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1919: Remembering the Winnipeg General Strike

The Story

On May 15, 1919, 24,000 organized and unorganized workers in Winnipeg walked off the job. Another 6,000 would soon join them. It was the start of the largest strike in Canadian history, and political leaders at all levels were quick to act. Parliament amended the Immigration Act so British-born immigrants could be deported, and expanded the definition of sedition.

In a 1969 CBC Radio documentary commemorating the strike, lawyer Jim Walker talks about Ottawa's new laws. The strike demands were as follows: the right to collective bargaining, a living wage, and an eight-hour day. Banks, streetcars, mail, telegrams, telephones, food delivery, water and power supply and police and fire services were all cut off. Some services resumed only by authority of the strike committee. Civic leaders and employers feared a Soviet revolution was brewing and scrambled to break the strike. They formed the Citizens' Committee of 1,000 and hired 2,000 "specials" -- a militia to replace striking police. The federal ministers of labour and justice travelled to Winnipeg to meet with the Citizens' Committee but refused to meet with strikers. On June 17, ten strike leaders were arrested under the legislation that had been quickly passed in Parliament for that purpose. Without their leadership, and with the violent intervention of the "specials" and the North-West Mounted Police, the Winnipeg General Strike came to a chaotic end after six weeks.

Medium: Radio
Program: Between Ourselves
Broadcast Date: May 15, 1969
Guest: Jim Walker
Duration: 3:11
Photo: National Archives of Canada / PA-163001

Did You know?

• Conflict between workers and employers had been growing in Winnipeg and across Canada for about two years before the general strike. Labour disruptions and demonstrations took place across the country in 1918 and 1919, and the uprising in Russia in 1917 had inspired trade unionists in Winnipeg and elsewhere.

• Most returning veterans of the First World War supported the strike. Unemployment was growing and inflation had increased the cost of raising a family.

• The anti-strike Winnipeg Free Press published an editorial that compared striking milk truck drivers and bakers to German bombers, branding them "baby-killers" because of their participation.

• Among the workers permitted by the strike committee to remain on duty were police, firefighters, utilities employees, bakers and milk truck drivers.

• On June 21, "Bloody Saturday", chaos broke out after the city's mayor literally read the Riot Act to a crowd that had assembled to protest the arrest of the strike leaders. Police on horseback -- both militia and Mounties -- charged the protesters, swinging bats as they passed through the crowd. On a second charge they began firing their revolvers. Two strikers were killed and about 30 were wounded.

• The strike committee agreed to end the general strike on June 26. Though their demands for fairer wages and hours hadn't been met, workers did accomplish some of their goals. Legislation was enacted to allow collective bargaining, strikers were guaranteed their jobs back, and employers agreed to recognize unions.

• The Winnipeg General Strike was the inspiration for the stage musical Strike!, which debuted in Winnipeg in May 2005. Producer Danny Schur wrote and composed Strike!, telling the story through the experiences of four characters. "My interest was the ethnic background," Schur told CBC News. "The people who did the grunt jobs... the people who were needed, but not wanted."




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