The Great Depression: Federal Work Camps in Ontario

March 8, 2021 | lfeesey

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There was nothing great about the Great Depression except its length and penetration into every corner of Ontario from 1929 to 1939.

Below is a brief overview of work camps, or "relief camps", in Ontario — and what led to them. Features photos from Digital Archive Ontario, a database of digitized items from Toronto Public Library's historical collections.

The crash

The stock market crash that began in 1929 wiped out personal investments, many businesses and plenty of jobs. Prices, wages, immigration and the birth rate decreased. Canada's gross national expenditure dropped by 42%. The national unemployment rate hovered around 30%. 

Men in formal attire walking in train station
Six ex-Toronto brokers sentenced for conspiracy to defraud are seen leaving Danforth station (Toronto) for Kingston to start serving their sentences in a penitentiary. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1931.


Out of work

Anyone with a job considered themselves lucky, even if they had dropped from manager to labourer. The social safety net of the era was minimal. Charities and municipalities soon exhausted their resources trying to help the destitute. Young men traveled the province looking for day labour. 

The Chief of Canada’s Defence Staff, Major-General A. G. L. McNaughton was troubled by the young men he saw who had no prospects. They were were badly nourished and generally listless. His proposed solution was to create Work Camps across Canada for them. He believed that manual labour would build up their morale. 

Vintage photo of many men in working clothes waving on top of train
During the Great Depression, young men rode on top of freight trains looking for work. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, circa 1930s.


Men sitting and laying on ground close together one of them reading newspaper
Unemployed men during the Great Depression in Canada preparing for a march. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, date unknown.


Men marching in grassland in working clothes
Desperate workers trek north to Klock, Ontario to work on the highways. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1931.


Work camps in Ontario

Starting in 1933, the federal government set up labour camps in Northern Ontario for single, unemployed, homeless Canadian males. The camps were also known as unemployment relief camps. The men were housed, fed, clothed, received basic medical care, and given twenty cents per day for discretionary spending. Under the direction of The Defence Department, they worked on clearing and building roads, planting trees,  defense buildings and airfields. The camps were seen as a way to contain unrest and separate young men from communist activists in the cities. 

The camps drew criticism from the political left, which thought they were no substitute for jobs with real wages. Labourers protested the working conditions, with some workers from other provinces in similar camps marching towards Ottawa to complain.

By 1936, the daily stipend had risen to fifty cents per day. With an upturn in the economy and jobs now available, the camps were phased out by the year's end. An article in the Canadian Encyclopedia notes that 170,248 men had lived and worked in these camps. (It is not clear what number of those men were from Ontario work camps.)

Desolate spot with buildings of men lined up and large piles of wood
Photo of unknown location during the Great Depression. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, date unknown.


Large group of men walking along street with two cars
Protest march of unemployed leaving Scarborough for Ottawa during the Great Depression. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, date unknown.


zLine of working men on tree laden path
Marchers from a Manitoba work camp arrive in Kenora. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, circa 1935.



After WWII, the roads and airfields built by the camp workers spurred the expansion of the mining industry in Northern Ontario. 

A virtual exhibit by CBC concludes that "the camps became a focal point for a generation's anger and a lasting legacy of a government's ineffectiveness during the era."

The deprivations of the Great Depression that people experienced and saw all around them changed their opinions to favour strengthening the government's role in safeguarding its citizens' welfare. This led to an expanded social safety net including medicare, unemployment insurance and retirement pensions.


Mean with possessions standing on road with thumb up
Most camps were no longer in operation by 1936. However, this photo shows a striker from a work camp in Lakeview, Ontario leaving after it was ordered closed as early as 1933 by the federal government. Courtesy Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1933.



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Edit: caption for final image edited to clarify that most camps were shut down by 1936. (July 19, 2021)