The Winnipeg General Strike
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The Winnipeg General Strike
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The Winnipeg General Strike
Violence erupts and a city comes to a standstill as thousands demand rights for workers
At the end of the First World War, soldiers didn't return home to find the better world that they had hoped for. Hard times settled over Canada and discontent increased. In Winnipeg, tensions would explode.
The Winnipeg General Strike culminated in the outbreak of violence. Pictured here, strikers overturn a streetcar during a protest on June 21, 1919. (National Archives of Canada)
The Winnipeg General Strike culminated in the outbreak of violence. Pictured here, strikers overturn a streetcar during a protest on June 21, 1919. (National Archives of Canada)

In post-war Canada, war factories were shutting down, triggering bankruptcies and unemployment. Those with jobs could not keep up with inflation. The cost of living rose by 64 per cent over 1913. People also remembered the huge profits some manufacturers made during the war, seen to be at the expense of workers and soldiers.

Canadians were angry. Some wanted better wages and working conditions. Others just wanted jobs.

The atmosphere was ripe for revolt. An ordinary event was about spark an extraordinary response.

On May 1, 1919, Winnipeg's building and metal workers went on strike for higher wages.

Two weeks later, the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council appealed for a general strike in support of the metal workers. The response was overwhelming. The first to walk out were the "Hello Girls," Winnipegs telephone operators. By 11 a.m., 30,000 union and non-union workers had walked off the job.

"In Germany, I fed on grass and rats. I would prefer going back to eating grass than give up the freedom for which I fought so hard and suffered so much," a war veteran wrote in the striking workers newspaper.

A strike committee was formed and for six weeks, it virtually ran Winnipeg. Elevators shut down, trams stopped, postal and telephone communications came to a halt, and nothing moved without approval from the strike committee. Sympathy strikes were breaking out across the country.

In response, Winnipeg business leaders organized a "Citizens' Committee" to oppose the strike and turned to the federal government for help. Ottawa was listening.

It had been only 18 months since the Czar of Russia was overthrown, following a general strike in Petrograd and now the Canadian government feared a revolution at home.

"The leaders of the general strike are all revolutionists of varying degrees and types, from crazy idealists to ordinary thieves," said Arthur Meighen, Canada's Solicitor General.

James Shaver Woodsworth was a Protestant minister and social activist who joined the strike. He disagreed with Meighen:

"This strike is not engineered from Russia ... In reality the strike has nothing to do with revolution. It is an attempt to meet a very pressing and immediate need. The organized workers like everyone else are faced with the high cost of living. Like most people they imagine that is if they can get higher wages they can buy more food ... "

Ottawa ordered the federal employees to return to work immediately or face dismissal. Believing that immigrants were behind the strike, the Canadian government amended the Immigration Act so British-born immigrants could be deported. The Criminal Code's definition of sedition (incitement to rebellion) was broadened.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Winnipeg, Charles Gray, fired most of the city police force. Many officers were sympathetic to the strikers and they were replaced with 1,800 special constables, recruited and paid for by the business community. The "Specials" received a horse and a baseball bat to keep order. The Royal North-West Mounted Police, the Red Coats, were also brought in.
On June 21, 1919, war veterans organized a parade to protest restrictions arising from the Winnipeg General Strike. A crowd of 6,000 people gathered before the city hall.  (National Archives of Canada, PA-163001)
On June 21, 1919, war veterans organized a parade to protest restrictions arising from the Winnipeg General Strike. A crowd of 6,000 people gathered before the city hall. (National Archives of Canada, PA-163001)

On June 10th, a riot broke out after the "Specials" tried to disperse a crowd listening to a speech. A few days later, the federal government arrested 12 union leaders, forbade the publication of the Western Labour News, and ordered the Mounted Police to put down demonstrations with any necessary force.

On June 21, 1919, war veterans organized a parade to protest the restrictions and a crowd of 6,000 people gathered before the city hall.

A streetcar, operated by strikebreakers, approached on its route. The veterans overturned it and set it on fire. The Mounted Police and the "Specials" charged the crowd.

"Then with revolvers drawn," editor of the Western Labour News, Fred Dixon reported, "[the Mounted Police] galloped down Main Street, turned, and charged right into the crowd on William Avenue, firing as they charged. One man, standing on the sidewalk, thought the Mounties were firing blank cartridges until a spectator standing beside him dropped with a bullet through his breast ... dismounted red coats lined up ... declaring military control."

On that Bloody Saturday, two strikers were killed, thirty-four others were wounded, and the police made 94 arrests. Fearing more violence, workers decided to call off the strike On June 25, at exactly 11:00 in the morning, the strikers returned to work. Forty days after it began, the largest social revolt in Canadian history has been crushed.

Seven of the arrested strike leaders were convicted of a conspiracy to overthrow the government and sentenced to jail terms ranging from 6 months to 2 years. Protestant minister James Shaver Woodsworth was arrested but not convicted. He was elected to Parliament two years later.

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