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All Hell Can’t Stop Us: The On-to-ottawa Trek and Regina Riot

by Bill Waiser

Historian Bill Waiser has done a remarkable job of resurrecting a landmark, but ill-remembered, chapter in Canadian history with his excellent depiction of the 1935 On-to-Ottawa protest trek. The trek to Ottawa was a country-wide anti-poverty protest by First World War veterans, unemployed workers, or social activists that was brutally suppressed in Regina. Rising above the partisan tones that often colour such histories, Waiser provides a sober look at the people and politics behind the events leading to the Regina Riot. Two deaths resulted, and hundreds were injured and arrested after the RCMP ran roughshod over a peaceful anti-poverty gathering.

Waiser, who also co-wrote Park Prisoners: The Untold Story of Western Canada’s National Parks, explores life in Canada’s Dirty Thirties, when legions of unemployed single men were forced to enter slave-labour work camps in exchange for scraps of food and ramshackle shelter. Grievances against such camps led to the idea of a trek to Ottawa, in which thousands of young men, as well as First World War veterans, rode the rails under dangerous conditions in an effort to force the federal government to provide relief.

Waiser’s portrait of the leaders on all sides is fair and realistic, from the bombastic Prime Minister Bennett and his RCMP deputies to the legendary trek leader Slim Evans. He also seamlessly connects the tense federal-provincial negotiations on how best to deal with the trekkers, the role of the RCMP (which saw in the trek a massive communist conspiracy), and the reactions of regular citizens who were impressed by the trekkers’ self-discipline, youth, and calm demeanour in the face of impossible odds. The riot itself is covered in great detail, as are the commission of inquiry report and the trials that followed.

It is an engaging story in which a real tension, rare for such works, builds toward the inevitable climax that fateful Regina evening when the trekkers’ pleas for an end to poverty were met with truncheons and tear gas.