"Thousands of Our Men Are Getting Practically Nothing at All to Do:" Public Works Relief Programs in Regina and Saskatoon, 1929-1940

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Unemployment relief work programs undertaken in Saskatchewan cities during 1929-32 and 1938-40 were not a failure. Carried out with an unavoidable minimum of "mismanagement" and "waste," they produced useful assets and badly needed employment, and not surprisingly were strongly supported by local taxpayers and the able-bodied unemployed alike. This record and the determined if too often unsuccessful efforts by the administrations and unemployed in Regina and Saskatoon to have even more relief money channelled into such "work and wages schemes" are an indictment of the federal response to the unemployment crisis and the impossible situation in which the flawed doctrine of "local responsibility" placed local governments. As such, the history of these programs serves as a useful corrective to the widespread impression that Prairie cities failed to show sufficient leadership or initiative in dealing with the unemployment crisis during the 1930s.


Les programmes de travail mis en oeuvre dans les ville de la Saskatchewan entre 1929 et 1932 et entre 1938 et 1940 pour venir en aide aux chomeurs n'ont pas ete un echec. Realises avec un minimum inevitable de "mauvaise gestion" et de "gaspillage", ces programmes ont produit des biens utiles et cree des emplois dont on avait grandement besoin; il n'est pas surprenant qu'ils aient recu l'appui a la fois des contribuables locaux et des chomeurs aptes a l'emploi. Ce administrations et des chomeurs de Regina et de Saskatoon pour qu'encore plus de fonds de secours soient consacres a ces "programmes d'emploi et de salaires" constituent une condamnation de la reponse du gouvernement federal a la crise de administrations locales se trouvaient en vertu du principe tare de "responsabilite locale". A ce titre, l'histoire de ces programmes vient contredire l'impression largement repandue selon laquelle les villes des Prairies n'ont pas reussi a faire preuve de suffisamment de leadership ou d'initiative pour faire face au chomage des annees 30.


At the outset of the Depression, civic administrations and taxpayers alike in Saskatchewan shared the prevailing view that at least the married jobless should be provided with work, not "doles." (1) Regina and Saskatoon, the province's two largest urban centres, (2) joined other Canadian cities in clamouring for financial assistance from the senior governments to provide as much work as possible. Although the resultant shared-cost public works programs proved costly, in Saskatchewan the projects constructed were useful and created badly-needed employment. Within two years, however, public works relief (or unemployment relief work--the terms were used interchangeably) on a national scale foundered on the twin shoals of "sound finance" and the constitutional doctrine of "local responsibility." (3) In its place, Ottawa fell back on the cheaper but unpopular system of "direct relief." Neither Saskatoon nor Regina ever willingly accepted this decision, and throughout the remainder of the 1930s both municipalities persisted in attempts to revive unemployment relief work. Unfortunately, financially strapped provincial authorities could offer little more than sympathy and the federal government, for a variety of reasons beginning with cost, was uninterested. Only in the last year of the Depression would Ottawa, under the guise of "work and wages," once more make it possible for the two cities to undertake unemployment relief works on a significant scale.

Public works relief alone could never have eliminated the crushing burden of unemployment; in that assessment Ottawa was correct. However, the Saskatchewan experience with public works relief does not support the view that the approach was inherently inefficient and extravagant, and in the process, sheds light on the staggering administrative obstacles Canadian cities faced in trying to deal constructively with the unemployment crisis. …