The Arborg tax revolt — 22 men were charged with unlawful assembly and inciting a riot

by Bruce Cherney (part 3 of 3)

Following the tax riot by a mob of 500 primarily Ukrainian farmers at the Bifrost municipal office in Arborg, the Canadian Farmer, a Ukrainian-language weekly newspaper based in Winnipeg, called on its readers to fight the “menace” posed by the  alleged Communist agitators whose aim “is to disgrace us before other nationalists.”

The Arborg district farmers received letters of support from farmers in the western United States facing similar dire circumstances. A special dispatch to the Winnipeg Free Press from Omaha, Nebraska, dated December 24, 1932, noted farmers in that state and in Iowa had good crops, but were unable to obtain adequate prices for their grain. Yet, interest on loans and taxes kept accumulating.

“Pay-day is here on these farm loans, and taxes and other obligations, and these farmers haven’t the money nor the credit with which to pay.”

In Omaha County, Nebraska, it was said there were 3,000 farm foreclosure cases pending in court. In the small town of Ralston, Nebraska, there were 600 foreclosure cases. “All over these states down here a similar condition prevails.”

After 100 irate farmers invaded the courthouse in Sioux City, Iowa, the judge wisely decided to halt a property tax sale. In the U.S., such judges are elected officials, so it was in their interest not to alienate voters.

In Madison County, Nebraska District Court Judge Chase announced “that  ... there would be no decrees of foreclosures issued, nor would sales under foreclosure be confirmed ...

“In many courts in Nebraska the judges are refusing to grant delinquency judgements, and are postponing confirmation of foreclosure sales for at least two years, leaving the owner in possession.”

At a Sunday, December 11, meeting in support of the farmers held at the Dominion Theatre, near the corner of Portage and Main in Winnipeg, Jacob Penner, who joined the Communist Party in 1921 (in 1934, he was elected a city councillor as a North End Communist), denied reports that Reeve Bjarni Sigvaldason had been “manhandled.”

“Two women gave the reeve a little shaking,” he told the audience, and being a “one-armed man, his coat naturally fell off.”

The meeting was called under the auspices of the Manitoba District of the Canadian Labour Defence League, which declared its intention to defend the farmers who had been arrested in the days after the riot in Arborg.

“Mr. Penner declared that it was the conditions under which the farmers are now living that caused the demonstration at Arborg and not ‘the outside leaders, the Communists.’”

After reading Penner’s assertion “that Mr. Sigvaldason had used certain language and had asked the Mounted Police to shoot at the delegation,” resulting in him receiving a “little shaking” by two women, the Bifrost reeve wrote to the Free Press “refuting this statement emphatically.”

Sigvaldason said just prior to the tax arrears sale, he and the RCMP met a delegation of 12 ratepayers, who requested the sale be postponed until the third week of January. He said this request meant the tax sale would be cancelled entirely as under law it had to take place no later than December 15.

“After consulting with the officers, it was decided to adjourn the sale until December 14. When one of the delegates communicated with the people they rushed the office, filling the room demanding the cancellation of the sale and my resignation.”

Sigvaldason said he tried to reason with the mob, but instead was presented with a resignation document the rioters demanded he sign. At first, he refused to sign and asked the police for protection.

“I never used improper language nor did I ask or expect the police to shoot anyone,” he added.

According to the reeve, as he stood on the desk, three RCMP constables and “three Icelanders” surrounded the desk and tried unsuccessfully to keep the crowd at bay.

“A number of women jumped on the desk I stood on, pulling off my coat and vest ... tearing my shirt. The RCMP urged me to comply with their demands and after doing so, under protest, I was struck by a man who had tried to block my way out.”

At the subsequent trial of 14 men charged with unlawful assembly and rioting, RCMP Constable Albeck said he “was afraid the reeve would not leave the office alive if he didn’t sign the paper.” The constable claimed his hands had been held behind him during the melee.

“The whole thing seemed to be rapidly degenerating,” he said.

The document the reeve was forced to sign read: “I, the undersigned, cancel the sale for taxes for the year 1932 and further resign as reeve of the Rural Municipality of Bifrost.”

After the riot, the RCMP flooded Arborg with 30 constables to maintain the peace and provide law and order in the troubled community.

On December 9, the farmers attempted to hold another mass parade in the town, but the police presence dissuaded them from another outburst of anger, so “the would-be demonstrators lost heart” and went home without incident.

The RCMP report into the events at Arborg resulted in the issuance of 22 arrest warrants, which were “absolutely necessary in order to show those opposed to the present form of government that the changes they seek cannot by brought out by violence,”according to Manitoba Attorney-General William J. Major.

The attorney-general said it was his intention to “make an example of this affair ... and prosecutions will be entered with those found responsible.

“Agitators appear to have worked some of the people in the districts of Chatfield, Bifrost and other areas into a state of frenzy by statements regarding eviction from homes and farms for non-payment of taxes,” said Major. “There has been no justification for any such statements. While municipalities have the right to hold tax sales no eviction order may be issued or title taken without a permit from the Debt Adjustment Board. This has been the law for many months.”

Major said no case had appeared before the board where a man had been evicted for tax arrears unless he was in such an utterly hopeless financial condition that it was in his best interest to dispossess him of his land and relieve him of his financial obligations.

All such cases were carefully considered by the board before action was taken, the attorney-general added.

Major claimed the rioters may have been influenced by outside agitators, “but they have to abide by the consequences of their acts, which (they) apparently committed in the belief that they could improve their position by taking the law into their own hands and resorting to violence.”

The RCMP “combed the Arborg district” for the men charged with inciting the riot. The police investigation included the role played by Farmers’ Unity League members from Gimli, Chatfield and Fisher Branch. The police announced one of the “ringleaders” from Gimli would soon be arrested, which as it turned out was George Lycar, who was one of three leaders of the Farmers’ Unity League in the Interlake. 

Those arrested appeared at a preliminary hearing before Magistrate Henri Lacerte at the Ukrainian Hall in Arborg on January 19, 1933. Some 400 people jammed the hall, described as not too well-lit as well as inadequately ventilated.

Of the 22 arrested, Magistrate Lacerte committed 14 to trial.

They were initially brought to the provincial court in Winnipeg, where they appeared “roughly dressed in windbreakers and sheepskin coats.” All defendants asked that the charges be read out in Ukrainian, which was granted.

Until their trials for “unlawful assembly and rioting,” the farmers were each released on $1,000 bail which was raised by the Manitoba District of the Canadian Labour Defence League.

Justice Andrew Dysart presided over the March 14 Winnipeg trial of the 14 accused, while the prosecuting Crown attorney was W.E. McLean. Defence attorney Saul Greenberg successfully had any reference to the Canadian Labour Defence League and the Farmers’ Unity League disallowed in the court. Justice Dysart agreed with Greenberg when he said such references to Communist-supported organizations would be overly prejudicial to his clients.

In the 1930s, Greenberg was noted as a defender of “left-wing” causes, although he had no attachment to the Communist Party. Legal historian and lawyer Dale Gibson, designated Distinguished Professor Emeritus by the University of Manitoba and now residing in Edmonton, said that “because he dared from an early date to defend left-wing clients and causes, Greenberg was never permitted to wear the QC’s silk gown during his lifetime. This slight was eventually remedied ... with the awarding of what appears to be the first posthumous QC (Queen’s Counsel) patent ever awarded.” 

Actually, if Greenberg had been granted the award in 1932, it would have been the designation King’s Counsel, or KC, as the British monarch and head of state for Canada at the time was George V. QCs were awarded after Elizabeth II ascended to the British throne in 1952, although her coronation wasn’t until 1953.

Communist city councillor and lawyer Joe Zuken said he accepted his QC, which  under normal conditions he would have rejected, because of what happened to Greenberg “in order to prove that one has a right not to be discriminated against politically” (Joe Zuken: Citizen and Socialist  by Doug Smith).

Steve Kowalchuk, a witness of the events of November 29 at the Bifrost municipal office, told the court “the people were quiet, just like babies.”

Witness Roman Lesowyk, who was among those originally suspected of taking part in the riot, told the court he had only gone to Arborg to buy land, while to peals of laughter, Joe Osnach said he came to Arborg for singing lessons.

Another witness said Reeve Sigvaldason was unafraid and laughing with the people crowded into the municipal office.

After two and a half hours of deliberation, the jury returned with two not guilty verdicts for Joe Hyrcyshyn of Shorncliffe and Mike Kozub, but all the other defendents were found guilty, although only of unlawful assembly. Those found guilty were Harry Alanvatch of Okna, John Koberenko of Winnipeg, Ivan Kapusta of Fisher Branch, John Osnach of Broad Valley, George Lycar of Gimli, Andrew Solclenski and K. Hrynchshya of Bifrost, and Steve Kozub, Mike and Harry Koltun, George Kowalchuk and Mike Kryrylchuk of the disorganized district in the northern portion of Bifrost municipality.

In the end, the 12 men received suspended sentences in keeping with the jury’s recommendation for leniency. In rendering his judgement, Justice Dysart said he felt satisfied there would be no further trouble in Arborg district.

He said everyone was sympathetic to “the trials and tribulations of that section of the population (farmers), which is most sorely affected by the present conditions, but while that is true, it should never be permitted that the law should be broken.”

A year later, Arborg lawyer Wasyl Swystun made a tour of the district to determine the changes that had arisen after the Arborg riot. His findings were published in the Free Press on May 17, 1933.

He said Ukrainian farmers in the district expressed no interest in the “Bolsheviks,” and that their economic well-being was better than other districts in the province.

“Of 143 Ukrainian families on whom I made a check, there were only 13 with Bolshevik leanings. On the whole, Ukrainian people of the district are alarmed at the prevalent idea that they are Communists and want the idea corrected.”

The lawyer had been asked to tour the district and attend meetings convened by area farmers to denounce Communism. He said over 500 people had attended the series of meetings.

“I was told that in the district there was but one family on relief. The farmers on the average have 240 acres of fertile land and there is little indebtedness with very few mortgages.”

After blaming outside agitators for the Arborg riot, Swystun said, “The judgment of the court was felt to be very lenient, but just, and had a deep effect, many of the Ukrainians, especially the young, turning dead against Communism.”

Whatever the motives of the farmers, they only delayed the inevitable as the tax sale was held peacefully in the Bifrost municipal office on December 14, 1932. During the sale, 165 parcels of land were auctioned with 125 purchased. Of all the parcels, only 66 were farm properties, while the remainder were residential lots in Arborg. The farmland was sold for tax debts between $70 and $125, amounts that would today be regarded as a mere pittance.