Manitoba

Winnipeg General Strike shows true power is with the people, activist, filmmaker Boots Riley says

As Patti Smith once wrote, the people have the power. It's a point that activist, musician and filmmaker Boots Riley wants to drive home to people here in Winnipeg: that those who want the power to make social change already have it.

Riley was in Winnipeg to give a talk to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the strike

Activist, musician, and filmmaker Boots Riley was in Winnipeg this weekend. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

As Patti Smith once wrote, the people have the power.

It's a point that activist, musician, and filmmaker Boots Riley wants to drive home to people here in Winnipeg: that those who want the power to make social change already have it.

Riley was in Winnipeg this weekend to give a talk, titled "Class, Race and Resistance in the 21st Century", to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.

"It's interesting, in the United States, we hear about the social programs and system in Canada that we don't have, and people are like, 'Well they just you know voted them in,'" he said.

"But the truth is, is that, you know if it were not for these labour strikes where people stopped the gears of industry, there wouldn't have been the force to make those changes happen."

Riley is a longtime community activist and the frontman for The Coup, a hip-hop group from California, that raps about social change and activism. His first film Sorry To Bother You, which he wrote and directed, received critical acclaim last year for its take on race issues, class struggle, and capitalism.

The film follows Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a black telemarketer who discovers the secret to climbing the corporate ladder is using his white voice. As Cassius climbs the ranks at work, he discovers a sinister secret while his fellow telemarketers stage a rebellion — not unlike the strike of 1919.

After the movie was released, Riley said he heard from employees who were inspired by his film to fight for better working conditions.

"For instance, I've got emails from theater workers who were like, we saw your movie, we hadn't seen anything like it, and we formed a union."

Riley says the Winnipeg General Strike offers important lessons for activists today.

The history of the Winnipeg General Strike offers some important lessons on this front, Riley said.

The strike was one of the most influential in Canadian history. Public-sector employees joined forces with those in private industry in solidarity, leading to 30,000 walking off the job, and bringing Winnipeg's retail trade to a grinding halt. 

Riley says the history of the strike demonstrates that though those who have wealth have more power, it's ultimately people who create wealth, and can take it away, he said.

"We're taught all sorts of ways of how power works... but look, we know that what is behind this all is that there's wealth that controls power," he said.

"But we have a way to control that wealth, and that's what a general strike is doing: stopping the gears of industry, and demanding change."

What's next for Riley? He says he's currently writing a book, creating a TV series, writing another film, and directing an episode for anthology series being created by Guillermo del Toro.

About the Author

Sarah Petz

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Sarah Petz is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. She was previously based at CBC New Brunswick. Her career has taken her across three provinces and includes a stint in East Africa. In 2017, she was part of a team of reporters and editors nominated for a National Newspaper Award for a feature on the Port of Saint John in New Brunswick. She can be reached at sarah.petz@cbc.ca.