Friday, November 24, 2017

The 1933 Unemployed Invasion of Kingston City Hall

By Doug Nesbitt

In early 1933, three out of ten Canadians were unemployed. Kingston did not escape the Great Depression and unemployment was higher than usual because many people were attracted to the city and the Barriefield relief camp for work. But like the rest of the country, the camps could not accommodate everyone because over two million Canadians – 1 in 5 - were dependent on some form of relief.

There was almost no social safety net to speak of when the Great Depression hit in 1929. Old Age Pensions had been established a few years before and Workers’ Compensation had existed since 1914. Canada did not yet have social assistance or unemployment insurance. People relied heavily on paying for what they needed through wages. When the crash hit, charity from the churches was simply unable to cope with the crisis.

Relief and the unemployed
The provinces, federal government and municipalities eventually responded to the crisis by creating 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. Yet, the three tiers of government were unwilling to raise taxes because they believed it would hurt the economy even more. At the same time, public debts grew rapidly. Some provinces and numerous muncipalities teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. To rein in welfare expenses, governments placed more and more conditions on receiving relief, such as residency requirements that ensured thousands of homeless unemployed were unable to get help. By 1933, the federal government was cutting its contributions to relief aid, and this was meant municipal governments, who delivered the aid, passed the cuts on to the unemployed.

The result was a wave of unemployed organizing and protests across the country. Believing they had failed, many unemployed were initially ashamed of seeking and receiving relief. However, as the months and years passed with no end in sight to the unemployment, infrequent work and low wages, the unemployed began to agitate for change. Mass marches surrounded city halls, picket lines went up to protect tenants from eviction, and unemployed committees were formed, soon knitting together in a nation-wide movement demanding an unemployment insurance program. Many of these unemployed workers would later unionize in the relief camps, and participate in the famous On-to-Ottawa Trek in 1935. Kingston was not immune to the political repercussions of austerity amidst massive unemployment.

Relief cuts hit Kingston
In early May of 1933, the Public Welfare Board unanimously agreed upon a cut of 25 percent to food allowances as of May 22. Already overseeing a cut to supplementary relief over the previous winter, the Welfare Board sparked widespread anger among the local unemployed. On the evening of May 23, the local Unemployed Committee met in Skeleton Park to discuss what to do.

The question was asked whether or not relief work could be expected soon. “When is the work coming?” asked one person.

“There isn’t any and they know it,” replied Leo Gommer, president of the committee. Gommer himself was an unemployed sheet metal worker and trade unionist.

The meeting turned to discussing whether or not the Welfare Board would listen to them. 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 some sort of protest should be organized. Gommer recommended a hunger strike. The idea did not have much support. After some discussion, the committee unanimously determined to lead a “peaceful demonstration” at the Welfare Board meeting the following night at City Hall. Gommer called on every member to bring two other people. “United we stand divided we fall, and if one of this committee goes, we all go.”

At Market Square
Just before 8pm on May 24, the unemployed and their supporters began to arrive at Market Square. Within a short period of time the initial crowd of two hundred swelled to 600. Women and children were also present in part because of the organizing of the Local Council of Women which had also called upon the Welfare Board to repeal the food allowance cuts.

Inside City Hall, the Public Welfare Board was meeting in the Council Chambers. Mayor Bruce H. Hopkins, a doctor from Kingston General Hospital, chaired the meeting with five other Board members in attendance. Attendance was low but the Board still had quorum.

Shortly after 8pm, Gommer led a delegation of six to provide a deputation at the meeting. The Board received the delegation, but not before being informed that the Board was waiving its standing policy of not allowing the Unemployed Committee at the Board’s 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 then asked: “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. After the Mayor stonewalled Gommer on further questions about the Whig-Standard’s editorial claim that a hundred jobs were in fact available in the city, Gommer pressed the Mayor again.

“Would you deal with the matter right away and let me know your decision in an hour’s time?  Apparently every man on relief is waiting for an answer.”

The Mayor dodged the question claiming the city was doing everything it could. 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.

A second attempt
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 Unemployed Committee’s demands. Harvey declared to the crowd “Seven [Board members] put it [the cut] in, six can take it out.” A huge cheer erupted from the crowd. At 9:25pm, they re-entered City Hall.

In the second meeting, the Mayor once again did not budge, reasserting 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 told the Mayor that the Board’s decision might 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.”

The invasion
At about 9:35pm, the Unemployed Committee delegation left the Chambers only to run headlong into nearly 300 protesters, including men and women, who were marching into City Hall. The hallways were occupied for a few minutes before the crowd surged towards the Council Chambers, breaking a window and barging through the closed doors. The two police constables stood aside from the fray while city’s Relief Officer R.H. Wadell, a figure much despised by the Kingston unemployed, made a futile effort to hold the crowd back. The crowd descended upon the Chambers where the six members of the Welfare Board, including the Mayor, were sitting.

“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!” responded someone else.

Hopkins 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 those already suffering from the food allowance cut to be reimbursed and that those cut off from relief for not reporting to work to be reinstated. 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. Magistrate Farrell arrived after the occupation, and the Riot Act was not read.

Alderman W.R. Davies, member of the Board, and editor of the Whig-Standard, was outraged. After the unemployed had left, he said “We should not be intimidated but show the men we are running the Welfare Board.” The Whig-Standard would report “never before has Kingston council chamber been the scene of such disorder.”

In his editorial the day after the protest, Davies called for the two constables to be fired and implied the Chief of Police should be removed for failing to stop the invasion of City Hall. Davies called it a “pathetic exhibition of helplessness and incompetency,” but most of his anger was directed at the protesters.

“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 to have failed, claiming “the men who have been treated the best during the past winter” were “shouting the loudest.” Davies concluded his editorial alleging 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 a mass meeting. A new committee was elected to present demands to the Welfare Board, a committee which included Reverend Father LeSage and two former mayors, Hugh Nickle and George C. Wright.

At the Welfare Board special meeting, the unemployed’s demands were unanimously rejected. The Public Welfare Board issued a statement declaring that “there has been no evidence produced before this board that the amount of food being issued is insufficient,” adding that they “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 think 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 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.

The unemployed occupation of Kingston City Hall was one of countless rowdy unemployed protests through the 1930s. Thousands of unemployed people fought for adequate relief and dignity in an economic system that had so catastrophically failed them, and as governments opposed creating a social safety net demanded by so many.

The great victory of Unemployment Insurance was not achieved until 1940. In Kingston, there was a small but largely inconsequential victory in December of 1933 when Mayor Hopkins was defeated by Alderman W.P. Peters, putting an end to Hopkins’ six years on city council and one-year mayoralty. Relief for the unemployed was a central issue in the election and Hopkins tried to take credit for new federal money directed at Barriefield relief camp projects, such as improving Lake Ontario Park, grading Division Street, and improving Montreal Street Park (Megaffin Park). However, Hopkins also faced an accusation from a former Alderman and mayoral challenger John Handley, that Hopkins had doled out relief based on religious and political affiliations.

The “disorder” of the unemployed “mob” at Kingston City Hall was an outpouring of anger at the injustice of an unfair system overseen by politicians unwilling to shake up the status quo. Their fight against hunger, for housing, employment, and decent wages is one that reverberates in a Kingston that they would recognize if they look past surface appearances.

“Upsets in Muncipal Voting,” The Globe, December 5 1933.
“Transients Flock to Kingston Camp,” The Globe, November 9 1933
“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.
“Charges Discrimination Rules Relief in Kingston,” Toronto Daily Star, November 28 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).

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