The Dirty Thirties
Michiel Horn, Glendon College (York University)



Images of the Great Depression in Canada include breadlines, relief camps, protest marches and dust storms sweeping over the western plains. The underlying reality is as stark as the images. During the downswing that begins shortly before the stock-market crash in 1929 and ends in the spring of 1933, national income falls by almost half. The recovery is uneven and ends in a renewed slump in 1937. Only the war that begins in September 1939 brings full recovery.

The Depression is global, but Canada is among the hardest-hit countries. Exports decline, while the export prices of farm products, fish, lumber and base metals fall more steeply than the prices of imported manufactured goods. In the context of heavy public and private debt, declining economic activity and dropping prices make it very difficult for anyone to get credit. Corporate profits dwindle or vanish; many companies go bankrupt. The Depression also makes many municipalities and the four western provinces unable to pay the interest on their debts.

By the winter of 1933, more than a quarter of Canadian workers are unemployed, and 15 percent of a population of roughly 10 million, among them 200,000 souls in drought-stricken southern Saskatchewan, are receiving government relief. Blue-collar workers suffer more than white-collar workers; farmers in western Canada more than those in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. But while base-metal prices are depressed, gold mining booms, as gold maintains its price and then rises. Those on fixed incomes actually benefit as prices fall.

The Depression gives impetus to new political parties seeking economic and social change, such as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, Social Credit and the Reconstruction Party. But debts and deficits discourage bold experimentation and reinforce caution. The dominant wish is less for change than for a return to a past bathed in the golden glow of nostalgia.

After the 1930s, Canadians see another depression as something to be avoided at almost any cost. This influences the country's politics and its social and economic policies. Only in the 1970s do the images of the Dirty Thirties fade. Even today they have not altogether vanished.