MP-1988.59.61 | Unemployed men sleeping on park benches, Montreal, QC, about 1935

Unemployed men sleeping on park benches, Montreal, QC, about 1935
Frank Randall Clarke
About 1935, 20th century
Silver salts on paper - Gelatin silver process
6 x 8 cm
Gift of Mrs. Dorothy Clarke
© McCord Museum
Keywords:  Cityscape (3948) , Figure (1339) , Figure (1339) , History (944) , Photograph (77678)
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Keys to History

In the cities and towns of Canada, the Depression brought mass unemployment, whether the local economy was based on natural resources, transportation or manufacturing. Hardest hit was construction. Retailing and other services were much less affected.

No province had unemployment insurance. When the federal government introduced a scheme in 1934, there were well-founded doubts about its constitutionality. Many Canadians became dependent on municipal governments for relief, though single people were usually excluded from it. Thousands of immigrants who had arrived in the 1920s were deported after applying for relief.

Some municipalities organized make-work projects, known as boondoggling, that tried to link work and relief. James H. Gray (1906-1998) has written feelingly about boondoggling in Winnipeg, including about the great dandelion offensive one summer. Relief recipients resented these time wasters but idling on park benches was no better.

  • What

    To discourage idleness, relief incorporated the principle of "less eligibility," which held that relief should be paid at rates lower than wages in the worst-paid forms of work.

  • Where

    Parks and public libraries were popular places for hanging out, although high rates of illiteracy among blue-collar workers meant that reading did not serve as an escape for many of them.

  • When

    The 1934 Unemployment Insurance Act was judged to be unconstitutional in 1937. After the provinces had agreed to a constitutional amendment, a new Act became law in 1941.

  • Who

    In the 1930s, experts like the University of Toronto's Harry M. Cassidy (1900-1951) and McGill University's Leonard C. Marsh (1905-1982) described the ill effects of long-term relief.