75 years after On to Ottawa Trek, activists ready for similar journey

VANCOUVER — Seventy-five years after hundreds of young unemployed men climbed onto boxcars in Vancouver and headed for Ottawa to demand work, B.C. activists hitched a train ride of their own to call for a national strategy on combating homelessness.

VANCOUVER — Seventy-five years after hundreds of young unemployed men climbed onto boxcars in Vancouver and headed for Ottawa to demand work, B.C. activists hitched a train ride of their own to call for a national strategy on combating homelessness.

Activists from Vancouver community groups headed for the nation’s capital Sunday, where they plan to meet with housing officials.

Am Johal, a member of the non-profit Impact on Community Coalition, said the activists will be armed with the same bright red tents that were on display in Vancouver during the Winter Olympics.

Johal said some of the tents, which have “housing is a right” imprinted on them, will be erected on Parliament Hill as activists try and generate interest in their cause.

“If we can spend $1 billion for Olympic security, if they can spend $1 billion for security for the G8 and G20, we can spend $1 billion for social housing in Canada,” he said Sunday.

“Let the message be loud and clear from British Columbia, Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Either you and your caucus support a national housing program or we will throw you out of office.”

Johal’s words came nearly 75 years to the day the On to Ottawa Trek kicked off in Vancouver, at a ceremony honouring that quest.

About 1,000 men hopped on a train on June 3, 1935.

The men lived in work camps during the Great Depression, where they were paid about 20 cents a day.

They were ineligible to vote in federal elections and conditions at the camps were poor.

They headed for Ottawa pleading for more work and wages. As the train moved across B.C. and Alberta, the number on board swelled to more than 2,000.

But when they arrived in Regina, the protesters were met by RCMP, who on orders of then-Prime Minister R.B. Bennett refused to let them past.

A meeting between Bennett and campaign organizers failed to provide a solution, and shortly after the prime minister ordered the leaders arrested.

That decision sparked a riot in Regina, and Bennett was ousted from office after losing an election a few months later.

Joey Hartman, chair of the On to Ottawa Historical Society, said strong public support for the “Trekkers” helped usher in important social reforms.

“The On to Ottawa Trek was a defining event of the Great Depression and it still stands as a symbol of the quest for social justice,” she said.

“Their protest was an important step towards things like unemployment insurance and welfare.”

The City of Vancouver honoured the Trekkers at a ceremony at a Downtown Eastside park Sunday, near the spot where the journey first began. A plaque was also unveiled that commemorates the “defining event.”

Ken Hoggarth, now a Port Coquitlam, B.C., resident who was just a teenager when he became a Trekker, said the men were treated like they were on the bottom rung of Canadian society.

“As soon as the march began, (Bennett) called us troublemakers and worse, Communists,” he said.

“We were the young men of the nation spending our lives in isolated camps with no hope of it ever ending. Why not follow leaders that may get you work with a livable wage?”

Hoggarth received a standing ovation after finishing his speech.