August 26, 2019

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Pages of the past

A century later, new books explore Winnipeg General Strike's lasting impact

Walking tours, lectures, concerts, musicals, films: when it comes to the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike, there’s no shortage of ways to learn about the six weeks in 1919 that brought the city to a standstill before the infamous “Bloody Saturday” and subsequent end to the demonstrations.

A series of new books that tell the story of the 1919 strike approach the topic from a number of perspectives, from non-fiction chronology to graphic novel format to fiction for younger readers. And while the narratives vary, they share a common goal: bringing the people directly impacted by the strike — children, immigrants, families, strikers and political leaders — to life on the page.

1919: A Graphic History of the Winnipeg General StrikeBy the Graphic History Collective and David Lester (Between the Lines, 128 pages, $19.19)

Over the last decade, the rise of graphic novels has increasingly included historical writing given the comic-book treatment.

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Walking tours, lectures, concerts, musicals, films: when it comes to the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike, there’s no shortage of ways to learn about the six weeks in 1919 that brought the city to a standstill before the infamous "Bloody Saturday" and subsequent end to the demonstrations.

A series of new books that tell the story of the 1919 strike approach the topic from a number of perspectives, from non-fiction chronology to graphic novel format to fiction for younger readers. And while the narratives vary, they share a common goal: bringing the people directly impacted by the strike — children, immigrants, families, strikers and political leaders — to life on the page.

1919: A Graphic History of the Winnipeg General StrikeBy the Graphic History Collective and David Lester (Between the Lines, 128 pages, $19.19)

Over the last decade, the rise of graphic novels has increasingly included historical writing given the comic-book treatment.

The Graphic History Collective, a group of artists, academics and activists, came together more than a decade ago with the intention of bringing the history of labour movements to a wider audience. So when they were brainstorming their next project a few years back, the Winnipeg General Strike seemed like the perfect fit for their next book.

"The Winnipeg General Strike looms large in Canadian history — particularly in Canadian labour history," says Sean Carleton, a Calgary-based historian and collective member.

"We decided to put our energies together to create a graphic history of the strike which would condense and synthesize a lot of the scholarly research which has been done over the last 100 years, and package it for new audiences — particularly younger audiences who may have heard about the strike but don’t necessarily know why it would be important to understand in 2019."

Over the course of two years, the collective undertook extensive research on the strike, mining scholarly texts, historical photos and other archival material to create a storyline and rough outline of what they wanted their graphic novel to look like.

Artist David Lester, who was provided the story outline for 1919: A Graphic History of the Winnipeg General Strike, didn’t have the luxury of such an extensive timeline. Lester, a Vancouver-based graphic artist and musician, had just 53 days to turn the collective’s storyline into a graphic novel. "It’s a phenomenal achievement," Carleton says. "Usually a book like this would take at least one or two years for an artist to complete. And in a way 53 days is symbolic — it was around the same length of time as the strike. He was able to commit himself to this intense schedule; I think that plays out in the art he created."

Lester, who had contributed to a previous Graphic History Collective volume, dove into the project head first. "It was 10- to 12-hour days —it was incredibly intense," he explains.

As he went along, Lester was able to push publisher Between the Lines and the collective to give him more space for his interpretation of the strike. "At first they said they wanted to do 32 pages," he recalls. "I came back eventually and said ‘You know, I might need about 60 pages.’ And then as I got further into things, I came back again and said ‘You know, I might actually need about 90 pages.’"

Those additional pages allowed Lester to draw out the "Bloody Saturday" confrontation over roughly one-third of the book, with a moment-by-moment series of drawings that break from the typical graphic-novel panels, often spanning two pages. As the clash begins, Lester’s style evolves from a conventional comic-book format to rougher, edgier drawings.

"If you flip through the book you notice the first half and last bit are more traditional comic pages — tight panels, crisp images," Carleton says. "For the Bloody Saturday sequence, David wanted to approach that scene as if he were a war artist. We tried to make a connection between the horrors of the First World War that many returning soldiers would have experienced, and that kind of violence in the streets of Winnipeg."

In researching for the book, the relevance of the strike 100 years later was reinforced for Carleton. "I think during the six-week strike, people in Winnipeg actually did have a lot of power. And for the most part, politicians and bosses didn’t want them to know that, and deliberately tried to undermine the strike," says Carleton. "We were witnessing an event about people pushing back against high levels of unemployment, high levels of inflation, increasing inequality, the rising gap between the rich and the poor.

"In those terms, we could be talking about 2019 or 1919."

 

Magnificent Fight: The 1919 Winnipeg General StrikeBy Dennis Lewycky (Fernwood, 222 pages, $22)

Despite his book’s title, community organizer and author Dennis Lewycky is quick to point out the violence often associated with the Winnipeg General Strike — and perpetuated by the iconic L.B. Foote photograph of a city street car being pushed over — is often overstated or over-emphasized.

"The image of the streetcar on its side is the one embedded in the public mind. That’s not representative of the strike," says Lewycky, who has organized and led strike-related bus tours in Winnipeg for the last six years. Magnificent Fight: The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike is his fourth book.

"I understand the appeal of the streetcar photo — it’s dramatic. And how can you present in one photo the sacrifices of ordinary working people, the poverty of the time, the decisions and compromises families had to make to survive for six weeks? Those are not vivid images."

In Magnificent Fight, Lewycky strives to bring those stories to light. He includes context from both before and after the strike as well as emphasizing the role women played in events surrounding the strike. "I knew right from the beginning that I had to write more about the role of women in the strike — I knew there had been very little written about their involvement."

Lewycky’s started the book in the summer of 2017, mining all manner of archives including a collection of interviews conducted by the Manitoba Museum in the 1970s. "They provided me with such an incredible wealth of personal perspective that was so dynamic," says Lewycky. Over the course of the next 18 months Lewycky researched and collected stories of women, families, immigrants and workers/strikers and the impact the strike had on the lives of everyday Winnipeggers.

"Once I got into it, I realized how big of a task it was. I spent a lot of late nights working on it," recalls Lewycky. "It was a huge challenge, but at the same time so rewarding — I’m honoured to be able to convey the story of the strike and the strikers to a wider audience."

Lewycky was surprised by the level of intellectual and ideological fervor of the time. "From the turn of the century until the 1920s there really was a lot of intellectual discourse — people looking at different ways to organize society, to govern society. There were a number of leagues formed to examine issues of taxes, health care, democracy… they looked at ways of organizing government. And there were so many different political parties — there were four different labour parties alone at the time. That intellectual and ideological dynamic was really important — it gave a form to what people were thinking, and for the elite was really important for trying to understand what was going on."

PapergirlBy Melinda McCracken with Penelope Jackson (Roseway, 140 pages, $13)

One of two strike-related novels geared towards younger readers, Papergirl tells the story of Cassie, a 10-year-old girl who volunteers during the strike to distribute a daily bulletin at the corner of Portage and Main. From her vantage point she sees actions around the strike begin to coalesce, as she also feels its effects — the increasing hunger, the swell of discontent and the justice (and injustice) served over the course of six weeks.

The book was written in 1980 and 1981 by Melinda McCracken, who passed it along to a number of publishers for consideration but found no takers. After her death in 2002, the manuscript sat unpublished at the University of Manitoba archives, along with a number of supporting materials (as well as letters of rejection from publishers).

With the 100th anniversary of the strike looming Melinda’s daughter Molly, the Manitoba director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, dug up the manuscript from the U of M archives. Her mother’s manuscript was fleshed out research-wise and brought into its current form by Halifax writer and editor Penelope Jackson, and was published by Roseway, an imprint of local publisher Fernwood Publishing, in April.

"There are about a half-dozen fictional books located in the time of the Winnipeg General Strike, and this is one of the best in terms of historical accuracy," says Lewycky of Papergirl. "I love fiction; I think it’s an important vehicle. But there’s the potential for people to distort the reality of the strike. Papergirl gets the historical context right."

The publisher of Papergirl has also made a teacher guide available in order to help educators of middle-grade students work with kids to learn more about the strike (the book is geared toward eight- to 13-year-olds). Interested teachers and parents can check explore the resources at wfp.to/papergirl.

 

City on StrikeBy Harriet Zaidman (Red Deer Press, 200 pages, $15)

With City on Strike, former teacher-librarian, children’s author and Free Press book reviewer Harriet Zaidman ventures into the crowded field of strike-related books with her debut novel, also for younger readers.

Zaidman has three picture books to her credit, but for City on Strike decided to have a go at writing a brief novel for younger readers, specifically those in middle school. "Grades 5-8 is an area where kids are learning so much, and historical fiction is such a valuable tool to teach people about how people lived, and how history impacted on them," she says.

City on Strike incorporates a handful of details of Zaidman’s own family’s plight during the strike into her novel. Central to the novel are 13-year-old Jack and his younger sister Nellie, children of a blue-collar immigrant family living in the North End who have been hit hard by the strike. As the work stoppage drags on the family struggles with its ramifications; they’re eventually drawn more directly into the civil unrest that ensues.

The interest from teachers in strike-related books has been significant. "I think I’ve been to 13 or 14 schools in the last three or four weeks," Zaidman says. "When I went to school there was usually one line about the strike in most history books — just that it had happened, and that was about it. The kids I’ve talked to, they’re being educated about it, many have been to the Manitoba Museum exhibit, have gone on walking tours… it’s so different. It’s been so positive to see the difference."

Zaidman found the challenge of writing a novel to be both difficult and exhilarating. "It was a challenge to write a novel; I figured if I didn’t succeed, at least I’ll have tried. It’s really validating and encouraging; as someone who has been a teacher, and because my family was an immigrant family, tackling the strike has made the experience so much more inspiring."

books@freepress.mb.ca

Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson

Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson
Literary editor, drinks writer

Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.

Read full biography

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