With no unemployment insurance during the 1930s depression, workers only got support if they worked on public projects run by National Defence like this road construction in Rockcliffe.

For those without a job and struggling to survive on Unemployment Insurance, it will come as no surprise that since the start of the 2008 recession, Canada has fallen behind a majority of developed countries when it comes to job creation.

This got us thinking about other times of high unemployment, and how Canadian workers responded. Other than the “dirty 30s,” our history books play scant attention to the unemployed, yet there have been many times when our economy has failed working people.

In Ottawa, the Parliament buildings offer us a few opportunities to look at unemployment. During their initial construction in the 1860s, the budget was exhausted and work halted for the entire winter of 1862 and into 1863. A jumble of partially finished buildings, stones, and rubble was all that remained on the Hill, while in the city hungry families were trying to survive a long winter. The halt in construction was drastic for Ottawa, leaving between 1,300 and 1,700 men out of work with no chance of other employment and no compensation to help them feed their families.1

The depression that started in 1913 and lasted the duration of the First World War hit workers very hard; some trades saw over 40% of their members out of work. Those without income became increasingly desperate. In 1916, following the fire that destroyed the Centre Block, Public Works put out a call for 300 workers. The result was a near riot. Over 2,000 men turned up on the Hill looking for work; hundreds rushed the site picking up tools in the hope this would get them employment.

The Allied Trades and Labour Association membership reacted to these high levels of unemployment and successfully lobbied City Council to establish a Municipal Unemployment Bureau.2 But Canada did not get its first federal unemployment program until 1918 with the passage of the Employment Offices Co-ordination Act. This was a federal-provincial cost-sharing program in which the federal government subsidized provincial employment offices. At the same time they created the Department of Employment Services, with a mandate to provide employment data and advice.

Getting a national unemployment insurance system was not an easy fight. The 1935 Employment and Social Insurance Act, passed by the Bennett Tories, had established a national unemployment scheme, but the newly elected Liberal government referred the act to the Supreme Court. It was struck down on constitutional grounds because unemployment insurance was an area of provincial jurisdiction. It took the British Parliament to pass an amendment to the British North American Act in July 1940, recognizing unemployment insurance as one of the federal powers, before the government could act. By that time, the depression of the 1930s had hurt so many that the government was pressured to move fast. Just one month later, the federal government passed the Unemployment Insurance Act, instituting a national public system of unemployment insurance.

The workers of 1862-63 and those in 1916 needed the support of an unemployment insurance system, but did not have it. We owe it to them, and all those who fought to make national unemployment insurance a reality and ensure that it continues to serve workers. But we also know it will never replace what workers really want and need: a job.

By Ken Clavette

1 Bigio, Alia, Background Essay for “The Parliament Buildings: The Untold Story” (unpublished research paper), 2005, pg. 2.
2 Sykes, Peggy, “History of the Allied Trades and Labour Association 1897-1922: A Study of Working-Class Resistance and Accommodation by the Craft Worker,” MA Carleton University, May 1992, pgs. 48-49.