Insurgent 30’s: On-To-Ottawa Trek, Regina Riot, & Spanish Civil War

Trekkers hop War Machine, ‘On-To Ottawa’!

Barricades in Regina Riot

ungovernables from Canada join Spanish Civil War

{this is a paper i wrote to go with a play that we did on the 75th anniversary of the Trek}

Past revolts take on a new dimension in my present, the dimension of an immanent reality crying out to be brought into being’

 On-To-Ottawa Trek:

As the capitalist crisis worsened during the depression of the hungry 30’s and social conditions deteriorated- creating the potentiality of proletarian revolution, the State decided to undermine the workers ‘industrial reserve army’ by shipping the unemployed out of the rupturous industrial centers and off to work camps in the woods. ‘ The unemployed organizations felt that the purpose of the relief camps was to separate and weaken the unemployed united front in Vancouver’.  (All quotes taken from various personal accounts listed in bibliography, unless otherwise noted)

As ‘the cedar shiplap camps were hurriedly being thrown together, over the length and breadth of BC’, single unemployed men where dragged from the skid rows into relief centers where they were processed and sent off to work camp. With so many comrades and potential allies being carted off, ‘a decision was made’ by the more militant unemployed organizations, ‘to move into the camps, when, almost simultaneously, the federal government took over all relief camps, placed them under the jurisdiction of the Department of National Defense.’

‘For the single men it was a change of venue, a larger area in which to maneuver, and maneuver they did. There was never any phase of the unemployed struggle as a whole during the depression that was static, but with the introduction of the DND slave camps in BC there began a struggle best described as superlative, and which continued until the trek.’

‘There was never the least bit of difficulty in organizing the men into the Relief Camp Workers Union. Everyone in the camps belonged. The union had its immediate aim, this being the welfare of the membership day to day in the camps. It had a union newspaper, this being an eight page mimeographed paper. Besides paying union dues, the men in camps, out of their twenty cents a day, made small cash donations every month for the comforts of the members who where in prison. The long rage objective of the union was the building of a provincial wide, united, disciplined organization, a continuous campaign for public support, and when that was achieved, the striking of all camps, the converging in Vancouver in a mass demand for a program of work and wages.’

‘The war of the slave camps would break out in skirmishes in an isolated camp here and another there, spilling on to the railroads, surging into Vancouver and back again.’ Each rupture resolved the fighting spirit in the growing membership; along side constant reading and study groups, the men trained themselves, deep in the woods, various combat techniques that they would utilize in the years to come.

Following a conference held by various representatives of the camps and city, it was decided, to the chagrin of some who wanted to continue their preparations within their firmly held communal camps, that it was time to ‘pull the pin and give them the works’. A call was made that all workers in the slave camps where hereby now on strike, and on mass they where to hop freight trains and converge in Vancouver to take their battle into the urban domain.

As promised, the city was seething with class warfare. During the depression there were more strikes in Canada then at any other time. The most antagonistic strike was erupting up and down the pacific coast where Long Shoremen where fighting a pitched battle against cops and goons, to unionize. The arrival of the ‘boys’, as they where affectionately called, greatly assisted the various strikes, by adding some armed muscle to the pickets. Having thoroughly integrated themselves into the larger struggle threw their solidarity work, the unemployed union took advantage of the publics hostility against the State in general and the slave camps specifically.

It should be stressed that the majority of the boys where themselves immigrants and did not advocate for the restructuring of the white-supremacist capitalist system. From the very get-go the boys fought upon the anti-fascist front; when a Nazi battleship was welcomed by the city’s elite, the boys joined the rally at Moose hall and made it a ‘bang up fight’. Copies of ‘Rodo Shumbun’ (Red Flag) printed from the Japanese colony in San Francisco was smuggled up and distributed by the union in Japan town.

Enjoying favorable conditions to agitate openly, the union began taking their demands to the streets. ‘Past experiences had forced us to favor the guerrilla type of tactic, and we were reluctant to put all forces on the street, but the situation in Vancouver at the time was something like what an old writer had written about revolutionary Paris in the 1840’s when the cry ‘to the barricades’ brought forth within seconds the thousands of working men and women from the quarter of St. Antoinons.’

‘Our parade was not the usual down the centre of the street parade. Ours was the celebrated snake parade. In columns of four, every man linking arms with the next man, we marched and weaved from one side of the street to the other, like a very, very long, Chinese dragon.’ – a Chinese dragon with roaming sentries armed with pipes and planks and prepared to counter any attack from the police.

The struggle came to head when the mayor was politically forced to read the riot act following a march that led to the considerable amount of destruction in the Hudson’s Bay, almost exactly 75 years before the recent anti-Olympic smashing of the Bay’s windows.

Along side the riot act, the government countered the growing militancy by evoking Sec. 98 of the Criminal Code, which provide for the suppression of any organization alleged to advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence. Rushed threw dominion legislation in 1919 to deal with the Winnipeg general strike, it was first used in 1931 against eight communist leaders, ‘and was now used to smash the organizations of the unemployed’.

Faced with these legal lynching’s and the states arming of proto-fascist mercenaries, the union also had to counter the strategy of being starved-out. To do this, actions where taken to ensure immediate concessions. The last such survival-action, prior to the trek was a great success tactically.

‘The program was for division One to immediately march to Spencer’s store, give them the impression that they where going to enter the store, keep marching around and draw the people together. Ten minutes later Division Two would march to Woodward’s store in a similar diversionary move, and as soon as we, Division Three, in the Ukrainian Labor Temple, got the word that the police had been diverted to Spencer’s and Woodward’s, we would march in quick time to Main and Hastings, enter the museum over the public library, turn out all the occupants and barricade ourselves in.’

The occupation was victorious, with thousands of people coming to cheer the boys on. A black flag was raised from the top of the building while below spectators and armed supporters held off the police. The demands for a week of financial relief was almost immediate met, as it was obvious the barricade could not be overcome. An observation by one occupant is no less true today- ‘there could not have been another building in all Vancouver so ideally constituted’!

The boys poured out of the Carnegie and marched in columns back to their office at 68 Cordova St.  At one of the most important meetings to take place in this class war, ‘suddenly slim Evans jumped up and banging his fist into his hand, said ‘comrades, we’ve got to get militant, we’ve got to get more militant or admit defeat’ just then another member took the floor…’

Who this member was has never been identified. What is known for sure is that at meeting and almost every one prior to it were infiltrated by the police. Anyways, it was this unidentifiable member who first purposed to “go on to Ottawa’ and from there the On-to-Ottawa Trek was born.

The note regarding the spy’s is important, not just to point out the polices long history of infiltration, but to put forward a hypothesis that perhaps the Trek was instigate by an agent provocateur, working for the police or the port, or both, to get the increasingly militant ‘rowdy boys’ out of Vancouver. It is no coincidence that the day the trekkers exited the provincial boundaries of BC, the violent police riot, remembered as the Bloody Balintine strike, battered the striking dock workers who where left with no militant support.

Regardless, the momentum and positivity gained in the street battles was directed now upon a flight of trains commandeered to weave threw the archipelagos of slave camps and depressed towns. Each stop along the way brought forth hundreds of unemployed workers, hopping aboard until they numbered-in over a thousand. The real threat of tens of thousands of unemployed proletarians pulling up in Ottawa ‘to lay siege to parliament and declare it a soviet’ was met with arguable the first assemblage of the Canadian police state as formulated in a State of Exception.

Whereas previous uprisings, mostly conducted by indigenous defenders and striking workers- were suppressed by specially formed police units, or like the Red River uprising or the Nanaimo coal strike- the military; the On-to-Ottawa Trek, that culminated into the Regina riot, was countered by the amalgamation of the police, both federally and municipally, with the military, and now as well with various unarmed holdings of the State- including the municipal servants, relief agents and Canadian Rails. In this structure of pairing armed force with civil administrations, we see the rise of urban counter-insurgency, that continued to build upon itself, leading to its current manifested State of Exception in the Vancouver Integrated Security Unit (VISU is the assemblage of forces created for the 2010 Olympic-spectacle and is legislated to continue operating as such until 2012).

It was decided by the State, that the Trek must not reach Ontario, where it would be greeted with revolutionary enthusiasm by the largest number of proletarians, let alone allow it to reach Winnipeg where there where preparations in full swing for another workers offensive. Regina was decided upon because it provided the largest number of RCMP stockaded in their national headquarters, and because it was a spot that troops from across the dominion could be transported.

A variety of stratagems where communicated amongst the various State representatives, including baiting the trekkers with an ‘empty’ train that would lead them into the middle of nowhere, where then, they would be surrounded and held at gun point by Mounties. It was finally and urgently decided that the trekkers were to be met head-on by a greater military force. To gain a little time, the prime minister extended an invitation to the ‘leaders’ of the Trek, who eventually and reluctantly, where forwarded on from Regina to Ottawa in a degrading display of political manipulation.

When the ‘leaders’ retuned, the trains had been suspended and the city surrounded. It was decided by a mass meeting at the Regina fairground that the Trek was a bust, that a new plan was needed to regain the offensive. A smaller detachment was sent into the city to hold a public meeting to announce these most recent developments, while the larger membership remained to watch a ballgame.

Regina Riot:

(The following are shards from Ronald Liverseges recollections of the Regina riot):

Dominion Day, our countries birthday, and what a celebration it turned out to be. They’re where probably four-five hundred of us on the market square. The meeting wasn’t long under way when four large furniture vans pulled up. A shrill whistle blasted out the signal and out poured the Mounties. In their first mad, shouting, clubbing charge, Regina Detective Millar was killed. In less then minutes the market square was a mass of writhing groaning forms, like a battlefield.’

‘On the street we assembled under group leaders into a column and as we started our march back to the fairgrounds we were told of two hundred horsemen lined across the street in front. It was gonna be a squeeze play. Immediately orders where given to build barricades, and there was plenty of material to work with.

‘The street was lined with parked cars and we simply pushed them into the streets, turned them on their sides and piled them two high. The barricades where built quickly, solidly, across the street, from wall to wall, with one narrow opening wide enough for one man to pass through at a time, and we built quiet a few, a couple hundred feet apart.

‘It was then, before the first futile charge was made by the Mounties, that the magical happened. The young boys and some girls, of Regina, organized our ammunition column. Without being asked, they came riding bicycles in from side streets, their carrier baskets loaded with rocks, which they dumped behind the barricades, and then rode off for another load.

‘Our defense was simple: in front of the barricade, two lines formed, each with a good armful of rocks. As the horsemen charges, the front rank let go a barrage of rocks, then down on their knees they would go, and the row of men behind had a clear field to let go their barrage.

‘Besides this main battle, their where skirmishes going on all over downtown? Once in a lull between charges, a large group of trekkers came around the corner in front of us, flushed with victory and led by a guy wearing a Mounties tin hat, and with the Mounties club swinging from his wrist.

‘At one intersection where some of our men with lots of rocks where keeping at bay a squad of Mounties on foot, the Mounties tried tear gas, but they fired them into the wind, and the boys picked the gas shells up and lobbed them at the Mounties. It was here that the police fired the first revolver shot, the first casualty being an innocent bystander. That night forty trekkers received gunshot wounds.

‘It was a terrible night, downtown lay in shambles. Not a store window left in, the streets piled up with rocks and broken glass, dozens of cars piled up with no glass in them, and twisted fenders and bodies. Around ten o’clock the police started to withdraw from the streets. They were exhausted and demoralized. It was decided we would break into groups, scatter out and get back to headquarters at the exhibition grounds.

The next day the men at the grounds where surrounded by troops behind barbed wire, cattle cars with machine gunners on top where were brought in and the men were forcefully boarded. Most where taken out of city-limits and given tickets back to their towns of origin. Some went back, others slipped away and continued on to Ottawa where a small contingent regrouped and continued to agitate, and some formed cells and committed escalating acts of sabotage and terrorism, including an armed highjacking of a train. But most significantly a large number of the men, who began the trek from the beginning of the slave camps, would continue on to Spain.

Spanish Civil War:

The Spanish civil war is infinitely complex and far beyond the ability to summarize here, what is though of interest- is the neglected trajectory of the militant activist into armed partisan. From the confines of the Canadian nation state over 1400 partisans went to Spain, over 500 of them declared themselves to be residents of the west coast, most of them veterans of the unemployed movement.

It is too often assumed that participating partisans where dupes or stooges of the communist party, which at that time was under the totalitarianisms of Stalin’s popular front. But a glance at the reports, recently unearthed from the Commintern archives, reviles an immediate frustration from communist commissars in relation to the unruly Canadians. One such official was disgusted and as a good Leninist should, decried the ‘boys’ leftist infantile disorder:

whereas; the large group of the Americans are the New York youth communist league, those comrades have been brought up in the discipline of a city industrial unit- on the other hand the largest single group of Canadians is that from the BC slave camps.

Due to their circumstances and also the form struggles have taken back home in Canada they retain very many traditions, which the west has inherited from the wobblies.

In the army those showed themselves particularly in a combination of rank and file-ism and a sort of theory of spontaneity. Many of them even now have not entirely got over the belief that leaders will appear when needed and at other times are not necessary.

This also shows itself in a refusal to accept permanent authority. There are cases where some of them have been good leaders in battle but have laid down on the job without reserve. Others have been given many chances to take over leadership, but have resisted it, even till today.

Canadian partisan, John ‘Paddy’ McElligott diagnosed this dis/order differently, ‘we Canadians had a rank and file conciseness. I wouldn’t call it disobedience; I would describe it as independence. When they came over there, some of them, at least at the beginning, were still fighting the boss, not the boss of the Bennet camps, but the boss of the company, the boss of the battalion… they were more rebels. They took the boss completely with them, and they were still fighting the boss when they where over there.’

Much the same was repeated throughout the ‘immigrant army’: ‘every bullet I fired would be a bullet against the Dublin landlord and capitalist.’ The Spanish civil war, as an international rupture of fascism and anti-fascism, attracted the armed solidarity of so many Canadians who literally risked their lives to get upon Spanish soil ‘because it would give them an opportunity to actually fight against the people, the same kind of people, whom they thought were responsible for their condition, and who were opposing them here in Canada.’ This converging of forces would construct a new assemblage of fascist forces internationally and in its wake construct a new totalitarian empire.

The loss in Spain and the killing of 500 Canadian partisans, whom eventually formed under the International Brigades their own battalion named the Mackenzie-Papenou (after two Canadian partisans who agitated in the Upper Canada Rebellion exactly 100 years previous) was for the volunteers, seen as the result of lack of military might and will on behalf of the communist-republican forces: ‘we never did have the forces, planes, artillery, tanks to continue the offensive. Our offensives were only to distract and throw off balance the attacks the fascist where planning. We could only attack by surprise, take so much territory, prisoners, guns- and then try to hold on against the counter-attacks, never having the forces necessary to continue ahead for any great length. After stopping their counter-attacks, we had to hold on and wait for the democracies to help us fight their first battles. We waited! But kept on fighting and dying.’

Again, any simple summary of the Spanish situation immediately falls into the continuing curse of misinformation that follows the civil war.  Wile we have here described all Mac-Pap’s as partisans- for our literary purposes of drawing the line of flight from militancy to armed resistance, it is important to clarify that the role of the partisan in the civil war and the following global civil war, was tactically different then the international brigadist who volunteered to go to Spain. ‘Volunteers, including Canadians, served the republic cause in a number of capacity’s: with the partisans, artillery, communications, scouts, medical services, transport, air force and the calvary.’

In the fragments from his memoir that follow, Mac Pap, William C. Beeching describes the role of the partisan in Spain and his and other Canadian involvement:

The partisan where officially known as the Special Periphery Investigative Service. With speed and spontaneousness, usually springing up wherever the republicans where defeated and forced to retreat.

‘The partisan strategy was designed to disrupt fascist attacks on the republican army, and to this end bridges where blown up, troop trains attacked, communications disrupted and patrols assaulted. The efficiency of the partisan was proven by the fact that (fascist general) Franco was reportable forced to reassign troops from the front to defend territory he had believed to be safely conquered.

‘There were attempts to coordinate the activities of the partisans with those of the republican army. For example, the arrival of Italian troops at the Jama front was delayed when partisans, including Canadians, blew up a bridge behind enemy lines. Too often, however, the republican high command failed to take advantage of the possibilities created by guerrilla warfare.

‘Canadians were associated with dangerous and highly specialized partisan activities. Most of the Canadians who served with the partisans were of Finnish ancestry. The groundwork was carried out by the local population, while the partisans were expected to bring technical knowledge and military experience to any operation involving the direct engagement of the enemy; all work was done at night. Canadian volunteers recalled that at the beginning of the war the partisans were so effective that the Italian troops refused orders to move at night, for fear of attack.

‘The republican side claimed that between December 1936 – September 1937, partisans blew up 1256 trains, 91 trucks, 43 cars, 7 bridges, 29 patrol posts, 10 railroads, 2 ammo dumps, 5 water plants, 4 electric plants and killed and wounded 10-15000 of the enemy.

‘Canadian veterans of the partisan movement who survived and returned to Canada would therefore maintain that the outcome of the Spanish civil war might have been different if the partisans had been able to acquire the arms and material necessary to peruse their objectives successfully. These volunteers were convinced that the Spaniards among whom they lived were prepared to risk their lives to defeat the fascists. They were denied the means to do so.



Recollections of the On-To Ottawa Trek – Ronald Liversedge

All Hell Can’t Stop Us – Bill Waiser

‘We are the Salt of the Earth!’ – Victor Howard

When Freedom Was Lost – Lorne Brown

Fighting Heritage – Sean Griffen

Spanish Civil War:

Canadian Volunteers – William C. Beeching

Gallant Cause – Mark Zuehike

Renegades – Michael Petrou

Partisanas – Ingrid Strobl


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