, B.C., June 1935. The
Royal Canadian Mounted Police
and the Municipal Police brought
the march to an end in Regina.
Archives of Canada, C-029399.
The new government, tied up by fiscal orthodoxy
and constitutional principles, has no immediate
solution to the Great Depression in which
the country is mired. In 1937, the economy
plunges again and bankruptcy rates soar
throughout Canada. Relying on the theories
of British economist John Maynard Keynes,
the King government progressively implements
interventionist policies and subsidizes
projects destined to boost the economy.
But before these measure can even be put
to the test, the government finds itself
forced to increase dramatically its activities
and investments: Canada is at War!
Canadian media are efficient: the press
provides daily accounts, pictures and
analyses of key events as they are unfolding
in Europe. Radio, that more affluent people
can afford, adds a new, immediate dimension
to this information. During the capital
years 1933-1939, Canadians watch anxiously
as Nazi and fascist violence is unleashed.
But this time their eagerness to defend
democracy and fly to the assistance of
allied nations is dampened by the poverty
and uncertainty that plague their own
Une clique de chefs de troupes de choc,
suivant les termes de Goering, a tenté
en fin de semaine de renverser le gouvernement
Hitler. Cette révolte a été
noyée dans le sang et Hitler est
complètement maître de la
- La Presse,
2 July 1934.
like those in all parts of the world,
listened to the tirade of Herr Hitler,
Monday afternoon, wondering whether it
was to be peace or war..."
Free Press, 28 September 1938.
crowds thronged six deep along the sidewalk
beside the press room of The Globe and
Mail last night, eagerly waiting for the
presses to roll and pound out the news
of Britain’s stand against aggression.
Spirit of the crowd was one of complete
orderliness combined with a tense waiting,
only occasionally broken by a tight-lipped
smile or joke..."
- The Globe
and Mail, 4 September 1939.