David Lester captures the repression of 1919's Winnipeg General Strike in the style of a war artist
'If it’s a radical subject you are dealing with, you want to take a radical approach to the drawing'
At first glance of 1919: A Graphic History of the Winnipeg General Strike, there is one particular sequence that jumps off the pages: Vancouver-based illustrator and musician David Lester's frenetic depiction of Bloody Saturday.
Bloody Saturday became a pinnacle moment within the Winnipeg General Strike — a day that saw a peaceful labour protest escalate into violent clashes between authorities and citizens, which ended with Mounties opening fire on crowds of unarmed people.
Lester, who has illustrated other historical non-fiction such as The Listener and The Battle of Ballantyne Pier, continually adapts his style based on the subject matter. In this case, he decided to illustrate the novel 1919 as if he were an artist documenting the war, quickly rendering the scenes in a way that captures chaos as if it were happening around him in that moment. "If it's a radical subject you are dealing with, you want to take a radical approach to the drawing."
The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 was the largest strike in Canadian history. Over the course of 41 days, over 30,000 workers walked out. Their grievances were over low wages, poor working conditions and the desire for collective bargaining. The most disproportionately affected in Winnipeg at that time were working-class immigrants. As those 30,000 workers left their jobs, the city's private sector was essentially shut down. This was quickly followed by public workers who stood in solidarity with their fellow labourers.
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In this video made by filmmaker Rami Katz, you'll see David Lester take you through his intricate process of illustrating this notable protest and the challenge of depicting historic figures and events with contemporary urgency.
While the Winnipeg General Strike is now a century old, the issues at its core still resonate loudly today. Just a few weeks ago, migrant workers and protestors took to the streets in many cities across Canada to protest poor working conditions, low wages and inequitable access to social, education and health care systems. During this time of COVID, many other frontline workers face similar problems, being deemed necessary to keep the economy running, but denied healthcare and other basic services because they are in too close contact with the virus.
These recurring themes of social justice are at the heart of David Lester's drawings and prevalent in two of his upcoming graphic novels. The first centres on the last year of the life of anarchist, political activist and writer Emma Goldman, who died in 1940; the second is about Benjamin Lay, a radical Quaker who fought against slavery in the 18th century. In choosing to tell Goldman's story right now, Lester is profoundly interested in depicting how she maintained her commitment to her ideals even though she would never live to see them realized. Radical change is slow. It is a dilemma that many activists face, especially in times like these where the seeds of change have been planted but still have not yet even broken the soil.