The Regina Riot: An Interview with Bill Waiser

Historian Bill Waiser joined Heritage Regina on April 11, 2024 for the conclusion of our 2024 Lecture Series, talking attendees about the lead-up to the Regina Riot, the riot itself, and the covered-up death of trekker Nick Schaack.

This article was originally published in the March/April 2024 edition of the Cathedral Village Voice.

The On-to-Ottawa trekkers arriving in Regina on June 14, 1935. Photo credit: Regina Leader-Post

By Sarah Wood

As we stand amidst rapidly rising inflation, with economic downturns seemingly coming on faster and more furious than ever, we are reminded of those who have struggled in this climate before. The ‘dirty thirties’ saw Regina become the hub of economic and labour protests with the Regina Riot of 1935, a labour revolt of men making their way to Ottawa to have their voices heard. “All Hell Can’t Stop Us” is their refrain.

Bill Waiser, celebrated Saskatchewan historian and author of “All Hell Can’t Stop Us: The On-To-Ottawa Trek and the Regina Riot,” recounts his father quipping he was “a guest of R.B. Bennett for a year”, describing his time in a B.C. labour camp in the 1930s, a temporary solution for the many young men out of work put in place by then-prime minister Bennett.

“When it did leave Vancouver in early June 1935, it was a faint hope that they would ever make it to Ottawa… riding atop boxcars, not inside, through the mountains. You’ve got to get logistical support, community support,” says Waiser. “Nobody thought the trek would make it through the mountains.”

The trek made it through the mountains and into Regina before being stopped by the RCMP, at the federal government’s request, calling the trekkers “a revolution on wheels.” There were concerns that the trekkers were a militarized Communist group, and they were stirring up community support. “What communists were saying about the failure of capitalism was being played before people’s eyes in the 1930s, and that’s why the trek was portrayed as communist,” says Waiser. “[the trek is] capturing the imagination of people. In Western Canada you’ve had five years of depression… They’re giving voice to people’s frustration.” However, Waiser notes that “they were very well behaved… leadership knew that the police were just waiting for some reason to stop the trek.”

Why stop in Regina? Waiser responds with a question: “What’s on Dewdney?” He is referring, of course, to the RCMP Depot, further explaining, “You’ve got a conservative prime minister… you’ve got a liberal premier [Gardiner] who has been a thorn in their side…complaining about federal policy.”

The trek was stalled in Regina for two weeks. Unable to find a way forward, trekkers decided to disband, and were in talks with Gardiner to arrange leaving. At the very time that Gardiner was speaking to his legislative cabinet about it, the RCMP moved in to disband the trek, sending the city police in first to clear a path through the crowd to the trek leaders. “The actions of the Regina city police provoked a riot,” said Waiser, noting that the Mounties joined the riot shortly after. “It’s urban warfare for several hours on the streets of downtown Regina.”

The riot ended with city police firing guns into the rally. “There were a number of injuries—hundreds. Tens of thousands of millions of dollars of damage to the city.” Search Regina’s downtown, and you will find plaques remembering that day and its costs—financial and political. One police officer was killed, Detective Charles Miller, and this death is well-known. Less known, however, is a civilian death. In fact, Waiser says his death was covered up. “It’s a police and federal government choice. And I’ll be talking about how the cover up was done [in his April 11 lecture].”

“They were perfect circumstances. You bring together a group of young men in isolated camps and all they face is a dead-end future. They’re living dead end lives, and they want to do something about it,” said Waiser about the economic situation that the trek rose out of. “Nobody wanted to deal with them, nobody wanted to meet with them, nobody wanted to address their grievances. So, they decided to take the message to Ottawa.” A perfect storm, but there are still takeaways.

89 years later, Waiser shares what he thinks we can learn from the Regina Riot: “The idea of care. The idea of caring. These people were engaged. People would come out and listen to speakers and they were engaged, and they wanted to talk issues and I think that’s one lesson we can take.”


Sarah Wood is the Executive Director of Heritage Regina.

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