The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike: 100 years later

It was the biggest labour action in Canadian history: on May 15, 1919, over 35,000 workers took to the streets of Winnipeg for six weeks. It began peacefully and passionately; it ended in lethal violence, and disagreement over what it meant. Contributor Tom Jokinen talks to experts on how the strike happened, why it occurred in Winnipeg — and through the use of archival tape, brings us the voices of people who were right there, on the streets, and on strike.
The Winnipeg General Strike began on May 15, 1919. Over 35,000 workers took to the streets for six week period. (University of Manitoba/Archives of Manitoba)

It was the biggest labour action in Canadian history: on May 15, 1919, over 35,000 workers took to the streets of Winnipeg for six weeks. It began peacefully and passionately and ended in lethal violence and disagreement over what it  meant.

How it began

Leslie Paulley was just 17, and working for Canadian Pacific Railway when the strike began on May 15, 1919. "The workers there... they just poured through the gates," he told the Manitoba Museum in an interview, recorded in 1972. 

According to Paulley, the atmosphere then "almost approached one of outright jubilation, because there was a general feeling at the time that the strike would be of such magnitude that it would so completely tie up everything in the city of Winnipeg, that it couldn't last for very long. Events proved otherwise." 

(William Wilson Fonds/Archives of Manitoba)

The issues

The issues were bread and butter: workers, both unionized and not, wanted fair wages and safe working conditions. Union leaders said that factory owners and businessmen, who'd both made a bundle in war profits, were hoarding their wealth. 

For their part, the owners accused the unions of mounting a Bolshevik revolution on the Red River. They blamed immigrants, the Hungarians, Poles and Ukrainians who had settled in Winnipeg's North End, calling them Reds and Huns. 

(University of Manitoba/Archives of Manitoba)

Meanwhile, the union leaders, who in fact were mostly from Scotland and England, took their case to the workers. They won. And on May 15, the strike began.

It lasted six weeks, virtually shutting Winnipeg down. Even the police joined the strike, a move that prompted a newly-formed Citizens Committee to swear in civilians, as special police, or as they were known by their pejorative nickname, the "Specials."

'Bloody Saturday'

(University of Manitoba Archives/Archives of Manitoba)

They were armed with billy clubs made from wagon wheel spokes, and the city came under a makeshift form of martial law.

Then on June 21, it ended, not with negotiation but with gunfire: mounted police and "Specials" attacked a crowd near Portage and Main and two men were killed, many more were injured. The day became known as Bloody Saturday.

In this episode, contributor Tom Jokinen asks: what comes into view when we look back on the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919?

At a time when labour is likewise under siege by austerity economics and the rhetoric of an ascendant business class — and at a time when work has changed, and the gig economy staffed by the precariat is the new norm, are there lessons from 1919 for working people now, one hundred years later? 

(William Wilson Fonds/Archives of Manitoba)

Guests in this episode:

  • Nolan Reilly is a retired professor of history at the University of Winnipeg.
  • James Naylor is a professor of history at Brandon University.
  • Esyllt Jones is a professor of history at the University of Manitoba. 
  • Janis Thiessen is a professor of history at the University of Winnipeg. 
  • Tom Saunders, Ottawa lawyer, great-grandson of A.J. Andrews 
  • Sharon Reilly is former curator at the Manitoba Museum. 

Archival Voices

  • The archival recordings from the Manitoba Museum were recorded in the early 1970s; and from a CBC Radio anniversary originally broadcast in 1969.
  • Bill Pritchard, one of the leaders of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. Charged with seditious conspiracy. 
  • Fred Tipping, Winnipeg union leader, a moderate. 
  • Leslie Paulley, a labour activist and a 17-year-old railway worker in 1919. 
  • Mr. and Mrs. John Runge, of Winnipeg. He was a witness to Bloody Saturday. As were James Warren Chafe, schoolteacher; Jim Hay; Alex Jacob, lumberyard worker; and Eugene Chevrier, merchant. 
  • Hugh Phillips was a member of the Citizens Committee of 1000, the group that opposed the strike.

Further reading:

**This episode was produced by Tom Jokinen and Greg Kelly.


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