Trials and deportations: 1919 Winnipeg strike leaders were punished first, vindicated later
Many leaders were later elected to government, helped usher in reforms like old age pension, minimum wage
As the dust settled in Winnipeg in the months following the turbulence of the 1919 general strike, routines resumed — streetcars operated, deliveries were made, telephone calls were patched through.
The murmur of casual conversation and shuffle of feet replaced the shouts and running.
But many of those who stuck their necks out and risked their livelihoods during the six weeks from May 15 until June 26 weren't about to tuck their heads in just yet.
The strike, which involved 25,000-30,000 people, ended quietly five days after the violent confrontation on Bloody Saturday — a silent protest that turned violent, resulting in two deaths. The workers won no concessions and many still faced a bleak future.
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And in the strike's aftermath, close to 3,500 strikers lost their jobs and 14 strike leaders were arrested.
As the trial dates for the arrested leaders approached, 7,000 supporters walked in a Labour Day parade, holding banners declaring their ongoing fight for workers' rights, with slogans like:
- "Their sentence is our sentence."
- "Prison bars cannot confine ideas."
- "You can't deport conviction."
Those phrases and many others were written on the banners and chanted by the crowd.
"The strike leaders were now viewed by many as political prisoners, not only strikers," said Esyllt Jones, a professor of history at the University of Manitoba who specializes in working-class health and politics.
"They were in jail for their thoughts, their political analysis, and things they wrote."
A number of people also travelled to other Canadian cities to raise money for the strikers' defence fund. They included strike leader Abraham Albert (A.A.) Heaps, who had been released on bail, and Helen Armstrong, the wife of strike leader George Armstrong.
Meetings were also held in Winnipeg and other cities to protest the trials. Several resolutions supporting the leaders were sent to the federal government, along with petitions to change the trials from judge alone to juried ones.
"I believe that notwithstanding the defeat imposed upon workers in 1919, the general public trusted and respected the strike leaders — before, during and after the general strike," said Paul Moist, former national president of Canada's largest union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
As for those 14 arrested leaders, charges were dropped against James (J.S.) Woodsworth. Nine others faced state trials for political crimes: Heaps, George Armstrong, William Ivens, Fred Dixon, Robert (R.B.) Russell, Roger Bray, John Queen, Richard James (Dick) Johns, and William (Bill) Pritchard.
Four other "foreign" leaders — Samuel Blumenberg, Michael Charitonoff, Solomon Almazoff and Oscar Schoppelrie — were not charged but faced deportation hearings.
In the end, only Schoppelrie was deported — not for his role in the strike, but for having crossed the Canada–U.S. border illegally three years earlier.
Blumenberg and Almazoff both voluntarily left for the United States, while Charitonoff appealed to Ottawa and was allowed to remain in Canada.
Russell was the first to be tried, with a trial for seditious conspiracy beginning in November 1919. He was found guilty on Christmas Eve and sentenced to a two-year term at Stony Mountain Penitentiary — the longest term given to any of the strike leaders.
Before being locked away, he was given permission by the judge, Thomas Llewellyn Metcalfe, to go home to celebrate Christmas with his family. The next day the police came, cuffed Russell and took him to prison.
He was released early from prison, in December 1920, after the government capitulated to public pressure.
The other eight were tried from Jan. 20 to April 6, 1920.
Dixon and Heaps were acquitted at their trials. Bray was sentenced to six months in jail, while Queen, Pritchard, Ivens, Armstrong and Johns were all sentenced to one year.
Authorities had also arrested 12 others they called "foreign rioters" or "alien rioters" from the Bloody Saturday crowd.
They were refused formal deportation proceedings, instead appearing before police magistrate Hugh John Macdonald — son of former Canadian prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald — who ordered them sent to an internment camp in Kapuskasking, Ont.
All denied being involved in the riot. Some provided statements, including the following from 23-year-old Alfred Adam, who claimed he was working from his home for the entire duration of the strike:
"I had been making gramophone cabinets and on Saturday, the day of the riot, had been uptown to buy some lumber. I was on my way home on Main Street and the mounted police came up when the bullets started to fly."
Adam claimed he ran with others to the top of the Burns Block to get away and was later arrested. He said he knew nothing of the parade that day and had never been to any strike meetings, according to a 1978 thesis for the University of Manitoba by Lyle Dick titled Deportation under the Criminal Code and the Immigration Act, 1919-1936.
E.J. McMurray, one of three members of a defence council appointed by the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council, argued the 12 foreigners were no more guilty than thousands of others on the street on June 21.
He noted many of the special constables were young, ranging in age from 16-20, perhaps a little overzealous and anxious to make an impression by arresting whomever they could.
Immigrants often become scapegoats and their rights are trampled upon by fearful states.- Paul Moist, former CUPE president
But the appeals of the defence council fell on deaf ears.
On Oct. 27, 1919, 10 of the "foreigners," as they were repeatedly called, were shipped out of the country on a steamer bound for Rotterdam, Netherlands. Two others were released on account of familial obligations in Canada, according to Dick.
The "extraordinary power to deport" used by authorities of the day was indicative of the level of angst, said CUPE's Moist.
"So-called 'illegal aliens' were, in the eyes of the state, unimportant people and deportation was not widely opposed by the general population," he said.
"Similar to today, immigrants often become scapegoats and their rights are trampled upon by fearful states."
Despite the clampdown by authorities, the actions of those behind labour's 1919 uprising were validated a few months after the strike ended.
A royal commission was ordered by the provincial government to report on the causes and effects of the general strike. Chaired by Hugh Amos Robson, it was conducted from July until November 1919 and made public in March 1920.
The final commission report concluded the strike was not a criminal conspiracy by foreigners attempting to overthrow the government, but was about addressing the demands of workers.
"[Robson] based this on the evidence, and history has proven his assessment to be correct," said Moist, adding that there was backlash.
"At the time, some in the business community denounced him as a socialist with labour sympathies. These charges were, in my view, merely sour grapes."
In his report, Robson wrote "It is more likely the cause of the strike is to be found on other heads, namely, the high cost of living, inadequate wages ... [and] profiteering."
The report further suggested that employers needed to take action to work with their employees.
"If capital does not provide enough to assure labour a contented existence … then the government might find it necessary to step in and let the state do these things at the expense of capital," Robson wrote.
'Tense times' for judge's family
The trials weren't only taxing for the strike leaders. They took a toll on the judge and his family.
Ross Hatton Metcalfe, the great-nephew of Thomas Llewellyn Metcalfe, told CBC News the family was the target of death threats, so security was hired to guard their homes and walk the children to school. One of those kids was Ross's father, who was 13 at the time.
"It was tense times," he said.
Judge Metcalfe's health "was destroyed" by the tension and stress. He died in 1922 at age 52, according to an essay by former Brandon University archivist Tom Mitchell called Repressive Measures: A.J. Andrews, the Committee of 1000 and the Campaign Against Revolution After the Winnipeg General Strike.
Metcalfe was accused by the defence of being biased and unfit to preside and, according to some reports from the time, he allegedly granted permissions to the prosecution that were denied to the defence.
For instance, he refused to allow the admission of evidence concerning the role of the Committee of 1,000 in the strike, according to Mitchell's essay.
Metcalfe refused to allow the defence counsel to enter as evidence a copy of the committee's newspaper, the Citizen. The defence claimed it contained falsehoods that were prejudiced against the cause of Iabour.
However, Ross said his great-uncle might not have been as determined to convict the strikers as history suggests.
During the trials, a security guard for the family noticed a light still on in the judge's house extremely late at night.
Ross's dad and grandfather went to check on the judge and found him on the floor in front of the fireplace, law books strewn about.
They encouraged him to get some sleep since he had a big day in court the next morning. As they were helping him to his room, Judge Metcalfe said "I've got to find a way to get these poor bastards off," according to Ross, recalling a story from his dad.
For many years after the events of 1919, the Metcalfe family continued to find life difficult.
"When you're from the family of the side that put everybody in Stony Mountain … that is a little awkward," Ross said.
His dad was once applying for a job as an accountant and close to the end of the interview, the company owner asked if he was related to Judge Thomas Metcalfe.
When Ross's dad said that was his uncle, the owner replied, "No Metcalfe will ever work for this firm," according to Ross, who, 100 years after the strike, was in Winnipeg recently to volunteer with the labour-driven commemoration events.
From labour to government
Many of the strike's leaders found further vindication when they were elected to government.
Russell, Armstrong, Ivens, Johns, Dixon, Pritchard and Queen ran in the 1920 Manitoba election, while still behind bars. All but three — Russell, Johns and Pritchard — were elected.
The U of M's Jones believes the strike leaders' trials, intended to weaken labour's stride, became the springboard for launching a strong political movement.
"Critiqued as corrupt by legal historians, [the trials] only served to politicize what had been, mostly, a workplace and economic struggle," she said.
"Imprisonment of the strike leaders broadened the scope of this struggle, and exposed in the most obvious way the relationship between economic and political/state power in Canada."
Queen later became mayor of Winnipeg and served from 1935-36, and again from 1938-42.
The results of the strike reduced the will for participation in such actions — especially among Eastern European immigrants, who feared deportation, said Moist.
"But in the sanctity of the voting booth they over and over displayed their belief and trust in the strike leaders. Amazing."
Woodsworth and Heaps went on to become members of Parliament for Winnipeg, with Heaps serving from 1925 to 1940 and Woodsworth from 1921 until his death in 1942.
As the only MPs representing the Labour Party — a Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) predecessor —in Parliament, those two held the balance of power for the Liberal minority government in 1927 and used that leverage. They supported the Liberals on certain votes in exchange for the government creating Canada's first old-age pension.
In 1932, Woodsworth and Heaps became founding members of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner to the current-day NDP. Woodsworth was named the CCF's first national leader.
The CCF became the New Democratic Party in 1961 and although the party has never held power nationally, its policies have been adopted and implemented by federal governments over the years.
In addition to the old-age pension, some of those initiatives include unemployment insurance, family allowance and medicare.
Pritchard moved to Vancouver and was elected to Burnaby city council in 1928 and as reeve in 1930. He advocated in office to provide work for as many unemployed people as possible, while trying to elicit more support from the provincial and federal governments.
Bray became vice-president of the Winnipeg Labour Council, formed by the One Big Union, and an organizer for the OBU.
He eventually moved to North Vancouver, where he was an organizer for the CCF.
With files from Austin Grabish