100th anniversary of Winnipeg's 1919 General Strike will be marked with monument, movie, books

The site of the bloodiest clash of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike is set to be cast in bronze and glass.

Artist hopes streetcar becomes iconic image associated with the city, like Esplanade Riel, Golden Boy

The streetcar installation at the corner of Main Street and Market Avenue will be illuminated from the inside. (Noam Gonick)

The site of the bloodiest clash of Winnipeg's 1919 General Strike is set to be cast in bronze and glass — and illuminated.

A tilted and half-sunken streetcar is being designed and constructed as part of a permanent art installation that will be placed at the corner of Main Street and Market Avenue, in front of Pantages Playhouse Theatre.

It will be steps away from the exact spot of the climactic, violent scene that underscored a defining moment in Canada's history.

"If we were any closer to where the streetcar was tipped we'd be in the middle of traffic," said Winnipeg artist and filmmaker Noam Gonick, who is aiming for the piece to be unveiled June 21, 2019 — precisely 100 years after the incident.

A streetcar is overturned in Winnipeg on June 21, 1919, which became known as Bloody Saturday during the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. (Archives of Manitoba/Foote Collection)

"It will be as iconic as the Esplanade Riel in this city," Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, said about the streetcar monument.

He envisions the spot becoming a gathering place for labour rallies and events, as it was a century ago.

Bloody Saturday

The installation is a nod to one of the most famous images from the strike, which itself became a platform for national labour reforms.

On Saturday, June 21, 1919 — four days before the end of the six-week strike that saw some 30,000 workers walk off their jobs — a large gathering of strikers demonstrated near city hall when a streetcar approached.

Angry at the strike-breakers hired to operate the transit system in place of the striking employees, several people in the crowd began rocking the car from side to side. Unable to tip it over entirely, they set it on fire.

In the aftermath of an iconic photo of the Winnipeg General Strike, firemen mop up after the streetcar was started on fire. (Archives of Manitoba/Foote Collection)

Mayor Charles Gray, who had issued proclamations against assemblies in public places in order to prevent further confrontations between strikers and those opposed to them, read the Riot Act and warned the crowd to get off the streets.

Instead, Mounties on horseback rode in, carrying bats and guns, and clashed with the strikers.

Soon, military personnel from the Fort Osborne Barracks arrived, along with machine gun units who marched into the melee, which had spread into what became known as Hell's Alley — the lane between Market and James Avenues (now occupied by the Centennial Concert Hall).

When the brawl ended, two people ​had died and 35-45 people, both strikers and police, had been injured. The day became known as "Bloody Saturday."

Roger E. Bray, a socialist who had become a spokesman for returned soldiers, speaks to a crowd of strikers at Victoria Park on June 13, 1919. (Archives of Manitoba/Foote Collection No. 1676, N2742)
A crowd gathers in Victoria Park during the Winnipeg General Strike. (Archives of Manitoba/Foote Collection)

The strike, which began May 15, was called off on June 25. Though some at the time claimed the strikers had lost, Rebeck said that's far from the truth.

Instead, the event gave rise to the modern union movement, collective bargaining and a living wage. Two years after the strike, Canada mandated its first minimum wage.

"The real legacy of the strike is that people became politically active. Union and non-union workers let government know that their values needed to be reflected — values regarding fair wages, working conditions and respect in the workplace," Rebeck said.

At the time, there were actually only 12,000 unionized workers in Winnipeg, but nearly three times that number took part in the strike.

"It shows how people came together, recognizing they can change a government when they are bound together to make a difference," Rebeck said.

Striking image

Coming from a family with a labour-activist background, Gonick was always taught the strike was a huge milestone but was surprised more hadn't been done in the city to mark the event.

Victoria Park, which was the site of many striker gatherings during the 1919 event, is now buried under a condo building along Waterfront Drive. It was located at the end of James Avenue, as it was known then, just two blocks from city hall.

Filmmaker Noam Gonick hope the streetcar public art installation becomes one of the images associated with the city. (Justin Ng)

The main memorial is a plaque on a wall in a tunnel connecting two buildings at city hall. The only people who can ever see it are those who have access, not the general public.

"I think that's a big oversight and now, with the 100th anniversary, it presented an opportunity to create a legacy project," said Gonick.

According to the city's traffic services department, that stretch of Main Street is the busiest in Winnipeg for traffic counts.

"It was about time to create something that was a really grabbing image, a striking image," Gonick said. 

It just so happened the corner of Main and Market was open and available.

"It's like that spot has just been held in place for us. All it had was a concrete planter on it," said Gonick. "It was sitting there waiting to tell a story."

He admits he did make an attempt for the art installation to be on the median but now agrees the sidewalk corner is a better place for people to check it out and get photos.

Miller's final project

The streetcar started as a collaborative project with sculptor Bernie Miller, whose artwork can be seen in perforated stainless steel panels on the Disraeli Active Transportation Bridge.

Miller passed away suddenly last fall at age 69, so Gonick is finishing the final piece for him.

"I'm mostly a filmmaker so I'm a little out of my wheelhouse but I am focused to make sure it's done right," he said of the streetcar, which is supposed to last up to 100 years.

RCMP on horseback charge into the crowd of strikers on Main Street on June 21, 1919. (National Archives of Canada/David Millar collection)

Of course, Gonick isn't alone. He's got a project manager, engineer and a team of iron workers and welders bringing Miller's vision to life.

"We have the potential to give the Golden Boy a run for his money," he said with a bit of a laugh.

But there is sincerity in his voice, too. Gonick hopes the streetcar becomes one of those images associated with the city.

"We hope so. That's the dream."

Tour of strike sites

Last November, the first significant monument commemorating the strike was unveiled at the corner of Lily Street and Market Avenue, near Hell's Alley.

The Winnipeg General Strike monument at the corner of Lily Street and Market Avenue in the East Exchange District. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Crafted primarily from weathered steel — a tip of the hat to the iron workers — it features a map of the surrounding area, information about the strike, bench seating and a stage area that can double as a venue for events.

Two more sites will soon be honoured as well, Gonick said. Markers and plaques are planned for Hell's Alley and near the site of the former Victoria Park.

"That will mean people can do a walking tour through the East Exchange of all the sites," Gonick said.

People will be able to read all about the history of the strike, etched in that steel monument on Lily Street, then go visit the sites and the streetcar, which will bring the stories to life, said Rebeck.

Events around the city

The labour federation and city's unions are also planning several events to mark the strike centenary.

A major conference, titled Building a Better World: 1919-2019, is set for May 9-11 next year at the University of Winnipeg.

It will feature trade unionists, social activists, historians, and labour studies scholars, who will share knowledge, experiences and presentations about the Winnipeg General Strike, the subsequent history of labour's attempts to address the issues that sparked it, and contemporary struggles.

The NWMP, precursor to the RCMP, set up near Portage and Main during the Winnipeg General Strike riots in June 1919. (University of Manitoba archives)

"The events of 1919 really did change the fabric of labour relations in Canada," Rebeck said. "Things have never since degenerated into that kind of situation, and that's something to celebrate."

A series of events next year will mark the centenary.

On May 11, a social is planned at the Ukrainian Labour Temple, which is also marking its 100th anniversary. It is one of the first and among the biggest labour temples in the country, and served as one of the General Strike's headquarters.

On May 15, the Manitoba Building Trades is hosting a gala dinner with guest speaker Steve Patterson (from CBC's The Debaters) at the RBC Convention Centre. Rebeck is trying to arrange a pop-up museum with numerous artifacts from the strike.

On May 25, the United Food and Commercial Workers union is leading a parade that will follow some of the routes of the 1919 strikers.

And on June 8, some streets will be closed in the Exchange District, around the Cube in Old Market Square, for a concert that is being put on by the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, in collaboration with Winnipeg Folk Festival organizers. It will go from midday until midnight.

Playwright and composer Danny Schur, who created the musical Strike!, based on the 1919 events, is turning it into a movie that will have its world premiere during the anniversary.

A graphic novel and a young adult novel, both aimed at introducing new generations to the historical significance of the strike, are set to be released.

Rebeck had also hoped the Royal Canadian Mint or Canada Post would create a coin or stamp in honour of the anniversary but said that idea seems to be tied up in bureaucratic tape.

About the Author

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories and features. Story idea? Email darren.bernhardt@cbc.ca