1919 Winnipeg General Strike gets bookmarked on Canada's literary trail
Plaque will feature excerpt from the musical Strike! by Danny Schur and Rick Chafe
A pivotal moment in Winnipeg's history is being added to Canada's literary trail, marking a scene and a place that now only exists in archival photographs and prose.
In commemoration of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, Project Bookmark Canada will unveil a plaque on Aug. 29 in Stephen Juba Park, just south of the Mere Hotel on Waterfront Drive.
The marker, which will feature an excerpt from the musical Strike! by composers Danny Schur and Rick Chafe, will be near the former site of Victoria Park, once a gathering place for thousands of workers during the 1919 event that rattled the ruling class and helped set the stage for modern workers' rights.
The excerpt from the musical included on the bookmark plaque is a fictional scene in the park of labour leader Helen Armstrong passionately addressing a crowd.
"This is another means by which we can commemorate Victoria Park, which has largely been lost to history. It exists now, kind of like literature, in the ether of our minds," Schur said.
"So this is a super cool way to have it be real. These two bookmarks — one in French and one in English — will be situated in a way looking west, so you can imagine the scene."
Shortly after the strike, the city sold the park land to Winnipeg Hydro, which ripped it up and built a steam heating plant. A condo building now occupies most of the space at the corner of Waterfront Drive and Pacific Avenue.
"Many places were important in the strike, but Victoria Park was the central place where workers came together with one strong voice. It would become a symbol of justice, equality and extreme bravery, and would later be renamed Liberty Park," according to Anna Penner, writing for Manitoba History magazine.
Project Bookmark is a charitable organization that began building what it calls Canada's literary trail in 2009. It puts up plaques containing pieces of stories and poems in locations where literary scenes are set.
The first, with a passage from Michael Ondaatje's book, In the Skin of a Lion, was placed at the Bloor Street Viaduct in Toronto. There are now 24 across the country
The Strike! plaque will be the 25th and the first one featuring text from a stage musical.
Winnipeg has another bookmark, containing a passage from Carol Shields' novel, The Republic of Love. It was the 13th plaque and can be found at the corner of River Avenue and Osborne Street, near the bus stop referenced in the passage.
Other Canadian literary luminaries with bookmark plaques include Hugh MacLennan in Halifax, Lucy Maud Montgomery in P.E.I, Alistair MacLeod in Nova Scotia, and Lawrence Hill and Anne Michaels, both in Ontario.
Schur was approached about a year ago by Project Bookmark, which suggested a plaque with Strike! the musical.
"I was frankly, along with my co-writing partner, a little blown away. We don't consider ourselves in the league of some of the writers that are on the trail," he said. "We consider ourselves unworthy in that kind of league."
An official plaque-unveiling ceremony will take place next Thursday at 11 a.m. with Schur and Chafe, Project Bookmark chair Hughena Matheson and Winnipeg General Strike experts Nolan and Sharon Reilly.
Schur said it's appropriate the ceremony takes place just ahead of the Labour Day, which celebrates achievements by the labour movement.
While most commemorative events of the general strike took place this year in May and June, when the actual shut down of the city occurred in 1919, "the deeper history didn't stop there," he said.
"Around Labour Day, we should be reminded, the strike leaders were in jail and they were going to trial. The strike culminated in May and June but, oh man, the stuff was still hitting the fan all through September."
The bookmark plaque isn't the only thing Schur will be celebrating in the next little while.
His feature film based on the musical, retitled as Stand!, is set for release this fall. A private Winnipeg premiere will take place Sept. 24 while dates for the Canadian theatrical release are still being nailed down, he said.
He is hoping it hits the screens some time in late November.