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On to Ottawa Trek anniversary to be celebrated

Seventy five years ago today a thousand ragged young men clambered onto freight cars in Vancouver, embarking on what has become an iconic memory in Canadian labour history, the On to Ottawa Trek.

On Sunday a plaque commemorating the Trek, which started June 3, 1935, and its struggle to improve the lot of unemployed workers will be unveiled at Vancouver’s Crab Park.

The trekkers of 1935 were already veterans of months of militant political struggle, having organized a strike against work camp conditions, and then marched, demonstrated and occupied a downtown building, the Carnegie Centre. These actions were designed to pressure the federal government to improve conditions at notoriously squalid West Coast work camps for unemployed men, where the unemployed were required to work six and a half days a week for twenty cents a day.

On June 3 the workers mounted up, riding freight cars across the Rockies and the Prairies, gathering support all the way. However, they never made it to Ottawa. The trains were met in Regina by RCMP who forced the workers off the freight cars. A month later, in what many observers described as a police riot, the trekkers were attacked by Mounties and their leaders were arrested.

However, the political momentum the Trek created is seen by some historians as one of the reasons the Bennett government fell in an election a few months after the Regina riot. It was replaced by a Liberal regime that abolished the much hated work camps.

“The On to Ottawa Trek was a defining event of the Great Depression and it still stands as a symbol of the quest for social justice,” says Joey Hartman of the On to Ottawa Historical Society. “Their protest was an important step towards things like unemployment insurance and welfare. The Trekkers helped to build the social safety net that is such an important part of the social fabric of Canada today.”

The City of Vancouver has declared the "Day to honour the heritage of the 1935 On to Ottawa Trek."

The ceremony, will be held from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday, June 6 at Crab Park. A veteran of the relief camps and trek, Ken Hoggarth, 92, will be there to share his memories.

Sunday's event will also serve as a send off for the 2010 Homelessness Trekkers who are traveling by train to Ottawa to take their call for a national housing strategy to federal political leaders.

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy beats for The Tyee.

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