95. The Great Depression (Pierre Berton)

Monday, January 18, 2010
The first book I listed on this blog when it began back in 2006 was Pierre Berton’s Vimy. I was completely swept up by Berton’s writing and the stories he wove together about this decisive battle of the Great War. I made a pledge to myself that I would one day, eventually, read more of Berton’s work and learn about my own country’s history (something sorely lacking in our educational system, at least when I was in school). It’s been 3 1/2 years since that moment but I’ve finally begun. Pierre Berton’s The Great Depression takes the reader on a journey back to the dirty thirties, a decade where millions suffered through drought, unemployment, and times so tough it’s difficult for many of us to imagine today. What makes Berton’s book unique from most is that he looks at it from an entirely Canadian perspective.

As most of us have learned, the Great Depression is generally considered to have begun on October 29, 1929 with the stock market crash. While this did have an impact on many Canadians, equal blame can be placed on the severe drought that struck the southern prairies for the first half of the decade, as well as an indifferent Canadian government who refused to help or, for many years, even acknowledge that there was a problem. Berton examines in great detail the actions of the government (or lack thereof) of the time and their attitude that everything could be solved with a balanced budget. To R. B. Bennett (the Prime Minister during the first half of the ‘30s), those asking for help were lazy and unwilling to work. Unlike his counterpart in the United States who created various building/construction projects in order to help his citizens and spent millions of dollars to get his country back on track, Bennett threw responsibility back on the provinces and municipalities and tried, unsuccessfully, to wash his hands. Throw in a protectionist mentality of the federal government who believed high tariffs and increased production would solve many of the country’s problems, and you can smell disaster in the air.

I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit just how little I knew about this time in Canadian history but I honestly do not remember learning about it while in school. The decade was filled with police violence, many Canadians were anti-communist and anti-Semitic. Many of the rights and freedoms that we take for granted today didn’t exist or were completely ignored during the Depression: a free, unbiased press; the ability to gather in public and freedom of speech; the right to follow the belief system of your choice; birth control; universal health care; etc. However, it is because these freedoms were ignored or trampled upon during this turbulent decade that we also see the establishment of the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), unemployment insurance, and the beginnings of unions in Canada. Does anyone else of my generation know about “On to Ottawa” trek or the Regina riot?

Berton expertly weaves historical events with personal stories to show the impact the depression and actions (or at times lack of action) by the government had on the average Canadian. It frightening at times to read about events more than 75 years ago and realize the similarities with some of things we’re experiencing today: recession, war, unemployment, and the inability of our government to adequately respond to these issues.

I was drawn into this book as easily as I was with my introduction to Pierre Berton, his book on Vimy. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Definitely a keeper and I will be ordering more of his books very shortly. A must-read for all Canadians.


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