Living through the Great Depression

Photo: Trans-Canada Airlines Lockheed 14-H2s at Stevenson Field, 1938.
Credit: Western Canada Pictorial Index. Source: Winnipeg Foundation files.

The 1930s were a difficult time for many people in Winnipeg. Events of the early part of the decade, business failures, increasing unemployment and crisis on prairie farms seemed to bring an end to the city’s long period of growth and development. However, toward the end of the ’30s conditions began to improve and although some elements of life in the city were gone forever, optimism and growth slowly began to return.

Unemployment began to rise after the stock market crash in October 1929, and those who continued to work were often being paid less. By 1935 in the United States, middle class families with an income starting at $2,500 comprised only 12 per cent of families while in 1929, 29 per cent of families had been in this category. The number of marriages in Canada declined by 40 per cent from 1920s levels, as couples no longer felt they could afford to wed.

People took advantage of what supports were available. The Relief Settlement program helped those families who might have otherwise been on relief in cities by placing them on farmland. In Manitoba between 1932 and 1938, 1,442 families (7,156 people) took advantage of this option, which was higher than in other western provinces.

In some cases, the 1930s economic conditions resulted in children being placed in charitable institutions such as orphanages. In Manitoba, 1,589 children were cared for this way, which was the highest number in the west.

The recipients of Mother’s Allowances in Manitoba included 3,239 children in 1930 and the numbers were similar through the decade. The Manitoba Mother’s Allowance began in 1916 and was intended to support widows who were raising their children alone and was administered by the provincial government.

Charitable organizations continued to offer support in the 1930s. The first children’s fresh air camp was founded by the Salvation Army at the turn of the century; by the 1930s the western shore of Lake Winnipeg was home to a number of camps, mostly administered by religious groups. See details – Fresh air camps of Lake Winnipeg

The year 1929 was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Board of Trade. The Board played a role in alleviating the negative effects of the Great Depression. One of their programs was called Man a Block; married men who were on relief were hired to act as general handymen for the residents of 40 city blocks. They were taken off the city relief rolls.

The Board also organized a Good Neighbors Club which gave free concerts in neighbourhood schools for unemployed men and their families.

All of Winnipeg’s large corporations felt the effects of the Depression. After many years of growth and profits Great-West Life, for example, began to experience serious losses after 1930. The company survived because it emphasized selling new policies in both Canada and the U.S. and began sales of a new product ¬ group insurance policies for employees of businesses.

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