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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Winter years in Cowichan a study of the depression in a Vancouver Island community Wright, Arthur James

Abstract

The purpose of this thesis has been to examine the effects of the Great Depression on the rural Cowichan Valley district of Vancouver Island. During the period under consideration the Cowichan area contained a small city which was surrounded by an area of expanding rural settlement, which was in turn encompassed by a vast, heavily timbered hinterland. As a result, it has been possible to view the consequences of the depression on a variety of types of people, and on two of the province's principal economic concerns, namely agriculture and lumbering. The introductory section of the paper gives a brief review of the valley's economic, political and social background from 1850 to 1912. It is contained in the thesis in order to familiarize the reader with the Cowichan region and some of its traditional problems and biases. Chapter I, "The People: a Builder", is a chronological investigation of the political, social and economic developments which took place in the 1920's decade, and is in essence a preparatory chapter, giving pertinent background material to the actual study of the depression. It reveals the slow currents of change which took place in the years following World War I. Many of the problems experienced during the reconstruction period and throughout the post-war depression, particularly in the field of provincial politics, will be seen to fade in importance during the prosperous years toward the end of the decade, only to re-emerge even more forcefully during the thirties. This is particularly true with regard to political disaffections expressed by the farmers of the community. This chapter also reveals the growing importance to the valley's economy of the local lumber industry. Before World War I agriculture was regarded as Cowichan's basic source of income, but by 1929 the forest industry was employing many hundreds of men and distributing thousands of dollars annually in the valley. The first chapter concludes with a review of circumstances in Cowichan as they stood in 1929. The citizens of the district could look back over a decade of ever-increasing prosperity, and look forward to the future with a sense of unbounded optimism. From the quantities of raw material available in the local newspaper, church records, municipal minutes, local histories and government publications, the story of the Winter Years in Cowichan has been gathered. Three years of unemployment, deprivation and suffering, the likes of which had never before been experienced in the valley, were ushered in with the collapse of British Columbia's lumber industry early in 1930. Chapter two gives witness to the gradual deterioration of community life which took place between 1930 and 1934, in spite of the continued efforts of individuals, civic organizations, and the local municipal governments to meet the needs of the ever-increasing number of unemployed. Chapter three relates the story of Cowichan's struggle to throw off the mantle of the Winter Years and to regain the prosperity which the community had enjoyed in 1929. The key to this recovery was discovered in 1934 with the establishment of new world markets for British Columbia's lumber trade. Within a matter of weeks the problems of the depression seemed to belong to the past as the majority of the valley's population began to reap the benefits of the renewed harvest of forest products. It was during this period of recovery, however, that the most forceful reactions were registered in Cowichan against the preceding years of misery and suffering. The old-line political parties were accused of gross inadequacies as the traditionally Conservative Cowichan-Newcastle riding elected a new provincial representative whose platform was based solely on the tenets of the Oxford Group. Unrest was also prevalent among many of the young men who were employed in the local logging camps. They felt that a certain degree of responsibility for the depression lay with the capitalistic "boss-loggers". The men were encouraged in these beliefs by the machinations of a group of militant Communists who had gained control of the province's lumbering and longshoremen's unions. For three consecutive years these men threatened Cowichan's economic recovery by taking the loggers and the longshoremen out on strike in an effort to disrupt production in British Columbia's primary industry. It was only with the settlement of the last of these labour problems in 1936, that the Cowichan area threw off the last vestiges of the depression. The general conclusions reached in this study indicate that while the depression in Cowichan was relatively short-lived, and was not as severe as that experienced in other parts of the province, it did have some very decisive effects. Politically it resulted in a definite swing from right to left, as Cowichan went into the depression a traditionally Conservative riding and emerged supporting the C.C.F. party. Economically, the depression saw the virtual collapse of Cowichan's agricultural economy, while the position of the lumber industry was greatly strengthened. Socially, the depression witnessed many changes. The effect of years of deprivation and uncertainty on the individual was traumatic. For the community as a whole the early 1930's had been a severe test, but in the long run they had resulted in a stronger sense of understanding and solidarity among the varied groups which were included in the valley's population.

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