On the morning of Saturday, January 13th, 1923, ten men entered Leonard’s Café on Hastings Street near Granville. They took their seats, ordered breakfast, and asked the waitress to put it all on one bill. There was nothing unusual about these guys. They were fairly well dressed and groomed, and café staff assumed they worked on the waterfront. When asked, one of them said they worked “out back here,” jerking his head towards Burrard Inlet. A police constable who happened to be standing outside the window while the men ate also assumed they were probably just another group of longshoremen.
“They made no disturbance whatever,” the owner explained to a reporter from The World. They “talked good-naturedly among themselves and with the girls … they certainly did not look unemployed to me.” After their meal, the men filed out the door while one took the bill up to the cashier. “Give that to Mayor Tisdall, with our compliments,” he said, then left with his friends.
By the time Inspectors Jackson and McIntosh arrived, the men were long gone. When asked who was going to pay the $4.45 bill, the police told the owner to keep it as a souvenir. Later that afternoon, Leonard’s unwittingly fed several more unemployed men free of charge.
This wasn’t a one-off dine-and-dash. The evening before, seventeen men ate “four bit” dinners at Allen’s Café on East Hastings without paying. Fifteen others dined for free at the Oaks Café on Abbott, and another group did the same at the Good Eats Café on Pender. Groups of men tried to get rooms at Hotel Canada and the St. Regis, but left when the police were called. Earlier in the day, the unemployed protesters marched to police headquarters and demanded to be taken into custody and given food and shelter.
A representative from the Worker’s Protective Association told the press that the protesters were a splinter group that broke away at a meeting the day before because they felt the the organization wasn’t addressing the needs of the unemployed. The Canadian National Union of Ex-Servicemen (CNUX) similarly reported that these were not their members, although a number of unemployed men were sheltered at the CNUX hall.
By 1923, the postwar recession was winding down. A major waterfront strike at the end of the year marked the end of one of the most volatile periods of labour unrest in Canadian history that included the famed 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.
As with the Winnipeg General Strike and other strikes, governments in the postwar period treated protests of the unemployed as threats to the social order, but none of the three levels of government was willing to take full responsibility for the unemployed. Vancouver complained about being burdened with more than its share of the unemployed. For the jobless, the city’s moderate climate meant it was the one place in Canada where you had a chance to starve to death before freezing to death. The situation was always made worse when seasonal workers from the logging and mining camps around the province flooded into the city for the winter. Many of them ran out of money before it was time to go back to work in the spring. Consequently, Vancouver became known as “the Mecca of the unemployed.”
With an estimated 5600 people out of work, the City of Vancouver cut single men off relief in the spring of 1921 except those who were physically unable to work. Then it stopped issuing rooming house tickets for 180 ex-servicemen engaged on work projects. Six hundred men marched on City Hall in protest. The government prepared for an all-out revolt, expecting the worst on May Day, which was fast-approaching. Lt-Col Richard Bell-Irving organized a volunteer force prepared to assist the authorities. A local defence committee was formed, consisting of senior officers of the RCMP, the army, navy, and air force. Resources at the committee’s disposal “in case of an attempted revolt in British Columbia” included:
100 naval personnel with six machine-guns, 200 permanent force with 10 machine-guns in Victoria, and 162 RCMP with four machine-guns. Also available were 700 reinforcements from the Prairies and about another 400 from Winnipeg, although it was noted that the latter might well be needed there. In addition, the DCC [Defence Committee of Canada] recommended that the Canadian Naval Squadron be retained on the west coast, that all government arms be called in or protected, that the Air Force be prepared to supply aircraft, and finally that all militia units be asked what units would be available.
The hoopla proved to be unfounded, and May Day that year was an orderly affair. A few thousand did march through the city, but in an orderly fashion and with the required permit, although “some kept time by whistling the ‘Red Flag.’” By the fall, the RCMP reported that “‘revolutionaries’ had given up trying to import weapons and ammunition,” but the Mounties nevertheless kept their guard up. The local RCMP boss wrote to the Commissioner in Ottawa that
The situation, as far as we are concerned, would be to repress any demonstration. In short notice a company of the Princess Pat’s machine gun section and the available flying force could be mobilized … In the meantime, I am having our own men and horses constantly practiced and kept in shape.
A few months later he reported that “the men are being quietly trained for any disturbance that may arise.” Having formed in 1920 out of the remnants of the Dominion Police and the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, the RCMP was still just carving out its niche in the early ‘20s. The perceived threat of labour agitation was key to justifying the force’s continued existence. Specifically, the RCMP was shaping itself as the premier intelligence body in the country, and it flourished in this role until it was stripped away after the Vancouver Sun began reporting on its methods in the 1970s.
The unemployed didn’t fare as well as the RCMP in the early 1920s, and a variety of schemes to deal with the problem were proposed and attempted. The head of the military in BC suggested rounding up a few dozen agitators and locking them up for the winter when the problem was at its worst. Someone else suggested buying a farm where the unemployed could be put to work growing their own food. One idea the City did act on was to hire people to travel to towns and cities throughout the west posting stickers declaring that there was no work in Vancouver.
A camp was set up at Hastings Park where the unemployed were put to work building a golf course and cutting fire wood in return for food and shelter. By the end of December 1921, the camp had 621 inmates, who were subjected to military discipline. Officials complained that agitators from CNUX and the Council of Workers were trying to disrupt the operation of the camp. The men in turn complained about things such as the distance of the camp from the employment offices downtown, which meant they either arrived too late to get work that was posted, or missed out on a meal back at the camp.
Despite a ban on mass meetings at the camp, hundreds of inmates staged a protest march. As usual, authorities prepared for the worst, but the march was orderly, did not disrupt traffic, and displayed the Union Jack, as required by a city by-law. The protest helped get at least one concession for the unemployed: an end to the policy of not re-admitting men who had left the camp.
While relief recipients worked on small projects like breaking rocks or building the seawall in Stanley Park and other park infrastructure, it was ultimately major public works projects such as the construction of Ballantyne Pier, the University of British Columbia, and the Hastings-Barnet Highway that resulted in a “sensational drop” in the numbers of unemployed.
As for the “freemealers,” Chief Constable Anderson and Mayor Tisdall regarded them as loafers “who had been around here for years past and had created trouble before.” They were “men who on account of sympathetic treatment in the past were hoping to loaf here through the winter at the city’s expense.” To encourage them to move on, the chief promised that any laws broken by the unemployed would be fully enforced and anyone caught begging would be arrested. Meanwhile, City Council was looking at starting up a new “civic rock-pile” to be broken by the unemployed men who had marched to the police station demanding to be housed in the city jail.
(Much of the information in this post was taken from Patricia Roy, “Vancouver: Mecca of the Unemployed, 1907-1929,” in Alan F. J. Artibise, ed., Town and City: Aspects of Western Canadian Urban Development (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, 1981):393-413.