In 1935, one of the biggest labour battles of the depression took place, when thousands of unemployed men from B.C.’s relief camps embarked on the On to Ottawa Trek for union wages and better working and living conditions. They made it as far as Regina on the tops of railway freight cars, but were stopped there by the RCMP and a riot ensued.
Up until recently, even the On to Ottawa Historical Society wasn’t aware of any surviving members of the trek. Then they were contacted by the family of 92-year-old Al Dugas, who was 17 when he joined in the protest. David Yorke, one of the society’s directors, interviewed Dugas about his memories of the historic event.
For more information about the trek, visit www.ontoottawa.ca
Al Dugas: I ran away from home. I was 16. And I just shoveled into it I guess, somehow. It was just there. My dad said, if you’re working for anybody else you wouldn’t earn your salt. So I took off, and proved him wrong.
Yorke: It was pretty hard to find work then I guess.
Al Dugas: There was none existing at all….anybody with a job in those days was a big shot.
Bob Dugas: 1934…before your 17th Birthday.
Al Dugas: Yeah, it was May…I never begged. I went from door to door asking for jobs. Like I said, I could cut grass, split wood, wash windows, floors, anything for something to eat. And a lot of the times I got something to eat, sometimes I got nothing, but it worked. But I never did ask for something for nothing you know.
Yorke: Were you in the relief camps?
Al Dugas: Oh yes several of them—Squamish, Merritt, Hope.
Yorke: What were things like in the relief camps?
Al Dugas: Oh, they were good, especially for the hungry—there was lots to eat.
There was one we had a bad storm, Camp 213 out of Hope, it was 13 miles out of Hope. We were hungry and we got word out that we had no food so they sent an airplane across and dropped food. We never got a bite of it; it went down in amongst the trees and was never seen again.
Yorke: There was a strike in the camps?
Al Dugas: The On to Ottawa Trek, yes…it was a protest against the relief camps. Like I said, you are talking 2,000 unemployed, leaving Vancouver on box cars, and another 3,000 waiting in Winnipeg and Toronto.
Al Dugas: (singing) Hold the fort for we are coming, union men are strong(*)—it was getting to be pretty big…concerned to have that many men in Ottawa…
Yorke: How far did the trek get?
Al Dugas: Regina. And then R.B. Bennett was the Prime Minister. He said “Keep everybody in Regina. If this is peaceful, send five delegates down and I will deal with them. And in the meantime you will be fed in Regina.” So we took him for his word, and when they got there he said, “Now you gave me enough time to round up all the police, so go back and tell them that we will give ‘em bullets instead of bread.” And that is what blew it…started the riot.
Yorke: Were you there in Regina yourself?
Al Dugas: In Market Square, yeah.
Bob Dugas: You saw stuff happening behind the crowds…vehicles moving in.
Al Dugas: That meeting was in Market Square. When we were there a flat deck truck was there with the speakers and Jerry Winters was at the mike, and outside these closed moving vans and Allied Vans were lining up one behind the other all the way around the square and all of a sudden the whistle blew and the doors open and the horses ran out and they started swinging their batons.
Bob Dugas: The police were on horses? The police or army?
Al Dugas: The police, RCMP…they started swinging the batons on everybody’s head.
Yorke: When the police came in, what were the police trying to do?
Al Dugas: Hammer our heads… they just came in and started swinging.
Yorke: What was the reaction of the crowd?
Al Dugas: Panic, running around, trying to get out of the way. It was bedlam for awhile. There was a guy called Alan McKay, he was from Toronto I think, he had a stick in his hand and he says, “they are firing blanks.” Pinnnngggg…the bullet went right through the stick and through the bank window. We were down on our knees…crawling through the alley.
Well, what happened at the Exhibition Ground (in Regina) is they lined up five machine guns on top of boxcars pointing at the doors of the stadium and we were rounded up and put in there and after nothing to eat or drink for a day. This Red Walsh, he had more guts than Dick Tracy, he just came to the door and he said, “That’s it, we’re coming out! And if you fire on us, the streets of Regina will run with blood.” And he said, ”You’re in charge of that. And we are coming out.” And we walked out. It took guts…
* The song, Hold the Fort, became the anthem of the trekkers.