Radical Action–Book looks back at the On-to-Ottawa Trek of 1935

Some Canadians think of history as distant and irrelevant, but Elroy Deimert’s new book, Pubs, Pulpits & Prairie Fires, brings an important part of the Prairie past to life in a contemporary context.

“My son recently told me Canadian history is boring. The point is that it’s not. It is fascinating. People must be telling it wrong. I hope this book will help to change his mind, and make this part of history relevant,” says the author of this creative non-fiction book that shares the stories of the On-to-Ottawa Trek and the Regina Riot of 1935.

“The 1930s was a terrible decade. Over 50 per cent of single men were unemployed. Social allowances were cut off at the age of 16 or 17. Many unemployed men were herded into relief camps and paid 20 cents per day,” says Deimert.

Such conditions led to radical action. “Fourteen hundred trekkers decided to ride the rails from Vancouver to Ottawa. The Prime Minister stopped them in Regina.”

This is no academic history book although it could have been. A number of academic publishers wanted Diemert to write an academic book. He didn’t.

“I wanted to make it a popular read. I thought creative non-fiction was the ay to go,” says the former member of the federal executive of the NDP, history enthusiast, social activist, and English literature instructor at Grande Prairie Regional College in Grande Prairie, Alberta.

So he chose to tell the real stories within the fictional framework of a group of friends who meet at BJ’s Bar and Cue Club to talk history. the bar is inspired by one of a similar name in Grande Prairie, the professor by Deimert himself. Other characters-such as Daniella, and ordained United Church minister, and Sammy, a “rig-pig”-who gather to share the stories are fictional, except for historical figures Matt Shaw and Doc Savage. The stories are true to the many interviews Deimert did with those who had experienced or heard about the trek and the Regina Riot.

When he started his research in the 1990’s, Deimert learned that his wife’s grandmother was a young girl leaving a movie theatre in Regina on the day of the riot, when a man came in from the street to tell her it was not safe because the police were shooting at people. Hers is just one of the fascinating personal stories woven into the book.

“The narratives are about the trek and the riot, about Tommy Douglas and the rise of Social Credit, and all narratives are carefully presented,” says Diemert.

“It’s about the foundation of modern social nets like employment insurance and pensions. They grew out of the terrible experience of the 1930s.”

Deimert demonstrates that these tellers of historical stories are in fact a part of history and the keepers of history.

“We often think of history as a story back there that doesn’t affect us,” he says. “The event of telling a story is also a part of history. Told through people’s eyes, in their version, history is never really objective. Individual accounts are important to our culture. “We should celebrate the telling of those stories and how they affect us today”. - Liz Katynski, Prairie Books NOW, Fall/Winter2009

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