"On to Ottawa" trekkers disembarked at this spot

The third and fourth days of the “On to Ottawa” caravan were spent crossing the vast Prairie Provinces. The Prairies have a sense of scale that defies imagination, making it easy to see why our ancestors made the mistake of believing the bounty of nature to be endless. We’ve learned better by now. The damage we continue to inflict on our envronment is worldwide in scale, and no place on earth is untouched.

Climate change has upset the global equilibrium, creating increasingly extreme weather patterns. Any given year, it seems like every corner of the world suffers through either drought or a flood. This year, Saskatchewan has been inundated with water. The ground is saturated and flooding is a major concern. Marshes dot low-lying sections of farms along the highway.

Open Prairie

During the years of the Great Depression, the opposite was true. It stopped raining and the Great Plains became a great desert. Those years have become known as “the dust-bowl.” This region is the bread-basket of North America, but during the worst economic catastrophe of the twentieth century, much of the Prairies’ top soil blew away and crops failed. Food prices skyrocketed across the country, worsening the crisis and denying impoverished families access to basic nutrition.

It’s reminiscent of the situation today in the Global South, where plantations producing export crops like coffee and sugar have replaced the food-producing farms of the past. There too, prices shoot upward due to a lack of local food production. But this time it’s not a natural disaster causing the problem. Even in years of perfect conditions and bumper crops, people go hungry. It’s a direct result of capitalism, which allows multi-national companies to slowly take land from the people who depend on it. Once the land passes out of local hands, it’s gone for good. Individual farmers are sometimes forced to sell to the highest bidder, and multi-national corporations will always be able to outbid locals. Where profit rules, there’s no room to prioritise even the most basic needs of human life.

We were met in Regina with a pot-luck gathering. Some of those present joined the caravan and continued with us to Ottawa. Most came just to give friendly greetings us as we passed through, some of whom travelled a long distance from the far north. Prairie hospitality is as large as the land.

Greeting in Regina

All along the road, we’ve closely followed the path of the original trekkers. The Trans-Canada Highway spans the nation along nearly the same route as the Canadian Pacific Railway. But as we continue, it seems that we’re following ever closer. The house where we stayed in Regina sits directly across the street from the stretch of track where the thousand original trekkers climbed off their box-cars. A plaque marks the spot, less than 20 metres from our beds.

As with each city they travelled through, the trekkers spent some time in Regina building local support, finding food, and attracting more workers to their banner. But this would prove to be the last stop. Declaring the them to be “tresspassers,” the order was given to ban the trek from CPR lines. Word was sent from Ottawa that a small delegateion would be allowed to travel on in order to meet with Bennett and enter negotiations. The remaining trekkers were promised three square meals a day while their leaders were away. This promise was broken, and the negotiations turned out to be a farse. Through deception, Bennett had bought himself enough time to move more troops into the city and prepare to put down the trek with force. On July 1st, Dominion Day, a peaceful rally was attacked and thousands of trekkers and local supporters were beat savagely with batons. The “On to Ottawa Trek” was over.

Regina Riot

It’s no accident that Regina had been chosen as the place to stop the trekkers. The Bennett government felt that they had to be stopped before reaching Winnipeg, which was the most militant city in the country. In preparation, the working class of Winnipeg had assembled an immense collection of food, and a thousand men waited to join the trek. Winnipeg could have supplied the infusion of both food and energy that were needed to see the trek through to Ottawa, so Regina had to be the last stand. 

Sixteen years earlier, Winnipeg had been the home of one of the greatest mass mobilisations in Canadian history: the Winnipeg general strike. During that strike, the gears of capitalist society ground to a halt. The working class began to distribute needed food and supplies on the basis of need rather than profit. Milk trucks drove through town with signs on the side saying, “Permitted by the Authority of the Strike Committee.”

That strike was organised largely out of the newly finished Ukrainian Labour Temple. Committee meetings and rallies were held there in an auditorium seating 1,000 people. Newspapers and leaflets were printed there, spreading news of the strike. It was there that many of the trekkers would have stayed had they reached Winnipeg. And it was there that our caravan slept at the end of day four.

The Labour Temple was built mostly by volunteer labour and with donated materials. It’s a beautiful building. Two clasped hands are carved above the entrance emblazoned with the words “Workers of the World, Unite.” Even in 1919, this was not a new idea. Those words were written in 1848 by Karl Marx. But, in the face of global austerity and environmental problems on a world scale, they’ve never been more relevant.

"Workers of the World, Unite!"

Upon arrival, we were greeted by ceremonial prayer and songs led by Gramma Shingoose, and with another delicious meal prepared by Food Not Bombs. Warm welcomes and delicious food were staples of our Prairie stretch, preparing us for the long final leg to come, through the Canadian Shield of Northern Ontario.

Gramma Shingoose greets the Caravan