Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/6/2015 (2124 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When Steve Szczerbanowicz died after being shot by a police officer during the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919, nobody came to claim his body. A recent immigrant with little money, Szczerbanowicz was buried in an unmarked grave at Brookside Cemetery on Notre Dame Avenue, and his grave has remained unmarked ever since.
Now, nearly a century later, a handful of Winnipeggers have worked together to put a headstone on Szczerbanowicz’s grave, commemorating his death and the working-class struggle he died for.
Derek Black, vice-president of MayWorks Festival of Labour and the Arts in Winnipeg, was one of the leaders of the effort. Black and his colleagues at MayWorks have been working on the project for years, holding the first fundraising concert to raise money for the headstone in 2012 (that concert also celebrated American singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday). Black said the completion of the headstone is bittersweet.
"It’s like getting to the end of the road, in some ways," he said. "For us, there’s just the whole history, not only of the death of (Szczerbanowicz), but the whole event and all of the people that were wrapped up in the strike... It was a horrible, horrible time for so many people that were struggling to survive."
Less than a decade ago, MayWorks put a headstone on the previously unmarked grave of Mike Sokolowski, the other man who was shot and killed by police during the Winnipeg General Strike. During that work and other projects surrounding the strike, including working with Winnipeg playwright Danny Schur on a theatrical retelling called Strike!: The Musical, Black said he became "engrossed with the whole history and the story."
On June 21, 1919, the Winnipeg General Strike, which had been going on for more than a month, finally boiled over in an event now called Bloody Saturday. More than 20,000 strikers gathered for a demonstration at Market Square, and Winnipeg’s then-mayor Charles Gray called in the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, who rode in on horses and fired at the crowd. One man, Mike Sokolowski, was shot and killed. Steve Szczerbanowicz was shot in the legs and died later of gangrene infection.
Black said much is unknown or contested about Szczerbanowicz: he definitely came from Eastern Europe, was of Polish-Ukrainian origin and possibly born in Austria, but Black couldn’t say for sure where Szczerbanowicz lived, what he did for a living, or why he ended up in the line of fire on Bloody Saturday.
"He might have been a strike sympathizer, he might have been just curious as to what was going on," Black said. "No way of knowing."
Even finding his grave took digging. While Black knew Szczerbanowicz was buried in Grave 567 at Brookside Cemetery, the marker and those surrounding it had sunk, hidden, into the ground. Black and his wife had to go to the cemetery and measure the distances from other graves to figure out which plot was his.
There was also fundraising. Black and fellow board member Mitch Podolak organized two fundraising concerts with local artists to pay for the gravestone, which Black said was sold to them at a "considerable discount" by family-owned Brunet Monuments in St. Boniface. Winnipeggers might recognize Podolak’s name: he’s one of the founders of the Winnipeg Folk Fest.
"We had to do the research, we had to figure how spell the name first," said Podolak, laughing. For a while, they were spelling it phonetically -- "Sketcherbonovitch."
The gravestone is already up at Brookside, and will be unveiled on Saturday at 2 p.m., featuring performances from some of the musicians at the original fundraising concerts. Podolak will say a few words, along with other community members.
We don’t think it’s going to be a big event, we just think it’s going to be an important event," Podolak said.
For Black, the event and its history is an important reminder of immigrant and working-class issues and the strike itself.
"Perhaps in some respects that’s why these guys wound up in unmarked graves, was because of their ethnicity. It’s almost as if in some ways they were disposable and didn’t really matter," he said. "And perhaps had it been the son or daughter of someone from a different part of town, with a different last name, there would have been a grave stone."