Posts Tagged ‘false promise’

“THE STRANGE ODYSSEY of the 1924 trek began almost a year earlier and half a world away in a depressed British city. While one could argue that William Leslie, Frederick Fleming, and the others were marching of their own free will, their fate was inextricably bound both by decisions in Ottawa and by social and economic forces of which even many well-informed Canadians were not aware, but with which their lives intersected.

The recognition of Canada’s unique labour requirements is critical to understanding the circumstances which led to the 1924 trek. A large pool of basically unskilled workers was essential, as the former Director of the Employment Service of Canada, R.A. Rigg, clearly articulated later in the decade:

One of our great problems is the necessity for maintaining in Canada, under our present industrial conditions, an enormous mobile army of workers which must be ready to drift around from pillar to post, from one area to another, quickly and freely in order to meet the demand of industry.

For Rigg and other officials responsible for manpower policy, Canada’s principal industries remained those of lumbering, mining, railway and urban construction, and agriculture. Of these, the production of prairie wheat had primacy because of its importance for export earnings and the Dominion’s financial wellbeing. Despite its sharply seasonal requirements, both industry and government recognized that the wheat economy had priority in tapping the labour pool. Federal and provincial governments traditionally made every effort to satisfy the demands of Western farmers for workers through the encouragement of interregional migration. On the odd occasion when national and continental sources failed to muster enough men, officials designed elaborate recruitment schemes to bring experienced British farm workers to the region in the hope that they would like what they saw and stay. Numerous private and public bodies also tried to train redundant industrial workers to become useful prairie farmers.  These schemes were only partially successful at best, and even if their potential had been realized they would not have satisfied the occasional special demands made by prairie agriculture for short-term workers.

To supply sufficient men for die harvest was a special problem which required considerable coordination and effort by all concerned The CPR had been the first to realize this and had operated cheap harvest excursions from the Maritimes and Central Canada, and on occasion from British Columbia and the United States, since 1890. Officials from the railways, the provincial departments of agriculture, and the Immigration Branch determined die number required each fall based on crop forecasts and estimates of farmers’ requirements. Despite the elaborate system which had evolved, such predictions still tended to be very imprecise, resulting in either shortages or surpluses, depending on the weather and the availability of men. In addition, unruly harvesters and hostile city dwellers in die places where migrant workers congregated before and after die harvests caused further headaches for those responsible. World War One introduced one more important variable to die already-complicated seasonal prairie farm labour equation. Propaganda against the enemy enhanced fear of “foreigners” among English-speaking Canadians and contributed to a stronger identification with those who shared die English language and culture. After die war Canadian imperialists were more adamant man ever in demanding more immigrants from the United Kingdom.

For politicians in London, these expressions of imperial solidarity from the colonies seemed to dovetail nicely with attempts to solve die unemployment problems caused by Britain’s postwar depression. Parliament passed die Empire Settlement Act in 1922 to pay half the costs of transporting “suitable” migrants to the Dominions. For Canada, however, suitable immigrants meant farm workers and domestics, and officials tried to schedule their arrival to coincide with peak demands for labour. Ironically, empire settlement schemes narrowly focused on farming tended to exacerbate the problem of seasonal labour supply. ‘Real’ farmers were scarce while industrial workers were plentiful. Immigration officials who were always aware of the pitfalls of bringing in urban workers were able to resist pressure from imperialists by arguing that ‘factory fodder’ could not adapt to the physical demands of the harvest. Nevertheless, close to 12 thousand British workers entered the country in autumn 1923, owing to the exceptionally good wheat crop.

The undoubted problems created by the 1923 British harvester movement must rest with the promotional campaign which Canada had pursued. The image of the Canadian West was that of a land of boundless opportunity where anyone with initiative, resourcefulness, and patience could find work, satisfactory wages, and eventual independence. Even in hard times, the prevalent assumption was that as long as there was farm work, there was no unemployment. Generally associated with the period before World War One, this image remained gospel to government immigration agents, railway and steamship employees, and the popular press alike, and their efforts made it into an article of faith for all workers in the United Kingdom, rural and urban, agricultural and industrial.

While working-class opportunities in Canada were undeniably better than in Britain, the conventional image ignored such awkward realities as the seasonal nature of employment, the high cost of necessities, and the cyclical performance of the wheat economy. Immediately after the war, the agricultural picture was extremely confused. Diminished prices for grains, combined with increased acreage and the need to reestablish soldiers in civilian and preferably agricultural pursuits, made it very difficult for railway and government officials to estimate farm labour requirements. At the same time, these actors faced continual, contradictory political pressure. Western municipalities could always be counted on to complain about the men they had to feed after the harvest, especially since the previous winter of 1921-22 had been particularly bad with widespread unemployment throughout the region.“ One of the principal causes, according to Calgary’s Mayor Adams, involved seasonal workers who "spend their money pretty freely, and although they have large wages, they have frittered their money away and we find them a burden thrown on the city.” Nevertheless, as his Edmonton counterpart lamented, “when you are faced with two or three or four hundred men who have no place to sleep, who are without means, you have to solve the problem.” Yet the Saskatchewan government had faced the opposite problem the preceding autumn when it had to rent space in Regina to house harvesters who threatened to leave with the harvest in full swing because of bad weather. To make matters worse, in 1922 the supply fell 2,000 men short of demand.

Well aware that harvester labour was both a blessing or a curse, the railway and government officials sat down in June in Ottawa to estimate the 1923 requirements. Considering predictions of a bumper crop, they concluded that 12 thousand harvesters would be needed in Manitoba, 30 thousand in Saskatchewan, and 10 thousand in Alberta. Even with a special appeal to British Columbia and to the United States for men, and to the mayors of western cities, railway offices, high schools and universities, and corporations to release students and employees for the harvest, the target of 52 thousand seemed unattainable.

The prospect of a harvest labour shortage in 1923 brought a predictable response from the prairie press, appealing for concerted government action to save the “enormous” crop. The transportation interests, correctly seeing a window of opportunity, through “national necessity” decided to act unilaterally. On 16 July, both Canadian Pacific and Canadian National instructed their United Kingdom agents by telegram to move with haste to secure male farm labourers as soon as possible. For those ready to sail between 1 and 15 August, the package would cost £15 to travel from a British port to Winnipeg and the usual half-cent-per-mile harvester rate from there. Once hired, the men would get $4.00 per day plus board, and when they had worked a month they would qualify for a 25 per cent reduction in the return fare. The next day they informed the Department of Immigration and Colonization of their actions.

Immigration officials were horrified that the companies could be so presumptuous, especially about the alleged $4.00-guarantee. Once the damage was done, the department made every effort to divest itself of responsibility for and avoid the expected criticism of the harvester movement.

These departmental concerns were justified. In their zeal to impress their employers with statistically-satisfying results, agents of the transportation companies typically exaggerated wages and ignored mention of working conditions and hours of work. They translated “competent farm labourers” to mean “no experience necessary” on the assumption that anyone could work on a farm. In addition, they led many recruits to believe that they could move into their accustomed trades immediately after the harvest.“ Finally, they told prospective harvesters that they need not carry much money besides that required for ship and rail passage.”

For workers unemployed for months and even years, the Canadian harvest was an opportunity too good to miss and they “besieged” the recruiting depots situated in London, Belfast, Glasgow, Southhampton, and Edinburgh. By thetime the last ship sailed 10 days later, 11,718 had signed up to find fortune and adventure across the Atlantic.

Newspapers in Canada wrote effusively about the high calibre of migrants aboard. The first group of 300 alone contained three clergymen, according to the Montreal Gazette, while the rest were university students, engineers, engine drivers, electricians, and clerks, in short, “as mixed as a bunch of 1914 army recruits.” The majority were married with families, and an estimated 95 per cent were ex-servicemen, defenders of the empire, the “right sort of people.” The reports made no mention of the lax selection procedures involved: some bore obvious war wounds or exhibited other disabilities such as shattered appendages and serious lung ailments. To make matters worse, very few had experience with farming, “or any other form of outdoor work” for that matter.

Outside of the bedlam which accompanied the departure of the last boat on 10 August, the crossing was without incident. So also was the disembarkation, despite a few indignant complaints that Englishmen had been forced to wait in a Québec city compound while “foreigners” cleared Immigration ahead of them. Even the train trip across country was without incident.

Once the British harvesters detrained in Winnipeg, a number of them no doubt disappeared after contacting family and kinship associates who had already found homes and jobs for them. For the majority who had come for the harvest, however, circumstances conspired to make matters difficult The few who had made prior arrangements with farmers went out to work at once, but the majority took their chances and waited for instructions from agriculture department officials. Since most of them were broke they had to beg on the street to survive. Unfortunately, delays in getting their assigned work place forced still others to panhandle, and even when they arrived at their designated farm hot weather, sawflies and rust, which reduced yields, caused an even longer wait for some to get their first Canadian money, and outright disappointment for others.

To compound the British harvesters’ difficulties they soon discovered Canadian farmers under die pressure of harvest to be stingy, tough, impatient, and demanding. Moreover, a few were not above exploiting the unsuspecting as one novice harvester discovered after he had worked without food for seven hours only to be told that be would receive only board and room for his efforts. The more common complaint came from men who were refused jobs of any sort because they lacked experience; for them, real fear set in that they would not get in die 30 days work to qualify for cheap passage home. Meanwhile, those who did get jobs at an acceptable rate found their inadequately clothed and shod bodies incapable of taking the cruel punishment which stooking meant even for seasoned returnees. Seven hundred quit after only a few days in the field.

Destinations in the United States were popular choices for harvesters who left early, although most sought refuge in any large urban centre. Some chose Vancouver but die majority returned to Winnipeg to seek work. However, with little money in hand most had to seek short-term assistance from City Hall, charitable organizations like the Salvation Army, or affinity groups like the Orange Lodge to tide them over. Where these were inaccessible, no doubt die harvesters fell back on kinship networks for assistance as well. Some of them could not wait, however, and demanded immediate passage home from die transportation companies which, they argued, had deceived them with promises of high wages and good working conditions in Canada. Still others blamed harvesters from other parts of die country for making matters worse through their competition.”


WJ.C. Cherwinski, “A Miniature Coxey’s Army: The British
Harvesters’ Toronto-to-Ottawa Trek of 1924.” Labour/Le Travail, 32 (Fall 1993), pp. 140-145.

Art is taken from here.

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