Building the Road to Save the Town

Lake of the Woods Museum Newsletter
Vol. 29 No. 2 – Spring 2019

by Braden Murray

One hundred years ago this month, in March 1919, there was a vote in Kenora that fundamentally changed the look and feel of life in town. In the third week of March, the taxpayers of Kenora voted overwhelmingly in favour of taking on a massive public debt to build roads and sidewalks in town.  This program began that summer and lasted until the late 1930s. However, there was more to this decision than keeping boots dry and skirt hems clean. If we look below the surface the plan was to stave off fear, xenophobia, and keep Kenora from ripping itself apart. 

The story actually begins in the fall of 1918. With the war still raging in Europe, Kenora was fighting its own battle here at home. The Spanish Flu was ripping through town and sowing destruction in its wake. Normally healthy people were falling ill and dying within days. Churches, schools, and theatres were closed and all public meetings cancelled. The banner headline in the newspaper on the day the war ended was not news of peace, but rather news that the town’s new Carnegie Library would be converted into an emergency hospital. Life in Kenora was at a grim standstill. 

The Spanish Flu epidemic was not only killing people, it was also taking a toll on the town’s budget. Already stretched thin by war-time commitments and by national prohibition snatching away the town’s share of liquor license fees, Kenora was looking at hefty tax increases and deep cuts to make up the difference. One area that had been cut continually during the war years was public works and in this new funding crunch the roads budget was cut to the bone. Roads in Kenora in 1918 were simple compacted dirt, and wooden sidewalks were built to keep pedestrians’ feet out of the mud. These roads and sidewalks were inexpensive to build but required constant maintenance to remain passable. By December 1918 the roads in town had become a swampy mess and whole sections of the wooden sidewalks were badly damaged and near collapse. 

January 1919 brought new and exciting beginnings. The Spanish Flu was largely gone and the winter had frozen the swampy streets. And with the war ending the previous November, soon hundreds of thousands of soldiers would be returning home to Canada. While this was very exciting for their loved ones, there was also a degree of apprehension from many government officials. Would these men, fresh from the brutality of the western front, be able to re-integrate into society? With no jobs waiting for them and no home life to come back to, would these men turn to radicalism? Turn to strikes? Resort to violence and Bolshevism like so many had in Europe? The Winnipeg General Strike was only months away at this point, and the tensions were already simmering in the union halls and labour temples across the west, including Kenora.

Compounding this policy problem of re-integration was the tight organization of returned veterans. Even before the war ended a chapter of the Great War Veterans Association of Canada (GWVA) had been organized in Kenora. In addition to welcoming home veterans from the front, the organization was involved in advocacy and lobbying on behalf of veterans. With a membership in the hundreds they formed a powerful voting block in a small town like Kenora. By early 1919 there was growing resentment among Canadian veterans toward immigrants, and specifically “enemy aliens” who had not participated in the war effort (as it was illegal for them to do so). There was a growing feeling that while the veterans fought and died in the trenches, these men stayed home and stole their jobs. Specifically in Kenora this meant Ukrainian Canadians. At a meeting of the Kenora GWVA on February 10th, 1919 the local chapter echoed this sentiment.  They adopted a resolution that read:

THAT WHEREAS soldiers are now coming home in great numbers and the scarcity of positions is being felt. 

BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED  by the Kenora Branch of the Great War Veterans Association of Canada that the different labor organizations who are protecting enemy aliens in their organiza-tions should now take steps to drop these men and thereby open up more positions for returning men.

AND BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that labor organizations should not accept any more alien enemies in their organizations.

This was a direct shot across the bow of Kenora’s Ukrainian population. Ukraine, as we know it, did not yet exist, so the hundreds of Ukrainians in Kenora were seen as members of the Austro-Hungarian Empire — an enemy of Canada and co-conspirator with the Germans. They were seen as “enemy aliens” and in the eyes of the local GWVA they should have all been fired so that veterans could have their jobs on the railway, in the flour mills, and in the lumber yards.

Macadamized road

The fears that government officials across Canada had at the beginning of the year were playing out in real time here in Kenora. This conflict between local veterans and Ukrainians had potential to rip Kenora in half.  There was also fear that local unions actually would fire all their Ukrainian members, leaving hundreds of unemployed “enemy aliens” in town with nothing to lose. Surely a bolshevik-style revolution would follow! Kenora was in crisis.

On the very same night the GWVA “enemy alien” resolution was passed, Mayor George Toole and the other members of Kenora’s Town Council were hatching a plan that was in direct response to this resolution. Clearly someone had tipped them off that the GWVA would be adopting this extreme resolution and drastic action was needed. During the monthly Town Council meeting Mayor Toole proposed an ambitious plan that would both improve the town and relieve some pressure on the brewing conflict. Under his plan the town would borrow $17,000 (equivalent to $240,000 in 2019) in order to hire returning soldiers to build new roads in town. These roads would be built in the “MacAdam” style.  These “Macadamized” roads were essentially layers of crushed rock (adding coal tar to MacAdam roads is where we get the term “tarmac”). This layered rock surface would offer a big improvement over Kenora’s tired muddy streets. In addition, concrete sidewalks would be constructed to complete the improvement. The plan was conditionally approved, but as always there was a question of where the money would come from. Like today, the Town of Kenora of 1919 was in a bit of a funding pinch. There wasn’t a spare $17,000 laying around. In order for the town to borrow that kind of money they would need to have a vote.

For the month leading up to the vote the newspaper was filled with ads from the town office in support of the by-law.  The March 12th advertisement reminded people that, “With… good streets in our town, the number of automobile owners will increase many fold”, and on March 15th citizens were exhorted to, “Vote for the Bylaw and Make Kenora Western Canada’s Most Attractive Town“. The roads that were to be completed in the summer of 1919 were in the downtown core — Main Street to Second, Second to Railway, Chipman to First Street, and Matheson Street. The ad campaign also reminded tax payers that $2,000 of the money was specifically going to purchase equipment so eventually all of the town’s roads could be upgraded. The local chapter of the Great War Veterans Association (GWVA) also got involved, publishing a letter of support which read in part:

In our organization there is a considerable number of returned men who are out of employment. The carrying on of this proposed work would give them something to do and prevent the spread of disaffection through unemployment. If there is nothing done we shall have the same trouble here as has happened in other places….

People must not forget that every one of these men left a position to go fight for the principles of democracy and on return they find an autocracy which is their discontent. 

No person who is loyal can calmly contemplate the result of 500,000 men returning with possibly a dollar in their pockets and finding their jobs filled by foreigners who have been getting rich while we have been spilling our blood like water to protect the country from the Hun.

In their letter the Kenora GWVA heartily endorsed the suggested bylaw, and went further, offering to provide work crews to build both a town golf course and a new hockey rink (Victoria Rink, home of the 1907 Thistles, had burned in 1915). 

The vote was held over four days — March 20th, 21st, 22nd, and 24th, 1919. The poll was held in Kenora in the town council chambers, and in Norman at the private residence of Herbert Ritchie. The vote was run under the Railway Men’s Election Act rules, meaning that the polls had to be scheduled so that any railroader could be guaranteed an opportunity to get to a polling station either before leaving on a train or after returning from work. Additionally, only property owners were allowed to vote, as this bylaw would directly raise their taxes for the next 20 years.

The result of the vote was announced on the evening of March 24th, and it was a blistering victory for the “yes” side. Of the 189 votes cast, 161 voted yes, while 28 voted no. Though the voter turnout was only about 20% of eligible voters, the result was seen as an “excellent indication of the will of the rate payers.” At a special council meeting on May 6th the Superintendent of Roads was instructed to hire the workers he needed for the summer work at a rate of $8.50/day ($120/day in 2019). A little over a week later the Winnipeg General Strike was in full swing, but work in Kenora did not cease.

There was no shortage of uncertainty in Canada in 1919, and Kenora was no exception. The return of soldiers from Europe was great for families, but for policy makers it offered a challenge that Canada had never faced before.  Over a span of about five months, nearly half a million working age men arrived back in Canada. Many had been overseas for years, and were eager to return to the lives they had left behind. However, in life nothing is ever that simple, and as we saw here there was a maze of emotions and demands that civic leaders had to navigate.

The point of this essay isn’t to say that Kenora narrowly avoided a general strike or even violence in the spring of 1919 (though it did). Rather it’s meant to tell the story of a clever plan employed by Kenora’s civic leaders to build improvements, and more importantly, get (and keep) people working. The plan was to build a few roads, but by doing so they helped build up a community in transition, solved an immediate crisis and, at the very least, kept a few more boots dry and skirt hems clean.


Did you know?

Group of Seven member, Frank Johnston, visited Kenora and painted “Serenity, Lake of the Woods” in 1922, a shoreline view of Kenora with it’s distinctive smoke stacks from the pulp and paper mills.