April 25, 2019

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Manitoba Museum exhibit puts spotlights on centenary of General Strike

The Manitoba Museum is bringing the 1919 General Strike back to life.

“This coming May 15 will mark the 100th anniversary of a unique moment in Canadian history, when 35,000 Winnipeg citizens demanded change by staging a massive general strike,” museum curator of history, Roland Sawatzky, told staff and labour rights supporters Thursday at the unveiling of an interactive exhibit to mark the centenary.

The walkout stopped work, halted factory production and stalled an entire city, as workers tried to force business to recognize organized labour unions and improve wages and working conditions. For more than a month, the shockwaves reverberated across the country, triggering a rise of unionism and sympathetic labour action from Nova Scotia to British Columbia and inflamed fears of a Bolshevik-style revolution.

The strike ended June 21, 1919, on "Bloody Saturday." The city’s mayor, Charles Gray, read the Riot Act, mounted police charged the unarmed crowds, a striker was shot dead, another died later of his wounds, strike leaders were arrested and the military patrolled the city's streets.

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The Manitoba Museum is bringing the 1919 General Strike back to life.

"This coming May 15 will mark the 100th anniversary of a unique moment in Canadian history, when 35,000 Winnipeg citizens demanded change by staging a massive general strike," museum curator of history, Roland Sawatzky, told staff and labour rights supporters Thursday at the unveiling of an interactive exhibit to mark the centenary.

Remembering the strike

Manitoba unions and other organizations are hosting a number of events this year to mark the centenary of the 1919 General Strike. Here's a partial list so far

Manitoba unions and other organizations are hosting a number of events this year to mark the centenary of the 1919 General Strike. Here's a partial list so far.

May 11 — Manitoba unions are hosting a 1919 social, presented by Myers LLP, at the Ukrainian Labour Temple (sold out).

May 15 — Winnipeg General Strike Centennial Gala Dinner at RBC Convention Centre, presented by the Manitoba Building Trades.

May 15 — One-time performance of the Winnipeg Labour Choir, revived for 100th anniversary, at the Ukrainian Labour Temple. Tickets are $10. Doors open at 6 p.m. Performance at 7:30 p.m.

May 25 — Manitoba unions will celebrate the Solidarity Forever Parade, presented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832. Route runs from the Exchange District to the legislature.

May 28-30 — Unifor plays host to the Prairie Regional Council conference. About 250 delegates from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta are expected to attend.

June 18-25 and July 2-5 — Rainbow Stage is performing Strike! The Musical.

The movie Stand! — based on the musical Strike! — is finished, but a release date has yet to be announced. 

The walkout stopped work, halted factory production and stalled an entire city, as workers tried to force business to recognize organized labour unions and improve wages and working conditions. For more than a month, the shockwaves reverberated across the country, triggering a rise of unionism and sympathetic labour action from Nova Scotia to British Columbia and inflamed fears of a Bolshevik-style revolution.

The strike ended June 21, 1919, on "Bloody Saturday." The city’s mayor, Charles Gray, read the Riot Act, mounted police charged the unarmed crowds, a striker was shot dead, another died later of his wounds, strike leaders were arrested and the military patrolled the city's streets.

Manitoba Museum curator of history Roland Sawatzky stands in a replica of the Strathcona restaurant, part of the 1919 General Strike exhibit at the museum. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Manitoba Museum curator of history Roland Sawatzky stands in a replica of the Strathcona restaurant, part of the 1919 General Strike exhibit at the museum. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

"The Dominion of Canada had bared its teeth and the strike was called off," Sawatzky said at the entrance to the exhibit.

"The strike was a failure, but many of its leaders entered the political domain. Labour slowly formed political parties, affecting public opinion and pressuring other parties to take labour issues seriously."

Among them: John Queen, a strike leader, who later served as Winnipeg mayor (1935-36, 1938-42). He was also elected to the Manitoba legislature while serving a prison sentence related to strike activity.

And Les Paulley, a 17-year-old labour supporter who witnessed first-hand the police charge on the strikers.

"I can remember him saying something to the effect that he managed to pick up a rock to throw at them. Then he disappeared from sight as quick as he could because of the violence," said Paulley’s son, Lance, who took in the opening tour with a half-dozen relatives.

In one of the most iconic images from the strike, a streetcar is overturned on Main Street in front of the old city hall building. (Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

In one of the most iconic images from the strike, a streetcar is overturned on Main Street in front of the old city hall building. (Winnipeg Free Press files)

The 1919 strike is sunk deep in the family’s roots.

Les Paulley would stay active in the labour movement the rest of his life, putting in his hours on the job at the Canadian Pacific railyards in Winnipeg and organizing unions behind the scenes.

His brother, Russ Paulley, would emerge as a labour and political leader, serving as an MLA for more than 20 years and was the first leader of Manitoba's New Democratic Party.

The exhibit brings the chaos and the tension of the era back to life. Depression, mass unemployment and inflation, the rise of industrial unionism, the Russian Revolution, all of it contributed to the post-First World War labour unrest, the tinder to the spark for the 1919 strike.

Propaganda inflamed tempers. Employers banded together as the Citizens' Committee of One Thousand and ran off a daily newspaper, blaming the strike on Eastern European agitators they dubbed "enemy aliens."

Thousands gather in May of 1919 at Victoria Park, just east of Winnipeg's city hall, the central gathering area for strikers and returning veterans of the First World War. (Lewis Benjamin Foote / Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

Thousands gather in May of 1919 at Victoria Park, just east of Winnipeg's city hall, the central gathering area for strikers and returning veterans of the First World War. (Lewis Benjamin Foote / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Those elements play out in displays of artifacts, visual projections and original film footage. A short documentary can be viewed at the Allen Theatre, along with oral history excerpts at four locations in the museum's Urban Gallery.

Dramatized dialogues bring to life different perspectives of the strike: a former soldier argues with an immigrant striker, a maid tries to calm the lady of a wealthy household, labour leader Helen Armstrong rallies an angry young striker.

"This exhibition isn’t comfortable. As you explore the different buildings and rooms (that make up the Urban Gallery), you’ll be reminded of the divisions in our city in 1919, a time when the old foundations of society were trembling underfoot," Sawatzky said.

"It still resonates because people see unions under threat, either through automation or globalization or the gig economy. A lot of people take unions for granted, and it’s really important to remember unions are the bedrock for the standard of living of Canadians today."

 

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

People gather at Portage and Main in 1919. (Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

People gather at Portage and Main in 1919. (Winnipeg Free Press files)

Alexandra Paul

Alexandra Paul
Reporter

Alexandra is a veteran news reporter who has covered stories for the Winnipeg Free Press since 1987. She held the medical beat for nearly 17 years, and today specializes in coverage of Indigenous-related issues. She is among the most versatile journalists on the paper’s staff.

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