Academic journal article Alberta History

Alberta's Unemployment Relief 1930-1934

Academic journal article Alberta History

Alberta's Unemployment Relief 1930-1934

Article excerpt

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. …

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