Letter to Today's Unemployed
Steve Brodie, 1996,
sent to the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty
Copy given to C. L'Hirondelle to publish in the magazine:
Periodic Outbursts (Victoria,BC, 1993-6)
Photo inset taken by C.L'Hirondelle in 1996
Large archive photo of Brodie (arms over head) surrounded by police outside the Vancouver Post Office 1938
Steve Brodie led the occupation of the Vancouver Post Office by the unemployed in 1938. After 30 days of repeatedly asking to be arrested, the occupation ended with "Bloody Sunday" and Steve Brodie was almost beaten to death by the police. In 1996 he was living in Victoria and wrote this letter to the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and it was printed in the magazine Periodic Outbursts. Steve Brodie died about a year after writing this letter.
Letter to Today's Unemployed
from Steve Brodie, 1996
I found out, all of sixty years ago, that the first thing to remember about organizing unemployed Canadians is you must not offer tea and sympathy. There are enough phony committees doing that, teaching stoic contentment in adversity.
It is necessary to be brutally frank about the reasons for poverty through unemployment, and its necessity, between wars, in the history of industrial capitalism.
For a few years the Canadian workers elected enough social minded MPs and MLAs and when they occasionally had a balance of power they negotiated U.I., old age pensions, health legislation and an obligation to provide some support when peace-time brought poverty through unemployment.
Now there is a nation-wide move to rescind those benefits and revert to pre-world War 11 conditions. We must make sure that the workers understand that work is not the point of the class struggle, but wages and standard of life, which now are totally inadequate for most of us.
Work was required of the hundreds of thousands of workers who built the Great Wall of China and the pyramids of Egypt. They had neither wages or standard of living above the lowest animals.
Workers must stop demanding the privilege of working and unite to obtain a fair standard of living as the right of a citizen.
This country calls on citizens to leave family, home, employment. and all they own, at the call of the Federal Cabinet to fight in foreign fields, to uphold a government that has no obligation to him or her, unless he accepts the most menial wage offered by the employers.
To demand anything less than a Canadian standard of living is stupidity. Workers must realize that the public can be conned into not only accepting poverty through unemployment, but condoning force when inflicting poverty. The excuse used by politicians is that "we are guarding your money and won't use it to feed useless bums." Therefore the only weapon in the workers hands is to make unemployment so expensive, that full employment will be cheaper. Standing in front of City Hail or the legislature is an invitation to head smashing, tear gassing, and cavalry charges. Even guns have been turned on unemployed Canadians on more than one occasion. Where then is the best site for a demonstration? Posh hotels, cafes, libraries, museums, are a better idea. Harold Winch of the C.C.F. (precursor to the NDP) acted with Vancouver City Police in June 1938 in conning two hundred unemployed in the sitdown at the Art Gallery to avoid damage, (even though they were tear gassed) on the theory this would "keep public sympathy." I have always made it clear that after having been refused the right to arrest and trial, and then being deliberately attacked, the first tear gas bomb thrown in should have met the "Mona Lisa" on her way out. Demanding arrest and trial is what stalled the attacks for thirty days, and although at the Post Office we countered the gas attack by admitting fresh air through windows that cost over $40,000 to replace, no-one ever faced a charge for occupying the Post Office and Art Gallery. Having submitted to arrest on day one and four times more, and five minutes before we were attacked, made that attack illegal and unconstitutional and the courts had no choice but to act accordingly and quietly ignored the whole affair.
During the fifty years before 1917, the Czar's Cossacks had plenty of exercise riding down and sabering the crowds of protesting workers. Ten men on horseback can easily rout two thousand demonstrators. Today, companies of twenty scattered through a modern city holding twenty demonstrations simultaneously would be a daunting task for the enforcers of poverty. Carried out in a disciplined manner with due regard to the interest of insurance companies, it could have a great effect towards ensuring that adequate work or adequate welfare would be much less costly.
While it is true that the demonstrations of the 30's were led by members of the Communist Party of Canada they were mostly spontaneous eruptions that the official party could not control. Individual party members noting the restiveness of the rank and file took over leadership and tried to prove to Canadians that hunger and homelessness can lead to very expensive results. Unfortunately, we who knew that failure in the 30's would mean that the condition we now see around us would return, were far too few.
There were not many Arthur Evans around. He was a man who fought bravely all his adult life from the picket lines in U.S. coal mines, to leading the On-to- Ottawa Trek (in 1936), in spite of the fact that he knew the workers were too prone to accept their lot rather than to fight.
Organizers today too will likely learn that sorry lesson. Methods of protest will no doubt present themselves to any leadership. I believe the task today is harder than ours was then: the working class have now become the unpaid and under paid, and their prospects are even worse than ours were. The depression of the 30's did not end. World War 11 broke out. The redneck middle class of today made their place through massive spending for ever and the resulting inflation made their property acquired for a few thousand into the massive wealth of today.
Our rather puny middle class were complacent and indifferent to hunger and homelessness then, but today's middle class are hostile to any effort to fight poverty -- morning talk shows show that clearly. I thought I should mention some tactics that were smothered by the Communist Party line. They agreed with the hierarchy of the C.C.F., that individual politicians should not be demonstrated against. 1 had a contrary idea. I said then and I believe now that a parent who seeks sympathy by telling how he or she is walking the floor at 3 or 4 a.m. worrying about the fate of their children, should wrap up their children warmly and with the help of two garbage can lids, make sure the nearest municipal, provincial and federal politician is awake to the situation. The rank and file of both the C.C.F. and the C.P. would have been more militant, but they were conned by their leadership about losing public sympathy. My view then and now is you never had it and never will have it. That fits well with my version of the good Samaritan. When we were invited to church basements to hear how we would get more from the governments if we were not so loud and antagonistic, I usually rose to point out that no part of the establishment really gave a damn about poverty and unemployment. I would tell how my Sunday school teachers told me the story meant when you are down and out, some good person would come to your aid. I pointed out that the story really meant that since a priest and a politician had "passed by on the other side", the story must mean it was two-to-one nobody gave a damn, and also that the first thing to do to help the poor and needy is to get off your ass and don't talk so much. It says so in the Bible.
I shall be watching your struggles and only wish I could man the picket lines as I did in my youth. I never counted the cost personally. I knew what I was doing and never have 1 regretted the stand that I took. When the battle lines are drawn I will be there in spirit until the end of my days.
With respect and comradeship to all who try to make a bad situation better,
R. Steve Brodie
Chronology of events: Bloody Sunday of June 19, 1938
April: Forestry Camps close for the season and thousands of unemployed head to Vancouver
May 15: 1400 men raise $5000 by tin-canning in Vancouver. Their tags read "I favour a works program"
May 18: Provincial Government announces plan to send 1800 single unemployed men in Vancouver to their home provinces.
May 19: Canada's Minister of Labour says Canada cannot spend itself out of the depression.
May 20: 1000 unemployed men occupy the lobbies of the Vancouver Post Office, the Art Gallery and the Georgia Hotel. Crowd of 2500 gathers outside the Post Office to show support and bring food. They demanded work not train rides. Not damage is done to buildings and mail service is not interrupted.
May 22: Vancouver City Council distributes $500 relief to strikers at Georgia Hotel. They vacate the building to join others at the AG and PO. Some tin-can to raise money for the sitdowners.
May 24: Mayor George C. Miller refuses to negotiate with the men until they leave the buildings.
May 24: Federal Minister of Labour stated that BC will not be made "the preferred haven for transients"
May 26: 109 former sitdowners arrested for tin-canning. 29 remanded on charges of obstructing police and were sent to Oakalla. Men in PO and AG continued to demand a works program.
May 27: Public meeting of 4000 in Vancouver passed a resolution to telegram Ottawa and Victoria with a demand that they set up a works program for the unemployed with temporary relief granted in the mean time.
May 29: CCF wants legislature in BC to hold an emergency session on unemployment.
June 7: Fed. Min of Labour says government will not set up preferred status for unemployed transients in Vancouver.
June 15: Unemployed annouce that they will be sending 500 men to Victoria to meet with Premier Patullo
June 18: Patullo says he will fly to Vancouver on June 20 to save the men the trip.
Men announce they will be sending their delegation over with the first men to be leaving June 19 at midnight.
Bloody Sunday June 19:
2:00 am: Sitdowners hear rumors of eviciton
4:30 Police surround Post Office
4:55 Post master asks men to leave. Unemployed submit to arrest. Police refuse to arrest men.
5:40 First tear gas bombs thrown into PO. First damage is done when men break windows for air.
Men stream out of PO into the clubs and fists of the RCMP. Steve Brodie almost beaten to death when 5 police all attack him at once.
5:50: Harold Winch convinces police not to attack men at Art Gallery, tear gas is used but men leave peacefully
5:44: last man leave PO. Windows are broken at Spencers and Woodwards buildings.
6:00: Steve Brodie taken by citizen to hospital. Police refused to call ambulances.
6:00: Unemployed Union office teargassed by police
6:20: end of glass smashing
6:30: Injured men go to Ukrainian Hall
noon: 40 injured in hospital
2:00 mass meeting of 15,000 at Powell street grounds
4:00: Thousands surround the jail were 7 sitdowners were held. Harold Winch convinces them to disperse
12 midnight: A cheering crowd of 30,000 sees off the delegation to Victoria.
Unpublished notes from interviews with Steve Brodie
by C. L'Hirondelle (1995 and 1996)
To pay people for not working will break their capitalist hearts. "if you don't work you don't eat" came from that trouble making son of a bitch St. Paul.
Ask the leaders what is their solution: 1) feed the people who don't work; 2) Die in the streets; or 3) give them a quick death in a gas oven.
Wobblies were using the definition of wages in 1905: work is a privilege which can be granted or denied and they must have 3 warm bodies competing for every job or capitalism won't work.
So many unemployed [in the 1930's] were afraid of deportation. One guy was baited. They tried to connect him with violence in market square [ Regina,1936 ] in order to deport him but it wasn't working. Back then they had a picture of the king and queen on the wall. One detective said who's that picture of? and pointed to the king. The fellow answered that it was the king. "He's ill, I suppose you're hoping he'll die" He answered "No, I don't care one way or the other, as soon as he dies they'll have another one just as useless to replace him." He was in Poland in a week.
If it hadn't have been for the [communist] party we wouldn't have been organized. But one fault of the party -- they made some bad mistakes. Why wasn't the Trek a success -- because there was no march to Ottawa from Sudsbury [or any of the other towns in Ontario]
With the Post Office it was the same thing. If every Post Office in Canada was occupied by 200 men, then they'd have had a problem. They would have had to tackle it instead of talking about it. The C.P. should have co-ordinated across the country. This is a federal problem. It [the Post Office occupation] should have been used to be a bigger problem. Start small, wind up small. There was no imagination used to say how big can we make this.
If they move administration of welfare to the municipalities like they did in Ontario then make them mad at you for looking for work. Go to municipal hall and demand lunch. March on Duncan, Kamloops, Vernon. It will simplify things by making the municipalities responsible. Show up in Duncan at city hall and say you heard there was work there. Then demand lunch and explain that you have no funds to get home. When people tell you they know where all the jobs are, them them to give us some names and addresses and where we will live until we can get our first pay check. Don't ease up - do it every day. meet everyday. Divide into 10 groups.
If corporations are not brought under control they will control the land, the sea, equipment and labor.
One of my friends recently told me "you sound like a commie" I said "I've been called worse things. One guy called me a Christian and I never forgave him for that. "
Rich men's kids were continually unemployed and it didn't hurt them.
It is inevitable: you can't fight unemployment so make sure you're not punished with poverty.
THE LIFE OF STEVE BRODIE
(written by C.L'Hirondelle, published in the Victoria Times Colonist, Dec. 1997)
Robert "Steve" Brodie, who, it seemed, could live through anything, succumbed to liver cancer on December 6 in Victoria at 87 years of age.
"I lost a few teeth in Regina and almost lost an eye in Vancouver" is how he described his experiences in the Regina "Riot" (during the On-to-Ottawa Trek) and Bloody Sunday -- when the police attacked the unemployed who occupied the Vancouver Post Office in 1938. Much of the blood that was spilled that Sunday was Brodie's when the police almost beat him to death for his role in leading the occupation.
Brodie was a Scottish orphan who came to Canada when he was 14 years old and worked as a farm labourer. When he was 18 he ended up on the prairies where he befriended a Marxist ex-newspaper man. When the depression hit Canada he joined thousands of other men who criss-crossed the continent "riding the rods" looking in vain for work. Brodie ended up in the relief camps of B.C.
Inspired and educated by Wobblies like Arthur Slim Evans, Brodie joined in the task of pressing the government for "work and wages." In 1936 he embarked with 1500 others on the On-to-Ottawa Trek which was stopped in Regina with police bullets and billyclubs. Brodie did not see the Trek as anything to be celebrated. "It was one of the battle's we lost... It was a desperate attempt on the part of the unemployed to draw attention to our plight."
1938 Brodie made sure the history books would never forget the plight of the unemployed and the appalling lack of response to the emergency by all three level of government. Vancouver was "the only place in Canada where you could starve to death before you froze to death" and every winter it was the site of numerous strikes and marches by members of the Relief Camp Workers Union and other unemployed associations. In May, 1938 there were 3000 unemployed men gathered there. Brodie was chairman of Division 1 of the Single Unemployed Protective Association and was a member of the Communist Party of Canada (until the fall of 1938). By mid May, Brodie realized that the men were becoming more desperate and that they had do more than "tin-canning."
On May 20 they did just that when, with a careful plan devised by Brodie, 1200 men occupied Art Gallery, the Georgia Hotel and the Vancouver Post Office. The Georgia Hotel occupation ended quickly, with the men there joining those at the Art Gallery. The men at the Post Office asked from day one to be arrested but were refused. During their 30 day stay (during which time work was not interrupted and no damage was done) they held a sports day and even published the Sitdowner's Gazette. On June 19 at 5 am the city police and the RCMP entered the building and drove the men out with force and tear gas even though the 800 protesters had submitted to arrest. 100 men were injured and 23 were hospitalized in the events that followed but Brodie was a particular target of police wrath. The man who drove him to the hospital reported to the Vancouver Sun: "Brodie had his hands over his head. He was trying to fight off two cops in front of him. There were three behind him, pounding on him with their billies. He fell. They still pounded on him." An RCMP Sergeant stopped the beating when he spotted a newspaper photographer recording the event. Brodie regained consciousness 24 hours later in St. Paul's hospital.
Brodie often told of how during the occupation they received post cards from all over Canada saying that they were doing a good thing. "They all walked down to their post office and mailed it and never thought of staying. Which shows you that everybody is waiting for somebody else to do something."
The unemployment came to an abrupt end in September of 1939 when Canada went to war. During that time Brodie joined the merchant marines. After the war he mainly worked at the Esquimalt dockyard.
In all his activities and right up to his death Brodie retained a wry sense of humour, a quick wit and a sharp intellect. In recent years he took great pleasure in needling right-minded guests on a local call-in radio show. He never hesitated to challenge platitudes about unemployment, poverty and capitalism.
Another less known side of Brodie was that of devoted and loving grandfather. "Grampa Steve" will be greatly missed by his five grandchildren and thirteen great grandchildren. They were the focus of his care and attention in his retirement years.
Maurice Rush in the book Fighting Heritage recollected Steve as a natural leader, a man with "a great fighting spirit... who would not accept passively the suffering that had been thrust upon his generation." He was someone who put his life on the line to uphold his convictions. "I never counted the costs personally," he wrote in a recent letter to today's unemployed which was published in the local magazine Periodic Outbursts, "I knew what I was doing and never regretted the stand that I took."