The Great Depression and its Affects on Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
November 20, 2002:
The international stock markets collapsed in October of 1929 precipitating ten years of
the "Great Depression". The affects of the Depression were felt more deeply in North America
than in the rest of the world. Canada had become "a nation of cities" during the 1920's and the
cities, including Ottawa, were hit harder than the countryside - except for the Prairie Provinces
which experienced years of severe drought.
By the 1920's 90 per cent of the urban population was dependent on a wage or salary. Most families
lived on the edge, relying on the often irregular employment of a male breadwinner. There was no
welfare state to fall back on in tough economic times. A generation earlier, most of the population was
rural and relied on their farm work for food and fuel. Living in the city meant reliance on a job to
stay alive. To a large extent, the Elizabethan Poor Laws (of 1601) were still in effect in Ottawa. The
following were beginnings of intervention by the state to assist the "unemployable unemployed":
There was an enormous stigma attached to applying for any kind of state assistance. The early programs
adhered to the principle of "less eligibility" - money received via state assistance was always less than
what could be earned in the lowest paying job. The municipal council examined cases individually and
strictly enforced residency requirements by supplying a one-way train ticket to non-residents. If a man had
been laid off from the textile mills in Carleton Place or the foundries in Smiths Falls, he would be returned
to his native town - back to the charity his extended family, neighbours, church and the voluntary sector.
In the graphic above, the responsibility flows outward from the individual. Source: Lecture notes from
Canadian Urban History, Professor John Taylor, Carleton University, November 19, 2002.
Under the Canadian constitution responsibility for social welfare belonged to the municipalities. The
budgets of large urban centers in the 1930's was larger than their provinces, E.G. Montreal's expenditures
were greater than the total for the Province of Quebec. Cities depended on property taxes for their main
revenue source. Declining real estate value during the Depression meant a declining urban tax base (lower
assessment value). At the same time, municipalities were forced to increase their tax rates to try
and cope with their average 25 per cent unemployment rates. The overall tax base was the main asset which
municipalities used to access credit (municipal bonds). Cities became unable to finance their debt or to
borrow new money.
Eventually the Federal Government under R.B. Bennett extended its meager system of conditional grants.
Municipal Relief projects were developed from the bottom-up, financed 1/3 by each of the three levels of
government. (Al ... see notes for November 19 lecture). In 1935, prior to the federal election, Bennett
initiated a New Deal program, similar to FDR's American policy. He was too late - the Liberal Party under
Mackenzie King won the election.
From the earliest days of Bytown until about World War I, Ottawa politics had been dominated by
questions of race and religion - Catholic / Protestant and French / English. During the Depression the
population became divided primarily along class lines for the first time. Unemployment was highest in
the working class wards - By Ward and Ottawa Ward in Lowertown and, to the west, Dalhousie Ward and Victoria
Ward, which included Lebreton Flats.
Many of the policies of the various levels of government were counter-productive. In Ottawa, where the
federal government presence was large, civil servants' salaries were cut by 10 per cent. In 1934, 22,000 persons
were on relief in the city. Many were young men who had been laid off or who had come to the city to find
work from out of town. Most of the transients lived in crowded wooden barracks at Rockliffe Airport or in shack
settlements at Brewer Park, Plouffe Park or at the Lees Avenue dump.(1) Brewer Park is located at
Bronson Avenue where it crosses the Rideau River. In the 1950's there was a "swimming hole" there. It was
called "Bathing Island". This was where the unemployed men of the 1930's bathed.
In 1935, construction was started on the Justice Building, the Bank of Canada building and also on the new Post
Office Building on Besserer Street. These two projects helped ease unemployment among construction workers.
The Depression was ended by the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Young men signed up for service and the economy
of the country was mobilized for the war effort.
(1) Woods, Shirley, Ottawa: The Capital of Canada, page 262
- Old Age Pensions were introduced in the 1920's. Means tested, they applied only to men over age 70.
- Mothers' Allowances, also means tested
- Unemployment Relief was a temporary program providing emergency relief cost-shared by the three
levels of government.
January 23, 2010:
Photo Source, below: Our Times: A Pictorial Memoir of Ottawa's Past, page 130
By October of 1933, the welfare rolls had increased in Ottawa.
The following article appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on November 11, 1933:
Read the complete article in the Ottawa Citizen Archives
How revolutionary was Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal in 1930's America?
March 10, 2016:March 10, 2016:
New book added today:
Recollections of the On To Ottawa Trek, by Ronald Liversedge, edited by Victor Hoar, Carleton University Library Series, #66,
McClelland and Stewart, 1973, no ISBN.
E-mail Al Lewis
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