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In 1930, when Canada plunged into an economic depression, many believed the setback was only temporary and that the good times would quickly return. At first the federal government would not even admit there was a depression but finally passed The Relief Act of 1930 with $20 million to provide "temporary" assistance for one year. After that date, the government believed aid would no longer be needed. However, a European monetary crisis, plunging grain prices, crop failures, and reduced demands for manufactured goods meant that the situation got worse, not better.

While Ottawa renewed its Relief Act for another year, Alberta passed its own Relief Act and sought federal money to meet the crisis. In this province, farm incomes were soon cut in half and work camps were set up to build Alberta roads. As the situation worsened, fully 20 per cent of Lethbridge's population was on relief, as well as 13 per cent in Edmonton, 12 per cent in Calgary, and 8 per cent in Medicine Hat.

Initially there was considerable inefficiency at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels in providing relief, which only added to the grief. For example, in April, 1931, a man from Calgary complained to Ottawa:
I would like to know how the Civic Relief Dept. expects a person to
manage to clothe & feed a family of seven children on the stipend they
give. The food part was sufficient after Dr Roach informed them the
physical condition the children were in from Malnutrition. We have
received the sum of $8 per week for groceries, two for milk & two for
meat. The latter very recently, as all thru February we received no
meat allowance at all. But how are we to cloth them? (1)

Under federal and provincial Acts an agreement was made that federal authorities would pay a major part of the cost of relief, the Alberta government would provide the administration, and municipalities would undertake the responsibility for "relieving distress, providing employment, and maintaining... peace, order, and good government." (2)

Complaints were received from the outset so as a result in 1932 the Alberta government appointed an Advisory Committee on Unemployment Relief, whose goal was "to investigate, consider, and report upon the problems arising out of unemployment... and particularly to report on the nature, amount and extent of the relief measures afforded by the Municipal, Provincial and Federal authorities..." (3) Stated Premier John E. Brownlee, "unemployment relief will form a considerable and important part of the programme of government business at the forthcoming session of the Alberta legislature." (4)

Oran L. McPherson, MLA for the United Farmers of Alberta and Minister of Public Works, was appointed chairman, while six prominent Albertans made up the remainder of the committee. Of these, two were from urban areas, one labour, one rural, and two women. (5)

The first matter the committee had to consider was who should qualify for relief. Basically it agreed that applicants had to be unemployed with no means of providing the necessities of life and were absolutely destitute--in other words with "no work, no money, and no food." (6) Anyone seeking relief in a city had first to register with the Employment Bureau in the hope that work was available. Usually it wasn't, so then a person or family qualified to register with the Relief Authority. Separate records were kept of married men with families, single men, and single women. Each case was investigated and if supported, was approved.

There was particular concern about the plight of single homeless men, many of whom had become drifters, travelling in boxcars or hitchhiking to find work. According to the report, "It should be noted that the composition of the mass of homeless men has changed with the depression. Added to the constitutionally indolent are thousands of young men of normal and stable habits, the reclamation and rehabilitation of whom depends largely upon their treatment in the present emergency." (7) Many men were obliged to go to work camps (referred to in the report as "concentration camps") where, in exchange for their labours they were given food and clothing. In Alberta, camps were set up at Jasper, Banff, Waterton, and Elk Island parks.

The Canadian Council of Child and Family Welfare expressed its concern to the committee regarding the plight of single men. It stated,
The present situation is fraught with the possibilities of disastrous
results from the point of view of both the individual community and
the nation, if our methods are to contribute to the deterioration of
this enormous group of ordinary stable youth and manhood. The germ of
degeneracy is actively present in the nucleus of experienced drifters;
its progress is nurtured by the bitterness accumulating from despair
and resentment bred from inadequate or unwise treatment. (8)

The Alberta committee then supported a new federal policy that provided up to $12 a month for food and clothing to men in relief camps, to be administered by the province. The camps relieved cities of the heavy burden of looking after masses of single unemployed men. However, the committee cautioned that the federal government needed to apply assistance equally. Currently, men in camps at Banff and Jasper received $7.50 per month while those in Waterton and Elk Island got only $5.50. The committee also recommended that the federal government should not issue clothing to men in camps but provide them with allowances so they can purchase their own.

Regardless of the existence of the camps, there always would be men because of age, illness, or other reasons, who remained in the cities. The committee recommended "A comprehensive classification of unemployed single men as to training, work experience, and capabilities should be valuable, first for determining their fitness for the work... and secondly, as a help to placing them in due course in suitable employment." (9)

The committee wanted single men divided into three categories: those with established residence in a municipality; drifters honestly seeking employment; and permanent drifters.

On the question of single women, the committee believed the same general rules should apply as for men. However, women were divided into three categories: single women with dependants to be treated like heads of families; single women without dependants to be placed in boarding houses or hostels and issued food for single persons; and single women living at home who should be treated as members of their family.

Rural relief was quite another matter. Because of differing circumstances, relief ranging from $3.00 to $20.00 a month was not considered to be unusual. According to the report,
A resident of a rural area who has grown his own vegetables, has
milking cows, poultry, and can produce his own meat, or obtain it in a
district where game abounds, sometimes can manage with as little as
$3.00 per month; but a general ruling is in effect that no one family
should receive relief for groceries in excess of $20 per month. (10)

Rural hardship was not usually caused by unemployment the way it was in the cities, but by crop failures and deflation of prices for farm products. "If improvement in prices does not set in soon," warned the report, "an extremely grave situation is imminent, a situation which will inevitably react upon the social and economic solidarity of the whole community." (11) However, the committee had no suggestions to make in the event that this occurred (which it did).

The committee was concerned about the food people were eating and had food budgets and menus created by dietitians at the University of Alberta to provide balanced meals for the least amount of cash. (12) Among the suggested menus from the government were porridge or rolled oats with toast for breakfast. For dinner, meat pie with biscuit crust, minced steak with baked potatoes and tomato sauce, boiled meat with dumplings, shepherd's pie, or pot roast with vegetables. For desserts--rice pudding, stewed fruit, custard, muffins with jam, or gingerbread. For supper, the suggestions included bread and cheese scallop, pancakes with syrup, baked beans with bread, dried pea soup spread on slices of dried toast, macaroni and tomatoes, scalloped potatoes with cold meat, or French toast. Eggs could be added when they were 13 cents a dozen or less, and pork chops under 8 1/2 cents a pound.

Initially clothing was not a major consideration as groups such as the Salvation Army, Red Cross, and various churches were providing large quantities of used clothing to indigent families. However, the report added, "the supply of second hand and used clothing is just about exhausted and the duration of the depression creates need for clothing and footwear to a degree that private philanthropy is unable to meet any longer." (13)

Other assistance provided to those on welfare were shelter and fuel. Shelter usually consisted of rental houses or rooming houses, and costs were not allowed to exceed $15 a month. Similarly, limits were placed on fuel costs, varying from season to season, as well as the location in the province, and size of the accommodation. In most cases, the fuel was either coal or wood.

Casual earnings were a vexing problem. On one hand, the committee wanted to encourage persons to seek odd jobs and be self reliant as much as possible with the belief that "heads of families are primarily responsible for supplying their daily needs." (14) At first it suggested that only a portion of their earnings should be remitted to the government but this idea was ultimately rejected. Stated the committee,
After considering both sides of the question the Committee recommends
that in view of the tremendous strain that is being put on the taxable
capacity of the people of the country to bear the expenditures for
unemployment relief... the whole of the earnings of the heads of
families be deducted from the regular weekly or monthly scale of
allowances payable under the schedules in force. (15)

Its only concession was that a portion of the earnings be permitted to be used to buy essentials not covered in regular relief payments.

The committee submitted its first report to the Alberta Legislature on January 30, 1933. It was "presented.. and adopted," reported the Canadian Annual Review, "a Motion being proposed and carried at the same time that the Committee be requested to continue their work and to submit a further Report during the 1934 Session." (16)

Besides being chairman of the relief committee, Oran McPherson was named by Premier Brownlee as the minister in charge of relief matters. He was particularly directed to deal with "a lack of uniformity with regard to the administration of relief, a misunderstanding by City officials of Government regulations, and abuses of city administration in connection with rental relief and manipulation of relief orders." (17)

An investigation by the committee showed that the scale of relief for Alberta cities was most unfair. For example, the value of a two-week supply of food for two adults in Calgary was $9.00, but only $6.70 in Lethbridge, S6.00 in Edmonton, $5.80 in Drumheller, and $5.00 in Medicine Hat. (18)

The report indicated that from the inception of the relief program on October 1, 1931, to March 30, 1933, relief payments in Alberta had totalled $11,245,242. (19)

Apparently very little progress had been made by the Alberta government by the time a second report was received early in 1934, causing Liberal member F.C. Moyer to complain that the report "has been in the hands of the government since September" with few results. (20) The aid to the various cities was still uneven, causing the Edmonton Journal to comment that "it was not unreasonable to expect that the allowance should be approximately uniform for families of similar size." (21) On the other hand, the committee believed that food schedules for rural areas had improved.

When the report of the committee for 1934 was tabled, it created an uproar in opposition ranks. The committee recommended that Calgary's food allocation be cut by one third to put it in line with Lethbridge, Edmonton, and other cities. It also came to the conclusion that the allowances for rural areas was insufficient. Argued the Edmonton Journal, "Relief scales at present are inadequate... and will not meet the most meagre requirements if put on the scale proposed by the nutrition committee." (22)

Outside the Legislature, groups were quick to criticize the whole relief program. The Unemployed Workers Council demanded an investigation "of inefficiency and partisanship on the part of relief officials," (23) Opposition parties in the Legislature and the press demanded McPherson's resignation.

During this time, McPherson had become increasingly involved in a scandal in his personal life. In 1931 he had reportedly been complicit in a scheme whereby his wife was found guilty of adultery. This allowed her and her husband to quietly divorce so he could marry another woman. However, the arrangement went sour and in 1932 McPherson's ex-wife appealed to have the divorce set aside as it had been obtained through fraud and collusion. In her statement of claim in 1933, all the sordid details of the affair become public.

"Long before the trial ended," stated a reporter, "McPherson's once-promising political career lay in ruins." (24) Initially he remained in government but when Brownlee resigned (after his own domestic troubles), McPherson was dumped from the cabinet. In the 1935 election he was defeated in his own riding and his seat was taken by the Social Credit in its sweep of the province. Relief then became the problem of William Aberhart, the new Social Credit premier, with his revolutionary new monetary theories.

In retrospect, it is clear that the Alberta and federal governments had faced near impossible tasks and had neither the expertise nor the funds to effectively combat an economic crisis of such magnitude. However, in spite of problems they did achieve a certain degree of success.

Hugh Dempsey is Editor of Alberta History.


(1) Letter, Ralph A, MacKenzie to R. B. Bennett, April 7, 1931, in The Wretched of Canada, ed. L.M. Grayson & Michael Bliss. Toronto: University of Toronto Press,1973, 6-7.

(2) "Advisory Committee on Unemployment Relief," January 30,1933. Mimeographed report, copy in possession of the author.

(3) Established by the Alberta government through Order-in-Council, 892/32.

(4) Calgary Herald, February 3, 1932.

(5) Other members of the committee were D. MacLachlan, Mrs. R.B. Gunn, Mrs. Wellington Huyck, E.T. Chritchley, A. Farmino, and John Blue.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Cited in the advisory committee report.

(9) "Advisory Committee on Unemployment Relief," op.cit.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Ibid.

(12) A typical four-week supply of food for two city people included 8 lbs. of flour, 3 lbs, of oatmeal, 3 lbs. of farina or rolled wheat, 1 lb. of macaroni, 1/2 lb. of rice, 1/2 lb. of tapioca, 1 lb. of dried beans, 1 lb. of dried peas, 1 lb. of other dried vegetables, 1 1/2 lbs. of prunes, 1 lb. of dried apples, 1 lb. of dried apricots, and 1/2 lb. of raisins. Fresh apples and rhubarb could be substituted for dried fruit when in season. Vegetables for four weeks included 40 lbs. of potatoes, 8 cans of tomatoes, 8 cabbages, 4 lbs, of turnips, 4 lbs. of onions, 4 lbs. of beets, and 8 lbs. of carrots. In addition, the list included 2 lbs. of white sugar, 1 lb. of brown sugar. 1 jar of corn syrup, 1 jar of molasses. 4 cans of jam. 5 lbs. of butter. 1 lb. of lard, 2 lbs. of cheese, 16 qts. of milk, 8 eggs, 2 lbs. of liver, and meat depending on price and cut. That, according to the government, was enough to feed two people for four weeks.

(13) Ibid.

(14) Ibid.

(15) Ibid.

(16) Canadian Annual Review for 1933. Toronto: Canadian Annual Review, 258-59.

(17) Ibid.

(18) Edmonton Journal, April 3, 1934.

(19) Ibid., April 10, 1934.

(20) Ibid., May 30, 1934.

(21) Ibid., April 3, 1934.

(22) Edmonton Journal, April 5, 1934.

(23) Ibid., April 9, 1934.

(24) "Charges of Wife-Swapping Against Brownlee's Works Minister were Merely a Curtain-Raiser," Alberta in the 20th Century, vol. 6, 1998, 281. In the end, the charges were dismissed.


The drillers have struck oil, not merely in commercial quantities, but in greater quantities than the more optimistic anticipated. The value of this to the city of Calgary cannot be overestimated. It means that once more the eyes of the investing public are turned towards this district. It means much more than that It means that from out of the earth in the vicinity of Calgary countless wealth is pouring forth. The transfer of oil stocks to advantage is not the creation of wealth. The striking of oil and placing it upon the market for people to use is real wealth. Calgary has become a centre of what promises to be one of the very richest countries in the world. That is the real importance of the oil strike.

Of course, there is the feverish excitement, and investors, large and small, rush in with their money. That is not a part of the oil development but it is the inevitable accompaniment. It would be folly to say that every man who buys stock in an oil company will grow wealthy, but it is not unreasonable to say a that men who invest in well conducted, carefully organized, honest oil companies have a good chance of making good returns on their money.

However, the main point as far as the public is concerned is not one of stock or sales. The main thing is that oil in rich quantities has been discovered. This district has been known to be one of the most wealthy in America.

Just consider for a minute our fair city. It is situated in the centre of a great agricultural and coal country. It is in the midst of the richest petroleum area. It has cheap power and fairly cheap natural gas. It has the best water and the best climate in the world. A city so blessed cannot be checked. It is bound to be one of the greatest cities in Canada.

Calgary Albertan, May 14, 1914

by Hugh A. Dempsey
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Title Annotation:The Relief Act of 1930
Author:Dempsey, Hugh A.
Publication:Alberta History
Geographic Code:1CALB
Date:Jun 22, 2018
Next Article:The Subjugation of Canadian Wildlife; Failures of Principle and Policy.

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