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Fiction: The Story of Canada

We’re All Right

We’re All Right

A country is not just its people and places, but its stories. On the occasion of Canada’s sesquicentennial, The Globe and Mail has invited a group of writers – from home and abroad – to celebrate the country’s history in fiction. The results will be published throughout the course of 2017.

A country is not just its people and places, but its stories. On the occasion of Canada’s sesquicentennial, The Globe and Mail has invited a group of writers – from home and abroad – to celebrate the country’s history in fiction. The results will be published throughout the course of 2017.

At 6 a.m. on June 14, 1935, a freight train crept into the yards of the Canadian Pacific Railway under a sky that looked as if a child wielding a soft pencil had scrawled it across a dirty page. Two thousand men clinging to groaning, swaying boxcars looked out at the grey morning with cinder-raw eyes. A shriek of brakes, a clank of couplings, and the boxcars banged to a halt. The army of unemployed began to stir, clambering stiffly down from the train, bindles roped to their backs, gunny sacks clenched in their fists, bodies hunched in cold, rain-soaked clothing. Cigarettes were rolled, matches struck, men relieved themselves on the gravelled railbed. Ten minutes of indecisive milling about and then the men of the On to Ottawa Trek formed into fours and began a weary march to their quarters on Regina’s Exhibition grounds. One of the newsmen gathered to witness the Bolshies descend upon the city breathlessly described the men shuffling past him as radiating “the menace of 2,000 sticks of explosive.”

Reverend Robert Gilchrist stood on Tenth Avenue waiting for his streetcar home, which was unaccountably delayed. Wednesdays were what his wife Annie called “sewing days.” She had run out of black yarn, his socks needed mending, and so he had been dispatched to buy wool. He was glad for any excuse to dodge writing Sunday’s sermon. Pointing out clouds with silver linings to a congregation that each year of drought and depression made more sceptical about hope was dispiriting work. He felt like a man trying to peddle the Brooklyn Bridge to customers who had already bought it three or four times before.

The rain clouds had begun to clear. A little weak sunshine fell on the Reverend, a man whose white hair stood up in back like a jay’s crest and whose ill-fitting black suit hung on him like curtains on a funeral parlour rod. He was 65 but any expectation of retirement was long gone. The church council had cut his salary five times in the last five years. Now he and Annie often made do with porridge or pancakes for supper. Just the other day he had greeted her flapjacks with, “How quickly a year passes! Can it be Shrove Tuesday again so soon!” and his wife had burst into tears. He had only meant to make a small joke.

Something intruded on this memory, something distinctly out of place on a downtown street. Hearing the strains of a familiar hymn, Hold the Fort For I Am Coming, he looked up. Men were entering Halifax Street from Eleventh, a long marching column singing words of challenge to the tune of an old hymn.

We meet today in freedom’s cause And raise our voices high; We’ll join our hands in union strong To battle or to die!

He recognized what this was. These were the men bound for Ottawa to challenge Prime Minister R.B. Bennett’s policies on Unemployment Relief Camps. From newspaper articles he had learned a little about their demands: an end to military discipline and the administration of the camps by the Department of National Defence, better pay for the work they performed, the opportunity to vote.

They were swinging right, heading for the Unity Centre on Tenth Avenue. How young they looked! They made Gilchrist think of his dear son Malcolm killed at the Battle of Cambrai in 1917. Their garments were an incongruous jumble, threadbare tweed sports jacket worn over blue denim overalls, pinstriped waistcoat buttoned over a khaki shirt. Many had printed On to Ottawa on the backs of their ratty jackets in defiant chalk, walking billboards in stained fedoras, flat caps tugged down low over their eyes the way that Cagney and Bogart wore them, trying to look hardboiled but not with much success. One young fellow, a beanpole in wire-rimmed spectacles working a concertina for all it was worth, pumping out Hold the Fort, had a grin that proclaimed unadulterated joy.

It had been a long time since the Reverend had seen hope in faces, a conviction that lives could be set right. These boys were lit up like candles with that faith. He spotted his streetcar coming. Now he knew the reason it was late. A half-mile of hungry, hopeful men had got in its way.

The federal government said the On to Ottawa Trek was a Red front and branded its leader, “Slim” Evans, as a Communist and convicted crook. A hastily organized Citizens’ Emergency Committee convened a mass meeting at Exhibition Stadium to throw support behind the trekkers. Reverend Gilchrist did not attend because his wife was worried about possible violence, but he listened to all the speeches broadcast on local radio. Reginans were urged to visit the so-called revolutionaries at their quarters at the Exhibition grounds, hear their stories of harsh life in the camps, get the straight goods from ordinary fellows who were only asking for a fair shake. When Reverend Gilchrist told his wife that he meant to take advantage of this invitation Annie was furious.

“I know those men on the church council,” she said. “They won’t like it one little bit, you consorting with Reds.” And Gilchrist rejoined that he wouldn’t be the only minister consorting with Reds, some pastors were already taking a very prominent role in the CEC and, as far as he knew, none of them had lost their positions. Besides, he reminded Annie that Jesus had chosen to mingle with publicans and sinners.

All this, Reverend Gilchrist knew, was nothing but tomfoolery on his part. Those other ministers didn’t have a Tom Carlyle on their church councils, a bully who ran roughshod over his fellow councillors. Tom Carlyle, who believed it was the duty of a Christian to vote Conservative.

Still, Gilchrist had to concede that when it came to politics not much separated his views from Tom Carlyle’s. As far as the Reverend was concerned, his more wild-eyed colleagues on the CEC, like Reverend Samuel East, were acting like buffoons. East was too quick to tell the world what Jesus would do if he were living today, which was exactly what East himself was doing. If he denounced the police as Cossacks, Christ would second the motion. If East wrote letters of advice to Joseph Stalin – which it was rumoured he had done – then you could be sure that Christ would have sought out Comrade Stalin for a pen pal too.

Of course, Reverend Gilchrist had to acknowledge that his distaste for East might be a result of the dry passage of the spirit he was lately undergoing. It wasn’t that he was experiencing a dark night of the soul, that mighty wrestling with utter desolation that was the lot of saints – he knew he was no saint – it was just that now when he prayed he doubted anyone was listening. In the last few years he had felt as if he were drifting toward a frightening conclusion, and that conclusion was that his whole life might have been a mistake. He wondered if he didn’t envy East’s certainty.

And maybe that was why seeing those faces coming down Halifax Street had moved him so deeply. Faces lit like candles, lit with optimism. Candles that drew him like a moth. That was why he was going to go to the Exhibition grounds. Whatever objections Annie might raise.

Reverend Gilchrist had put on his clerical collar to visit the trekkers, naively believing that identifying himself as a man of God would encourage the downtrodden to unburden themselves to him. But the opposite proved to be true. The few conversations he managed to strike up were awkward and painful, the way he imagined chats with royalty on walkabout were. So he was left to aimlessly wander the grounds, like a small boy in need of a friend.

Then someone behind him said, “Bow wow.”

Gilchrist turned and saw two young men sitting on wooden egg crates. He recognized the concertina player he had seen coming down Halifax by his smile, a grin as wide as the poles asunder. “Beg pardon?” said the Reverend.

The young man pointed to the Reverend’s neck. “You got the dog collar,” he said. “But what about the license?”

The boy was laughing, but in a goodhearted way. The Reverend walked over. “I’m Robert Gilchrist,” he said, thrusting out his hand.

Both young men politely shook it. The concertina player said, “This here is Lionel Gibb. I’m Tony Fleck.”

Lionel corrected him. “Everybody calls him Happy Fleck.”

“And why do they call you Happy?” said the Reverend.

“Because I always say you might as well be happy, it don’t cost any more than sadness,” said Fleck, indicating a third egg crate. “Last seat on the lifeboat. Better grab it.”

“Thank you,” said the Reverend, sitting down and clutching his knees. “And what is it that is sinking, Mr. Fleck? The ship of state?” He was trying on Happy’s bantering tone to prove he wasn’t a stuffed shirt, but feared this bon mot had not gone over any better than his joke about the pancakes had with his wife.

“Oh my,” said Happy, giving his friend a nudge. “Ship of state? I think this old boy is working undercover for the Horsemen. Go on, Lionel, say something treasonous that he can report.”

Lionel gave the Reverend a wink. “Don’t mind Happy; he don’t take nothing serious.”

“Right here and now I declare myself in favour of free love and free pork chops,” said Happy. “And I bet you’re in favour of that stuff too, Reverend. Which makes you a Communist. Admit it.”

No one had teased Reverend Gilchrist in a very long time. He liked it. “Oh,” he said, “you’ll never catch me admitting to being a Communist. I’d be out of a job. Look at Russia, they’ve nailed all the churches shut.”

“Well, if the Russians want their day of boredom back then they got to do what we’re doing. Agitate. Agitate to have the churches opened just like we’re agitating to close Bennett’s slave camps.”

The young employed such strong language. “Slave camps?” said the Reverend. “Isn’t that a bit of an exaggeration?

“You tell me. The government don’t want us in the cities because they think the unemployed will make trouble. So they stick us miles out in the bush, hand us a pick and shovel and say, ‘Make a road.’ Or send us into a bog with an axe to chop down trees. We work a 44-hour week and get paid 20 cents a day for convict labour. After I buy a pack of smokes I got a nickel left. Of course, I invest that with my broker. I’m going to get rich like Mr. Bennett and live in a 17-room suite in the Chateau Laurier.”

“What kind of life is that for a young fellow?” complained Lionel. “I like a picture show. You can’t get to a picture show the places they lock us away in. I miss Bette Davis.”

“I grant you 20 cents a day is very little money,” said the Reverend carefully, “but you’re fed at government expense, aren’t you?”

“I thought it was you religious birds who say, ‘Man don’t live by bread alone,’” said Happy.

“What we religious birds actually say is, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.’”

“You hear that, Lionel?” said Happy. “And you want to listen to Bette Davis instead of God. What’s wrong with you?”

“Perhaps,” said Gilchrist, “if Lionel plays his cards right, Miss Davis will be his reward in heaven.”

Happy gave a hoot. “Oh this Salvation Salesman is good, Lionel!” He turned to Gilchrist. “Arguing with you is better than a crossword puzzle. You come by for a little sword crossing any time you feel like it. Because you’re all right, Reverend.”

But Reverend Gilchrist knew he wasn’t all right. Otherwise, these young men’s opinion of him wouldn’t matter so much.

The Reverend Gilchrist and Happy began to meet at the Olympia Café. It was one of the restaurants that accepted the government meal vouchers that had been issued to trekkers while their fate was being decided. The Olympia was a favourite haunt of Happy’s because he was sweet on a waitress there, Rachel Novak. Often Gilchrist and Happy sat in a booth and frugally split a Coke – the Reverend’s treat – and discussed current events. Bennett had requested that Slim Evans and seven other of the Trek leaders travel to Ottawa for face-to-face talks. The Reverend saw this as a hopeful sign.

Happy didn’t. “They keep us talking so we can’t be doing. They’re only afraid of us when we do. You wait and see. The police will move on us soon. But if they do, all hell will break loose.”

The Reverend said, “We often get what we expect because expecting brings it upon us. Don’t anticipate violence.”

“Well then if that’s the case,” said Happy, “I’ll look forward to the bulls handing out bouquets and chocolates. Then I’ll pass the booty on to Rachel,” he said, loud enough that she could hear him behind the counter.

“I’d sooner get a tip from you once in a while,” Rachel said.

“Here’s a tip for you. June weddings are the nicest. And the Reverend ain’t fully booked up yet, are you?”

“He never stops does he?” said Rachel to Gilchrist.

“No, he doesn’t.”

“I ain’t stopping until I get something out of this life,” said Happy. “And after I get what I want from the bosses and two-bit politicians, look out, I’m coming after you, girl,” he said to Rachel with a smile that could have lit up a coal bin.

By Dominion Day negotiations between Slim Evans’s delegation and the Bennett government had broken down. Meal vouchers to trekkers had been suspended. The federal government had made it clear that any attempt to resume the On to Ottawa Trek would be prevented. Two thousand men were bottled up in Regina. If they did not agree to enter a new relief camp at Lumsden, Sask., they were free to starve on the streets of Regina until arrested for vagrancy. Yet the men held out, refused to flinch. Mounties were out in force everywhere, prowling the streets in patrol cars, ringing the Exhibition grounds, shooting hard-eyed stares. Matters simmered.

Another rally in support of the trekkers was called for Dominion Day at 8 o’clock on Market Square. Organizers were banking on a good turnout since it was a holiday. That afternoon Happy told Reverend Gilchrist, “All the men have written their names and where they come from on pieces of paper we carry in our pockets. So’s if the police shoot us down they can let our families know.”

Reverend Gilchrist said, “I would be there except for my wife … she has a nervous disposition. She has implored me not to go. I feel an obligation not to needlessly worry her.”

Gilchrist and Happy walked on in silence through the downtown, which had sprouted Canadian ensigns and draped itself in patriotic bunting to celebrate the nation’s birthday.

After they had taken their supper at the Olympia, Happy Fleck and Lionel Gibb strolled over to Market Square. Reverend Gilchrist had raided his wife’s emergency fund tin and put two dollars down on deposit at the café to pay for their meals. As long as they stuck to hamburger and onions at 15 cents a pop, Happy figured it was clear sailing for a week.

It was a soft summer evening. Several thousand people were gathered in the Square, a mixed crowd, trekkers, families with kids in tow, high school students larking about, old codgers poking along on canes. A group of young women in sundresses, a secretarial pool enjoying their day off, were laughing and flirting with some men in baseball uniforms.

Up on the speaker’s platform someone was making a speech that Happy had heard a hundred times before. His attention wandered. He spotted a van pulling up on Halifax Street. A delivery at 8 o’clock in the evening on Dominion Day didn’t make sense. He turned and saw another van parked in front of the Metropole Hotel on Tenth Avenue, a third in front of the Hotel Regina on Osler. Mounties in riot gear and steel helmets began to spill from the backs of the parked vehicles.

“Coppers,” Happy said to Lionel, pointing.

Two shrill blasts of a police whistle tore the air. A flying squad of city police in bobby helmets rushed the speaker’s platform, knocking people aside. Happy saw a stout middle-aged woman go over like a bowling pin, heard her screaming as the crowd stampeded, boots stamping down on her breasts and belly. The mob split in two, Happy carried off in a riptide of panicked people. Lionel’s head bobbed away in the opposite direction. An old man, glasses knocked askew, teetered, fell. Mothers wailed the names of their children.

RCMP officers were charging the crowd now, yelling to clear out, giving a taste of their batons to anyone who hesitated. Happy threw a glance to the speaker’s platform. It was empty. Evans and Black gone. He watched hand-to-hand fighting break out between trekkers and cops, eddies in the mob’s backwash. Beside a steamroller parked on the Square, a knot of shabby young men were throwing punches at city police who slashed back at them with the two-foot long children’s baseball bats they had been issued as weapons. A woman blinded with blood from a scalp wound was stumbling along, spasmodically clutching air with her fingers. Two city cops were dragging an unconscious body across the Square.

Spotting Lionel and other familiar faces, Happy broke for Osler Street. The first thing his buddy said to him was, “The cops nabbed Evans and Black. Charlie saw them.”

Charlie’s split lips were leaking blood. He swabbed it away with his coat sleeve. “Bastards,” was all he could manage to say.

A line of police was forming up on the edge of Market Square. They began to pound the cement of the sidewalk with their bats, an ominous, clacking sound, then started for the protesters milling about on Osler Street.

“Cossacks! Cossacks!” someone shouted and flung a stone. Soon everyone was pitching whatever they could find, rocks, bottles, bricks from a nearby construction site. The air was thick with missiles, a hard hail descending on the steel-helmeted heads of the police. Happy opted to side-arm rocks like he was skipping stones at the beach, aiming for knees and shins. He saw one strike home, leave a cop hopping on one leg.

The Mounties replied with gas grenades. Choking on tear gas Happy and his friends fell back. The cops unleashed a baton charge. A mounted column of RCMP closed in at a clattering trot, long leather truncheons held aslant their shoulders the way Happy had seen cavalrymen in movies carry their sabres into battle. The horses broke into a canter and suddenly they were there, flared nostrils big as teacups, ears laid back like snarling dogs, their riders chopping at heads and shoulders. Men tried to take refuge in doorways, fled down alleys where they were pursued at a gallop and beaten to their knees. Happy went up the steps of a beer parlour and when the cop spurred his horse into the narrow archway, he caught hold of the headstall, sprang off the steps, brought all his weight to bear on the horse’s neck, and sent it twisting down on its side.

Then he ran for all he was worth. It was almost 9 o’clock. The cops were fully in control of Market Square.

Night descended as running battles continued. Shop windows were broken, streetcars halted, the Cornwall Street police station where Slim Evans was held was subjected to a temporary siege. Local radio broadcast the mayhem live from a rooftop perch. Rumours circulated that a plainclothes detective had been killed. At 10 o’clock Happy found himself near the Bank of Nova Scotia where a group of trekkers had cornered city police and were pelting them with anything they could lay their hands on.

In the darkness, the silhouettes of the bobby helmets made Happy think of an illustration of a deadly mushroom he had once seen. He heard one of the helmets shout an order. It was like a flint had struck steel, the shadows sparked again and again, the street echoed and banged with gunshots.

Happy felt something thump his calf; the blow became fire. On either side of him, bodies were slumping and tumbling, groaning and yelling.

“They’re murdering us!” a voice shouted.

Those still standing ran. Happy did too. Then all at once his leg folded up under his weight like a pipe cleaner; he crumpled to the ground, watched in the glare of a streetlamp his blood pooling black on the pavement. Crawling into the mouth of a nearby alley, he tore up his shirttail, stuffed it into the wound, bound it tight. Happy held his breath waiting for the police to find him, but they were wisely avoiding dark places. At last the sun rose and he staggered off to the Olympia Café, leaning on a piece of pipe that lay in the gutter that somebody must have been using to bash cops. Rachel was opening up when he got there; she found the number for him and let him use the café’s phone.

Gilchrist was up before dawn. The Leader-Post was full of dire news. He worried about Happy and Lionel. Much destruction of property downtown, jails overflowing with arrests, hospitals struggling to treat more than a dozen gunshot wounds inflicted by cops, scores of other injuries suffered by trekkers, citizens, and police. Worst of all, a Detective Millar had been murdered by person or persons unknown.

The phone rang. More bad news the Reverend assumed, thinking that such an early call usually was a summons to the deathbed of a parishioner. The call was brief. When it ended, Gilchrist rang for a taxi. He was fishing money out of the emergency fund tin when his wife, a light sleeper, appeared in the kitchen.

“Who called?” She stopped dead in her tracks. “Why are you helping yourself to The Fund money?” He could hear the capitals in her tone.

“A boy I know has been injured. I need money for a taxi to bring him home with me.”

“If he’s injured, he belongs in a hospital,” she said.

“If he goes to a hospital, he’ll be arrested.”

“He’s the one you go to see, isn’t he?”

“Yes.”

Her face went baggy with grief; her eyes welled with tears. “He can’t replace our dead boy. No one could ever replace Malcolm. I won’t let you think that.”

“I don’t.”

“Why then? If the church council finds out you have harboured a wanted man, you’ll be dismissed. Maybe even arrested. We have the manse rent-free. We have a roof over our heads. We’re old. This is all we have. That money you’re taking is for a doctor if one of us gets sick.”

She looked so desperate his heart lurched in his chest. Trying to solace her, he spoke of the God he wasn’t any longer sure existed. “Yes, my dear, we’re old. But the God who has never deserted us in 40 years of married life will not desert us now.”

Outside, the taxi honked. The Reverend thought of something else, something Happy Fleck had said to him. You’re all right.

“There is my taxi,” he said. “I must go. But remember, my dear, we’re all right.” For good measure, he repeated, “We’re all right,” and went out into the freshness of morning.

Author’s Note: The Regina Riot of 1935 is the moment when the rage and hopelessness of the dispossessed and humiliated, the rejection of “politics as usual,” and the savage repression of dissent collide. I chose to write about this event because it struck me that, given recent world developments, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Guy Vanderhaeghe is a three-time winner of the Governor-General’s Literary Award and an Officer of the Order of Canada. His books include The Englishman’s Boy, The Last Crossing, and Man Descending.

CREDITS: Illustrations by HAYDEN MAYNARD; Design and development by DANIELLE WEBB; Art direction by BRYAN GEE