Darlene Quaife

1937: The Great Depression



Black Blizzard is a collection of short stories concerned with the fight for democracy during the ten ‘wretched” years of the Great Depression. Western Canada suffered profoundly in the Dirty Thirties as the rich prairie soil blew away in black blizzards. As a result the fight for human rights and the dignity of citizenship, the touchstones of democracy, was most keenly felt in Alberta. There was an overwhelming need to take action and an overwhelming desire for change. All of which led to protest marches, alternative political parties and 1600 Canadians fighting in the Spanish Civil War. The Great Depression was the crisis that put an end to the British class system in Canada – the monetary playing field was levelled and workers became politicized. The impetus for the 1935 On To Ottawa (protest) Trek by the unemployed was the Bennett government’s heavy-handed relief program that at its worst made Canadians, especially young men, prisoners in their own country. In Alberta “It was as if their jobless state had become a crime and their removal to the [national] park camps a kind of open-ended sentence, more in keeping with the treatment that enemy aliens had endured some fifteen years earlier". (Park Prisoners, Waiser)

Black Blizzard: The Collection

(Alberta 1929 – 1939)


List of short stories:


“Missing in Action”

Hundreds of unemployed march passed City Hall protesting the relief program that strips them of their dignity. Earland LaCroix is one of the protesters. His brother Gil has joined the International Brigade fighting in the Spanish Civil War. He has left his wife and young son behind.

*Published in the Centennial Edition, CBC Alberta Anthology, "Missing in Action" won an Honourable Mention. Produced by CBC for radio.

"Missing in Action" Download (pdf)


“Peace Army”

Leo LaCroix and Ben Brady witness the humiliation of a World War I veteran at the Calgary Labour Bureau, where they are applying for relief work. Later they attend a gathering of unemployed, which is addressed by a Canadian Communist Party leader. The city police break up the rally and Ben is badly injured defending the W.W. I veteran.

"Peace Army" 


“Healing Waters”

Leo LaCroix is sent to a work camp in Banff National Park. Ironically the underpaid (“a niggardly allowance”) workers are constructing the Upper Hot Springs bathhouse, the healing waters of which they could never afford to avail themselves. Ben Brady is convalescing with the LaCroix family before being sent to a work camp set up by the Department of National Defense. It is now winter in the mountains and the men in the camps are inadequately clothed and forced to live in canvas tents.


“Murder at Red Square”

Ben Brady returns to Calgary from the work camp driven to find out what became of the W.W. I veteran who had been beaten unconscious during the attack on the rally. Ben had not seen the man since the night in the vacant lot locally known as ‘Red Square’ when he pulled a police constable off the old soldier. Ben fears the veteran is dead and the authorities are covering up the cause of his death. He intends to find the veteran and the truth with the help of Leo LaCroix’s father and sisters.


“Railroad Rats”

Leo LaCroix’s brothers Melvin and Clifford ride the rails or as they would say “ride the rods” hoping to find work on the West Coast. They get caught up in a relief workers’ sit-down protest in the Vancouver Hudson Bay store that ends in a clash with the police. They join the On to Ottawa Trek in Vancouver and rethink their brother Gil’s communist affiliation.


“Highway in the Clouds”

Leo LaCroix pens a series of satiric cartoons of camp life that he sends back to his family. The cartoons are published and distributed in Calgary. As a result Leo LaCroix is sent to join the relief work crew facing the staggering challenge of building a highway between Lake Louise and Jasper over Bow Pass. The crew has few resources and must restore to hand tools for most of the labour.



“Some of the first victims of these [government] cost-cutting measures were recent immigrants, many of whom had been brought to Canada in the late 1920s by the country’s two major railway companies. Painfully aware that a simple application for food, clothing or fuel could mean a deportation ticket, they were effectively forced to get through those dark years with little more than their wits and prayers” (Waiser). Mrs. LaCroix and her daughters fight bureaucracy in their efforts to set up a refuge for immigrants forced off the land and out of jobs.


“Nothing is Lost” (Epilogue) 

Stephen LaCroix goes to Spain looking for his father, who was reported "missing in action" at the battle of Fuentes de Ebro.

*Published in AlbertaViews, and Intersections: Fiction and Poetry from the Banff Centre for the Arts (under the title "Mora de Ebro") 

"Nothing is Lost" Download (pdf)






"Now those lands, or at least the fertile top soil, blew away, piling up against fences and buildings, mixing with thistles and tumbleweeds, about all that the parched earth produced. When the wind relented and the red-rimmed sun blazed through, it was often only to be obscured by the clouds of grasshoppers that swept over the plains in search of the last blade of wheat or grass. These locusts were especially devastating in 1937, a crop year that also experienced hail and dust.

"Reduced to relief the costs of which the province could not afford, prairie farmers lined up for a monthly food allowance often dollars and a ninety-eight-pound bag of flour for a family of five. Though the amount increased slightly in the late thirties, so too did the severity of granting conditions. Nor did relief meet unforeseen needs and tragedies. That, and the humiliation felt by those who had helped open up a new country and now faced disaster, was revealed in one of hundreds of letters received by R. B. Bennett, Conservative Prime Minister from 1930 to 1935, in those desperate years. An Alberta farmer wrote in 1933:

"My crop is entirely gone, and my wife is very sick ... she has a tumor and as she has some terrible homorrhages[sic] which made her very anemic, an operation as inadvisable.... As you are aware the past three years have been very trying for farmers and ranchers. The price of products being below the costs of production, so with sickness also I have no money. Last week I enquired about relief... I have been humiliated and sent from pillar to post, just as if I were a criminal or something. I have lived on my farm, or ranch in the old days for over 30 years, 31 years next March to be exact-... Have paid taxes all the time, have helped several hundred people and yet, when I am frantic with despair what happens?... For my wife’s sake I am asking you to help me.... Only the most dire necessity would have induced me to apply for it. There is also the children, two of whom are of school age, 12 and 14 years of age. My wife has been ordered milk, beefsteak, orange juice, etc., and some certain medicines. She must build her strength up. I don’t wart to see her die by inches before my eyes.

"With almost no protective social-security measures — a small old-age-pension scheme had been started in 1927, but nothing for the unemployed, the sick, or the destitute - farm and urban workers were thrown on the charity of private and public institutions. Many men took to “riding the rods”, hitching rides on freight cars moving across the country in search of work, food, or relief from the boredom of idleness. The Bennett government, in an effort to provide some work and to control these moving gangs of men, established work camps in British Columbia. By early 1935 deep dissatisfaction had developed and some 1,800 men, organized by the Communist-sponsored Relief Camp Workers’ Union, set off on a trek to Ottawa to demonstrate against a government that seemed unwilling to deal with the unemployment problem. They reached Regina before Prime Minister Bennett agreed to meet their leaders. And that meeting was little more than an acrimonious exchange of abuse. Then, on July 1, the RCMP moved in and arrested the leaders. In the ensuing riot one policeman was killed and many others were injured. The trek was halted. The problem remained.

"Virtually every urban centre experienced unrest and disturbances, usually less serious than the Regina Riot. The Toronto city police were especially assiduous in checking every sign of suspected subversion, especially if university professors were involved. Uneasy public authorities often acted hastily, claiming the need to control a growing Communist menace. The arrest and imprisonment of the principal Communist party leaders in 1931, and the subsequent attempt on party chief Tim Buck’s life in Kingston penitentiary, only encouraged the suspicion that what Prime Minister Bennett called the “iron heel” was the only answer the government had for the social discontent which the Depression nurtured.

"Nor was it only supposed Communist-inspired activities that governments met with hostility during these troubled years. In almost every province, efforts to organize workers, especially the unskilled, or strikes by organized workers, were resisted by employers often supported by governments. The Cape Breton coal fields continued to be the scene of brutal conflict. A strike in the coal mines in Estevan, Saskatchewan led to bloodshed in 1931 when the RCMP fired on a strikers’ march. There were almost equally bitter struggles in the mines of British Columbia, the textile factories of Quebec, and the New Brunswick lumber camps and mills. But perhaps the most publicized conflict took place in one of the new industries where a new union attempted to gain a foothold. It was in the automobile industry in Oshawa, Ontario, where the American-based Congress of Industrial Organizations began its campaign to unionize non-skilled workers in 1937." (Barry Broadfoot)