The Wages of Relief
220 pages, 6 x 8
Release Date:15 May 2013

The Wages of Relief

Cities and the Unemployed in Prairie Canada, 1929-39

Athabasca University Press

In the early part of the Dirty Thirties, the Canadian prairie citywas a relatively safe haven. Having faced recession before the GreatWar and then again in the early 1920s, municipalities already hadrelief apparatuses in place to deal with poverty and unemployment.Until 1933, responsibility for the care of the urban poor remained withlocal governments, but when the farms failed that year, and theDepression deepened, western Canadian cities suffered tremendously.Recognizing the severity of the crisis, the national governmentintervened. Evolving federal programs and policies took overresponsibility for the delivery of relief to the single unemployed,while the government simultaneously withdrew financing for all publicworks projects.

Setting municipal relief administrations of the 1930s within a widerliterature on welfare and urban poor relief, Strikwerda highlights thelegacy on which relief policymakers relied in determining policydirections, as well as the experiences of the individuals and familieswho depended on relief for their survival. Focusing on three prairiecities—Edmonton, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg—Strikwerda arguesthat municipal officials used their power to set policy to address whatthey perceived to be the most serious threats to the social orderstemming from the economic crisis. By analyzing the differing ways inwhich local relief programs treated married and single men, he alsoexplores important gendered dynamics at work in the response of cityadministrators to the social and economic upheaval of the Depression.Probing the mindset of local elites struggling in extraordinarycircumstances, The Wages of Relief describes the enduringimpact of the policy changes made in the 1930s in the direction of abroad, national approach to unemployment—an approach that usheredin Canada’s modern welfare system.

Eric Strikwerda teaches Canadian history at theUniversity of Alberta and labour studies/industrial relations atAthabasca University.

List of Tables and Figures



1.   The Rise of the City ReliefMachines

2.   The Anatomy of City Relief

3.   Building Cities

4.   Unemployed Men at Work

5.   Local Responsibility in Decline





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