The 1919 General Strike. The day the Jets left Winnipeg. The day the Jets came back to Winnipeg. Filmon Fridays.
These are the iconic moments in Winnipeg’s history, imbued with importance that goes beyond the events themselves. Instead, they take on meaning, acting as metaphors for our identities as Manitobans.
The Borden government in 1919 feared the General Strike would open the door to communism in Canada. The loss of the Winnipeg Jets in 1996 played into the city’s inferiority complex and was viewed by many as a sign that Winnipeg was a city best flown over by the rest of Canada. The Jets’ return in 2011 was viewed as a sign that we were "back in the bigs" — a force with which to reckon.
And in 1993, Filmon Fridays became shorthand for the austerity measures of Gary Filmon’s Progressive Conservatives, during a time when government workers saw legislation passed that mandated 10 Fridays a year be unpaid holidays. To this day, the spectre of Filmon Fridays is a rallying cry, a warning that the Tories, now led by Brian Pallister, are getting ready to fire nurses and teachers — front-line workers — and wreak havoc on unionized workers.
But as with most historical narratives, there’s a difference between myth and reality.
The General Strike was hardly a sign of communist hordes taking over the Canadian state. Democracy prevailed. Instead, it resulted in the beginning of Canada’s labour movement and better working conditions for men and women across the country.
The Jets leaving Winnipeg was about a lot of things — changes to free agency rules and a decimated roster of hockey stars, the rapid escalation of players’ salaries and the fact that Winnipeggers really weren’t supporting the team in overwhelming numbers — and not really about the city’s failing economic status.
Their return was, more than anything, the hard work of True North Sports and Entertainment chairman Mark Chipman, who negotiated the deal for the Jets 2.0. It wasn’t really suggestive of growth or a rebounding economy, largely because, unlike Alberta, Manitoba is not a province built on boom or bust.
And Filmon Fridays were actually embraced by many government workers, because they meant extra long weekends, particularly in the summer months, something even the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union president Michelle Gawronsky admits. She writes on the MGEU website: "To this day, workers can continue to take voluntary long weekends without pay and many do." She continues: "The MGEU has never supported the VRW (voluntary reduced workweek) program, but has also not stood in its way, because these days are voluntary and we know some members appreciate the flexibility it provides with work/life balance."
Now, there’s no way anyone could accuse me of being a Conservative apologist, but like all things, Filmon Fridays and the austerity of that government must be viewed in context. To simply invoke Gary Filmon’s techniques to bring the budget under control as a way to damn Brian Pallister’s economic plan is disingenuous. But, like all good myths, it’s an effective way to rally the troops.
So what really happened in 1993 to make Filmon the poster boy for killing front-line jobs?
Well, it all starts, really, with the federal Liberals in Ottawa. Federal transfers to the provinces shrank from 21 per cent in 1986-87 to 16 per cent in 1996-97. In fact, in 1995, the Chrétien government changed Canada’s major shared-cost program — the Canada Assistance Plan, which financed welfare and other provincial social services — and replaced it with the Canada Health and Social Transfer program.
Health-care grants and post-secondary education grants were also converted into block-funding programs, with Ottawa’s financial contribution cut. The bottom line was that the provinces began to take on the burden of health care along with post-secondary education costs.
But the Liberals weren’t acting out of malice. They were doing it in reaction to a deficit situation. The federal government had to cut a deficit inherited from Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives.
Does that sound familiar? Brian Pallister’s government is also dealing with a deficit — this time inherited from the NDP under Greg Selinger — which the Progressive Conservatives vowed to get under control during the election.
And did thousands of nurses really get laid off under Filmon?
Well, that’s a bit of a myth as well. Yes, according to media reports, a total of 1,137 nurses were laid off in 1992, but eventually 565 were hired back and by 1999, newly elected NDP leader Gary Doer was claiming there was a nursing shortage.
And what about teachers? Did Manitoba really lose 700 teachers when the Filmon Progressive Conservatives were in power? Again, this seems to be another myth. Some school boards may have reduced the number of teachers on staff, through attrition, because of declining enrolment, but there’s no evidence there was a mandate from the province to the elected school boards to fire teachers.
From a media-strategy perspective, unions and other organizations are smart to use the myth of Filmon Fridays as a shorthand for austerity, and to cling to the assertion that thousands of front-line workers were laid off arbitrarily based on ideology. But too often, such myths have little to do with reality.
Shannon Sampert is the editor-in-chief and director of EvidenceNetwork.ca and an associate professor of political science at the University of Winnipeg.
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