Red Riots of the Great Depression
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 was the beginning of the Great Depression and the effects were felt worldwide.
On October 17th of 1929 the unemployed raided a city relief office. On December 18th hundreds of unemployed marched through Vancouver’s streets. The “snake march” became a popular way for demonstrators to tie up traffic and avoid police charges.
Jobless people from across Canada flocked to Vancouver for it’s warm climate and in hopes of finding work. The popular saying was that “Vancouver is the only place in Canada where you can starve to death before you freeze to death.”
By December of 1930 long bread lines were common in the city, and hobo jungles and shanty towns started to spring up. By the summer of 1931 there were 42,000 jobless in B.C. In September of that year 237 relief camps were created outside the city, where men were forced to do road work. The men called them “slave camps”.
Women were encouraged to marry men rather than look for work, but many refused. Some women also took to “riding the rods”, hopping freight trains to travel and search for work. In February of 1935 thousands of women were active in trying to pressure the government to open and run free birth-control clinics.
In March of 1930 a group of hungry and homeless people armed themselves with iron bars and smashed the windows of the Woodwards building, looting the store for food. It became common to see people eating out of the garbage.
The first “Red Riot” of the Depression took place on August 1st of 1931 at the corner of Dunsmuir and Hamilton. The battle began when mounted police charged an “unpermitted” march led by a red flag. The marchers responded to the police attack by tearing up the pavement and ripping pickets from fences to use as weapons. The police claimed that citizens had also thrown rocks at them from houses.
20 police officers were injured, 5 ending up in the hospital, and 8 demonstrators were arrested for rioting, including a 14 year old girl who had attacked a mounted policeman. 5 homes were damaged as police chased fleeing demonstrators into nearby houses.
Police repression of the unemployed only led to an increase in anger, frustration, and agitation.
Hunger March of 1932
On March 3rd of 1932 4,000 unemployed workers, squatters, and hobos marched through the city to protest the policy of cutting single men off relief if they refused to go to work camps. City council declined to meet with them and police on foot and horseback charged the group with clubs. The marchers used their flag and banner poles as lances, fighting back and defending themselves, sending 2 police officers to the hospital.
Jobless on the Offensive
Unrest continued to grow as through 1933 and 1934 as the Depression dragged on.
150 jobless men raided the Unemployment Relief Office in 1933, overturned registration files, tore out telephone connections, and fled the scene before police could arrive.
In March 250 jobless and homeless men trashed a downtown shelter they had been staying in, and rioters smashed and looted the Mens Institute at 1035 Hamilton Street.
Later 19 men were caught after a mass dine-and-dash at a fancy downtown cafe and spent a month in jail for their actions.
On May 4th 1934 the unemployed staged a large demonstration at city hall.
Bombing of the Royal Theatre
On the morning of March 20th, 1933, the Royal Theatre at 142 East Hastings was torn apart by a bomb. The Lobby and ticket office were destroyed and the explosion smashed the windows of other buildings on the block. One man was slightly injured and the mananger of the theatre, W.P. Nichols, was jolted from bed as he slept in his suite directly above the theatre.
Nichols informed police that the Workers Unity League had met in the theatre the night before to celebrate the anniversary of the Paris Commune. Stink bombs had been used to scare away customers several months prior. The theatre had also been involved in a labour dispute a year before and a projectionists car had been bombed then. Despite this the police decided that the explosion was not a result of labour unrest but simply a matter of a personal grudge.
Sometime after noon on the 20th street car operators found a coconut with a fuse and a skull-and-crossbones painted on it’s side, which they turned over to police.
A mass eviction of families on relief was carried out the same day.
Photo: Stuart Thomson VPL #9116B
Hudson’s Bay Store Occupation
The communist Workers Unity League established the Relief Camp Workers Union and called a strike on April 4th, 1935. The workers were outraged at the conditions in relief camps, and resented their isolation. On April 23rd, 1,000 strikers marched downtown and invaded the Hudson’s Bay Company store on Granville street. Police claim that infiltrators had tipped them off to the striker’s plans and when they entered the store to remove the strikers a battle broke out. Strikers fought back against the police and trashed the store, causing an estimated 5,000 dollars damage. The workers then marched from the store to Victory Square and attempted to flip over a police car into the street. The mayor appeared and read the Riot Act to the men who screamed at and denounced him. The demonstrators left the square singing “The Internationale” in defiance.
Later that night police raided various strike headquarters and seized banners, posters, and newsletters. Crowds gathered at Carall and Hastings street once the word got out, smashed windows, and clashed with the police. The next day, at a public meeting on the Cambie street grounds, a call for a General Strike was made. It never materialized, but workers did participate in demonstrations and a one hour work-stoppage the next afternoon.
A month later, on May 18th, 1935 the relief camp workers tried to force their way into the Woodwards building, and managed to briefly occupy the museum on the top floor of the public library until they were promised temporary relief.
During the depression May Day demonstrations grew in size and strength and peaked in 1935 as 35,000 people marched as part of the international workers day.
On-To-Ottawa Trek and Regina Riot
Thousands of B.C. workers traveled to Vancouver to demand jobs, the right to vote, and the right to organize. After the Vancouver mayor read them the Riot Act, the decision was made to take their demands to Ottawa. Almost 1,000 striking workers climbed atop freight trains on June 3rd and 4th, 1935. Local supporters fed them at each stop and hundreds joined them on their journey.
The trek ended in Regina when the government stopped all eastbound freight movement. On July 1st the trekkers held a rally to gain support in market square in Regina. Police hiding in furniture moving vans jumped out and attacked the crowd. Fighting lasted for hours, with local residents joining the strikers and throwing material from windows and rooftops at the police. The strikers overturned cars and built barricades in the streets. One police officer was killed and many bystanders and demonstrators were severely beaten in the street battle that was later called “the Regina Riot”.
Police Riot at Ballantyne Pier
On June 18th, 1935, 5,000 longshoreman marched along with the Women’s Auxillary down Alexander street. They had been on strike since June 4th, when their employers declared collective agreement at an end and locked them out. Their mission was to talk to the scabs and to set up a picket line. Armed police had denied them this right previously. Police claim that they had stepped up infiltration efforts after the Hudson’s Bay Store incident, and that an undercover officer tipped them off to the strikers plans.
From behind boxcars, a battalion of police were hiding, and as the strikers approached the police fired rounds into the crowd. Tear gas was used and mounted police men rode through the middle of the march swinging their clubs. Police chased fleeing workers throughout the neighbourhood, firing tear gas into homes and first-aid stations. Many workers were shot and beaten. At times workers were able to fight back and defend themselves. The Vancouver Sun reported that 9 policemen were in the hospital after the riot.
Spanish Civil War and Canadian Volunteers
In 1936 the Spanish Civil War broke out in response to a fascist military uprising. An anarchist revolution was made in much of eastern Spain. The industries of cities like Barcelona were collectivised, and many uprisings in the rural areas created agricultural and peasant communes. 1,448 volunteers from across Canada signed up for the communist-sponsored Mackenzie-Papineau International Brigade, to go and fight the fascists in Spain, despite offical Canadian sanctions against doing so. The I.W.W. in Canada recruited for the Spanish anarchist militias of the C.N.T. (National Federation Of Labour) and F.A.I. (Iberian Anarchist Federation). On February 11th, 1939, 31 veterans returned home to Vancouver. The fascists won the war, but anarchism in Spain survived.
Post Office Occupation
When relief camps closed in 1937, thousands of hungry, homeless, and unemployed single men landed in Vancouver. To publicize the need for relief, work, and decent wages, homeless and unemployed men occupied three city buildings on May 20th, 1938. The old post office at 701 w. Hastings street, the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Hotel Georgia were all targeted. After ten days 600 dollars was accepted to vacate the Hotel Georgia. Over 1,200 men occupied the post office for one month. The art gallery was also occupied for one month. The occupations began with a large snake march consisting of 4 divisions. 3 of the divisions entered the buildings while another marched around the city aimlessly as a diversion for the police.
Police arrived a month later with an eviction notice, tear gas, billy clubs, and wire whips at 6:30 in the morning on June 18th. The eviction of the post office, called “Bloody Sunday”, saw 100 injured, 38 hospitalized, and 23 arrested. Trapped in a narrow corridor, they could not escape the clubs and whips of the police as they attempted to leave the building. Upon smelling tear gas, the men occupying the art gallery evacuated and rushed down to the post office to see what was happening.
The men were chased by police and ran east down Hastings and Cordova streets, throwing rocks to defend themselves and breaking the windows of Woodwards and other businesses. 5 policemen were injured in the street fighting. Total damage was estimated at 30,000 dollars.
Later that afternoon 15,000 gathered at the Powell Street grounds to protest against police violence while 2,000 marched from Oppenheimer Park to the police station, smashed windows, and screamed for the release of those imprisoned. Another 2,000 protested in Victoria. All groups demanded the resignation of Premier Pattullo. A defense campaign freed most of the prisoners, but some remained in jail. The public protest forced the governments of B.C. and Canada to participate in an emergency relief scheme, the first welfare program implemented by these governments.
Escape and Riot at the Girls Industrial School
During the depression crime rates soared. Industrial schools were designed as detention centres for “juvenile delinquents”. 84.5% percent of the girls arrested and sentenced to time at the industrial school were convicted for sexual relations. The usual sentence was two years, and girls were “trained” in domestic work. Not all of the girls were complacent, and in 1938 a mass escape was organized. In 1939 the girls rioted, and it took 13 police to stop it.
In 1945 the Southam-owned Province newspaper tried to drop national standards for printers. Typographical unions in Winnipeg, Hamilton, Ottawa, Edmonton, and Vancouver joined in a wildcat strike against Southam in June of 1945. The strike was lost in the east, but in Vancouver the Province could not publish for 6 weeks, until scabs from across Canada got the paper out from behind picket lines. Southam applied for and received an injuction and launched a two hundred and fifty-thousand dollar lawsuit against the union. In response the union called for a boycott of the Province. Striking printers burned copies of the Province in the street. In some towns across B.C. the circulation of the Province dropped to zero. Province sales plumetted, and the company eventually conceded to the union in 1948. The 40 month strike cost the Province its position as number one paper in B.C. Subscribers refused to return to such an anti-union paper after the strike was over, and the paper lost money for the next seven years.