Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/6/2012 (1635 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Steve Swartz slowly opens the battered wooden door of his legendary Spence Street rooming house. He blinks into the sun, greeting two strangers cautiously.
Life has been hard on the 49-year-old. He's been on disability for five years, he says, and never expects to hold another job. Welfare pays $285 toward his $385 monthly rent. He has two rooms, no private bathroom. Swartz has to scramble to make up the rent shortage and feed himself.
He lives in the formerly grand home of the late John W. Dafoe, once editor of the Winnipeg Free Press. There's a plaque in the shaggy yard reminding passersby of Dafoe's legacy.
"I get pissed off," says Swartz, who once had his own autobody business and a ticket as a heavy-machine operator.
"I'd love to go back to work. If I could, I would. But politicians need to change things, make it possible for people to get jobs."
His complaint echoes those of a burgeoning, shape-shifting social movement that has taken form in Greek riots, Quebec student and anti-capitalist protests against shrinking opportunities, the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. None of these causes or reactions is new. In Winnipeg, a match was struck 93 years ago this month when a general strike paralyzed the city and illuminated the great divide between rich and poor, immigrant and establishment.
Today, nearly a century later, that great divide largely remains. Despite decades of social programs and dozens of poverty agencies, Winnipeg's richest families still earn roughly 11 times what the poorest families take in from wages and salaries. And the city's middle class is shrinking.
Just as in 1919, Winnipeg's poor are segregated by slum housing, poor health and less education. In the downtown and North End, people's lives are between 13 and 16 years shorter than those of people who live in newer suburbs in the wealthier south end.
Even before the 1919 strike, tensions were high between poor immigrants and the wealthy. A typhoid outbreak in 1912 was blamed on the poor hygiene of newcomers. Truthfully, the close quarters in which poor people were forced to live was likely a contributing factor, just as Winnipeg's bedbug epidemic is now most concentrated in the core.
The strike was billed as a conflict between "alien scum" -- immigrants who were depicted as Bolsheviks out to overthrow the government -- and establishment WASPs. A citizens' committee, made up largely of wealthy business owners, bankers and politicians, waged a public-relations war.
John Dafoe was a leading anti-strike voice.
"It was patently false that the strike was led by Austro-Hungarian revolutionaries," says playwright and composer Danny Schur, creator of the musical Strike!
"The main leaders were British."
Many of the business leaders who formed the strike-breaking Committee of 1000 were not Anglos. Those facts were blurred as the strike and its aftermath were painted as a classic us-versus-them conflict.
The fact many strike leaders were British became problematic when efforts were made to deport strikers. The federal government amended the Immigration Act to allow the deportation of British-born strike leaders.
In a reflection of the anti-foreigner sentiment in the years after the First World War, the government used the revised act to bar entry to Doukhobors, Mennonites and Hutterites, as well as people who then were, or during the war had been, enemy aliens.
It wasn't radical politics or a Communist conspiracy disguised as trade unionism that prompted the strike. It was frustration, growing for several years, at stagnating wages that did not keep pace with the increasingly high cost of rent and food.
In other words, it wasn't politics so much as pay.
A constant in Winnipeg's history is poverty -- "deep, and unrelenting poverty," in the words of University of Winnipeg inner-city expert Jim Silver.
In many ways, Winnipeg's poverty problem is exactly the same as it was 100 years ago, segregated by space and race.
It's still characterized by more street crime, chronic health problems, lower rates of high school and university graduation and substandard housing.
At the time of the strike, many houses in the North End were shoddily built and lacking the basic sanitation the rest of the city enjoyed. Silver points to one study done in 1908 by the All Peoples' Mission that described a stretch of Euclid Avenue where an average of 20 people lived in each house. In another district, the city's health department reported 1,031 families living in houses designed for 361.
Now, with vacancy rates for affordable housing near zero, the North End's aging housing stock is not much better, and it's common to find two families sharing a unit meant for one in order to make the rent.
And poverty is still concentrated in the North End, a vast part of the city many Winnipeggers only see on the way to the cottage.
By the turn of the 19th century, the CP Rail yards separated the North End from the rest of the Winnipeg. You could cross them, but you'd be taking your life into your hands. The Arlington Street bridge wasn't finished until 1912.
Author Danny Schur says racism created a divide as real as the tracks.
"The physical development of the railway yard is the genesis of the societal divide," says Schur. "It's a real and moral Berlin Wall. There's moral superiority on both sides."
"I listened to my parents talking about how the Ukrainians were discriminated against," says Schur.
"Now it's just switched to aboriginals and Métis. Tribalism of that sort is something we'll always struggle with."
Schur says mistrust between immigrants and establishment lingered for decades. When Ukrainian Steve Juba ran successfully for mayor in 1957, Schur says, he was accused of being a wife-beater and a drinker.
Where once the "bohunks" and "Polacks" were dismissed as lazy and dirty and unsalvageable, nearly the same things are said now, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, about aboriginal people.
Silver argues the huge waves of aboriginal people who arrived in the North End in the 1970s and 1980s were the victims of a cultural destruction that saw First Nations families stripped of their lands and denied the right to speak their language. Residential schools shattered the foundations of their family structures.
By the time aboriginal people began migrating en masse to Winnipeg, the good jobs available to unskilled workers -- in factories, warehouses, stores -- had already left the North End and the city. Aboriginal people were often excluded from what jobs remained.
That's one of the ways Winnipeg's poverty problem is different -- and maybe worse -- now, says Silver.
At the time of the Winnipeg General Strike, it was working people who were poor -- families with husbands who worked on the railway, in factories or on farms who didn't earn a living wage. Even children picked up odd jobs to help supplement that family income.
As Silver notes, 100 years ago, the working poor were underpaid and exploited, but they were a vital cog in Winnipeg's economy. They had power.
Now, the poor are more often people on chronic welfare who have little experience in the job market and who are, for whatever reason, excluded from the mainstream economy.
"There is a big chunk of young men in particular who are often aboriginal, and they never get a foot in the labour market," said Silver. "That's a source of trouble."
As the reach of unions declines, the working poor have even less economic clout than the strikers in 1919. They are powerless, which breeds despair, often through generations.
Back then, poor families were also intact. Two parents raised kids, unlike today when a huge proportion of poor families are headed by single mothers. In the William Whyte neighbourhood, nearly half of all homes were run by single moms, according to the 2006 census. In Tuxedo, that number was about six per cent.
Emily Stirling has owned her two-storey Ross Avenue house since 1968. On a recent sunny afternoon, the 84-year-old widow was busy stripping paint from her back steps.
She didn't know her home once housed labour leader R.B. Russell, jailed for his role in the 1919 general strike. There's no historic plaque for him.
Stirling says she and her late husband worked long hours to raise their four children. He was a transport driver, she cleaned airplanes for 23 years, working nights and working hard.
She's seen times turn tougher for young people.
"There isn't as much opportunity for them," she says.
"I don't know if there's much of a future for them. You see two, three families living in a house just to get by."
Her 32-year-old son has moved back in. He's unemployed and trying to get his licence to drive a truck like his dad once did.
"It's really hard for them," says Stirling.
There is little research done on the income gap that existed when R.B. Russell lived in Stirling's house.
J.S. Woodsworth, the legendary poverty crusader, found in 1913 many workmen in the North End where he ministered earned less than $500 or $600 annually. Woodsworth said an income of at least $1,200 was needed to enjoy "a normal standard of living" in Winnipeg.
Nowadays, there are almost as many ways to measure poverty as there are poor people in Winnipeg, and collectively the data creates a complicated picture of the growing income gap.
First, the good news.
Manitoba's income gap is not growing as quickly as the gap in other provinces, in part because of Manitoba's ploddingly healthy economy and our shortage of super-rich people. The province simply doesn't have the critical mass of highly compensated CEOs, the kind who populate Bay Street and Calgary's oil-company headquarters, who create a dramatic chasm between rich and poor.
And things are getting better here for the very poor. There are fewer of them, and their market incomes have risen nearly 200 per cent since the mid-1970s.
More recently, Winnipeg's poorest neighbourhoods saw significant jumps in median income in the years between the 2001 and 2006 census -- the best and newest data available. William Whyte, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Winnipeg, saw its median income jump by nearly a third.
Tuxedo didn't do nearly as well. There, incomes increased only by about eight per cent.
And the poor have a slightly larger share of the province's total household income now than they did in the mid-'70s. Back then, the poorest 20 per cent of families earned just two per cent of the total household income before taxes. Now, they earn four per cent, a slight improvement.
Now for the bad news.
The poorest 20 per cent of Winnipeg families, those living at rock bottom, only made an average market income of $14,900 a year in 2008. By any measure, that's still misery.
Winnipeg's median family income in the same year was nearly five times that -- $70,510. At about the same time, Statistics Canada estimated a family with two adults and two kids needed $29,300 to afford a "modest, basic standard of living."
Though William Whyte saw a noted improvement, the median family income there was still only about $30,000 in 2006. That's hovering right near the poverty line -- whichever of three or four lines you choose -- and it's five times less than the median income in Tuxedo.
If Winnipeg's rich are getting richer and the poor are doing a little better, the middle class is getting squeezed. There are fewer people in the middle class now, and they are making less money.
According to numbers crunched by the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, which was founded during the 1919 strike, incomes for the middle 60 per cent of families, those earning annual wages worth anywhere from about $40,000 to $90,000 have risen only 19 per cent since the mid 1970s. The rich have seen their incomes increase by nearly double that.
Despite some success with grassroots, inner-city poverty-eradication programs, Silver said Winnipeg's deep and complex poverty problem threatens to become a permanent reality if radical solutions aren't found.
People like Steve Swartz, who lives in poverty in the former home of a wealthy anti-union newspaper editor, believe the gap is already too wide to bridge.
THE PEOPLE IN YOUR NEIGHBOURHOOD
Using census data, the Winnipeg Free Press has mapped out the changes to median family incomes in more than 150 Winnipeg neighbourhoods between 2001 and 2006, the latest available figures. The data offer a snapshot of poor neighbourhoods that appear to be on the upswing, middle-class neighbourhoods that are stagnating and wealthy enclaves with incomes still exponentially higher than the Winnipeg average. To see how your neighbourhood fares, see the interactive graphic below.