The Great Depression Summary

Pierre Berton

The Great Depression

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The Great Depression Summary

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Canadian author Pierre Berton’s The Great Depression uses the recollections of people who lived through the period, along with historical documents, to investigate how the Great Depression, from the stock market crash of 1929 to the onset of World War II in 1939, impacted the lives of Canadian citizens and the culture of the nation. It assesses the actions and responses of businesses, law enforcement personnel, and politicians. Major topics include the government’s handling of the unemployment situation, its financing of work programs, and the fate of those middle class workers who were plunged into poverty. Droughts and a locust epidemic exacerbated the dire conditions many Canadians found themselves in. The decade became known as “The Dirty Thirties” in Canada, and half of the country’s workers received some sort of aid, while many others were left in need.

According to Berton, Canada was a very different nation following this decade of economic depression. During the depression, riots erupted on the streets and many of the rioters ended up in jail. Up to seventy thousand men took to the road, forced to live a nomadic life. Berton’s book supports the argument that the political leaders of the era did not take the necessary steps to help people cope with widespread unemployment and the disheartening mood it created. He points to Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who spoke in support of Hitler and Mussolini and against Winston Churchill, and he cites Maurice Duplessis–the Premier of Quebec, who had the homes of private citizens locked up because of their political views–as an example of the apathy and incompetence of the government. He believes that Canadian politicians never grasped the depth of the pain their citizens were feeling, or the hardships they faced, and instead focused their attention on finding ways to move the cost of providing relief from one facet of government to another, and in some instances, looking for ways to avoid giving aid completely.

Another subject covered in the text is the role of communism during this time. Berton argues that communists used the unemployed masses as pawns in their own political agenda. They were not alone in this, as other political parties did likewise. When Mackenzie King was defeated, he felt that the high level of unemployment was a positive thing for his Liberal followers. Conservative Prime Minister R. B. Bennett is painted as a wealthy man who felt that the government should not provide for the hungry populace. Canada’s Co-operative Commonwealth Federation was formed in 1932 by J.S. Woodsworth, and was a vehicle through which socialist and labor groups seeking economic reform, tried to help people affected by the depression. Woodsworth is described as a man with an idealistic outlook, who falls short of recognizing the danger posed by the Nazis and the inevitability of war.

Berton makes comparisons between Canada’s and the United States’ responses to the Depression, to show that Canada’s was significantly inferior. America’s president, Franklin Roosevelt, is presented as a visionary leader who pursued reform, while Canada’s federal government thwarted all attempts at reform. Some leaders such as those in Quebec, Ontario, and Alberta showed signs of fascism. The Communist Party was made illegal for a few years during the nineteen-thirties and anti-Semitism reared its head in Canada. Law enforcement authorities in Toronto supported and protected fascist demonstrations, while subduing left-wing demonstrations with force.

Berton also discusses the laws that were created to suppress any acts of dissent. Section 98 banned unlawful assemblies and provided law enforcement agencies with a great deal of power that was widely used and often went unchecked. Similarly, the Padlock Law in Quebec allowed police to confiscate any communist literature was used to seize a wide range of materials that were not technically covered by the law. Citizens’ rights and freedoms were ignored at the whim of the government. Section 98 existed for more than a decade and meant that if an individual had any connection, however small, to an organization that was accused of being an illegal entity, that individual was presumed guilty unless they could prove their innocence, the penalty being twenty years in prison. Anyone letting meeting space to an illegal group faced a fine of five thousand dollars, while a person who printed literature that called for violent political change or who arranged for the importation of such literature faced two decades in prison.

Pierre Berton’s The Great Depression paints a picture of Canada’s response to the challenges of the Great Depression. It shows a nation troubled by a lack of political or moral identity. Berton raises questions about how the basic deprivations caused by the economic crash, such as a lack of clothing and food, were dealt with by Canada’s national and provincial governments, and suggests that the failure of Canada’s political leadership increased the hardship of its citizens during this difficult time.