The events surrounding the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike have been well-documented. The largest open-ended general strike in Canadian history continues to be of great interest to academics, trade unionists and the public at large.
Fourteen people connected to the strike are interred in Brookside Cemetery. Their lives, and the connections between them, offer a fascinating glimpse at key storylines associated with the strike.
Consider these facts associated with these citizens.
Two Russian immigrants, Rachel (Rose) Shapack and Jacob Penner, met here at a meeting of the Winnipeg Radical Society. Of note was the guest speaker that evening, American political activist Emma Goldman.
Two men, Fred Dixon and John Queen, were arrested in June 1919 and charged with sedition, along with Penner, who was interned for two years in 1940 due to his membership in the Communist Party of Canada.
Three incredible women, Frances Marion Beynon, Winona (Flett) Dixon and Gertrude Puttee, were executive members of the Manitoba Political Equality League, and were granted the rare honour of being seated on the floor of the legislature in January 1916 as legislation was passed extending voting rights to some women in Manitoba.
Two Ukrainian immigrants, Mike Sokolowski and Steve Szczerbanowicz, were shot on Main Street on Bloody Saturday, June 21, 1919.
Two men, Queen and Penner, founded the Winnipeg Socialist Sunday School, and then ran against one another twice for the office of mayor.
A journalist, Frances Beynon, opposed conscription and wrote of this period: "I am thankful to be living in these fighting days... when humanity is seething and boiling and stirring."
A strike leader, Thomas Flye, commonly known as the Mayor of Weston, defeated Helen Armstrong, who served with him on the Central Strike Committee, and went on to serve 21 consecutive years on City Council.
Winnipeg’s first alderwoman, Jessie Kirk, stepped back from running in the 1920 provincial election in order to support a slate of jailed strike leaders.
A largely unknown retail clerk, Matilda Russell, was arrested on June 5, 1919, for urging workers of a downtown department store to join the general strike.
A business leader, James M. Carruthers, was incorrectly credited with conceiving of the "Permitted by Authority of the Strike Committee" placards.
Winnipeg in 1919 was a city of contrasts. Fabulous wealth in the communities south of the Assiniboine River, poverty and substandard housing in the North End.
Winnipeg’s population was about 180,000 in 1920, having more than quadrupled in the previous three decades. It was an unbelievable growth rate, fuelled almost entirely by immigration from the United Kingdom, Ireland and eastern Europe.
This created a strong network of ethnic communities with a host of cultural and other organizations that wove a connectedness amongst the working class.
The 14 citizens buried at Brookside belonged to a wide range of groups, including the Women’s Labor League, Manitoba Health League, Moderation League, Winnipeg Federenko Defence Committee and Winnipeg Single Tax League, not to mention more than a half-dozen left-wing political parties.
If one assumes a family size of three to four persons, the more than 30,000 citizens who struck for six weeks, beginning in May 1919, represented more than half of Winnipeg’s population.
More than half of the strikers themselves were not members of any trade union. The strike grew in size over its first four weeks. Workers listened to their leaders and stayed home, and there was no increase in either police or fire incidents.
That the anti-strike Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand was concerned is an understatement. Their fear of the growing solidarity amongst Winnipeg workers drove their actions in forcing the arrests of strike leaders and the passing of federal anti-immigrant legislation.
They orchestrated a strategy to block a negotiated settlement of the two disputes, which gave rise to the general strike, and assumed policing authority through the deputation of hundreds of so-called "specials." Finally, they forced a violent end to the strike through the charge down Main Street to break up a silent march of returned soldiers on Bloody Saturday.
The calling off of the strike was the only decision the Central Strike Committee could make, given the forces lined up against them. It was a devastating blow for the thousands who lost their jobs and labour in general.
But it was a remarkable display of unity and organization by workers in what was Canada’s third-largest city. How did they pull it off? How did they win the "hearts and minds" of the population at large before, during and after the general strike?
The answers to these and other key questions can be found in the fascinating facts that emerge from a detailed look at the lives of the 14 citizens buried at Brookside.
Four broad observations emerge.
First and foremost, labour in 1919 had earned the trust of the vast majority of workers through a sophisticated and effective communications system.
They had a daily paper and strong networks of public meetings. During the general strike, beyond Victoria Park, which was the workers’ parliament in the East Exchange, regular strike updates were supplied at a host of public parks throughout the city.
Fred Dixon, perhaps the most prominent strike player buried at Brookside, was a prolific author and politician. He took over publication of the daily strike newspaper along with J.S. Woodsworth after the arrest of William Ivens.
A century later, in the world of a thousand TV channels and social media, labour is far more removed from any such connection with rank-and-file workers. We could learn much from the effective communication systems that labour implemented a century ago.
Second, and of considerable importance to pulling off a largely peaceful and successful six-week general strike, was the role women played.
Suffragist leaders, including Winona (Flett) Dixon, Katherine (Ross) Queen and Frances Marion Beynon (each of whom is interred at Brookside), brought enormous organizing ability and strength to their work on the left in Winnipeg. This organizational capacity was critical to pulling off something as large and complex as a general strike.
Third was both the diversity and strength of a range of ethnic, religious, labour and political groups present in Winnipeg in 1919. These groups were strong, united and very supportive of their respective members.
Religious study groups, including a Socialist Sunday School, fraternal organizations and a full range of issues-based organizations all flourished in Winnipeg. They collectively provided the strike with a support base that had deep community roots. They shared food and offered support to those most in need. The strike could not have occurred, let alone lasted, without these supportive groups.
Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, is the strike’s political legacy. While the workers of that day did not win the union recognition and collective bargaining framework that they sought, they won something arguably more important in the long run.
They won wide-scale public support at the ballot box. Labour-endorsed leaders, including Fred Dixon, John Queen, Flye, Penner and Kirk, were but a sampling of the political legacy of 1919.
John Queen, along with two other jailed strike leaders, were elected from their prison cells in the 1920 provincial election, in which Labour achieved 11 of 47 provincial seats. Queen went on to achieve success as Winnipeg’s mayor for seven years and he was also the first provincial leader of the Manitoba Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF).
J.S. Woodsworth and A. A. Heaps enjoyed long periods of federal electoral success, as did many others. Winnipeg voters supported their leaders in the post-strike period, and the CCF and subsequently the New Democratic Party in 1961.
In 1969, 50 years removed from the general strike, the NDP formed government in Manitoba. Among many other achievements, workers finally obtained comprehensive labour legislation and a voice in the affairs of the province. A voice denied to workers in 1919, but a voice ultimately achieved because of the sacrifice of Winnipeg workers in the general strike.
Paul Moist is a retired labour leader and a research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives — Manitoba. He researched the Brookside Cemetery Walking Tour. The next tour will be held June 22, beginning at noon. To register for the free event, contact Moist at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 204-793-7285.