Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 29, No. 3, Summer 2009, pp. 203-219
It was one of the more harrowing episodes of the Great Depression. Ted and Rose Bates had failed in business in Glidden, Saskatchewan, in 1932 and again on the west coast of Canada the following year. When they were subsequently turned down for relief assistance twice, first in Vancouver and then in Saskatoon, because they did not meet the local residency requirements, the couple decided to end their lives in a remote rural schoolyard, taking their eightyear- old son, Jackie, with them rather than face the shame of returning home to Glidden as a relief case. But it was only the child who died when the suicide plan went terribly wrong, and the parents were charged with murder and brought to trial in the spring of 1934.
The sorry tale of the Bates family has come to epitomize the collateral damage wrought by the collapse of rural Saskatchewan during the Great Depression of the 1930s. A popular Canadian university-level textbook, for example, uses the tragedy to open the chapter on the Depression. Trent University historian James Struthers, on other hand, employs the incident as an exclamation point. In No Fault of Their Own: Unemployment and the Canadian Welfare State, 1914-1941, he deliberately places the story at the end of a chapter to illustrate the "devastating consequences" of the strict enforcement of municipal residency policies to reduce relief rolls. "In the eyes of Glidden," Struthers summed up the sad affair, "it was the Depression, not the Bates, that had murdered their young son and it was R. B. Bennett's unemployment policy, with its insistence of local responsibility for the jobless, which was a direct accomplice."
Struthers never mentioned the fate of the Bateses when they went to trial in Wilkie in March 1934. That was left to Pierre Berton, the only other author to examine the Bateses' story in The Great Depression. In a section subtitled "Death by Depression," Berton drew on contemporary newspaper sources to flesh out Struthers's account and suggests that the Bateses were tragic victims not only of Depression relief policies but of their own headstrong pride, something that many Canadians struggled to overcome at the time. "It is this stiff-back sense of pride," Berton observed, "that comes through again and again in the stories of those who were forced by circumstances to accept relief." And even though the Bateses were too ashamed of being sent home as charity cases, it was their former friends in Glidden who ironically rallied around the family in their time of distress and paid for Jackie's funeral and started a legal defense fund. In the end, the Bateses were found not guilty, a verdict that was applauded, according to Berton, because people understood the dilemma faced by the family.