By the winter of 1933 some 32% of the Canadian work-force was jobless and by April over 1.5 million Canadians, 15% of the population, depended on direct relief for survival. Even by 1939 a million people were still on relief. Direct relief, formerly a public charity granted to the chronically poor, was extended in the Depression to those whose destitution was caused solely by unemployment or by loss of the means of livelihood, as in the case of drought-stricken farmers. The distribution of relief reflected the pattern of hardship across the country. Saskatchewan, with its devastated farming economy (Drought and Depression on the Prairies, Vol. III, Plate 43), had the highest proportion of relief recipients in its population. In contrast, Maritimers were less likely to go on relief because of their traditional access to basic sustenance.The relief rolls of urban areas were disproportionately large, reflecting not only the main concentrations of unemployment but also the in-migration of those seeking help. Many municipalities experienced great difficulties coping with this influx (Managing the Relief Burden, Vol. III, Plate 42). Soup kitchens, queues for job openings, and 'hobo jungles' became the habitual world for many unemployed. Some travelled from place to place - usually 'riding the rails' on freight cars - seeking 'work and wages' instead of 'the pogey' or instead of work in a relief camp (Managing the Relief Burden,Vol. III, Plate 42). This could bring a stint of work on a farm, in a logging camp, or in a gold mine, sometimes interspersed with an excursion to the milder BC coast in winter.
Relief allowances were small, less than could be earned even in the worst-paid jobs, and thus it was difficult for families to live entirely on relief. Eligibility rules and the funds that were available varied from municipality to municipality across the country. Rarely were the necessities of life - food, housing, fuel, and clothing - adequately covered by relief. Only in western cities did the relief ration permit the maintenance of a 'restricted emergency diet' (a minimum standard, regarded by health agencies as nutritionally inadequate for prolonged periods). Most Canadians on relief suffered from poor health and cases of scurvy and rickets attested to malnutrition. In an attempt to deal with the enormity of the relief burden a 'Canadians first' policy surfaced and over 17 000 foreign 'public charges' were deported between 1929 and 1935. The policy was stopped after the 1935 election.
Labourers and blue-collar workers were most seriously affected by unemployment, particularly by the collapse of the construction industry and the widespread loss of manufacturing jobs. Civil servants and professional and managerial groups were least touched. Those fortunate to remain employed faced job insecurity and suffered cuts in wages, although this was less of a problem for salaried or unionized workers. The decline in prices reduced the cost of living, however, and some workers even benefited from an enhanced purchasing power and could enjoy a higher standard of living than in the pre-Depression years.
The establishment of work camps by the dominion government in 1932 represents one of the few relief measures which went beyond grants or loans. 162 camps were established, with a peak of 125 in operation during 1934. Over 170 000 men spent time in these camps. The camps represented an attempt to counteract the demoralizing effect of direct relief by providing steady work. However, they were also aimed at alleviating the perceived threat of large groups of discontented, single, homeless men who were congregating in the cities. Denial of municipal relief forced single men to go to these camps. Once there, military discipline, the unskilled menial nature of the work, and wages of 20 cents a day created dissatisfaction. Ironically the camps also provided an opportunity for Communist organization and recruitment. Following a series of strikes (Workers' Responses, Vol. III, Plate 45) and public criticism the camps were closed in 1936.