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“Local radical groups
had watched the harvester movement with interest from the beginning.
The Worker, the Communist organ published in Toronto, long critical
of imperial migration policy as merely a ploy to dump unemployed
British industrial workers on the colonies, appeared to welcome the
harvester movement for the potential political points which could be
scored. The 5 September issue featured an editorial “Fifty
Thousand Men Wanted!” which foresaw problems with urban
unemployment once the harvest was over. A cartoon on the same subject
punctuated The Worker’s argument. Once the British were in Western
Canada, the paper was quick to recognize their plight as the 9
September feature story “Harvesters Exploited and Unscrupulously
Misled Dumped on Prairies Without Cent Government and Rail Companies
Responsible” announced.

The other major
radical newspaper, the One Big Union Bulletin, also stressed that the
British harvesters were the victims of misrepresentation but saw a
benefit to the working-class movement from their presence:

On the whole …
these our new countrymen are conscious of their status in society and
can be relied upon to stick with the rank and file movement of the
working class. It is but one more lesson to them of the ruthlessness
of capitalism and they will soon find their place among the militant
workers of Canada.

Once the
disappointed harvesters returned to Winnipeg, local radicals began a
street campaign to discredit the governments and the railways. The
One Big Union and the local Communist Party helped organize a
demonstration in Market Square to coincide with a letter-writing
campaign to newspapers throughout Canada, and worse still, in the
“Old Country” describing the harvesters’ predicament.
However, public officials were quick to try to extinguish this early
brush fire as they immediately announced jobs for the dissatisfied in
the bush or in railway construction at 20 cents an hour. Meanwhile,
the Saskatchewan government, with the most to lose if the harvest
were threatened through negative publicity, confronted the men right
at the rally with offers of $4.00-a-day jobs for those willing to
work. Reports indicate, however, that the offer was rejected unless
the men could 36 get signed contracts from employers on the spot.

The first flush of
protest faded quickly once the harvest was in full swing and with
reports of worker shortages and rising wages. Consequently, the
British harvesters were instrumental in taking off and storing the
largest crop on record, and many who persevered earned enough money
to send some home to their families.

The early protest
did have an effect, however, and even before the crop was off a
debate began on the merits of the movement and its possible
consequences. Aside from the general conclusion in many prairie
papers that the complainers were just urban slackers who were useless
for harvest work at any wages and should not have entered the
country, concern was expressed regarding the harvesters’ fate once
the crop was in. Reflective of those who believed, based on past
experience, that the country was courting trouble by letting them
stay was Saskatchewan Premier Charles Dunning who privately confided
that the best thing to do was to send them home after the harvest and thus avoid problems with winter work and urban unemployment The
majority opinion, however, reflected the hope that they would find
permanent farm work attractive and in the spring they would start
farming on their own using the services offered by the Soldiers’
Settlement Plan.

Since the optimistic
scenario had always been the plan, public agencies mobilized their
resources to place the British harvesters somewhere before winter set
in to stay. Provincial offices of the Employment Service of Canada,
through its central office in Ottawa, coordinated a national search
for vacancies and by mid-October reported that they had found 7846
farm jobs, 6334 openings in lumber camps, and 460 in railway
construction available, with wages ranging from $15.00 a month plus
board for farm work to $50.00 a month in the bush.

Since only 347 of
the nearly 12 thousand British harvesters departed Canada under the
30-day rule it must be assumed that the remainder did not qualify for
a cheap return fare or that they wished to exploit this
once-in-a-lifetime chance to cut ties with a dismal past. For
example, of the minority who had been given accommodation at the
Winnipeg Immigration Hall after the harvest, 4322 in all, 912 were
placed on farms as far away as Québec, another 160 went to the bush,
while 76 got work within one of the railways, and 98 accepted jobs as
general labourers. Others, however, had no intention of spending the
winter at such menial tasks and a few even “openly stated they
would go to gaol man accept farm and bush work.” They argued
that they were skilled tradesmen and they wanted appropriate
employment. Failing this, they threatened to spend the winter in one
of Winnipeg’s Immigration Halls. Finally the Department agreed to pay
the cheap harvest excursion rate to send a number to central Canada
where the prospect for industrial jobs appeared to be better.

Toronto alone
absorbed 1,700 of those men who arrived before the end of September
but later arrivals found the situation increasingly bleak with
widespread unemployment. Even jobs in the woods vanished because
employers found British harvesters too green. As one paper company
official lamented, while “it hardly seems right to be employing
Poles, Finns and other foreigners when Britishers are idle,” his
firm preferred specially imported workers for their superior
experience. Moreover, the prime farm jobs had also disappeared
leaving only those which hardly paid enough to sustain even a single
man, let alone one with dependents in Britain. To add to the problem
farmers demanded year-long contractual commitments so as to realize a
return on what they considered winter charity.

Farm work meant at
least bed and board in return for chores but for the men who remained
unemployed in the towns and the cities simple subsistence was a
serious problem. Help from municipal sources was out of the question
as some of the estimated 250 to 300 harvesters in Toronto discovered
when they were told they had to fulfill residence requirements to get
relief. Appeals to family and friends proved equally fruitless and
yet the government was loath to deport them because of the expense
involved. As a consequence, some resorted to panhandling and others
to petty theft to stay alive. Only the inordinately severe winter
saved more from these humiliating alternatives as a series of
snowstorms brought shovel work at 15-25 cents an hour. Even these
small mercies had their price, however, as three harvesters were
killed by a locomotive while working in the Canadian National Railway
yards during a blizzard.

Again, as in
Winnipeg, public response was surprisingly good. Church groups did
what they could for those of their own denominations supplemented by
the YMCA, the Salvation Army, and the Sisters of the House of
Providence. Occasionally even private citizens offered groups of
unemployed free restaurant meals, and some theatres showed free
movies to help them pass the time, indicating the degree of local
concern for the plight of the jobless. The British Welcome and
Welfare League, a kinship organization specifically dedicated to help
newcomers from the British Isles down on their luck, provided food,
lodging, and the amenities of “home” to SO harvesters, and,
with money secretly supplied by the federal and Ontario governments
and the two railways, it organized a “huge” Christmas
dinner for the men. However, the men discovered that they would not
be fed before they were marched to church to listen to a sermon on
the prodigal son.

Even this source of
help soon evaporated because the League’s money ran out shortly after
the new year. Since most of the harvesters stranded in Toronto came
with trade union experience, primarily as metal workers and allied
tradesmen from the Amalgamated Engineering Union, local labour and
leftist organizations were able to provide valuable assistance as
well. While their union travelling cards may have opened doors to
employment at other times, during the winter of 1923-24 they proved
useless in Toronto at least. However, the men’s trade union
affiliation provided an entré to the Labour Temple where they found
people genuinely sympathetic to their predicament and willing to
help. Toronto Trades and Labor Council (TTLC) Secretary William
Varley led a deputation, which included Tim Buck of the Communist
Party, to Toronto’s City Hall in mid-December to cast light on the
newcomers, while Varley alone arranged a meeting with officials from
the federal labour department and the Soldiers’ Settlement Board
where 142 unemployed British workers aired their grievances.

As time went on,
TTLC headquarters became especially important to the harvesters still
in Toronto. To those who had no other religious or fraternal
affiliation the building became a refuge, and a place to exchange
information necessary to survive in a strange place. In addition, the
Labour Temple became a focal point for the development of structures
which would lead eventually to efforts to alleviate the situation.

In the first
instance leadership and guidance for Toronto’s unemployed, the
British harvesters included, came from various groups either from
within or associated with organized labour. The Worker never allowed
the migrants’ plight to slip from sight and when winter set in the
paper featured a story describing in detail the conditions the men
were forced to endure in the city. Meanwhile, the Communist Party
helped the TTLC and remnants of the OBU to raise money, to convene
the Labour Forum to discuss the plight of the jobless, and to
organize demonstrations in Queen’s Park to focus attention
particulariy on their British brethren. In due course, however,
leaders from the ranks of the displaced Britishers themselves took
the initiative. One was William Leslie, already noticed by the
immigration officials and branded “a well-known red [sic].”
In all likelihood the RCMP security service had had him under
surveillance as soon as he had arrived in Canada. However, Leslie
acquired a local reputation as a disturber early in December after a
Labour Temple speech in which he declared that he and his colleagues
from Britain would mobilize the unemployed to sweep Canada’s “shining
bald heads” from power. Described by the Toronto Globe as
“loquacious and pedantic,” his efforts were largely
rhetorical until February 1924 when he broke a window at the
Immigration office to focus attention on the harvesters’ plight and
was arrested.

The second leader to
emerge was James Law, not a harvester at all but a marine engineer
from Dumbarton, Scotland who, after several visits to Canada, had
immigrated permanently with his family in the spring of 1923. An
ex-serviceman who had given up his right to a pension for $600 cash
in 1920, his work history, according to his surveillance file at
Immigration, alternated between unskilled jobs and unemployment
largely because of recurring trench foot.

Early in March, Law
and Leslie brought together some of Toronto’s British unemployed and
the harvesters to form The British Harvesters’ Immigrant Group, an
umbrella organization to formalize the protest. Initially the Group’s
goal was to find ways to draw attention to the rumoured mistreatment
of deportees by Immigration authorities. Their most notable effort
resulted in a question raised in the British House of Commons
concerning 21 harvesters who had been “imprisoned in cells and
deprived of fresh air and exercise” at the deportation centre in
Halifax. Group members, however, soon felt that something more
dramatic was necessary. This resulted in a new organization called
the Harvesters’ and Immigrants’ Union whose objective was a 300-mile
march from Toronto to Ottawa to confront the Prime Minister with a
demand for jobs at union rates. Until then they vowed not to accept
work under any circumstances.

At first, the
organizers hoped to convince not only the stranded harvesters but all
the British unemployed in the Ontario capital to make the two-week
trip, but, despite their shared experience, this proved futile since
the men differed markedly in background and aims. One difference,
according to inside sources, was religious: those who belonged to the
new union tended to be more secular in outlook and thus leaned toward
organized labour rather than church organizations for support
Meanwhile, the trek organizers’ uncompromising stance made unanimity
impossible since those whose principal desire was to find work
quickly dissociated themselves from the “labour [sic] Temple
group” fearing that the leaders of the trek, and especially
Leslie, “who inclined to Socialism,” could harm them by
saying too much.

Despite the apparent
divisions, organizers expected more than 60 people to march. However,
only 46 appeared at dawn on 15 March, dressed in great coats and
carrying bundles on their backs. They shuffled about nervously until
reporters appeared. Then they unfurled their banner specially created
for the occasion which bore the legend ‘Stranded British Harvesters
Starving in Land of Plenty’ between a sheaf of wheat in one comer and
a woman bent over, “presumably … suffering from hunger,”
in the other. Then Leslie and Low stressed the need for orderly
behaviour because their objective was to garner sympathy and not
provoke hostility. Finally they were divided into groups of ten with
Law in the lead and a Captain Graham in the rear and, in
“semi-military” formation, marched east towards West Hill
14 miles away. Meanwhile, Fred Fleming and Leslie went ahead to make
arrangements for food and lodging.

Government
authorities, who until this time had chosen to observe the activities
of the harvesters from a distance, suddenly decided that the march on
Ottawa was no trifling matter now that it was under way. If the
marchers achieved even some of their objectives they could contribute
appreciably to the political harm already done to Canada’s imperial
immigration and settlement policies. As a consequence, various
agencies instituted a coordinated damage-control strategy on several
fronts the day the march began in order to minimize its
effectiveness. First, the RCMP, with their new secret-service mandate
to collect information with which authorities could predict problems
and “permit arrangements being made to offset any intended
disturbance” were instructed by the justice minister to keep “in
touch with the situation.” Meanwhile, the immigration department
contacted the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) and local police forces
with the request that they watch the marchers carefully and prosecute
any violations of the law they saw. In the same vein, immigration
officers were instructed to approach municipal officials along the
planned route to use "a little diplomacy” to find out what
they could about the men involved, and particularly when they had
come to Canada.

While the
immigration department sought to gather information by secret means,
some of its men were told to remain very visible to the marchers.
Immigration Minister James Robb gave precise instructions that his
department “arrange that these men are offered jobs at every
town, where they stop en route.” Towards this end Robert
McCheyne, an investigating officer with the Eastern Division
headquartered in Ottawa, along with E.L. Braithwaite of the Soldiers’
Settlement Board, were told to follow the march in full view of the
harvesters, armed with lists of farm and industrial jobs supplied by
Ontario agricultural officials and the Employment Service from places
along the entire route to Ottawa. Whenever possible they were to
offer work to the men and to invite applications “individually
and collectively” for the positions. If their efforts proved
successful the railways had agreed to transport applicants to their
new jobs for a one-cent-a-mile fare. Once placed on the job the men
could get a refund from their employers.

Even with
discussions to discuss local jobs with the fellow travellers, the
marchers made good time and by noon of the second day they had
passing Pickering, and they spent the night in Oshawa where they
found the public reception gratifying. City council offered bed and
board and the Salvation Army Juvenile Band provided musical
entertainment.

After Oshawa, the
adventure began to lose its lustre as monotony, improper footwear,
and poor conditioning took their toll. The military precision
suffered and delays became more frequent as the men sought ways to
ease their discomfort. Some of the trekkers even had to take the
train for short distances to get some relief while others accepted
rides from passing motorists because fatigue was common, as even the
march leaders admitted. It soon became apparent that their message
was more important than the march, so, to save themselves for the
miles still ahead the harvesters introduced an interesting ploy. By
delaying their departure from a community in the morning they would
arrive at another one short of their destination. Citizens there, who
were not prepared for their visit, gladly carried them to the
outskirts of their planned destination in cars and trucks where they
would disembark and walk the remaining distance “with banner
waving.”

Ever hopeful, the
government’s shadows interpreted the harvesters’ use of local
conveyances as a sign of waning resolve. Their regular reports
deemphasized public support in the communities along the way. In
fact, while some local editorial writers were critical of the
trekkers’ repeated refusal to accept work, reporters assigned to
cover the march often told a different story. A surprisingly apt
description came from a writer with a knowledge of working-class
history who [likened the] called the group a “miniature Coxey’s
army,” referring to the celebrated group of unemployed who
marched on Washington to seek relief from Congress in 1894. Most
reporters simply described what they saw: that the marchers were
imperial ex-servicemen with a legitimate complaint about the way they
had been treated.

By the time the
Harvesters’ and Immigrants’ Union reached Belleville, 90 miles from
Toronto, the daily routine had been established and the trek from
there through Napanee and Kingston was typical of most of the trip
both in terms of organization and response. The rank-and-file
trekkers did little else but march, eat, and sleep while Braithwaite
and McCheyne proceeded ahead to solicit jobs. There was little
interaction between them as trek leaders did most of the talking.
Only in Belleville did tempers flare momentarily when one marcher
turned on Braithwaite with a tirade that “he didn’t see any use
of our acting as spies on their movements any longer! He was fed up
with seeing us at every turn.” No doubt the report of a case of
scarlet fever from within their ranks helped contribute to the
stress.

Kingston, the
planned site of a major rally, offered some relief from the growing
tension as the men picked up forwarded mail and relaxed. Local
citizens who had concluded that the trekkers were a “good,
honest, clean-looking and an obedient and well-behaved lot”
responded with numerous gifts of cash, clothing, tobacco, and
entertainment Later two hundred showed up for the rally where more
money and clothing were proffered and gratefully accepted. As usual,
Braidiwaite and McCheyne came up virtually empty-handed due to the
depressed state of the local economy.

The trekkers
returned to the same boring daily routine once they turned norm.
Public reaction continued to be positive ahhough the men were worried
for a while when the mayor of Prescott initially refused to let the
men stop in his town because some marchers some years earlier had
caused considerable damage there. However, he eventually relented.
Meanwhile, the shadows continued to ferret out jobs to offer the men,
mostly on farms nearby, despite the futility of their efforts.

At Manotick, 15
miles from Ottawa, the advance men entered the capital to line up
food, lodging and contact-people willing eidier to support their
cause publicly Gike representatives of local organized labour and
politicians such as J.S. Woodswordi of the Labour Group), or at least
listen to their concerns. The trekkers’ propaganda was working. As
the distance to Ottawa diminished the level of interest from public
agencies increased even more. The OPP, for example, made every effort
to appear cooperative, even offering transportation between Gananoque
and Brockville. Meanwhile, officials of the immigration department,
the Soldiers’ Settlement Board, and the Employment Service stepped up
their job searches. Also, those  responsible for public relations
braced themselves to disprove the accusations made by the harvesters
on their home turf. At the same time members of the cabinet affected
appeared visibly shaken by the possible political consequences of the
trek, especially since the confrontational nature of some of the
leaders was well known. Immigration Minister Robb, for example,
wanted to avoid a meeting altogether, but he instructed his senior
officials that if he was cornered he would entertain only a small
delegation. In a similar vein, his deputy minister, W J. Egan, said
he would talk to the men only if Leslie was not in attendance “owing
to Leslie [sic] past record.”

The Ottawa people,
familiar with marches and demonstrations and perhaps hesitant to bite
die hands that fed them, were noticeably cooler toward the harvester
trekkers. There was no welcoming committee to greet the men, now down
to 31, as they trudged into the city with their banner on the last
day of March. The mayor and city controller merely directed a request
for help to Parliament which they saw as the real source of the men’s
difficulties. A desperate search finally resulted in supper at a
hotel courtesy of the Salvation Army and a roof for the night at the
Union Mission.“ The next day was little better as only two small
donations trickled in to defray expenses.

While rank-and-file
marchers were thus preoccupied with survival, trek leaders met with
Woodsworth on 1 April to arrange for their interview with the Prime
Minister and selected cabinet members. The feared confrontation
between the harvesters’ five-man delegation (Law, Fleming, Gallagher,
A. Constable and Alexander Milne) and Prime Minister King, J. A.
Robb, and Labour Minister James Murdock did not materialize as the
meeting was surprisingly cordial. In his introductory remarks the
wily King first complimented the men on their pluck in undertaking
the march. But, unable to resist an opportunity to throw a barb at
the imperial authority, he pointed out that a similar meeting would
have been impossible to arrange in the Old Country where government
was far less accessible to the governed.

In their turn, the
trekkers repeated the arguments they had made ever since leaving
Toronto: that they had come to Canada for the 1923 harvest because
they believed the railway recruiting agents who told them they could
get work at their respective urban trades after it was over, earn
enough to send money home, and eventually bring their families to
Canada. The farm work at $ 15.00 a month offered was grossly
inadequate. Moreover, such a wage was even hazardous to accept for
some of them since, under Scottish law, they could be convicted and
jailed for desertion and non-support if, on returning to the United
Kingdom, officials found that they had worked in Canada but had not
sent money home. Hence, they wanted decent work at a living wage or
outright government assistance.

King’s reply tried
to shift responsibility elsewhere: since Canada lacked an
unemployment scheme like that which operated in Britain, assistance
was out of the question. As for the alleged misrepresentation of
Canadian conditions, these had occurred overseas and he suggested mat
the marchers seek redress from that source. Meanwhile, they should
visit the local office of the Employment Service of Canada where
preparations had been made to process their work applications them.
Although "far from satisfied,” the organizers decided to
cooperate in hopes of having more fruitful discussions with the
government later.  

While the delegation
waited upon King’s cabinet, the organizing committee had to deal with
the more pressing problem of where the men could spend the second
night. A return to the Union Mission was out of the question after
its operators insulted the men by having the place fumigated
following their departure that morning. However, requests for
alternate accommodation directed at various Ottawa clergymen produced
no results. The Prime Minister had earlier offered to take two or
three into his personal care if they were destitute but for the
remainder who awaited word in Union Station the only prospect
appeared to be a night in a jail cell. Finally, however, the labour
minister relented and announced that his department would put up the
men for a single night at local hotels, the result being a frantic
bed-hunt by Law, Woodsworth and two reporters which eventually turned
up sufficient rooms in three Lower-Town hotels to house the men for
the night.

Since this was the
first night in a long time in a real bed, some of the hikers slept so
soundly that they missed Wednesday’s breakfast, also supplied by
Immigration, and had to scramble to join their colleagues at the
employment office where they were met by C.S. Ford, Superintendent of
the Employment Service of Canada, as well as McCheyne and
Braithwaite. There they learned that although the employment
situation in the Ottawa area was abysmal with hundreds of registrants
already on the books, there were die usual openings on local farms
and if they were interested they could get reduced fares and wage
advances to get them started. While farm work held die same
attraction as before they all dutifully took lists of openings and
registration cards and promised to return them promptly.”

–  WJ.C. Cherwinski, “A Miniature Coxey’s Army: The British Harvesters’ Toronto-to-Ottawa Trek of 1924.” Labour/Le Travail, 32 (Fall 1993), pp. 145-157

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“I Want To Go to Kingston Penitentiary Where I Can Get Something to Eat,” The Kingston Whig-Standardˆ. February 24, 1933. Page 09.

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