It began to take shape on 24 October 1929, Black Thursday. “Stock Speculators Shaken in Wild Day of Panic,” shouted the front page of the next day’s Toronto Globe. The New York Stock Exchange, the accompanying stories reported, had experienced massive declines in wild trading, with a record 12.8 million shares sold. Thousands of accounts were wiped out before leading bankers and industrialists intervened to halt the slump. The dread extended to the Toronto markets, the Globe declared, and “rocked” share prices there. In Montréal, forced selling ran rampant, and practically every stock finished the day down.
“The biggest crash ever recorded,” lamented the famed British economist John Maynard Keynes, whose own investments were entirely gone by the end of the year (see Keynesian Economics).
Tuesday, 29 October — or Black Tuesday — was worse still. On Wall Street, 16.4 million shares were sold, almost 4 million more than Black Thursday’s unprecedented totals. The New York Times industrial average plummeted, eliminating a strong year’s gains, and the investment giant Goldman Sachs Trading Corporation was reduced to 58 per cent of its worth the night before.
In Toronto and Montréal, liquidation records were set. Horrified investors clogged the financial districts, while employees in the exchanges and the brokerage houses worked themselves to near-collapse in an attempt to corral the paperwork. The Canadian Annual Review of Public Affairs reckoned that “never before the 1929 crash had amounts that ran into billions of dollars been lost on the Canadian Stock Exchanges in so brief a period of time.” In Montréal, some 500,000 shares were sold (5 times the usual amount); in Toronto, 330,000 were sold (13 times the usual).
“The singular feature of the great crash of 1929 was that the worst continued to worsen,” wrote Canadian-born economist John Kenneth Galbraith in his seminal book The Great Crash 1929 (1954). The markets jumped back to life, but briefly. The setbacks returned and they persisted.
From the peak of the bull market in 1929 to mid-1930, the 50 most active Canadian stocks diminished on average to well under half their market value. Shareholders in International Nickel and Imperial Oil lost more than $500 million each, those in Canadian Pacific Railway over $60 million.
Standard Oil of New Jersey’s John D. Rockefeller, the Bill Gates of his day, was caught up in the turmoil. On 13 November 1929, yet another disastrous day for the markets, he put his family’s money behind a guarantee that his enterprise’s shares would not fall below 50. In early 1932, the price was 20.
Historians and economists debate the importance of the Great Crash. Some claim that it brought on the Great Depression that blighted the 1930s across the industrialized world; others scarcely mention it in their narratives of the decade-long economic ordeal, an international phenomenon with many origins and explanations.
The economic downturn seemed moderate enough when Conservative leader R.B. Bennett hit the election trail in 1930. But Bennett was able to use it to good effect to defeat William Lyon Mackenzie King’s Liberals, who’d been in power for nearly a decade and were reluctant to acknowledge the crisis brewing in Canada.
Six months after the election, Prime Minister Bennett realized that the country was in a severe economic depression. The low point came in 1933, when national output and exports — crucial then as now to the Canadian economy (see Economic Indicators) — were down a third from late 1920s levels. Farms of the West were in crisis (see Drought). Nearly a third of the workforce was unemployed.
The rich and well-stuffed Bennett was the butt of cruel jokes and the symbol of everything Canadians loathed. Though he tried to turn the tide, establishing the Bank of Canada and presenting his New Deal for social service reform in 1935, it was too little too late. In the next election, Canadians ousted Bennett.
The economy struggled back, yet very slowly, and a late 1930s recession interrupted the upward trend (see Business Cycles). In 1939, there were still hundreds of thousands of Canadians on what passed for financial relief, with monthly rates for a family of five varying from $60 in Calgary to $19 in Halifax. This was before the rise of the welfare state in the ensuing decades.
Year upon year of economic woe set peoples against one another in a global depression that left few markets unscathed. In response, governments heaped on the tariffs, wanting to protect themselves and punish others (see Protectionism). Democracies turned in on themselves, selfish and frightened. Capitalism had apparently failed, and its opponents were in fashion. Territory-hungry dictatorships flourished (see Fascism). In this respect, the Second World War was a child of the Great Depression. Then, in a twist of fate, the economic prosperity of war ended Canada’s Depression.
(See also Economic History.)