The Great Depression: Federal Work Camps in Ontario
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 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%.
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.
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.)
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.
More posts from Digital Archive Ontario
- Inside General Stores of Ontario: A Step Back in Time
- Ontario's Tuberculosis Sanatoriums, 1897-1960
- Going Nuclear in Canada (Includes Rare Photos of Chalk River Laboratories)
Edit: caption for final image edited to clarify that most camps were shut down by 1936. (July 19, 2021)