More than 30,000 Winnipeg workers walked off the job in May 1919, demanding better wages, labour conditions and collective bargaining. It was one of the largest social action movements in Canadian history, credited with unifying the political labour movement and shepherding massive labour reform.
It’s also credited with the indirect creation of the New Democratic Party via its forerunner, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (founded by strike leader J.S. Woodsworth).
What’s often not spoken about is the deep undercurrent of racism within the general strike.
The world of 1919 was divided. There were British, French and other empires still in full force. America was in the echoes of the slave trade. (The 1919 Chicago race riot began in late July, one of more than three dozen such violent events across the United States that summer.)
Racism was a global norm, as 1919 also saw the birth of the first moments in Europe of what is now called ethnic nationalism and the rise of Germany’s National Socialist (Nazi) party.
Canada was no different, particularly when it came to Indigenous Peoples.
By this time, the final stages of the "numbered treaties" were being wrapped up with Treaty 11 in 1921, spanning what is now Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. These agreements completed Canada’s plan to legitimize British land claims under the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and remove, control and assimilate Indigenous Peoples — using the 1876 Indian Act to do so.
Under the Indian Act, from 1895 to 1918, some of the most brutal and violent policies were instituted — including a ban on dancing, ceremonies and dress (1895 and 1914); removal of small communities near towns (1905); and the dispossession of reserve lands for the "public good" (1911).
The worst was yet to come: in 1920, the Indian Act was amended to make it mandatory for every Indigenous parent to send their children to residential school.
This was the world surrounding the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. So it’s no surprise the strike itself was ensconced in racism and arguably the most racist event in the construction of Winnipeg: the theft of water from Shoal Lake 40 First Nation.
As University of Manitoba historian Adele Perry points out in her 2016 book Aqueduct: Colonialism, Resources, and the Histories We Remember, water from Shoal Lake first flowed into Winnipeg in March 1919.
"The Shoal Lake aqueduct project involved the building of a railroad, telephone lines and tunnelling under multiple rivers," Perry states, "and employed as many as 2,000 men at one time."
The construction of the aqueduct built Winnipeg’s economy, and was done with the co-operation of the business community, the Canadian government and city legislators.
It was also done by labourers who fought injustice in their workplaces, but fully perpetrated injustice in their work.
Winnipeg also wanted to show off its exploitation of Indigenous Peoples and resources to the world.
A Winnipeg Telegram strike edition promoted an opportunity for citizens "to get away from the heat of the city and to the cooling breezes of the lake, and also let them see the work which has been done to secure the splendid supply of soft water for Winnipeg."
Come tour the theft.
Meanwhile, Owen Toews (Stolen City: Racial Capitalism and the Making of Winnipeg) writes that many Winnipeg business leaders used messages of white supremacy to racialize workers and undermine the movement.
"As soon as the Winnipeg General Strike began... (business leaders) published ads in the Free Press, Tribune and Telegram casting strikers as part of a subhuman race — bearers of an inferior brand of European civilization — and urging the federal government to deport them. They began to wear Union Jacks on their coats as an anti-strike symbol and marched in the streets under the banner: ‘To hell with the alien enemy.’"
It’s likely a large segment of these "alien" workers were Métis. While First Nations by this point were locked onto reserves, the population of mixed-race Indigenous Peoples in Winnipeg was likely around 25 per cent. Many lived in worker communities such as "Rooster Town."
Before the aqueduct, many Métis delivered water from door to door, constituting one of Winnipeg’s most essential services and important workforces. After these workers lost their jobs, poverty in their communities increased and this — alongside racism — became a pressing reason to remove communities like Rooster Town and create what is now Grant Park shopping centre and some of the richest homes in the city.
The Winnipeg General Strike is a critical moment in history — occurring during a moment in which deep racism against Indigenous Peoples was a foundation for the community, infecting and shaping life across the city.
Knowing this makes the story of the strike more complicated, but clearer.
It also illustrates how in the game of racism, no one profits, even if it results in water to drink, better wages and collective bargaining.
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Tuesday, May 14, 2019 at 9:36 PM CDT: Adds photos