‘What can I give them, poor as I am?’: Lindsay’s 1931 Citizens’ Relief Association

By Ian McKechnie

From the Toronto Star archives, circa 1933, showing a woodpile behind the old Lindsay Town Hall, ready to be chopped up by transients in exchange for food.

On July 12 of this year, a number of local citizens gathered in the Academy Theatre for a screening of I, Daniel Blake.

The fourth installment in this year’s TIFF Films on the Scugog series, organized under the auspices of the Kawartha Art Gallery in collaboration with the Academy Theatre, I, Daniel Blake paints a poignant picture of poverty in contemporary Britain.

Those who have seen the film will remember the cold and impersonal way in which Daniel Blake ‒ a 59 year-old journeyman carpenter who embarks on a frustrating process of appeal after being denied “employment and support allowance” ‒ is treated.  Government bureaucracy, dependent as it is on computers and automated systems, is by and large presented in the film as being insensitive to the needs of people like Mr. Blake, who is not skilled at using a computer to complete the litany of forms required to apply for an appeal.  This stands in sharp contrast to the kindly and helpful volunteers at a local food bank to which Daniel Blake pays a visit.

The solution to poverty, the film strongly implied, is best dealt with through the practical work of compassionate human beings, not by relying on faceless computing machines brought in by government-imposed austerity measures.

Things were different almost 90 years ago, particularly in small towns like Lindsay. During the Great Depression, when computers were nonexistent and human interaction was a little less impersonal than it is in the era of smartphones, the whole community was called upon to support their less fortunate friends and neighbours. It still is, and the good work being done by the Basic Income Canada Network, the Salvation Army, the Kawartha Lakes Food Source, and other organizations carries on a long tradition of Lindsay lending a helping hand.

One of the best (if often-forgotten-about) examples of the community cooperating to help those in need was the Citizens’ Relief Association. Established in the autumn of 1931, the Citizens’ Relief Association was a joint venture between the Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs, and was designed “…to find work, homes, and food for those in want.”  Circumstances had become increasingly dire for many families since the onset of the Depression two years before, as the following comments made by a prominent local citizen two weeks before Christmas, 1931, attest:

We have been in direct contact with homes where little children cry for bread and look into the eyes of parents who are unable to supply it; where they ask for clothing but must continue to shiver; where one meal of porridge without milk is the sole diet for 24 hours; where three or four young children are without milk; where a man with three years’ record in the trenches has been without steady work for over one year but is endeavouring to support a wife and child.

To compound the problem, a steady stream of unemployed men were making their way through town by riding illegally on passing freight trains and lodging overnight in the police lockup.  Often, these “hobos,” or “transients,” would be offered a warm meal by private homeowners in exchange for some work: chopping firewood or cutting weeds, for instance.

The approximate location, based on contemporary news reports, of the hobo ‘jungle.’

Unfortunately, there was for every goodhearted citizen and grateful transient a few individuals who made the situation more challenging. Over the summer of 1931, a significant number of these “knights of the road” began to loiter in the vicinity of the “south iron bridge” at the easternmost edge of Durham Street. Here they found shelter in a ramshackle barn, Canadian National Railway cabooses, empty railway passenger cars, or sometimes simply the long grass surrounding what came to be called “The Jungle.”

Several brawls broke out, panhandling in the surrounding neighbourhoods became a problem, a passenger coach was accidentally set afire, and the sanitary conditions of the camp ‒ now a beautiful park bordering the Scugog River ‒ were deemed unsuitable. “The Jungle” was dismantled on November 2, 1931.

It was about this time that the work of the Citizens’ Relief Association ramped up.

Adopting the slogan “Nobody Hungry, Nobody Cold,” the Citizens’ Relief Association organized under the leadership of T.H. Stinson, M.P. (1881-1965), and Frank L. Weldon (1899-1985), the youthful county clerk and president of the local Rotary Club.  Seven sub-committees were struck, and these dealt with finance; supply; investigation; distribution; job-getting; the proposed soup kitchen; and publicity.

Local citizens were urged to find odd jobs for those in need, and several anonymous individuals came forward with donations of food for the supply committee. In the November 13, 1931 edition of the Lindsay Daily Post, for example, we read about a man who, having already sold the committee a bag of carrots, “…said that he was poor but that he wanted to contribute two bags of potatoes and a bag of turnips as his donation.”

Frank Weldon (1899-1985), vice-chairman of the Citizens’ Relief Association in 1931.

The Lindsay Women’s Institute committed itself to canning fruit and vegetables, and even the Boy Scouts got in on the act, soliciting scrap wood to make toys for local children. The town’s movers and shakers stepped up to the plate, with Lady Hughes ‒ widow of the infamous Sir Sam Hughes ‒ contributing a generous $50 (almost $830 CAD today) to the Relief Fund during the second week of December.

Perhaps the Citizens’ Relief Association’s greatest undertaking was the soup kitchen, which opened for business at the armouries on December 7, 1931.  Faced with the influx of transients ‒ for which the local police department could do very little in terms of feeding them ‒ and looming winter weather, the Citizens’ Relief Association joined forces with the local regiment, which volunteered to contribute two-thirds of the cost of dishes, to provide wholesome meals to those in need.

As with other initiatives undertaken by the relief association, the public response was heartening, with many businesses, private citizens, and organizations making in-kind donations of canned tomatoes and jam; baked goods; milk; honey; and even meal tickets for the Lindsay Café.  By December 22, 1931, the soup kitchen was preparing upwards of 40 meals a day, something it continued to do throughout the remainder of the winter season.

The work carried out by the Lindsay Citizen’s Relief Association in the latter part of 1931 remains an overlooked footnote in local history, but it’s one that should inspire us as a community to, in the words of Reverend John Wesley (1703-1791), “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

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