On April 5th 1877 hundreds of unemployed workers marched on Ottawa City Hall, then on to Parliament Hill, ending up inside confronting a government that was refusing to help the thousands of Canadians who were unemployed in one of the worst economic depressions ever.
The financial trouble started in Europe then spread around the world. In September 1873 a US bank, Jay Cooke & Company, a major investor in railway bonds, failed. Capitalism was in a panic and has so often it spread. The New York Stock Exchange closed for ten days but one failure led to another. Dozens of railway companies went bankrupt, bringing down more financial institutions leading to what has been called the “Long Depression.”
Able-bodied men congregated in Lowertown’s ByWard Market each morning hoping to find even a day’s work. Those that had jobs were not much better off as high unemployment allowed employers to lower wages from $1.25 per day to 90 cents, a 28% cut. Workers were under attack and the union movement that had blossomed in the early 1870s was wiped out during the depression, leaving only one union local in the city.
Sir Richard Cartwright, the Liberal Minister of Finance and a former President of a bank that had failed in 1869, defended the governments inaction. He said that the manufacturing sector accounted for only 40,000 jobs and the government needed to look after the interests of the other 95 per cent of the working population.
Matters came to a head on the morning of April 5, when serval hundred unemployed assembled as usual. But this morning they had had enough and they march off to City Hall. Mayor Waller spoke to them offering sympathy which is about all he gave them. So they moved on to Parliament Hill.
Gathered in front, they called for an immediate interview with Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie. A messenger was sent inside to seek out the Premier who just happened to be in the “Railway Committee Room” attending a meeting of the “House Banking and Commerce Committee.” How ironic.
Mackenzie refused to meet the workers, so they entered the building on mass to meet him. They pull opened the doors to the Committee Room to great cheers including some for the opposition leader Sir John A. Macdonald. When he was in government in 1872, Macdonald had legalized unions so was seen as a friend of the “working man.” He also had the good fortune of not being the government when the depression began.
Unlike the recent invasion of the US Capital Building, it was only loud voices that the workers brought with them. An unemployed worker mounted a table addressing the workers saying that by refusing to meet them the PM was had insulted them. They presented a statement to the government:
“That we the unemployed workingmen of Ottawa, strongly censure the Hon. Alexander Mackenzie for refusing to meet a delegation sent from among us to ask his opinion as to the chances of work during the coming season. And we condemn him for allowing a door to be slammed in our faces and call upon the workingmen of the Dominion to join us in rebuking the treatment received by us.”
Giving three more cheers for “Sir John A”, the unemployed workers made an orderly exit from Parliament. The next morning, a crowd of 600 gathered once again at City Hall before marching to Premier Mackenzie’s office. This time he met a delegation comprised of Ottawa’s two MPs, one from his own party, and Mayor Waller.
Mackenzie agreed to address the men but had little to offer the hungry protesters. He said aid should come from the provincial government and local charities. He ignored the problems of unemployment across the county claiming it was an Ottawa problem, not one the Federal government should address. He suggested they could receive a grant of 100 acres of farmland if they went west. To show he had feeling for their situation, he offered to take up a collection where MPs would donate “as much as they could afford to relief efforts.”
That response did not go over well, and the workers continued to hold meetings, marches and give speeches over the next few days. A public letter was sent to the Senate demanding government undertake public works to provide jobs to help alleviate their desperate economic situation. Mayor Waller did issue “bread tickets” to those the City felt were the “most urgent cases.” Many men were put to work on public improvements and the tax collectors were told to not harass those who were unemployed. A relief fund was organized by the city’s wealthier citizens, but the depression and unemployment continued.
The following year Mackenzie’s Liberal Party was defeated with workers helping Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservative Party back into power. The depression that began in 1873 would continue into the 1890s. The next time capitalism crashed, government was again unwilling to protect unemployed workers. The Labour movement would rise again and fight for Unemployment Insurance and other socially responsible government policies to protect the unemployed from the recycling economic depressions of capitalism.