The Forgotten Northern Ontario Workers During the Great Depression – Michael Barnes

The economy isn’t exactly bouncing along these days but not much more than sixty years ago,it was down right flat. This was the time of the Great Depression, the lost years, when production in many industries in Canada and around the world came almost to a standstill.

There were few social umbrellas then. Help for the unemployed had to come from financial strapped communities and also the generosity of those who had a job.  

By and large the unemployed wanted to work and would take anything they could get rather than go on relief. This spurred the Province of Ontario to use its strained resources to salvage something from the funds expended on public assistance.

Between 1929 and 1932, overall employment fell by 32% in the province. The government addressed itself to finding work for men, reasoning in the thinking of the time, that since a man was head of a household, he would support the family. There was no official move to find jobs for women.

The Queen’s Park solution was to set up work camps across Northern Ontario. Many who worked from them were single men. Preference for jobs in towns was given to married men. It was assumed that single men would not burden their families.

The idea for work camps was pushed by the Chief of Canada’s Defence Staff, Major-General McNaughton. He was appalled by the thought that the young men he saw had no prospects, were badly nourished and listless. The idea he promoted was accepted. Camps would build up morale through work. Food, clothing, a bed and medical assistance would be provided.

Ontario had 37 camps and the men housed in them performed a variety of tasks. Generally the work was improvements for highways, airfields and the military. Much of the infrastructure for what would become Canada’s national airline was done by relief workers.

At Emsdale, not far from Huntsville, the relief workers built a hanger and a radio-beacon station. Dane, south of Kirkland Lake, also had a radio-beacon station built as well as a caretaker’s quarters. In this location the beacon for the former Trans-Canada Airlines is long gone, but the modest block caretaker’s building remains, serving now as a radio transmitter location for a local radio station.

Camp budgets of three cents per day per man for medical assistance were often insufficient. Often men sent north from Toronto could not stand the rigours of northern winter. North Bay was the site for a group of camps. Much of the work out of this location was in highway construction and repair.

Generally men stayed in the camps for just over three months. They were discharged if they found a job or were found to be medically unfit. While in the camps, the workers even planted gardens and this helped both their diet and cost of camp operation.

There was no pay for the work but an allowance of twenty cents a day was given to buy tobacco or other small luxuries. Thus it was that while camps kept men gainfully employed, when they left, it was usually with no more of a stake than when they arrived.

So the men who lived in the camps made their own amusements and depended on charitable organizations for books and magazines. The allowance for their food was wenty-six cents a day and often this way not enough for men doing manual labour in cold weather.

Often workers agitated, usually unsuccessfully for better living conditions. Brief strikes took place at various locations but achieved nothing.

Another unstated reason for establishing the camps was to keep men from the influence of Communist agitators. This was not always successful. A ‘Red’ distributed socialist literature at the Kapuskasing camp and this caused trouble for a while.

If the life at the relief camps may be seen to be grim, it was made no easier by men who drifted from camp to camp, looking for a change of scenery. In doing so, they made it harder for the long term residents.

Actually in early 1936 when industry began to recover, the allowance was changed for a $15 a month wage. This half-a-dollar a day pay gave more dignity to the workers but still they could not save much.

The camps closed not long after and still work was hard to find. The camps began to symbolize the wastage of youth in the Depression years and the public was glad to see the places close.

There is not much left to show of the efforts of the Depression era work camps. But some of the road allowances on our highways were brushed back by camp laborers. Its not much of a memorial but then those lost years are a time most Canadians would rather forget.

Michael Barnes is a published Canadian author who has written extensively on Northern Ontario.