A somewhat bypassed era of Canadian social and labour history is the subject of Arley McNeney’s second novel, The Time We All Went Marching and it’s a book that couldn’t be timelier.
McNeney is a gifted writer. Still in her 20s, she has written a novel that gives a compelling account of life in the remote work camps in western B.C. during the Depression and early war years — the 1930s and ’40s. During this time single, unemployed young men were obliged to “wait out the worst” of the Depression in work camps because the Conservative government of R.B. Bennett deemed them a threat to society. The men were required to labour on dubious, made-up projects that earned them 20 cents a day — for years.
Their cumulative rage over their lot found expression in organized protest during the summer of 1935 when thousands in the camps took to riding the rails as part of the On-To-Ottawa Trek — they became known as Trekkers — to confront Bennett about their working conditions and demand change. The trek ended badly in Regina in an incident that has since gone down in Canadian labour history as the Regina Riots. It was there that Bennett ordered a stop to the march and, as a result, dozens of Trekkers were arrested and two men lost their lives.
All the men wanted, McNeney writes, was to have the “same as everyone else. Work. Wages. Home.”