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No Relief From Relief: The Great Depression In Guelph

During the last few years of the 1920s, Guelphites were beginning to feel quite optimistic. After the post-war slump, the economy was turning around. Companies were hiring and workers were regaining much of what they had lost. Then, on October 29, 1929, came the crash plunging employers and employees alike into a new economic reality.

One year later, 400,000 Canadians were out of work. Wages were cut and those employed had to live on less pay. Businesses retrenched and the labour movement was brought to a temporary standstill.

The Initial Government Response: Relief Camps

To give governments at all levels credit, they tried to handle the situation as best they could. An initial response was to create “Relief” Camps. This was to address the problem posed by the “single jobless.” In November 1931, 75 men from Guelph were sent to New (Northern) Ontario to work on the Trans-Canada Highway. This was the quota allotted to the city.

Some Relief camps were well run, and the men were treated decently; in others, referred to as “slave camps,” strict rules were applied and much expected for sometimes as little as 20 cents a day. That the work was hard was to be expected since, as an editorial in the Guelph Mercury in November 1931 stated, “the Government quite properly looks on the construction of the highway as a business proposition and not as a charitable enterprise.”

The camps offered no opportunities to the young, single men who resided there. The food was inedible, bedbugs plentiful, and the work – clearing swampland to create highways, was hard. Isolated from communities, and offered no entertainment, no books, no sports and no alcoholic drinks, these city-raised men faced dreary day after dreary day without hope.

Relief Settlements

By 1932, Guelph was told not to send any more men. The camp, like many others across Canada, was full. The government arrived at another temporary solution “Relief Settlements.” Municipalities sent individuals, or families, to farm in Northern Ontario. Each city, upon acceptance, paid $100 per person, and another $100 at the beginning of their second year.

They were told to pick between one of three possibilities:

  1. New Ontario Farms – sometimes on Crown lands
  2. Abandoned farms
  3. Small holdings

In March 1934, Guelph had 12 families living in Northern Ontario – as far as Kirkland Lake – and hoped to send more under the new system. The earlier settlers of 1933 were given 80 acres of land. As one writer to the Guelph Mercury put it: “When these people saw what they were coming to, after being used to the city, no one would have blamed them for going back. But they didn’t.”

The Relief System at Home

One reason was the situation unfolding in Guelph under what was called the Relief System. It was not new, although the extent to which it was currently being stretched was. It came into prominence during periods when the economy faltered or crashed.

Relief encompassed everything from providing a soup kitchen to being given cloth to make your own winter coats. In the Long Depression and now the Great Depression, the system was applied across Guelph.

As before, governments took several diverse approaches to handling the situation many Guelph working-class families found themselves in. The city continued to dole out clothing and sometimes food to those the Relief Officer Charles Dawson and his assistants considered worthy. The Officer vetted the letters and applications. It was his decision as to whether certain individuals would receive the pittance the municipalities received in partnership with the federal and provincial governments. It was divided equally at one-third for each party.

A woman writing for her family respectfully asked for work boots for her husband and son. She wondered whether she could have a coat since hers was worn out from several years of use. She also asked for a few other clothing items.

The Relief Officer granted her husband and son work boots and coats – which she would have had to go to the Relief Office in City Hall on a designated day and stand in line to pick up. They did not grant her wish for a new coat. Instead, they said she would get the cloth from a charitable organization to make this and any other items she needed.

Relief Gangs

Those males who were granted Relief became one in a pool of “Relief Gangs” granted one or more days of work a week. In 1930 and 1931, men were set to work, under the close eye of foremen to pave Eramosa Road/Hill and 15o to clean the river. In 1933, a group of about 60 were hired to widen the shoulders of College Hill. This was to help prepare for the laying of water pipes to Arkell Spring in 1934. 530 Relief Workers were employed on the Arkell Springs project; another 500 were scattered throughout the city employed in various Civic works projects. These included:

1. Cleaning the River – 1930-31 and 1936 as well

2. The excavation and building of the retaining walls along the river from Gow’s Bridge to Johnston’s Boathouse

3. Digging of Sewers

4. Cutting ruts

5.  Cleaning gutters

6.  Digging Watermains

7.  Laying of sidewalks

8.  Street cleaning

Some worked for the Waterworks Department, others for the Civic Works Department.

For this, they did receive payment – usually in vouchers and cash. It was not enough for many families. In 1933, the Unemployed Association sent a deputation to City Council. The group said the voucher system and the low pay were not enough for a family to survive on. They brought with them several individuals to attest to the difficulty. A woman with a family of eight received $4 a week – to pay for groceries. The same amount was granted to a family of 10. This is what became referred to as a “Relief Diet.”

In the early years, the city officials said they could consider it. Instead, they did nothing. In another visit from the same group in 1934, the Mayor stated: “The council’s first obligation is to the married man with a family and children.”

The Relief system was completely inadequate. It was also a system that was applied across Guelph in an unequal fashion to two groups: women and single men.

Both married and single women were not granted Relief except in certain circumstances e. g. widowed women. In 1930, Aldermen Cunningham and Ward, felt married women should leave their jobs if their husbands were gainfully employed. Several people wrote letters to the editor about how frivolous it was for single women to remain employed during these tough economical times. One female writer to the Guelph Mercury referred to “girls” driving to work everyday in their own cars. According to her, life was about “more than a round of new clothes to some of us.”

She, and many others in unions and government thought that such girls did not need to work. They could stay at home with their parents and give their jobs over to men. After all, women only worked for “pin money.” Such stances were only to become further entrenched as the Depression deepened into 1932 and 1933.

Another group that was both criticized and harshly treated was single men. Released from their employment in favour of married men, they were, more often than not, unable to collect relief. In one case, a young man was rejected from receiving relief because Charles Dawson, the Relief Officer knew

  1. He was living at home with his father who was working.
  2. He had been seen visiting a local pool hall

Relief records clearly indicate the rejection of several young men because their father or mother had employment.

One 17-year-old male writing in 1931 gave this as his reason for seeking Relief Work:

“I need work because I have to pay my room-and-board.” His stepfather worked for the city “but that don’t help me out, for he didn’t get enough to pay rent himself. Please help me out.”

The plea fell on deaf ears as the Relief Officer felt the boy’s father could keep him.

By 1939, the ban extended further with no relief granted to single men unless they were rejected for active duty. This was the same year you could receive an extra food voucher if after your blood was tested and accepted, you donated it.

In 1936, the City received directives on who should be removed from the Relief Roles. The Honourable David Croll, Minister of Municipal Affairs advised the City to remove individuals who fell into the following categories:

  1. Those who prefer relief to labour and deliberately reject the opportunity to work at fair wages.
  2. Those who conceal assets – possess bank accounts under false names, etc.
  3. Those who conceal income – fail to report earnings which would reduce allowances.

His department had found, he claimed instances of Relief fraud and chisellers where a family failed to report the income of the entire family unit for it was on this that Relief was decided. An interesting point he mentioned in his report was the attitude of employers. According to the Minister many workers were receiving starvation wages from their employer who then informed them that they now qualified for partial relief.

This latter certainly applied to many Guelph companies and even institutions. The Guelph Carpet & Worsted Spinning Mill cut wages by 10% in 1932. Lancashire Felt cut their wages between 10 and 20 percent that same year. In 1933, the unionized workers for the Light Heat department also had their wages cut by 10 percent; that same year, the teachers had their salaries cut. As the Guelph Trades and Labour Council remarked the decision was “made without compunction as in many instances the wages paid were never high when measured by the quantity and quality of service rendered and demanded of the employees.”

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