Unemployed workers invade City Hall!

In early 1933, three out of ten Canadians were unemployed. Kingston did not escape the Great Depression and unemployment was generally higher in Kingston because of its role as a significant regional centre between Ottawa and Toronto. Across the river from Kingston, the Barriefield relief camp was established outside Fort Henry. But the government’s relief camps could not accommodate everyone. Over two million Canadians – 1 in 5 – were dependent on some form of relief: food, clothing, fuel, shelter and public works. There was no social safety when the Great Depression hit in 1929. Old Age Pensions had been only been established a few years earlier and workers’ compensation dated to 1914. Canada did not yet have social assistance or unemployment insurance. There was no medicare.

Unemployment relief in Canada’s Great Depression

When the 1929 crash came, charities and churches were overwhelmed by mass unemployment. Facing growing popular pressure, the provinces, federal government and municipalities eventually created jointly-funded relief programs. In Kingston, the City’s Public Welfare Board coordinated various forms of relief, from food, wood and clothing allowances to direct subsidies for electricity bills and basic medical aid. This system of relief quickly proved inadequate.

All three tiers of government were unwilling to raise revenues through greater taxation because they believed it would hurt the economy even more. Public debts grew rapidly, and some provinces and municipalities teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. By 1933, the federal government was cutting its contributions to relief aid. Municipal governments, who delivered the federal aid, passed the cuts on to the unemployed by placing far stricter conditions on qualifications for aid. One such condition was residency requirements. This ensured the many thousands traveling to Kingston for work were unable to get it. Such measures angered large segments of the population, from the army of the unemployed to their friends and family who still held jobs.

Kingston’s unemployed did not escape the federal relief cuts. In early May, 1933, the City of Kingston’s Public Welfare Board voted unanimously to cut food allowances by 25 percent on May 22. Already overseeing a cut to supplementary relief over the previous winter, the Welfare Board sparked widespread anger among Kingston’s unemployed. Coming at the same time all across the country, the cuts detonated a wave of protests all across the country. The demands arose for a reversal of the cuts, and in these protests emerged a new demand for unemployment insurance paid for by employers. After months and years of unemployment, infrequent work and low wages, feelings of shame and inadequacy were swept away by community organization and public action. Everywhere there were marches for jobs, picket lines to stop evictions, occupations and mass meetings.

A Meeting in Skeleton Park

On the evening of Tuesday May 23, Kingston’s Unemployed Committee met in Skeleton Park to discuss what to do about the cuts. The committee had been organized a year earlier and seemed to shed its earlier moniker, the Unemployed Men’s Committee. The question before the committee was whether or not relief work could be expected soon. “When is the work coming?” was the big question on everyone’s minds. The unemployed needed relief, but they preferred it in the form of work and wages.

“There isn’t any and they know it,” replied Leo Gommer, president of the committee. Gommer was an unemployed sheet metal worker and trade unionist. The discussion in Skeleton Park turned on whether or not the Welfare Board would listen to their concerns. Charles Harvey, a member of the committee, offered his view:

“I don’t think it is the opinion of all the members of the Welfare Board that the unemployed should suffer the twenty-five per cent cut, but there is a little circle made up of about five members who run the board, the others must do as they are told or well, you know how they can freeze you out.”

It was determined that a protest be organized. Gommer recommended a hunger strike but the idea did not have much support. After some discussion, the committee arrived at the unanimous decision to lead a “peaceful demonstration” on the following night at the Welfare Board meeting at City Hall. Gommer called on every member to bring two other people and concluded, “United we stand divided we fall, and if one of this committee goes, we all go.”

Market Square and City Hall

Shortly before 8pm on Wednesday May 24, Kingston’s Unemployed Committee and its supporters began to arrive at Market Square. Within a short period of time the crowd grew quickly to six hundred people. Many women and children joined the demonstration in part due to the efforts of the Local Council of Women. The Council, too, demanded Kingston’s Welfare Board to repeal the food allowance cuts.

The shadow cast by City Hall grew longer across Market Square as the Public Welfare Board gathered in the Council Chambers. Mayor Bruce H. Hopkins, a doctor from Kingston General Hospital, presided as chair over five other Board members. Attendance was low but quorum was achieved. Not long after 8pm, six hundred people watched Gommer lead a delegation of six into to the Board meeting in Council Chambers. The Board received the delegation while remarking it was Board policy that the Unemployed Committee was not allowed at Board meetings. Speaking to the Board, Gommer made an impassioned plea against the cuts:

“The men won’t take it and I do not think they should take it. The amount of food under this cut is inadequate for the men and their families to live on. I would like to ask the Mayor if anything has been done to remedy the conditions.”

“Nothing has been done,” replied the Mayor. “The order has just gone into effect.” Gommer asked the Board to reconsider, to which the Mayor agreed. Gommer pressed with the question, “When the board does consider the question, will the members of our committee be allowed to sit in at the meeting and listen?”

“No,” replied the Mayor.

Perhaps it was now clear to Gommer that the Mayor was stringing him along and the Board was committed to relief cuts. Gommer responded by raising the Whig-Standard‘s recent editorial claiming a hundred jobs were in fact available in the city. A city alderman and member of the Welfare Board, the Whig-Standard‘s editor, W.R. Davies, sat in Council Chambers. The delegation’s Charles Harvey piped up, “The city is building huts for the tourists at Lake Ontario Park and still there are people living in the city who have no roof over their heads. The city is paying out money for lumber to build these huts.”

“That is a business proposition,” replied the Mayor. “The government will not allow the Welfare Board to build houses for the unemployed.”

The exchange ended with the Mayor stating a decision would be made “as soon as possible” but provided no timeline. He added that the matter would only be addressed with full attendance by the Welfare Board, as opposed to the small turnout of six that night.

“But the order for the cut in food is still in effect,” observed Gommer to the Board.

“Yes,” replied the Mayor.

Trouble

The delegation returned to Market Square at 8:50pm to inform the crowd of what happened. The Board’s decision was not well received. The crowd demanded action from the Board and ordered the delegation to return to Chambers and press the committee’s demands. Harvey declared to hundreds that seven Welfare Board members had cut relief and “six can take it out.” A huge cheer erupted in Market Square. At 9:25pm, the delegation returned to Council Chambers.

The Mayor did not budge. He asserted that full attendance was required by the Board for the food allowance cut to be addressed. The implication here was that the decision would not be coming soon, during which time the food allowance cut would be enforced. “Less than a quorum broke the old food schedule, and less than a quorum can put it back again,” Gommer observed.

“You have our decision,” replied the Mayor sternly.

“Well, if anything happens,” responded Gommer, “understand that I am not at the bottom of it.”

“Surely there is no person threatening,” said the Mayor.

“No, there is no threatening,” said Gommer, “but there may be trouble.”

One of the two constables guarding the chamber door stepped inside and confirmed for the Mayor that the Board’s decision might indeed result in trouble. Mayor Hopkins replied: “The Mayor has every confidence in the unemployed that there will be no trouble. If there is any trouble, the police will have to be prepared to handle it.”

Invasion

The delegation left the Chambers at 9:35pm only to find themselves swamped by nearly 300 men and women marching into City Hall and filling the hallways leading to Council Chambers and then barging through the closed Chamber doors and breaking a window in the process. The two police constables in Chambers reportedly stood out of the fray. The City of Kingston’s Relief Officer, R.H. Wadell, a figure much despised by Kingston’s unemployed, made a futile effort to hold back the crowd. Breaking past Wadell, the protesters filled the Chambers and confronted the Mayor and Welfare Board.

“What are you going to do for us?!” shouted one unemployed worker. “Are you going to let us starve?” yelled another.

Mayor Hopkins tried to speak up was drowned out. “I do not know why you should make any demonstration,” exclaimed Hopkins.

“You have not seen the half of it yet,” replied one of the unemployed.

“But I have confidence in the vast majority of the unemployed – perhaps all,” responded the Mayor.

“Well, we have lost confidence in you,” exclaimed another protester. “Yes, and we are fed up on the whole thing,” cried another.

“When is this thing going to be settled?” demanded one of the crowd. “Not till we get a new Mayor!” said someone else.

At some earlier point, Hopkins had summoned the Magistrate J.M. Farrell to read the Riot Act, which would declare the protest an “unlawful assembly” and give the police sweeping powers to arrest anyone involved.

Gommer weighed in calling for a Board meeting Thursday morning. “The health of a nation depends on the decision of the board in this matter,” he declared. In outlining the committee’s demands, Gommer called for reimbursements for the food allowance cut and the reinstatement of relief for those who did not report for relief work. The crowd cheered Gommer’s demands. Hopkins conceded to the Thursday morning meeting. Gommer turned to the nearly 300 occupiers and requested they leave. They did so reluctantly, a number still loudly voicing their unhappiness with the Board and the Mayor. Summoned earlier by Mayor Hopkins, Magistrate J.M. Farrell arrived after the invasion had dispersed. There was nothing to declare an “unlawful assembly” with Farrell’s reading of the Riot Act. 

The angry newspaper editor

Alderman W.R. Davies, member of the Board, and editor of the Whig-Standard, was furious.

“We should not be intimidated but show the men we are running the Welfare Board,” he wrote in the following edition. The Whig-Standard‘s editorial declared “never before has Kingston council chamber been the scene of such disorder.” The following day, Davies penned another editorial demanding the two police constables be fired and implying the same for the Chief of Police. Davies called the police role a “pathetic exhibition of helplessness and incompetency.” Still, most of his anger was directed at the unemployed. “No public body can allow itself to be intimidated by a mob,” lectured Davies who said the unemployed “chose the wrong way” of a “disgraceful riot.” Davies declared the Unemployed Committee having failed in its goals, and claimed “the men who have been treated the best during the past winter” were “shouting the loudest.” Davies concluded the protest had only caused “incalculable harm” to “the cause of those on relief.”

Decision and aftermath

The following morning, two hundred unemployed gathered at Market Square for the third mass meeting in as many days. A new committee was elected to present demands to the Welfare Board. The committee included Reverend Father LeSage and two former mayors, Hugh Nickle and George C. Wright. Despite these high-ranking respectable figures now representing the unemployed, the committee’s demands were rejected unanimously. The Board issued a statement declaring that “there has been no evidence produced before this board that the amount of food being issued is insufficient,” and the Board would “refuse to recognize or to be interviewed by this committee on behalf of the unemployed.”

Shortly after the decision, Gommer read out the Board’s statement. Someone shouted of the Mayor “He’s a liar!” as Gommer read the passage about a lack of evidence. “Let them try to live on that!” shouted someone else.

“The only thing I can say,” concluded Gommer, “is that Mayor Hopkins and the Welfare Board do not appreciate the assistance this committee has given the citizen of Kingston and the Welfare Board during the past nine months.” To a few cries of “No!” Gommer resigned as the committee president. The crowd called for Hopkins, “bring out the Mayor!” An older woman shouted, “He’s at his house, let’s go down there!” The calls for action went unheeded. The meeting dispersed at quarter after noon.

On to Ottawa!

The unemployed invasion of Kingston City Hall was one of countless rowdy unemployed protests through the 1930s. Thousands of unemployed workers fought for adequate relief and dignity in an economic system that had failed so catastrophically for so many people. They fought against governments that opposed the creation of a social safety net for workers and the unemployed. A great movement of the unemployed emerged to demand big changes like the creation of unemployment insurance. The movement organized relief camp workers and in a protest against poor conditions and low wages, the relief camp workers union and unemployed committees organized the famous On-to-Ottawa Trek in 1935. In 1940, Unemployment Insurance was achieved.

In Kingston, the invasion of City Hall had more immediate consequences. In December of 1933, Mayor Hopkins was defeated in his re-election attempt by another alderman, W.P. Peters. Relief for the unemployed was a big issue in the election. Hopkins tried to take credit for new federal money directed towards Barriefield relief camp projects, such as improving Lake Ontario Park, grading Division Street, and improving Montreal Street Park (now Megaffin Park). The Barriefield relief camp never proved to be a hotbed of union organizing, but the violent RCMP repression of the On-to-Ottawa Trek contributed directly to the defeat of Prime Minister R.B. Bennett’s Conservative government. Kingston’s long-serving Conservative MP Arthur Edward Ross was a casualty of Bennett’s defeat. Heading to Ottawa for Kingston was Norman McLeod Rogers who became Minister of Labour in Mackenzie King’s new Liberal government.

The unemployed invasion of Kingston City Hall was just one clash that comprised a greater struggle for jobs, housing and dignity that grew into a movement that challenged an entrenched establishment and changed Kingston, Ontario and Canada.


About the author

Doug Nesbitt lives and works in Kingston, Ontario. He has a PhD in History from Queen’s University. He is a union researcher, labour studies instructor, and a former union organizer. He writing his first book about Mike Harris and the Common Sense Revolution in Ontario.


Sources

“Unemployed Planning a Peaceful Demonstration,” Kingston Whig-Standard, May 24 1933.

“Over Two Hundred Men Crowded Into Council Chamber Last Night,” Kingston Whig-Standard, May 25 1933.

“Food Order Cut,” Kingston Whig-Standard, May 25 1933.“Board Will Not Change Decision On Food Order,” Kingston Whig-Standard, May 25 1933.

“Welfare Board to Pay $1 Per Family,” Kingston Whig-Standard, May 25 1933.

“The Unemployed Riot.” Kingston Whig-Standard, May 25 1933.

“Kingston’s Police Force,” Kingston Whig-Standard, May 25 1933

“Unemployed Rush Kingston Chamber While Meeting On,” Ottawa Citizen, May 25 1933.

“Transients Flock to Kingston Camp,” The Globe, November 9 1933.

“Charges Discrimination Rules Relief in Kingston,” Toronto Daily Star, November 28 1933.

“Upsets in Municipal Voting,” The Globe, December 5 1933.

Finkel, Alvin, Social Policy and Practice in Canada: A History, (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2006).

Struthers, James, No fault of their own: unemployment and the Canadian welfare state, 1914-1941, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983).

1 thought on “Unemployed workers invade City Hall!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *