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Learning from Canada's Boxcar Trekkers of 1935

Rising against crushing inequality, 'On to Ottawa' protest swept out of the West.

Mark Leier 7 Jun 2014TheTyee.ca

Mark Leier is a historian at Simon Fraser University. The second revised edition of his book, Rebel Life: The Life and Times of Robert Gosden, Revolution, Mystic, Labour Spy, has been published by New Star Books. Find his previous articles published in The Tyee here.

[Editor’s note: This is adapted from a talk recently given by SFU labour history professor Mark Leier to a Vancouver gathering of the Peoples' Social Forum.]

Wednesday, June 3, marked the 79th anniversary of the On to Ottawa Trek, when 1,000 unemployed men jumped a freight train to head to the nation's capital to fight for relief and jobs. It also marked one of the first events of the Peoples' Social Forum that in mid-August will begin its own Caravan to Ottawa. As Canadians work to create new movements for political change, the Trek may have some lessons to offer.

We have some advantages over the Trekkers. There is a vital sense across Canada of the need for change, an understanding that we cannot continue as we have. We see the evidence in the strength of new movements that seemingly came out of nowhere: Occupy, Idle No More, the opposition to tarsands and pipelines, and the efforts to link these movements.

That a dense volume on economic theory by a French economist, Thomas Piketty's book, Capital in the 21st Century, can become a bestseller and engage all kinds of people in ferocious debate is a sign that the culture is ready for change.

The analysis of the problem is increasingly agreed upon: inequality must end and intersectionality must be at the centre of our efforts. The cultural shift for change is not universal but it is spreading rapidly, and it is, I think, more radical and more pervasive than it was in 1935.

If the Trek started with a culture less ready for change than ours, it started to draft a vision. There are many wonderful things to say about Occupy, but one thing it did not have was a clear vision. I think that such a vision need not be rigid or detailed, but it is important. It is a big step from agreeing intellectually and emotionally that something must be done and actually doing something. That's because we understand that our actions have consequences. Repression is one of those consequences, and that is frightening. We overcome that fear when we believe we can join with others, when we have some idea of our commonality, our common cause, our common vision.

The slogan of the Trek, "Work and wages," helped to build a common vision among the Trekkers and among those who supported them. After all, who's opposed to work and wages in a depression? Well, bosses and governments, but that's the point: the vision pushed people to think and decide which side they were on. We need more than a slogan, but a vision of what we want to work for gives us confidence, strength, and unity and encourages others to come in. Shaping that vision will be part of what going to Ottawa in 2014 will need and will produce.

Tactic with impact

What makes a vision concrete is strategy and tactics. The Trek was a brilliant tactic. It was clear, it was obvious, it was focused, and it was creative. It built on the common experience of so many Canadians, the experience of being unemployed or knowing and loving someone who was unemployed. You could also admire and support the Trek without having to jump on that train: you could help feed and shelter and fund the Trekkers, you could debate with friends and neighbours.

The one thing you could not do was ignore the Trek, and you could start to show which side you were on in small but important ways. That was crucial, in part because the Trek itself was not as inclusive as we need to be: it was male, despite the two O'Brien sisters who were photographed climbing on board the train. It required a great deal of physical dexterity and some experience of living on the road.

The Trek itself was not something anyone could easily take part in: but it was easy to support and such support was a strong declaration that there was, in the words of E.E. Cummings, some shit you would not eat or expect others to eat. Tactics that let people find their way into the movement help build the movement.

The Trek also captured people's imagination. It did so by showing them that everyone, even the destitute and unemployed, had the capacity for action and resistance. The earlier actions of the Relief Camp Workers' Union, the occupations of buildings, the snake dancing, and the Trek itself showed a creative combination of audacity and restraint. Audacity in that people were sitting in, not sitting idle, the tactics were public, and they were confrontational. Restrained in that they did not go much further than most people were prepared to go or support, they did not make the protestors appear to be the instigators of violence, and the calm resistance of protestors in the face of police repression garnered tremendous sympathy and support for the movement.

Lessons for organizers

I'm not sure how much of a strategic vision the Trek created. There is a great picture of Trekkers in Regina holding up two signs that hint at a strategic vision. One reads "Overthrow the Capitalist System," the other, "Fight for Non-Contributory Unemployment Insurance." It is always good to have a high asking offer and a backup position. But one failure of the Trek was that larger strategic questions were lost in the repression at Regina, the 1935 federal election, the internal struggles of the Communist Party, and the struggles within and with the new Co-operative Commonwealth Federation.

A larger strategic vision is, I think, crucial to the growth of a movement and to solidarity. It is exciting that the Peoples' Social Forum understands this and is working towards it, for it is that vision that gives people the courage to act and to act in concert with others, and that sustains us.

There are a couple of lessons about how to organize we can take from the Trek. The Trek was based on a bottom-up model of organization. In fact, the idea to go to Ottawa and the decision to make the Trek did not come from the veteran organizers of the Relief Camp Workers' Union and the Communist Party. It came from an unknown participant in a large meeting of the unemployed.

The idea came from the floor, and took the experienced organizers by surprise. In fact, many of them thought it was a pretty bad idea. They worried that it would divert people from the relief camp fight in Vancouver and the ongoing struggle of the longshoremen. More importantly, they knew it would be impossible to organize. How do you begin to organize the illegal transportation of 2,000 people over 2,000 miles, how do you feed them, keep them together and united and motivated? It can't be done. But the idea took hold and people voted overwhelmingly to go to Ottawa. The nature of the unemployed movement made that democratic control possible, and let everyone know this was a movement that welcomed new people and new ideas. That's very different from political strategies cooked up by party insiders, media consultants and focus groups that exclude everyone else.

Show who's in charge

In any movement that hopes to succeed, democracy is not just a virtue. It is an essential tactic and strategy. That's because the employing class is small and nimble and focused, and it constantly tries, often successfully, to con and outmanoeuvre the working class. As a result, we are right to be deeply suspicious of the slick revolutionary salesman hawking his good used cause. Real democracy shows people they are in charge, that the power is in their hands, and that they need not be wary of the movement. They may argue, they will certainly disagree, they may be outvoted, but if their voice is respected and heard and counts, it is their movement still.

Democracy, however, is not the same as "spontaneous," at least not in the sense that some anarchists use the term, to mean something like "occurs without outside or observable cause." The Trek was not spontaneous in that sense. Neither did Rosa Parks, the civil rights activist, spontaneously refuse to sit at the back of the bus in 1955. She was an activist, she was trained, she was part of a movement. I confess I was initially heartbroken when I learned the real story, because I believed in the inherent spirit of revolt and that people could, and would, spontaneously erupt into action. Well, that does happen sometimes, but not very often, and usually not very well.

How much more powerful and useful it is to understand that we do not need to wait for spontaneous combustion, that we can learn and teach how to fight back, that we are smarter and stronger when we think and build with others. If the Trek required a spark, that spark caught only because so many had carefully gathered the kindling.

Finally, the Trek combined democracy and creativity with institutional resources, from the names of potential supporters to press releases and stories to rounding up food and clothing to arranging sleeping arrangements. Without institutions, and it goes I hope without saying, democratic institutions, to do that work, no movement can build itself. It doesn't happen spontaneously. It takes work, and it takes ongoing institutions.

We don't know who stood up at a meeting of the Relief Camp Workers' Union and said, "We should march on Ottawa!" Yet the effect of that crazy suggestion rippled across Canada as the Trek caught the spirit and the imagination of people everywhere. It redefined the struggles of the 1930s, gave them focus and vision and a clear litmus test to determine which side they were on. May the Peoples' Social Forum and the On to Ottawa caravan do the same.  [Tyee]

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