Vancouver Centennial Plaque #11 – Reading of the Riot Act


198 W Hastings


Vancouver Film School, to the right of the front door





April 23, 1935

From the steps of the Cenotaph, Mayor Gerald McGeer read the Riot Act to disperse a crowd protesting conditions in the relief camps.”

Credit: Vancouver Centennial Commission, Historic Plaque Program – list and documentation plaques 1-49 (June 18, 1986). Courtesy of Vancouver Archives


To “read the riot act” is such a common phrase, but I’d never really considered where it came from. The original Riot Act was a piece of British legislation (spread all over the Commonwealth) that was used to get large groups to disperse. If there was a group of 12 or more people "unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together", a city official would read the specific wording from Act and the group had to move on – if they didn’t, authorities could use force to break up the gathering. In addition, once the Act had been read, the punishment for rioting became much harsher.

In 1935, Canada was in the grip of the Great Depression. Federal relief camps were set up to provide food and shelter for single, unemployed men, but the living conditions were very poor and the residents were used for public work construction on very low wages.

Around 1,700 men from relief camps assembled in Vancouver, “on strike for work and wages”. On April 23, a protest march took place, including marching through the aisles of the Hudson’s Bay department store. There’s a vivid recollection of the march through the store on the BC Labour Heritage website.

After regrouping at Victory Square, the strikers sent a delegation to talk to Mayor Gerald McGeer. The mayor said he could only offer them free lodging and, as they left the building, the delegates were arrested. Mayor McGeer and 200 police officers went to Victory Square, where he read the Riot Act in a “barely audible voice” and starting with “Good morning, boys. You asked for it”. The strikers retreated to their headquarters a few blocks away. Later that night, the police raided and a full-scale riot ensued – lasting for two hours and injuring six police officers, three strikers and one bystander.

The plaque overlooks Victory Square and is installed on the Vancouver Film School building.

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