Because 33% of its Gross National Income derived from exports, Canada was particularly affected by the collapse in world trade. The 4 western provinces, which depended almost exclusively on primary-product exports, were the most affected. In Saskatchewan, plagued by crop failures and the lowest price for wheat in recorded history, total provincial income plummeted by 90% within 2 years, forcing 66% of the rural population onto relief. The other western provinces were technically bankrupt from 1932 onwards. Although Ontario and Québec experienced heavy unemployment, they were less severely afflicted because of their more diversified industrial economies, which produced for the protected domestic market. The Maritimes had entered into severe economic decline in the 1920s and had less distance to fall.
The burden of the Depression was also unequally distributed between classes. Although wages dropped throughout the 1930s, prices declined even faster. As a result, the standard of living of property owners and those with jobs increased. Farmers, young people, small businessmen and the unemployed bore the brunt of economic hardship.
Demographic changes were a revealing index of hardship. POPULATION growth throughout the 1930s reached the lowest point since the 1880s through a combination of plummeting IMMIGRATION and birthrates. The number of immigrants accepted into Canada dropped from 169 000 in 1929 to fewer than 12 000 by 1935 and never rose above 17 000 for the remainder of the decade. During that time European JEWS fleeing Nazi Germany were denied a sanctuary in Canada (see REFUGEES). The number of Canada's deportations, however, rose from fewer than 2000 in 1929 to more than 7600 just 3 years later. Almost 30 000 immigrants were forcibly returned to their countries of origin over the course of the decade, primarily because of illness or unemployment.
Canada's birthrate dropped from 13.1 live births per 1000 in 1930 to only 9.7 by 1937, the lowest ratio until the 1960s. During the 1930s, 50 years of urbanizing momentum were reversed as Canada's rural population (outside of Saskatchewan) grew more rapidly than its urban population. For many of the unemployed "going back to the land" was preferable to a miserable existence on urban relief.
With almost 33% of its gainfully employed still engaged in agriculture in 1931, Canada did not have an adequate system of dispensing welfare to the jobless. Although unemployment was a national problem, federal administrations led by the Conservative R.B. BENNETT (1930-35) and the Liberal W.L. Mackenzie KING (from 1935 onwards) refused, for the most part, to provide work for the jobless and insisted that their care was primarily a local and provincial responsibility. The result was fiscal collapse for the 4 western provinces and hundreds of municipalities and haphazard, degrading standards of care for the jobless. Monthly relief rates for a family of 5 varied from $60 in Calgary to $19 in Halifax. Although there were no official accounts of starvation, reports by medical authorities of scurvy and other diet deficiency diseases were common throughout the decade.
Because local governments refused to aid single, homeless men, between 1932 and 1936 the federal government established UNEMPLOYMENT RELIEF CAMPS. Run by the Dept of Defence, the camps paid the men 20 cents a day for construction work in the bush. In 1935 a protest against conditions in the camps culminated in the Regina Riot - the most violent episode of the 1930s, in which one policeman was killed, dozens of men were injured and 130 arrested (see ON TO OTTAWA TREK).
The Depression altered established perceptions of the economy and the role of the state. The faith shared by both the Bennett and King governments and most economists that a balanced budget, a sound dollar and changes in the tariff would allow the private marketplace to bring about recovery was misplaced. The Depression spawned a variety of political reform movements, particularly at the provincial level, which advocated the use of the state to initiate recovery. The reforms included the inflationary SOCIAL CREDIT theories of Alberta Premier William ABERHART, the "Work and Wages" program of BC Premier T. Dufferin PATTULLO, and the democratic socialism of J.S. WOODSWORTH and the CO-OPERATIVE COMMONWEALTH FEDERATION. The UNION NATIONALE in Québec, led by Maurice DUPLESSIS, H.H. STEVENS's Reconstruction Party and the New Democracy movement of W.D. HERRIDGE were also spawned by the Depression.
The COMMUNIST PARTY OF CANADA was virtually outlawed from 1931 (when 9 of its leaders were arrested and convicted under s98 of the Criminal Code for being members of an "unlawful association") until 1936, and banned when war was declared in 1939, although affiliated groups such as the Workers' Unity League, the Relief Camp Workers Union and the National Unemployed Workers Association played a significant role in organizing the unskilled and the unemployed in protest marches and demonstrations.
Although the national impact of these organizations was minimal, the Depression did ultimately result in an expansion of state responsibility for the economy and for social welfare. In 1934 Bennett's government created legislation to establish the BANK OF CANADA to regulate MONETARY POLICY; in 1935 the CANADIAN WHEAT BOARD was created to market and establish a minimum floor price for wheat; and in 1940 the federal government assumed responsibility for the unemployed by introducing a national unemployment insurance scheme (see EMPLOYMENT INSURANCE) and employment service.
The Depression also legitimized the economic theories of British economist John Maynard Keynes, who argued that, if private investment failed to produce full employment, the state must initiate public investment through deficit spending to create jobs. Keynes's ideas influenced the National Employment Commission report (1938) and the report of the Royal Commission on DOMINION-PROVINCIAL RELATIONS (1940). The latter was important in generating the idea of EQUALIZATION PAYMENTS.
Not until war broke out in 1939, however, did KEYNESIAN ECONOMICS become a deliberate part of government policy, and it was the massive state expenditures necessitated by the war that finally reduced unemployment to minimal levels by 1942. See also HISTORY SINCE CONFEDERATION; BUSINESS CYCLES; BENNETT'S NEW DEAL.
Author JAMES STRUTHERS
J.L. Granatstein et al, Twentieth Century Canada (1983); M. Horn, ed, The Dirty Thirties: Canadians in the Great Depression (1972); H.B. Neatby, The Politics of Chaos: Canada in the Thirties (1972); B. Palmer, Working-Class Experience: Rethinking the History of Canadian Labour 1800-1991 (1992); James Struthers, No Fault of Their Own: Unemployment and the Canadian Welfare State, 1914-1941 (1984).
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