It was an event that would have massive and lasting ramifications upon Canada. What began on Thursday, May 15, 1919 at 11 a.m. would create a ripple effect that is still impacting Canadians to this very day, over 100 years later.
It is the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike and it is truly an unbelievable tale.
At the time in Winnipeg, social inequality was prevalent and many of the working class were dealing with impoverished living. Wages were low, but prices for goods were rising, and employment was far from stable. For the massive influx of new immigrants coming into Winnipeg at the time, there was also intense discrimination. Add in the fact that housing and health conditions were abysmal and you have a powder keg ready to go off.
Winnipeg was dealing with unprecedented growth. In 1881, the population of the city was 7,900 but by 1921, it was 179,000. Most of that population growth was from immigration, as was being seen across the prairies at the time.
The First World War was another large influencer on the strike. Employers had made massive profits during the war and the soldiers who returned home wanted to fix social conditions at home after seeing the terrible things of the First World War overseas.
The Russian Revolution, which occurred only two years earlier, would be a big influence on many workers who were influenced by the socialist ideas voiced by local reformers. With so many Eastern European immigrants now in the city, the idea of socialism was embraced.
In addition, the cost of living had risen by 64 per cent from 1913 to 1919, and many people could not afford basic goods while company owners made huge profits.
Winnipeg was not alone in any of these issues, but all of them together, would be what would cause the strike that changed Canada.
One more thing added into the situation. The collective bargaining of the metal and building trades had failed to secure contracts with employers by the end of April 1919. The building trades went on strike on May 1, followed by the metal trades on May 2. The Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council then decided to call on its 12,000 affiliated members to vote on a general strike. This had been done in 1918 and proved successful on a smaller scale.
On May 13, the preliminary results of the vote were announced with 8,667 in favour, and only 645 against.
A strike committee was created with delegates elected from the unions. The leadership of this committee would include people like James Winning, who was a bricklayer and president of the Trades and Labour Council, and R.B. Russell, a socialist machinist.
Russell would be a leading figure in the upcoming strike, so its important we look at who this man was.
He had been born in Scotland and arrived in Canada in 1911. He came to Winnipeg and began working in the shops of the Canadian Pacific Railway, joining the Machinists Union Local Lodge 122. At the time, he was also a prominent member of the Socialist Party of Canada.
Back to the strike.
At 11 a.m. on May 15, 1919, nearly everyone in the workforce of Winnipeg left the job and went on strike. This amounted to 30,000 workers in both the public and private sectors. This naturally caused a complete cessation of normal activities within the city. The police force voted in favour of the strike, and this is important for developments later, but the strike committee asked that they remain on duty. Workers in the water works for the city also remained on the job, but provided water service at a reduced pressure. Firefighters, postal workers and telegraph operators all took part in the strike.
One interesting about the strikers was that most were not members of unions. The first people to leave the job, for example, were telephone operators at the city telephone exchanges, but they were not union members.
On May 21, 1919, the Western Labour News Reported, “never have the workers of Winnipeg had so much confidence in their cause as today. Never has there been such unanimity as to absolute necessity of settling once and for all the two points at issue. Namely, the right to collective bargaining and the right to a living wage.”
At the start of the strike, participants would assemble in parks and listen to speakers provide reports on the strike, and to discuss social reforms. The strike committee also released a newspaper called the Strike Bulletin, which was published daily. The newspaper also asked that strikers remain peaceful and idle. One example of this was the newspaper stating, “The only thing the workers have to do to win this strike is to do nothing. Just eat, sleep, play, love. Laugh and look at the sun. Our fight consists of doing no fighting.”
Unlike strikes of the past, women played a very important role and helped to build solidarity among the strikers. Helen Armstrong, known as Ma, was one of two women on the strike committee and she encouraged young women to join the strike and would often speak at meetings and street corners during the strike. The Women’s Labour League helped to raise money so women could pay their rent during the strike, and they also set up a kitchen that provided hundreds of meals a day to strikers.
Negotiations between the strike committee, city council and some businesses quickly started and it was agreed that milk and bread deliveries would continue and that the delivery men would not be seen as strike breakers. Each delivery wagon had a poster that stated, “Permitted by authority of strike committee”.
Needless to say, despite the strikers being peaceful and working with the city to ensure police and deliveries still happened, there was still an immense amount of opposition to the strike by some. The city was heavily divided in the strike by class lines. Opposition to the strike came together as its own committee of businessmen and professionals, who called themselves the Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand. They encouraged the businesses not to give in to the strikers, and they attempted to place the blame on immigrants coming to the city for the problems facing the working class. They stated that the immigrants were also the leaders of the strike. A newspaper, the Winnipeg Citizen, was published by the committee that claimed the strike was actually a revolution and an attempt to overthrow the government. On May 27, the committee’s newspaper stated, “No thoughtful citizen can any longer doubt that the so-called General Strike is in reality revolution.
By the end of the week, the acting Minister of Justice Arthur Meighen, future prime minister of Canada, and Minister of Labour Gideon Robertson, came to the Winnipeg and refused to meet with the Strike Committee, choosing instead to meet with the Citizen’s Committee of One Thousand. The government was worried the strike would spread to other cities, which it did, in smaller capacities, across the country.
This meeting resulted in the conclusions of the cabinet ministers being influenced by those opposed to the strike. This was exemplified by the fact that Robertson reported back to Ottawa, stating “the motive behind the strike undoubtedly was the overthrow of Constitutional Government.” The cabinet ministers warned postal workers that they had to go back to their jobs, or lose them, and they gave city council permission to use the army and North West Mounted Police, since the city police were on the side of the strikers. The Canadian government then passed an amendment on the advice of the Citizen’s Committee, to the Immigration Act. This change allowed for the deportation, without trial, of any British citizen not born in Canada who were charged with a crime. In addition, the provincial government ordered all telephone employees to return to their job or lose employment. The government also broadened the definition of sedition against the government under the Criminal Code.
On June 5, Mayor Charles F Gray announced a complete ban on public demonstrations. The public proclamation would state, “by virtue of the authority vested in me I do hereby order that all persons do refrain from forming or taking part in any parades or congregating in crowds in or upon any of the streets of the City of Winnipeg and do hereby request of all law abiding citizens the full compliance with this proclamation.”
Four days alter, the city dismissed the entire police force of Winnipeg because officers would not sign a pledge promising to neither belong to a union, or participate in a strike. The city and Citizen’s Committee then replaced the police force with untrained individuals who were better paid than the previous officers, making $6 a day, which was twice the temporary discharge allowance given returning soldiers. All the new officers were given clubs and told to patrol the streets. Within a few hours, Frederick Coppins, a decorated First World War veteran and a member of the new force, charged into a group of strikers on his horse and was immediately grabbed and beaten. This then led those against the strike to charge that he was attacked by enemy ruffians.
The two major newspapers in Winnipeg, the Winnipeg Free Press and Winnipeg Tribune, lost most of their workers because of the strike but once they resumed publication the publishers were very against the strikers. The Free Press called strikers aliens and anarchists and ran cartoons of strikers throwing bombs. Other major newspapers were no less against the strike. The New York Times proclaimed in a large headline, “Bolshevism in Winnipeg”
On June 17, the Royal North West Mounted Police arrested several prominent leaders of the strike including George Armstrong, R.B. Russell and others. Armstrong was the only among them who was not a British immigrant.
Two days later, the strike would reach its destructive climax.
On June 21, in the early hours of the day, several World War One veterans took to the street to demonstrate in a silent parade over the arrest of the strike leaders. Thousands of people came out in support and Mayor Gray demanded the end of the demonstration, which the soldiers refused to do. A streetcar driven by one of the members of the Committee of One Thousand came down Main Street to City Hall. Strikers saw this as a provocation and surrounded it, tipped it slightly and lit it on fire. Gray then told the Royal North West Mounted Police to go into the crowd on horseback, with clubs, to disperse them. After this failed, the mayor read the Riot Act from the steps of City Hall and the Mounted Police rode back into the he crowd, firing 120 shots from their revolvers as the protesters threw sticks and rocks. Protestor Mike Sokolowski was killed instantly, while Mike Schezerbanowicz would die later. In all, 30 people were injured, including four police officers. As well, 80 people were arrested by military patrols at Portage and Main.
The Strike Bulletin printed the events of what would be called Bloody Saturday, using headlines such as Kaiserism in Canada and The British Way, which would get editors J.S. Woodworth and Fred J. Dixon arrested on libel.
Woodworth, who was a Protestant minister and social activist, stated, “This strike is not engineered from Russia. In reality, the strike has nothing to do with revolution. It is an attempt to meet a very pressing and immediate need. The organized workers like everyone else are faced with the high cost of living. Like most people, they imagine that is if they can get higher wages they can buy more food.”
All of these events together resulted in the confidence of the Strike Committee being shattered. The Strike Committee hoped to avoid any more violence and met with Manitoba Premier T.C. Norris and stated they would end the strike if there was a Royal Commission into the cause of the strike.
On June 25 at 11 a.m., the strike was ended and workers went back to their jobs, if they had any. Many were blacklisted or punished by their employers. The metalworkers went back to work with no pay increase, many workers were jailed or deported and thousands lost their jobs.
Following the strike eight of the leaders were put on trial for conspiracy and prosecuted by members of the Citizen’s Committee. Seven, including Armstrong, were found guilty and sentenced to one year in jail, while Russell was given two. Abraham Heaps was the only one to serve as his own lawyer, and was the only one charged who did not do jail time. As for the editors, Dixon and Woodworth, Dixon gave a speech on free speech being an essential part of the British tradition. After 40 hours of deliberation, the jury acquitted him, and all charges against Woodworth were abandoned.
A provincial royal commission found that there was no criminal conspiracy by foreigners.
The strike would have several impacts on the future of Canada. When the Great Depression hit, labour militancy began to rise and union memberships increased heavily. In the 1920 Manitoba provincial election, 11 labor candidates won seats, four of them were leaders in the strike. Built on the events of the Winnipeg General Strike, by the end of the 1940s, an industrial relations regime was established under Canadian law to provide security for unions and their members. The strike also helped to bridge divides between cultures. Canadian born workers were working together in the strike with immigrants from Europe. While it would still be three decades after the strike before workers were granted collective bargaining rights, the impact of the strike on workers lives can’t be discounted.
What happened to some of the leading individuals of the strike? Let’s take a look.
R.B. Russell, while serving his prison sentence, ran as a Socialist Party of Canada member in the provincial election of 1920. He came very close to being elected when ten members were chosen for Winnipeg on a transferable ballot. Russell lost the tenth seat by 62 votes. In 1921, he ran in the federal election, while still in prison, losing by only 715 votes to Liberal Edward James McMurray. After he got out of prison, he was selected as the leader of Winnipeg’s One Big Union, and would hold that position from 1922 to the 1950s. He continued to try his hand at politics, always coming close but never being elected. He would pass away in 1964. Today, R.B. Russell Vocational High School in Winnipeg is named for him.
Charles F. Gray, the mayor of Winnipeg at the time of the strike, would serve until 1920 in that position before going back to regular civilian life. He would eventually move to British Columbia in 1941 where he operated a salt mine, before passing away in Victoria in 1954.
As for Frederick Coppins, the man who charged into the strikers, causing the situation of the strike to begin to escalate, he would go on to play a German machine gunner in the classic movie All Quiet On The Western Front in 1930. A Victoria Cross recipient in the First World War, he apparently enlisted in the Second World War with the Americans but this is not confirmed. He would die in 1963 in California at the age of 74.
George Armstrong was one of the main leaders of the strike, and was married to fellow committee member Helen Armstrong. He would join the Socialist Party of Canada, and would be elected to the Manitoba Legislature in 1920, serving until 1922. After the Socialist Party split in 1921 into the Communist Party and the Socialist Party, he remained with the original party and would often be heckled by members of the Communist Party who called him a sell-out. He would continue to run in provincial elections, never being elected again before he moved to California, where he passed away in 1956 at the age of 85.
Woodworth and Dixon would both enter into politics. Dixon would serve in the Manitoba Legislature from 1920 to 1923 when he resigned following the death of his wife. He would then work as an insurance salesman before passing away from cancer in 1931 at the young age of 50. As for Woodworth, he would become the first leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, serving from 1932 to 1942. He was also a member of the House of Commons from 1921 to 1942, sitting primarily as an independent and with the Progressive Party of Canada. He was instrumental in getting the Old Age Pension Plan passed through negotiations with the Liberal Party in 1925 after they nearly lost the election and needed support from other party members. In 2004, he was ranked as the 100th Greatest Canadian of all-time and several schools are named for him. He passed away in 1942 in Vancouver at the age of 67.
To this day, the Winnipeg General Strike is the largest in Canadian history and it would lead not only to the establishment of the New Democrat Party but the career of arguably the greatest Canadian, and universal healthcare itself.
In 1911, a seven-year-old by the name of Tommy Douglas arrived in Winnipeg from Scotland with his family. They would return to Scotland during the First World War, before returning to Winnipeg in 1919. Tommy began to work as a messenger and would see the Winnipeg General Strike first hand. He saw when the North West Mounted Police fired into the crowd and this would stay with him for the rest of his life. He would state later that the government response was “all part of a pattern. Whenever the powers that be can’t get what they want, they’re always prepared to resort to violence or any kind of hooliganism to break the back of organized opposition.”
Douglas would of course eventually move to Saskatchewan and become premier of the province, serving from 1944 to 1961. During his time as leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, he would lead the first socialist government in North America and introduce universal health care, which would eventually become Medicare. Douglas would be voted the Greatest Canadian in 2004. It can’t be understated what the impact of seeing the strike and people pushing for more rights would have on Douglas, and where that would lead him down the road.
Information comes from Canada: An Illustrated History, Wikipedia, The Canadian Prairies A History, Canadian Encyclopedia, the Canadian Public Health Association, HumanRights.ca, CBC, ThoughtCo.com