'Moment of awakening': The impact of the Winnipeg General Strike on Canada's labour movement
On May 15th, 1919, the country — and the world — watched in astonishment as tens of thousands of workers walked off the job in Winnipeg. They demanded higher pay, better working conditions and the right to bargain collectively. Some 35,000 workers took over the running of Canada's third-largest city for six weeks.
The Winnipeg General Strike was one of the most important labour events in Canadian history.
It began months after the end of the Great War, which had demanded profound sacrifices. Husbands, sons and siblings died; soldiers returned from the front with profound physical and psychological scars. Back at home, unemployment and inflation were rampant.
"The whole world was in ferment," said Ian McKay, L.R. Wilson Chair in Canadian History at McMaster University and the author of Reasoning Otherwise, Leftists and the Peoples Enlightenment in Canada, 1890 to 1920.
"It was a very exciting but worrying time to be alive. The fall of the Czar was pivotal."
"It was the era of revolution in Russia and Germany. There were many large strikes going on the United States — the Seattle General Strike, hundreds of thousands of coal miners, steel workers — it was erupting all around … not just in Winnipeg, it's actually across Canada. We have sympathetic strikes from Emerald, Nova Scotia to Victoria, B.C.," said Linda Kealey, professor emerita at the University of New Brunswick and author of Enlisting Women for the Cause: Women, Labour, and the Left in Canada, 1890 - 1920.
Throughout the strike, men and women walked picket lines and attended educational workshops. They set up soup kitchens to feed thousands of strikers who would otherwise have gone hungry. The strike committee made sure that milk and bread deliveries continued throughout the city.
Those who downed tools were standing up for their rights, but they were also hoping to build a new world for the working classes.
Who were the leaders?
Many of the strike leaders were British Canadians, and many were ministers with booming voices and the ability to move crowds of people with their oratory.
"Christians were very prominent in the Winnipeg movement," said McKay. "They said, if you're a true Christian, you have to stand up for the oppressed. There's a huge revulsion against the war, against militarism, against greed. They want a peaceful way in which the entire social system can be transformed from top to bottom. It was a revolutionary sensibility."
Despite those lofty aims, the strike in Winnipeg didn't turn out well for the workers. On June 21st, 1919, on what has become known as Bloody Saturday, police on horseback charged a crowd of strikers and supporters, with fatal consequences.
One of the strikers remembered, "I saw the mounted police coming down from Broadway and they were all carrying baseball bats, swinging them. They ran down, they charged the crowd, roared through."
Two men were killed, many were injured and the city was in shock. Four days later, the strikers went back to work.
Kealey points to sentiments that were in the air just two years after the Russian revolution, to explain in part why the strike failed.
"I think we also need to remember that the Citizens Committee of 1000, which was the committee of businessmen, lawyers, and politicians who opposed the strike, fanned the flames and accused the strikers of being communists or Bolsheviks or whatever."
McKay added: "Skeptics about the strike will say none of their demands were met and it failed as completely as anything will ever fail. And I think in the immediate term you can say there's a case to be made for that position."
However, he points out that the ideas generated during the strike live on, in the strike leaders such as J.S. Woodsworth, who went on to found the CCF, the forerunner of the NDP.
Role of women
Ten of the strike leaders went to jail. And among them was a woman, Helen Jury Armstrong, an activist who championed the rights of women. She played a significant role in the strike, and as McKay observes, women "were going through a transformative moment in Winnipeg. They've been involved in left wing and progressive movements before this, but often in an auxiliary capacity."
According to Winnipeg filmmaker, Paula Kelly, and director of the documentary, The Notorious Mrs. Armstrong: "While all the workers risked so much to go on strike, single working women were particularly vulnerable. So, if they made the choice to go on strike, they immediately lost their jobs because they were barely making ends meet, eking out an existence week to week."
Helen Armstrong was "a rabble rouser, and she was fearless during the strike." After the strike she traveled to several centres in Canada, including Toronto, to talk about its impact and the outcome.
Winnipeg's so-called "revolution on the Red River" made headlines around the world, and set the stage for Canadian labour activism in the future.
"Even calling it a strike is kind of minimizing it," said McKay.
"It was more like a general moment of awakening. Thousands of people were immersed in a collective teach-in about the realities of life in their society. That is what is genuinely exciting about the strike. At the end of the day, it transformed the lives of thousands of people."