Relief Work During the Depression

1937 election GAZ  1937-01-22 p1 [1]

It was a bad fall in Maple Ridge in 1929.  The Abernethy and Lougheed Logging Company, local pride and powerhouse, had tumbled into insolvency as its financing evaporated.  Allco’s seven camps were shuttered, their population of hundreds put on the hunt for work.  Autumn rain hit the barren slopes where logs, dragged down and out by high lines and steam engines, had demolished the forest understory.  Now, water carried the slope down through widening runnels.  The only labour left in the timber berth was tearing out the iron rails; ties, worthless, were left in the gravel roadbeds which curved through impoverished hillsides.

Although there were other timber companies operating in the municipality’s hinterland, none were as large as Allco.  Weakening markets for softwood affected milling, the major industry in the town sites.  By the middle of December, the mill at Port Hammond, one of the largest in British Columbia, was closed until the times could improve.  Between 1930 and 1933 it would stop work at least four times for months at a time.  The depression hit Maple Ridge fast, and it hit some very hard.

Today we often hear that local governments are the victims of “downloading”, meaning they shoulder increased responsibilities relative to their means.  In response to crises, we believe higher levels of government should step up (and in) to offer benefits the local tax base can hardly afford.   But after October, 1929, the municipality of Maple Ridge was asked by the public to provide more. Social welfare became the chief issue in the local election campaign of autumn 1929.  Solomon Mussallem, a councillor of the good times, became the first Reeve of the bad.

By the end of 1930, it was becoming clear that the unemployment issue was structural. Although the Fraser Valley was unaffected by the disastrous combination of agriculture and drought seen on the prairies, the markets for farm goods had been diminished by American trade tariffs and stagnation in central Canada.  1929’s season was becoming a decade: the Depression.  Mussallem announced to a crowded Oddfellow’s Hall on October 30, 1930 that he had sent the following telegram to Nelson Lougheed, provincial Minister of Public Works and former Reeve of Maple Ridge:

“Please reply if agreement been signed by Premier.  Unemployment situation serious.  Special meeting called tonight.”   And, despite the situation’s gravity, Mussallem must have been somewhat happy to report to faces stricken with uncertainty that Lougheed had wired back promptly: “The agreement has been signed by Hon. the Premier [Tolmie] at 5 o’clock, and a copy will be mailed”.

The agreement referred to by the pols was between the Province and the (federal) Dominion; it allowed the province to direct financial aid to projects benefitting unemployment.  Municipalities were eligible to apply for these relief work funds, but were at the mercy of the Ministers of Labour and Public Works, to whom they had to submit evidence of a serious unemployment situation.  The Unemployment Relief Act of 1930 left “evidence” and “serious” undefined, so the Minister was under no obligation to disburse money.  The money was spent almost exclusively on the labor portion of municipal public works projects; in Maple Ridge, Mussallem’s first effort was to deliver a water and sewer system to Hammond.  Other projects were to construct new bridges over Kanaka Creek in Albion and Webster’s Corners, and multiple road gradings and pavings.  Municipalities were left to hire the labour and front applications to the fund, as well as find financing for project materials and machines.  The financing ratio changed year by year as the relief legislation expired and was renewed.  Between 1930 and 1933, the higher governments would front two-thirds of project costs; this rate was reduced to 60/40 in 1933.  More than ever, it became essential to have an ear in Victoria.  Reeve Mussallem, and many other local politicians, travelled to the capital frequently on the new public business of negotiating for relief work.

Relief work was no political goldmine.  Mayors and councils, given great discretion to pursue works projects, came under significant pressure to deliver them.  Higher governments set conditions that caused political difficulties for local pols. Originally, “transients” and “single men” were payable from the relief work funds to 100% — keeping them off the municipal balance sheet – while the local men, often farmers or contractors in sawmills with families, were paid partly from the municipal purse. Local politicians were incensed when the provincial government reduced the ratio it would pay for transients to two-thirds in 1933, because councils preferred to keep relief work contracts for hometown voters.   The compromise reached between Mussallem and Victoria allowed that the province would continue to pay the full wage for anyone residing in Maple Ridge for the lesser part of two years.

Despite this, the provincial purse typically remained shut to the municipality until the provincial liability could be detailed in the finest print.  When Mussallem was notified at the end of 1930 that Maple Ridge would receive $14,000 to pay the labour for its Hammond sewer system, he protested to Minister Lougheed that the amount was altogether too small.  The Reeve was chastened by Lougheed’s response: “You sign this agreement, and if that is not enough for you, you can make another application, and, in all probability, you will receive more.”  In chambers Mussallem would simply “recommend that this Council go on record as being grateful to the Honorable Minister of Public Works”.  The relationship between the municipality and the province was often sour: the province was in a position to grant or withhold money, but the Reeve and council were the ones first to be accused of failure if relief fell through.

Other civic action groups strongly supported the direct intervention of the federal government in social issues. Founded in 1932, the Maple Ridge Unemployed Citizens League declared to “unite the individual efforts and strength of all unemployed citizens of Maple Ridge under one efficient control and direction, and to obtain immediate relief and the necessities of life including food, clothing, shelter and medical attention for all destitute citizens”.  At the organization’s second meeting, councillor James Cameron, who sympathized with the social democratic politics of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, announced his hope that “those who are in a position to help see the need of their sharing [and] that the principle of profit must be eliminated before a true solution can be reached.”  Alternative politics drew increasing support but alarmed many of the independent businessmen who considered themselves the town’s caretakers and were the most frequent candidates for local office.  Most often, they wanted assistance from higher governments but also the right to determine how such assistance would be spent.

The relief work programs raised many issues, especially around fairness.  In a town of only a few thousand, the family men who benefitted most from the relief work programs could be well-connected with their ward councillors, who were also the employers and paymasters on relief work projects.  Disputes on Council arose when Reeve Mussallem occasionally refused to endorse a paycheque for relief work on the basis that the work had been performed badly or not at all.  In one case, a payee threatened to sue the municipality for breach of the contract between the payee and his Council member.  Mussallem was forced to stand down; lacking evidence there had been any legal wrongdoing, in spite of his observation that the work performed “could be done in considerably less time than was taken”.  The closeness between municipal politicians and their communities and the high amount of discretion exercised over the relief work program made transparency and fairness in the disbursal of funds difficult to achieve. Letters to the Maple Ridge – Pitt Meadows Gazette complained that the family of public officials and “farmers with well-stocked barns, granaries and roothouses” were picking up relief work contracts while “those whom the government had planned to aid will be left in hardship”.

There was one kind of labour discrimination everyone could agree on.  As economic conditions improved for some, the public focused on the relief work “loafer”, something of a straw man designed to attack the assortment of transient labourers who were considered vagrant.  The wages paid by the “relief scale” in Maple Ridge, up to $3.50 per day, were not especially generous, but because the work was targeted at family men relief work wages were typically higher than those under alternate public employment schemes.  For example, in 1935, men on relief work in Maple Ridge were earning 40 cents per hour, while the province was paying young single men $1.75 per day – minus 75 cents for room and board – to join work crews in remote areas.

The Port Haney Brick Company had a reputation as a gathering point for some of those labourers who were excluded or discouraged from municipal public works projects.  The company’s trackside factory weathered the Depression with few work stoppages by picking up contracts to supply some of the new subsidized works.  With large industrial kilns remaining warm long after the work day, the brickyard sheds offered respite to the homeless unemployed.  Managers Harold Burnet and Jim Hadgkiss tolerated the guests so long as the site remained tidy.  By some accounts, the visitors were well-organized, making arrangements with Haney bakers and butchers to take away unsold (or unsaleable) stock at day’s end.  Many during the Depression refused to take food without performing chores in return.

Simmering anxieties about vagrancy and welfare worthiness outlasted any episodes of charity.  In 1937, when the labour organizer James Cameron ran against Mussallem for the Reeve’s chair, his campaign largely avoided his advocacy and connections with the social democratic CCF.   Mussallem by this point had honed his message: predictable, pragmatic (some said “conservative”) government.  The novice Reeve, by default, had become the only one with any experience squeezing money from Victoria.  Mussallem took all polling stations except Hammond and Webster’s Corners, where the margins for Cameron decreased from those for the opposition candidate in the prior election.  The family men looked on with relief.

By Matthew Shields