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History of Winnipeg's political left delivers less-than-complete picture

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/10/2015 (1354 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Civic politics in Winnipeg has long been chronicled as a classic struggle between right and left, with the right being the business and property interests and the left being labour, the communists and, more recently, the CCF/NDP.

The watershed event most often acknowledged is the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. Stefan Epp-Koop, who runs the local advocacy group Food Matters Manitoba, has attempted to describe that confrontational history in this book, but with not much more than 150 pages to work with, he doesn't get very far.

It can be argued convincingly that the battle lines drawn in Winnipeg almost a century ago can still be seen in today's electoral contests. A year ago, lawyer Brian Bowman was something of a surprise winner in the mayoral race over longtime New Democrat Judy Wasylycia-Leis, who had been heavily favoured when the campaign began. Some of the volunteers who worked on Wasylycia-Leis's campaign were grandchildren or great-grandchildren of North End Winnipeggers who went door to door on behalf of Labour candidates in the 1920s.

Unfortunately, Epp-Koop mostly ends his version of events with the first election of John Queen as mayor of Winnipeg in 1934. In the depths of the Great Depression, it was indeed a significant victory for the left. Queen had been a leading figure in the 1919 strike and was sent to jail in 1920 for "seditious conspiracy."

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/10/2015 (1354 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Civic politics in Winnipeg has long been chronicled as a classic struggle between right and left, with the right being the business and property interests and the left being labour, the communists and, more recently, the CCF/NDP.

The watershed event most often acknowledged is the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. Stefan Epp-Koop, who runs the local advocacy group Food Matters Manitoba, has attempted to describe that confrontational history in this book, but with not much more than 150 pages to work with, he doesn't get very far.

It can be argued convincingly that the battle lines drawn in Winnipeg almost a century ago can still be seen in today's electoral contests. A year ago, lawyer Brian Bowman was something of a surprise winner in the mayoral race over longtime New Democrat Judy Wasylycia-Leis, who had been heavily favoured when the campaign began. Some of the volunteers who worked on Wasylycia-Leis's campaign were grandchildren or great-grandchildren of North End Winnipeggers who went door to door on behalf of Labour candidates in the 1920s.

Unfortunately, Epp-Koop mostly ends his version of events with the first election of John Queen as mayor of Winnipeg in 1934. In the depths of the Great Depression, it was indeed a significant victory for the left. Queen had been a leading figure in the 1919 strike and was sent to jail in 1920 for "seditious conspiracy."

The 1934 election marked the only time in the city's history labour and other left-wing forces, including the Communist Party of Canada, took a majority of the seats on council. Nothing dramatic happened, and in subsequent elections, candidates who were generally from the right end of the political spectrum took back the majority.

It's a shame the author made no attempt to extend the narrative in some way to at least the first Unicity election in 1971, which this reviewer was involved in covering as a rookie reporter. Provincially, the NDP was first elected to govern Manitoba in 1969, with Ed Schreyer as their leader. Two years later they passed the City of Winnipeg Act, which amalgamated a dozen municipalities in the capital region.

In the 1971 election, the NDP ran a fairly full slate of candidates in the 50 wards that were created. On the other side was the Independent Citizens Election Committee. The ICEC, which won 37 of the 50 seats, was a loose coalition of Liberals and Conservatives; in many ways it could trace its origins right back to the Citizens Committee of One Thousand who lined up against the forces of the left in 1919.

The most significant move that was made by the ICEC majority in their first term was the dismantling of the public-works empire that had been in place since Winnipeg's earliest days. Substantial assets, including major gravel pits and a cement plant, were sold off to private contractors. The public-works yard in the inner city was sold; today the land is home to the Federal Microbiology Lab where the Ebola vaccine was recently developed.

Epp-Koop does offer partial profiles of several of the leaders of the left from the period that followed the 1919 strike — men such as William Kolisnyk, who was believed to be the first elected Communist in North America. Another is Jake Penner, a longtime Communist member of Winnipeg's city council, and the father of Roland Penner, who served as Manitoba's attorney general in the 1980s.

It's indeed an important part of our local history, but in this book, it is woefully incomplete.

Roger Currie is a Winnipeg writer and broadcaster who covered Winnipeg's city hall as a reporter for CJOB in the 1970s.

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