An Earlier Trek to Ottawa Had a Different Tone but Still Captured the Nation

On Friday afternoon there were two starkly different views from the Fairmont Chateau Laurier hotel in Ottawa, where I’ve been working. Immediately out front, hundreds of angry protesters were alternately shouting a mix of abuses and pleas for law enforcement to leave and singing “O Canada” following a daylong effort by a mass of police officers to push them out of a truck blockade that had particularly snarled traffic. But from my room’s window looking toward the heart of the anti-vaccine trucker blockade on Parliament, protesters were relatively scarce as the truck drivers revved their engines and honked their horns, apparently in warning.

The full-court press by the police that started Friday appeared to be bringing a close to the blockade, which became entrenched in the city three weeks ago. (Although, as always with this protest, things may have changed by the time most of you read this.)

We will continue reporting on the blockade by protesters until the streets are clear, and beyond. It began with some truckers angry about a federal vaccine mandate and, as it appears to be nearing its end, has become a disruptive and angry cry to “take back freedom.”

This, however, was not the first time protesters have set out on a much-publicized trip to Ottawa from Western Canada.

During the Siege of Ottawa in 1910, a group of about 500 farmers who traveled from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba were allowed to take over the House of Commons’ chamber to read a long list of agricultural grievances.

But the most similar, and yet also most different, protest intended to reach the capital was the 1935 On to Ottawa Trek. Deep in the Great Depression, about 30 percent of Canadians were jobless and about 20 percent were on some kind of public relief program.

For single men, that meant living and working in Unemployment Relief Camps. Operated by the military, the camps had grim conditions and paid well below even the depressed wages of the time.

A group of camp workers started a two-month-long protest in Vancouver, which included occupying a department store, a library and a museum. When that got them nowhere, about 1,000 trekkers hopped aboard freight trains with the goal of reaching the capital.

They made it only to Regina before Prime Minister R.B. Bennett ordered the railways to remove them from their trains. But eight trekkers were allowed to continue to Ottawa for meetings with government officials, while the remainder camped out in Regina’s exhibition grounds.

The meetings were a disaster. Bill Waiser, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Saskatchewan, who has written extensively about the trek, told me that they “descended into a shouting match.”

On July 1, the police moved into the Regina fairgrounds and a riot broke out, which Professor Waiser said was entirely the fault of the police. Two people died, many were seriously injured, and 130 were arrested. Property damage was widespread.

Professor Waiser said that one similarity between the truckers’ convoy today and the 1935 trek is that members of each felt that the government would not listen to them. But, beyond that, he said, things diverge.

The Trek was organized by communists with specific demands for collective solutions for dealing with unemployment. The demands of the current protest, by contrast, are often vague and always about individual freedom. They are also profoundly unconstitutional (for example, demanding that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau order provinces to cancel all pandemic measures, or that the governor general and the Senate seize control of government).

In contrast to the chaos and disruption the current protesters have brought to Ottawa, Professor Waiser said, the trekkers were highly disciplined. “If there was anything that you’ve seen today or during that first week on Parliament Hill, that would not have been tolerated, you would have been evicted from the trek,” he said on Friday.

Above all, though, while polls have shown that the current protest has failed to win over most Canadians, Professor Waiser said that the trekkers gained broad public esteem.

That, perhaps, led to many of their demands being fulfilled over time. Professor Waiser said that the trek was the “tipping point for the failure of the Bennett government.” More important, he said, it shifted public perceptions. After the trek, unemployment was no longer seen “as sign of personal failure” but as a failure of the economy. That paved the way for unemployment insurance and other social programs.

Many of the trekkers, Professor Waiser said, went to fight in the Spanish Civil War. “And then some of them fight in the Second World War,” he added. “Well, those are true patriots.”

In case you missed them, here a few of our many items from the past week about the blockade:

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.


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