Manitoba

'Lingering hostilities' blamed for lack of 1919 Winnipeg strike monuments

The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike was a watershed moment in Canada's history but to find any commemoration in the city, you need to do some searching.

New works commemorate the event in much more public way

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

The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike was a watershed moment in Canada's history but to find any commemoration in the city, you need to do some searching.

Until recently there have been few monuments and they were tucked into the shadows of street corners or hidden inside buildings.

Victoria Park, the site of many pivotal striker gatherings during the 1919 event, now lies under a condo building at the corner of Waterfront Drive and Pacific Avenue, beside the James Avenue Pumping Station.

The city destroyed the park in 1922 to build a heating plant, said Dennis Lewycky, author of the book, Magnificent Fight: The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.

A new plaque on the side of the condo building is all that exists in acknowledgment of the once-prominent park.

John Queen, one of the strike leaders, is commemorated by Queen Street, which runs parallel to Century Street in the St. James neighbourhood. But that's most likely because he served as the city's mayor for seven terms after the events of 1919.

James Shaver (J. S.) Woodsworth, an editor of the strikers' newspaper and orator at strike meetings who became an MP and the first leader of the CCF (precursor to the NDP), is honoured throughout Winnipeg.

A plaque from the United Steelworkers of America was mounted near the north entrance of the Winnipeg city council building in 1969. (City of Winnipeg)

The Woodsworth Building on Broadway is named for him, as is Woodsworth Park, adjacent to the Canadian Pacific Railway yards that divide the working-class North End from downtown and southern Winnipeg.

There is also a memorial plaque in front of his former home at 60 Maryland St. and on the North End Community Ministry in the North End, a building that used to be the All People's Mission, where Woodsworth, who'd been a Methodist minister, preached the social gospel.

One of the earliest commemorations came when the provincial government named R.B. Russell Vocational School on Dufferin Avenue in the North End for strike leader Robert Boyd Russell in 1967. The Canadian Labour Council put up a plaque in his memory at the Dufferin Avenue school.

There are no other parks or streets with names connected to any of the strike leaders, a city spokesperson said.

A plaque in front of J.S. Woodsworth's former home on Maryland Street mentions his work with the city's immigrant poor, his pacifism, his advocacy for trade union rights and his arrest during the 1919 strike. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

"This erasure was no accident," said artist and filmmaker Noam Gonick, who is creating a streetcar strike monument to be unveiled June 21, 2019, the 100th anniversary of Bloody Saturday, when a clash between police and strikers caused the deaths of two men.

Gonick believes governments have avoided large commemorations of the 1919 events because authorities come across negatively and heavy-handed.

"It was this invisibility that we sought to address when we began five years ago. I'm glad Winnipeg is now celebrating its unique history and place as a hub for social activism."

Historian Gordon Goldsborough echoed the feeling that an anti-labour sentiment still exists.

"Although the events of the past 100 years have vindicated the strikers of 1919, I suspect there are still lingering hostilities," he said.

As an example, he mentioned the Ukrainian Labour Temple, at the corner of Pritchard Avenue and McGregor Street.

Although the events of the past 100 years have vindicated the strikers of 1919, I suspect there are still lingering hostilities- Gordon Goldsborough

It is the only surviving labour hall associated with the turbulent events of the strike and remains the national headquarters for the Workers Benevolent Association, which was established in 1922, shortly after the strike.

Although a plaque commemorating the significance of the temple was erected in 1996 by the Manitoba Heritage Council, the building wasn't recognized as a national historic site until 2009. It took until September 2011 for the federal government to install a plaque.

The first commemoration of the strike in a place where the strikers actually gathered didn't come until 1969 — and it wasn't created by any elected officials or party. It came, appropriately, from a union.

That plaque, donated by the United Steelworkers of America, is mounted close to the north entrance of city hall's council building, near the courtyard.

Winnipeg General Strike monuments and commemorations. (Brooke Schreiber/CBC)

Monuments list:

  1. Woodsworth Park.
  2. Ukrainian Labour Temple (Pritchard Avenue and McGregor Street).
  3. All Peoples' Mission (470 Stella Ave.).
  4. Woodsworth Building (Kennedy Street and Broadway).
  5. Plaque inside the Manitoba Legislative Building.
  6. Plaque at the former J.S. Woodsworth home (60 Maryland St.).
  7. Queen Street.
  8. Plaque about the general strike (Main Street and William Avenue).
  9. Plaque from the United Steelworkers of America (city hall courtyard).
  10. Plaque about the former Winnipeg Labour Temple (concert hall concourse).
  11. Plaque at former site of Victoria Park (Waterfront Drive and Pacific Avenue).
  12. 1919 marquee (Lily Street at Market Avenue).
  13. Streetcar monument (Main Street at Market Avenue).

The Winnipeg Labour Temple on James Avenue was torn down in 1966 as part of an urban renewal program that cleared the way for construction of the Centennial Concert Hall and Manitoba Museum.

A plaque about the labour temple was installed in the lower concourse of the concert hall in 1991. The concert hall is also on top of the site where, on Bloody Saturday, police corralled strikers in what was later called Hell's Alley.

In the 1990s, two more plaques were dedicated to the strike — one at the Manitoba Legislative Building (1994) and another on the southeast corner of city hall's council building, near William Avenue (1996).

The one in the legislative building says: "On May 15, 1919, some 30,000 workers in the city of Winnipeg went on strike in support of building and metal trades workers, who had walked out seeking union recognition, collective bargaining, higher wages and a shorter working week."

The one at the corner of William and Main Street is where North-West Mounted Police fired their guns into the crowds on Bloody Saturday, leading to the deaths of two people.

Mike Sokolowski was shot through the heart and died instantly. Steve Szczerbanowicz was struck in the legs and died two days later as a result of gangrene infection.

The former Bank of Nova Scotia at the corner of Portage Avenue and Garry Street was renamed the A. A. Heaps Building in the 1980s to commemorate the career of the strike leader, city councillor and member of Parliament.

A plaque in honour of Heaps also exists inside.

A lesser-known figure from the strike, Fred Tipping, was a former president of the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council and a member of the Strike Committee.  A seniors' highrise run by Manitoba Housing in south Osborne was named in the early 1970s as Fred Tipping Place.

New monuments

In November 2017, the first significant monument commemorating the strike was unveiled, on Lily Street at Market Avenue, across from what was Hell's Alley.

Crafted primarily from weathering steel — a nod to ironworkers, who were among the first to strike — the marquee features a map of the surrounding area, information about the strike, bench seating and an area that can be used as a stage or other event venue.

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

One of the largest and most visible monuments will be unveiled on June 21, 2019.

It will commemorate Bloody Saturday and one of the climactic scenes of a defining moment in Canada's history. Lewis (L.B.) Foote's photo of a streetcar tipped over by strikers is perhaps the most iconic image of the strike.

Gonick's 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 is a project he began with sculptor Bernie Miller. Miller died in the fall of 2017, so Gonick is finishing it for him.

"The history of the strike and the achievements of the strike are worth celebrating and it really is an integral part of the culture," he said.

"It's for me great to see the billboard [marquee] and the streetcar monument right there in the middle of what we'd call the entertainment district of Winnipeg, so that right alongside all the visiting shows and the theater performances and the dance ensembles, we're also recognizing what is most likely the most important thing to happen in Winnipeg's history."

The monument near Hell's Alley is crafted primarily from weathering steel and features a map of the surrounding area, information about the strike and bench seating. (John Einarson/CBC)

Gonick hopes the streetcar becomes a popular photo spot which, with the help of social media, will keep the strike in the public's consciousness well after the anniversary has faded.

Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, said the new monuments will work together to bring the stories of the strike to life.

"We think it is important for Manitobans to learn about our history as well as the history of the labour movement and the impact it has had on workers' lives today," he said.

"To this end, we are working with partners to ensure that more information — such as the walking and driving tour developed by Sharon and Nolan Reilly — gets into the hands of the public and into our schools."

The latest pieces, and the new movie musical Stand!, from Winnipeg filmmaker Danny Schur, "will have a profound impact on how the strike is remembered in the years to come," said Sharon Reilly, former curator of social history at the Manitoba Museum and former director of research and curation at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

However, there is still something missing, she said.

"We could use a monument to the women of the strike. There's nothing like that."

We could use a monument to the women of the strike. There's nothing like that.- Sharon Reilly

It's important to remember that key part of the strike story, she said, especially as the passage of time continues to erase the physical structures from 1919.

"I love having heritage places and heritage buildings remaining in the city, and as the strike tour demonstrates, these things can connect us to the past in a powerful way. But many of them are gone now," she said.

"Monuments can help us to fill those gaps in our collective memory and help us to understand and interpret our history. Their role is not to celebrate the past but to commemorate it — to help us to remember it, think critically about it and apply it to our actions today."

A number of the people involved in the strike are buried in Brookside Cemetery, where a walking tour has been created for the 100th anniversary.

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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 then 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

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