by Bruce Cherney
In 1933, Canada and the world were in the midst of the Great Depression. Four years earlier, on Black Tuesday, October 29, the New York stock market had collapsed, which sent a collective shudder reverberating throughout the world, throwing nations into economic chaos.
The prosperity of the Roaring Twenties had evaporated and within Canada the unemployment rate rose to 25 per cent. Instead of good times, work camps and soup kitchens were the norm.
The “On-to-Ottawa” trek started in Vancouver as the unemployed jumped on freight cars that rolled eastward. During a rally stop in Regina on July 1, 1933, a riot broke out — one policeman was killed and scores of rioters were injured or arrested.
In Winnipeg, two policemen were injured and six others were arrested after a riot erupted during a protest over a reduction in relief payments and the closure of Winnipeg Hospital’s outpatient department. “We want medical aid!” shouted the marchers heading toward city hall.
Looming ominously on the horizon was renewed militarism personified by Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy. On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler became the chancellor of Germany, setting the stage for a yet another, but far worse, world-wide catastrophe to occur.
For two years, the Japanese had been flexing their military muscles in Manchuria, which led to a censure in the League of Nations. The conflict in Manchuria also proved to be the final blow to the League of Nations, since the international body, created after the First World War to promote the cause of peace, was powerless to stop the march toward war.
Both Japan and Germany withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933.
It was in this simmering cauldron of uncertainty that The Country Guide magazine of June 1933 attempted to make sense of a world that thwarted explanation.
This particular issue was one of several discovered by Winnipeg Real Estate News employee Jill McKenzie, which her mother, Irene Johnston, who recently passed away, had hidden away for posterity.
For a magazine published in Winnipeg, The Country Guide was well-informed about world events and offered insightful observations and commentaries. The Country Guide staff in 1933 included editor and manager George F. Chipman, and associate editors R.D. Colquette, P.M. Abel and Amy J. Roe.
Although it was filled with stories offering advice devoted to the farming community, this issue also had within its pages articles titled Capping the European Volcano and Parliament Shuts up Shop.
Editorials included All Eyes on London where a world economic conference was to be held, and Roosevelt’s Power Increase, citing the American president as “a dynamic individual ... striking out courageously to remove the barriers to world recovery.”
In another editorial, War Clouds Dispersing, it was claimed that the World Disarmament Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, “would be better described as the Futility Conference.” Still, there was a bright spot to the conference when President Franklin Roosevelt declared that, despite its neutrality and not being a member of the League of Nations, the U.S. would support the call for economic sanctions against aggressor nations such as Japan.
Of note to the modern era is the editorial, Titles for Revenue. It discusses Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett’s proposal to reinstitute British titles for Canadians, which had been banned 14 years earlier when Parliament passed the Nickle Resolution.
Conrad Black, the “former Canadian” media mogul, now in hot water in the American courts, undoubtedly has a greater appreciation of Bennett than ex-Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who told the media baron he could only become a British “lord” if he renounced his Canadian citizenship.
After his defeat in the federal election of 1935, Bennett left Canada for Britain, never to return, so that he could accept the title of viscount.
The Country Guide editorial said Bennett’s plan only made sense if a scale of prices for these titles were created to generate revenue for Ottawa’s treasury. In an amusing twist, the editorial writer said “the newly rich and the highly social ... ” should pay at least $5 million and annual rental of $1 million to become a “Dook,” a marquis was quoted at being worth $2 million and $300,000 annually and an earldom was worth $1 million with annual rent of $200,000.
“A plain ordinary knight, who is allowed to tack ‘Sir’ on to his name should get off with about $100,000 and a rental equal to his annual income tax, provided he has no tax bonds.” Tax bonds diminished the amount of income tax paid.
The editorial writer said smaller titles for farmers and workers were of no use. “If, however, the demand should arise, it might be a good idea to create a range of smaller titles such as ‘His Nibs’ or ‘His Nobs’ and have them on sale at medium prices at drug stores and filling stations.”
For two years, Bennett handed out lofty titles to his cronies, but the practice ended in 1935 when Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s Liberal government was re-elected and recognized that they were in fact “alien to the true spirit of Canada.”
R.D. Colquette in his article, Capping of the European Volcano, said that the parliament in Italy had “become the mere registrar” of dictator Benito Mussolini’s decrees.
While calling the dictator the consummate actor, he offered that Mussolini’s deeds had “created a new spirit of pride and confidence” in Italy.
At the same time, Colquette acknowledged, “If such a nation, thoroughly disciplined, aflame with national spirit and armed to the teeth is a potential threat to peace, you have it in Italy.”
Colquette said that Germany “felt defeated and penalized as a nation, a frustrated and hampered nation, looking for leadership of strident confidence and assertiveness such as was known under Bismarck and the military empire.”
The political battle in Germany had been between the Communists and the “Brown Shirts” under Hitler. The latter emerged triumphant and attained complete control of the state.
“The trade unions are being suppressed,” wrote Colquette. “The Jews have been deprived of their human rights, for Nazist Germany is to be a Nordic race.”
In 1933, the “Protective Custody” law was passed which allowed police to make arrests on virtually any pretext. Those arrested had neither the benefit of legal counsel or trial.
To house these prisoners, the Nazis in 1933 established their first concentration camp at Dachau near Munich, the forerunner of a system of hundreds of such camps where the Nazis confined Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, criminals and political prisoners.
The suppression of German Jews’ human rights “caused a storm of indignation throughout the world,” according to Colquette.
But indignation had no effect upon the Nazis and the coming horrific fate of Europe’s Jews under Hitler and his minions.
“The Germans are no longer to be crushed and strangled from without,” wrote Colquette, “nor dominated intellectually, politically or financially by racial groups — that is the creed of Hitler and his storm troops.
“These, then, are some of the high points of the prospect which we see when we look across the ocean. On that trembling, shifting foundation the nations are trying to erect a permanent temple to peace. The trouble is the architects cannot agree upon a plan.”
When the European powers did agree upon a plan, it was appeasement. The Munich Conference of 1938 ceded the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia to Germany (the Nazi orchestrated “Anschluss” had earlier in 1938 resulted in Germany’s seizure of Austria). In return, Hitler and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed a statement denouncing war and France and Britain guaranteed the new Czech borders.
It was a case of wishful thinking. There was to be no “peace for our time,” as claimed by Chamberlain when he returned to Britain from the ill-fated conference. Hitler had no intention of honouring the agreement.
In the last session of the Canadian parliament before the summer break in 1933, Prime Minister Bennett was quoted in The Country Guide as saying the Liberal opposition was “arrogant and impertinent.” Bennett promised to “lash them into subjection with the scorpions ‘brute majority,’” reported Richard Churchill in the article, Parliament Shuts Up Shop.
“For nearly three years the Bennett government has battled with the depression, seeking a solution by way of sky-high protection, boot-strap legislation in many forms. The government, perhaps now realizes it cannot, of its own power, end the trouble,” reported Churchill.
Churchill was right. The Conservative government was essentially powerless to stop the depression — as would have been the case with any other government at the time.
Churchill reported that there were nearly two-million Canadian citizens (Canada’s population then was only 10.6 million) on unemployment relief “with the Dominion propping up the four Western provinces in which they now have an investment of nearly 50 millions, with tax receipts steadily declining and the National Railway deficit gobbling up money at the rate of more than a million a week — the end cannot be far distant.”
The Bennett government pinned its hopes on the coming World Economic Conference in London, England. The thought was that there had to be someone able to come up with a plan to bring the world out of economic turmoil.
“In a nutshell the task will be to remove trade restrictions and allow goods, which are the lifeblood of trade to flow from one country to another; to tie the world currencies to some new standard, preferably gold or gold and silver combined; and to bring about world inflation on a gigantic scale by writing up the value of gold,” wrote Churchill.
The Bennett government would fail in its attempt to “blast a way” through tariff walls imposed by other nations in the wake of the Great Depression. Its only success was the French treaty, which granted Canada “favoured nation” status for trade, although this proved to be too limited in its scope to have much of an impact.
The Great Depression only ended six years later with the start of the Second World War.
Unemployment relief was undoubtedly the most important issue facing Canada. The provinces, especially the Western provinces — the hardest hit by the Great Depression because they relied upon agriculture and natural resources that were in diminished demand as opposed to the less-affected manufacturing sector in Eastern Canada — were calling for more generous support from Ottawa. But the Bennett government was instead proposing to slash direct relief in rapid stages.
“Since 1930, public funds have been poured out with astonishing abandon in an effort to provide food, shelter, clothing for those without jobs,” said Churchill. “Despite this expenditure, the problem has bulked larger and larger, even more menacing.”
Those who worked the soil were also suffering because of depressed commodity prices. Many made the fruitless journey to the cities to earn a living and instead were forced to apply for relief to feed their families.
Two farmers who were successful during “these days (when farmers) ... must think out a more satisfactory method of economic deliverance,” were the Brown brothers (Ben and Frank) of Olds, Alberta. “Together they team up to produce the right article at a low cost for the top price,” wrote P.M. Abel in The Country Guide article, A Leaf from Henry’s Book.
The brothers operated a large-scale crop and hog operation. In 1932, the two brothers sent thousands of hogs to market.
In an era when mechanization on the farm was advancing rapidly, it is interesting to note that The Country Guide said the evidence of this was found in the decreasing horse population which fell from 3.45 million in 1921 to 3.1 million in 1932.
The Country Guide of June 1933 was not limited to providing advice to farmers on such issues as keeping wool pure, forage crops, new hay-making methods, fruit growing or grain separators, but also told farm wives about crafts, sewing, making gravy at its best, rhubarb delicacies, and fashions.
To today’s thinking, the articles may appear “sexist,” but they did provide useful tips on eking out an existence during hard economic times.
The Country Guide also held out the possibility for women to earn extra cash. One full-page Magic Baking Powder advertisement to name “Mrs. Clarry Hunt’s Magic Mystery Cake,” offered a first prize of $250, second prize of $100, third prize of $50 and 60 prizes of $10 each. These were all tidy sums for an era when cash was extremely difficult to come by.
An Oxydol ad promised 50 per cent more suds and 47 per cent less work.
“If Eaton’s says it’s so — it’s so!” according to an ad for the now defunct Canadian retailing company.
“Attention Mothers!” an ad for Quaker Corn Flakes said, “Children will take milk without coaxing if you serve with Quaker Corn Flakes.”
There was also an assortment of ads aimed at the farm, including Oliver: Plowmakers for the World, Roadcraft tires (made from gutta percha); Firestone Oldfield tires “that taught thrift to thousands;” Dunlop bus-truck tires “for lower haulage costs;” Goodyear tires with a 12-month guarantee; Dominion tires with “anti-skid grips;” McCormick-Deering harvester-threshers with the claim that “economy, experience, service recommend these machines;” Windsor Salt Blocks “vital to highest live stock profits; Prest-O-Lite storage (car and truck) batteries with a lead oxide “for more life and power;” and Champion spark plugs that boasted they were “a Canadian-made product.”
The question to be asked is: Who among the farmers and labourers the magazine catered to could actually afford the myriad of products offered in its pages during the depths of the Great Depression? It’s a question not readily answered in the June 1933 issue.