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The Arborg tax revolt — reeve manhandled by women who stripped him of his clothing
May 08, 2009

 

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)

Among those who met with Premier John Bracken on October 17, 1932, was 72-year-old J. Kilchycki of Fraserwood, the oldest marcher in the Farmers’ Army. He told  the premier, through an interpreter, he was too old to continue working and was destitute. Kilchycki said he couldn’t become a naturalized Canadian citizen because he could neither read nor write and thus was unable to get an old-age pension.

Frances Nadoryk of Rembrandt, the only woman among the delegates, told Bracken of the suffering among women and children on farms. She said sick people were unable to pay for medical care. The premier told her a public nurse was stationed in Arborg, a fact she admitted not knowing about. The premier then said the whole province was covered by public nurses “at a cost which was being considered too much in some quarters.”

M. Myshalowski, who was married and the father of children, lived on his mother’s farm and claimed he would soon be homeless as the land was about to be sold for tax arrears.

Joe Cook, 15, made the plea for free textbooks and winter clothing for children, adding that children in the district had nothing to eat but potatoes and cabbage. The premier is quoted as drawing the admission from the lad that his father had a horse, pigs, and a cow that gave milk.

John Osach, 20, and William 

Ostryziniuk, 18, asked the premier to allow sons of farmers to settle on the hundreds of acres of land seized for non-payment of taxes. They could not purchase the land, the two young men said, because they were unable to find work in order  to make the initial down payment on property in the district.

Bracken said such lands were seized by municipalities and he had no control over the matter, although he expressed the opinion that municipalities would benefit in the long run by letting such lands “go for practically nothing.”

He said abolishing tax arrears was also a municipal issue.

The premier questioned Harry Rudko, a member of the Rural Municipality of Bifrost council, as to whether the municipality would permit settlement on lands seized without payment.

Rudko replied in the negative.

“You see,” said the premier, “you do not agree among yourselves on the demands you are making. You had better get together and talk it over.”

Bracken queried the delegates on the amount of taxes they paid. One man, who owned 100 acres, said he previously pay $62 in taxes but now paid $52.

Bracken pointed out that only $2.50 of the sum went to the province and the rest was municipal taxes.

Michael Sawiak of Winnipeg, the spokesman who outlined the delegation’s demands to the premier, emphasized that the request for a guaranteed annual income of $1,000 a year had been misunderstood.

“It was made on the claim that each farmer produced at least $1,000 worth of natural wealth every year. The Farmers’ Unity League proposed that banks, oil companies and other corporations be taxed additionally to insure such an income to farmers.”

The premier told the delegates he was receiving demands for aid from all sides, and no one could be given all they asked for, although all reasonable requests would be considered. 

The premier emphasized the financial position of the province, which was $2 million short of meeting its 1932 

financial obligations.

The Free Press paraphrased Bracken as saying: “It would be hard to ask the people to provide more relief for farmers who could drive automobiles. The deputation had asked for everything free and relief from taxes. The fact that the requests had been phrased as ‘demands’ did not help the deputation.”

Bracken was a practical man, who abided by the philosophy of “pay-as-you-go,” doing everything in his power to keep the province in financial solvency, although Manitoba in 1932 was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. 

Bracken was the president of the Manitoba Agricultural College when he was approached in 1922 by the recently-elected United Farmers of Manitoba to become their first leader. Since the UFM had the largest group of MLAs in the legislature, he automatically became premier of Manitoba. 

The United Farmers was an agrarian-based populist movement with membership in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and rural Ontario. It was originally populated by farmers who believed the mainstream parties had abandoned their interests in return for big business support. The UFM called for free trade, fair competition and greater government control over large corporations. The movement believed in the capitalist system, but wanted it reformed.

Bracken was described in the Free Press as having a “hard lean look about him,” totally lacking in charisma and an “unimpressive public speaker.”  

Bracken was a firm believer in non-partisan politics, shunning any affiliation with parties and striving to maintain a coalition of all political elements in the legislature. While professing not to be a politician, behind the scenes Bracken was able to forge useful political alliances with all Manitoba parties with the exception of the Communists, whom he abhorred. 

Bracken called party politics “a waste of time.”

Although he described himself as not a “politician” and unable to make a political speech, he was noted as an ambitious man.

He was so successful in coalition building that Bracken became Manitoba’s longest-serving premier, lasting from 1922 until 1943 when he moved to Ottawa to become leader of the Progressive Conservative Party. 

“Any modern state has the option of paying its own way or having deficits,” said Bracken during the depth of the Great Depression. “We have chosen to pay our own way. No responsible government would decide otherwise.”

He believed in government providing an efficient administration. As a 

result of his efficiency, government spending declined every year throughout the 1920s after the UFM came to power.

“The lesson to be learned from the past," John Bracken said in his 1934 Budget Speech, “is, that Governments, in the interest of the State, must resist, in even greater degree than before, all demands for new expenditures, no matter how attractive the results may 

appear ...”  

In order to ensure his “balanced budget policy” worked, Bracken introduced Manitoba’s first provincial income tax. When the depression struck and tax revenues decreased, Bracken strove to maintain a balanced provincial budget by drastically slashing government spending. He increased relief expenditures 

by cancelling capital projects, cutting spending in other areas and reducing civil servant salaries. To get federal assistance in 1933, further spending cuts and tax increases had to be made in order to prove to Ottawa that the Manitoba 

government was a responsible money manager. 

A desperate Bracken said, “We shall have to save ourselves.” 

Beside gaining widespread rural approval, his stringent monetary philosophy attracted the financial and political support of powerful Winnipeg business leaders such as James Ashdown. It was a logical alliance as the UFM favoured small government, low taxes (on paper only because they raised taxes to the highest level in North America), low wages, cheap manufactured goods, low freight costs and a railway to Hudson Bay to export Manitoba grain and manufactured goods to the world market. By the 1920s, the UFM and businessmen had formed a coalition with the aim of thwarting labour’s interests.

In the 1932 provincial election, 

the strength of the coalition helped Bracken and the UFM, rebranded as Liberal-Progressives, win a majority in the Manitoba legislature.

Bracken’s roots were in rural agrarian Ontario where he was born in a log cabin in 1883. Bracken identified with rural issues since he had suffered hard times on the farm, but at the same time he was firmly committed to the pioneer ideal of hard work leading to earning a just reward. He believed in everyone’s obligation not to be idle and detested those who felt the state had an obligation to provide work for them.

Giving the Farmers’ Army what it wanted would have been contrary to Bracken’s personal and political philosophy. Bracken said by granting the “demands” of the Farmers’ Army, it would be impossible to obtain more loans if the government, as a result, defaulted on interest payments. He said the province had to borrow money to pay for the other services demanded by the people.

Near the end of the meeting, the delegation asked the premier to provide rail transportation for the hundreds of marchers back to their farms. But Bracken refused, saying he was certain the taxpayers of the province would not endorse the government for spending so much money on “transportation under the circumstances. Besides, he believed the deputation could have come to the city at less expense without bringing 300 or 400 other farmers who had to be fed along the way.”

“You should have thought about that (the cost of rail tickets) before you left,” he added.

Sawiak told the premier his refusal would be the subject of a mass meeting to be held the next day in Market Square.

Meanwhile, the length of the meeting had caused the crowd to disperse. They returned to the labour centre to await news of what had transpired. When it became evident the meeting had been fruitless, march organizers on Monday night, October 17, debated their options. It was suggested another meeting should be arranged with the premier to ask for transportation back to the marchers’ farms. Another suggestion was for a mass camp-out on the legislative grounds if the premier refused to provide railway tickets.

But the reality was that Bracken had already told Sawiak he would have no further dealings with the delegation or the Farmers’ Army. All Sawiak could offer the marchers were trucks from Workers’ International Relief to transport them home.

At a mass rally on Tuesday afternoon, Sawiak said the protest had been a success despite the failure to have the premier accede to their demands. Sawiak instructed the farmers to travel in their districts and relate what had 

happened in Winnipeg, emphasizing their disappointment in the premier. Each delegate was told to address at least six meetings and report that their demands had been turned down.

“‘Whatever happens, leaders of the Farmers’ Unity League will redouble their efforts to knit both organized and unorganized farmers closer together in the struggle against conditions that they assert have brought them closer to poverty and want,’ said Mr. Sawiak.”

Farmers across Canada were struggling to cope with the suffering brought on by the Great Depression. In Manitoba, farming was the backbone of the economy and when farmers suffered, the province suffered. Annual per capita income in Manitoba declined from $466 in 1929 to $240 in 1933. Although Manitoba’s economy was 

less dependent on wheat than Saskatchewan’s and Alberta’s, “the economic support of nearly 40 per cent of Manitoba’s population virtually collapsed” due to the drop in grain prices, according to the report of the Rowell-Sirois Royal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations released in 1940.

Wheat prices had dropped to a low not seen in decades. No. 1 Northern wheat sold for a dollar a bushel in 1929, the year the depression commenced, but dropped to 34-cents by 1932. 

Adding to the farmers’ plight was the difficulty of finding a grain buyer even at the lowest price, whether local or international. Between July 1929 and December 1932, export prices for farm products had declined 70 per cent.

During the affluence of the Roaring Twenties, farmers gambled on ever-increasing prices for their crops, enabling them to buy more land and equipment with borrowed money from friendly bankers, which added to their accumulated debt. Decreasing commodity prices after 1929, brought on the realization their gamble had not paid off, and the formerly friendly bankers 

became decidedly unfriendly. 

Their plight was intensified by drought drying up their crops and hordes of grasshoppers devouring whatever was left standing in their fields.

As a result of the hard times, Manitoba farmers lost up to 50 per cent of their income. In rural areas, cash-strapped farmers seeking medical assistance were forced to pay doctors  with chickens, jam or firewood. 

The plight of rural Manitobans was exemplified by 19 families, including 40 children, taking up residence on the Manitoba Legislative grounds on September 23, 1931. They had been forced off farms or came from small towns where work was unavailable, but did not qualify for relief as they had not resided in Winnipeg long enough. A crowd of 150 men barred attempts to evict the squatters by officials.

When unable to pay taxes levied on their land by municipalities, farmers feared their land would be seized for tax arrears. They also feared banks would seize their land for failing to keep up with their mortgage and loan payments. Often, all they were asked to pay was the interest on their loans, but even this was beyond their meager means.

Arborg district farmer Michael Krylchuk, a father of four children, told Bracken during the October 17 meeting  that he was being evicted from his farm for non-payment of interest on a $350 bank loan.

The premier questioned him about his resources and it was reported that the man owned a $1,700 automobile. Presumably, the premier felt the man should sell his car to pay back the loan and then ride a horse as his primary means of transportation.

Bracken had correctly pointed out to the delegates that provincial legislation provided some relief to farmers in tax arrears. Under new legislation, which had to be voluntarily adopted by municipalities, tax arrears payments would be spread over a five-year period, provided the current year’s taxes had been paid in full.  

“The spirit of the Debt Adjustment Act is to prevent evictions in all cases where men are striving fairly to meet their obligations,” said Bracken when announcing the new legislation.

But Bifrost wasn’t one of the 60 of the 120 municipalities to voluntarily accept the act, which led to the next stage of the farmers’ protest brought on by a scheduled sale of property for tax arrears.

Prior to the culmination of events in Arborg, “a threatening situation had been brewing for some time,” according to a report in the Free Press. “On November 12, when the Bifrost 

municipal council met, ... a mob of farmers invaded the council chambers and demanded that the councillors resign. This was not done, but fearing mob violence the reeve appealed to the attorney-general for greater police protection in that area.” 

A week earlier a protest by Chatfield-area farmers resulted in the cancellation of sales of property for tax arrears. In Chatfield, the provincial trustee had been accepting payments in livestock in lieu of cash, but this practice was discontinued when prices for pigs and cows tumbled downward. Chatfield became a “disorganized” municipality due to its financial woes. In effect, its council was abolished and replaced by a trustee as a result of the  municipality being placed in a type of provincial government-sanctioned 

receivership. 

Throughout the region, municipal governments were feeling the pinch due to ever-declining tax collections. As the farmers experienced hard times, so did the municipalities.

The financial difficulties experienced in Bifrost had resulted in the northern portion of the municipality also being becoming “disorganized” and placed in the hands of a trustee.

On Tuesday, November 19, 1932, farmers converged on Arborg from as far away as Petersfield, Gimli, Chatfield and the unorganized district in the northern portion of the Municipality of Bifrost. The gathering mobs’ most pressing issue was to stop a tax sale slated for that day in the Interlake community.

“Composed for the most part of Ukrainian men and women,with a sprinkling of Poles, the demonstration is believed to have been engineered by the same minds that organized the recent farmers’ march to Winnipeg from the district (in mid-October),” reported the December 1, 1932, Free Press.

After arriving in Arborg about noon, the demonstrators paraded around the town. “Scattered at intervals through the parade  huge banners demanded immediate cancellation of the tax sale and demanded ‘food for our starving children.’”

When the parade came to a hastily-constructed platform, one of their leaders jumped onto it and “told the paraders of the inequities of the present system,” inciting “them to rid the municipalities of its officers.”

For two hours, the crowd of about 500 “disgruntled farmers” was harangued by speakers, when finally a “general call to the attack” was made.

The crowd rushed to the door of the municipal office. “It was locked. They started to break it down when the secretary (of Bifrost) Martin M. Johnson opened it for them. In they rushed like water breaking through a dam, and in a moment the inside of the office was a seething mass of shouting, swelling 

humanity. Gradually the leaders restored some kind of order and formed a delegation to present themselves to Reeve B. (Bjarni) T. Sigvaldason. He refused and the real action started.”

Someone in the mob shouted, “Tar and feather him!”

“Break a few bones!” another yelled.

They compromised by stripping the clothes off the reeve’s back . He lost his coat, a pair of trousers, his shirt and tie, as well as his “good nature.” Apparently, the culprits were irate women who overpowered the RCMP and three others protecting the reeve to climb the desk the reeve was standing on. 

The only item left covering a portion of Sigvaldason’s body was his footwear, but the mob deemed it necessary to make their point by stomping on the reeve’s shoe-clad toes while also slapping his face.

Because Johnson “was just a tool,” he escaped the reeve’s fate.

“He must do what he is ordered,” declared a rioter. “Let him go.”

The Free Press reported that Sigvaldason “concluded that discretion was, perhaps, the wisest thing, and acceded to their demands.

“Exultant rioters then forced the secretary to type out a letter of resignation, shoved it under the reeve’s nose and made him sign it. They made him call off the tax sale. Then they got at the records. File after file came crashing down from its stand. The assessment roll was trampled underfoot and practically every record of the 

office was destroyed.”

The Free Press said the people who crowded into the municipal office “ruthlessly” took the law into their own hands. The newspaper called the rioters a “wild band of 500 disgruntled farmers.”

Newspapers referring to the happenings that day in Arborg, called it either a riot, a revolution or an outbreak.

Three RCMP officers futilely tried to prevent the mob from manhandling the reeve, who took to the desktop to place himself in a more advantageous position  to fend off the attackers, but the odds were heavily stacked against them and the reeve’s would-be protectors were quickly overcome. 

What happened in Arborg was so unusual — even during the hard times created by the Great Depression in Manitoba — that the Winnipeg newspaper ran a two-line bold banner headline on its front page declaring, Reeve of Arborg Attacked by Mob of Farmers: Forced to Sign Resignation.

A December 2 editorial in the Free Press pointed out the importance of the incident in Arborg, saying “that the conditions in the district are of an extremely distressful character, and that the outbreak is an indication of the desperation of the people who rioted ... If conditions in the Arborg district are such as to justify such a statement (“food for our starving children”), that is a fact which should be made known ...” The editorial said an investigation ordered by Manitoba’s attorney-general in the aftermath of the riot “should leave nothing undone to get to the roots of the trouble in the general interests of the whole province.”

Comments contained in letters to the editor were mixed, offering either support for the farmers or denunciation of the march organizers. A letter dated December 12 from A. Martyniuk, 88 Grove St. in Winnipeg, claimed the “poor farmers” were “instigated by Moscow agents. Such action would be answered in Russia by the firing squad of the GPU (secret police). To clear the Ukrainian name I would suggest that all Ukrainians in Canada petition the Canadian government at Ottawa to deport all troublemakers .” He claimed Soviet agitators do not believe in a nationality,“as they are” self-professed “internationalists.”

“There are cases here in Winnipeg where Communists were deported by the Canadian government and entered Canada again under false passports from Poland ... The case in Arborg is a disgrace to all good Canadians who care for the welfare of our great Dominion and for law and order in it,” he added.

(Next week: part 3)