In the early 20th century, the Canadian worker’s movement was on the march. While general strikes and revolution are somewhat remote to us today, 100 years ago they were a reality. The story of the Winnipeg General Strike gives us a window into the ways the Canadian labour movement contributed to shaping modern Canada. Herein we find an account of how a small, dedicated group of men can change the fate of a whole country.
The rising inequality, low wages, and rising prices in Winnipeg and across the country as a whole prompted resentment at employers for the large profits made from World War I. This led to the formation of The Central Strike Committee who organized a walkout for May 15, 1919. At 11AM, the strike began. 30,000 workers walked off the job and brought most economic activities in the city to a grinding halt. The strike lasted for 6 weeks and began with strikers assembling in parks to listen to speakers preach about an array of social issues, as well as offer updates about the status of the strike. The strike committee also published a daily Strike Bulletin that provided updates as well as words of encouragement to the strikers “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.”
While workers loved and laughed, The Central Strike Committee was bargaining with employers on their behalf and kept essential city services running, such as police and the city waterworks. For 6 weeks, it seems, The Central Strike Committee became the most powerful group in Winnipeg. It was even likely keeping the lights on for its residents as it dictated who did and did not work. At one point, milk and bread deliveries resumed after an agreement between The Central Strike Committee and the city council was reached. However, the wagons bore a small poster that read “PERMITTED BY AUTHORITY OF STRIKE COMMITTEE” in order to assuage any fears that the delivery men had broken the strike.
Opposition to the strike came from The Citizen’s Committee of One Thousand, consisting of local businessmen and professionals. The Citizen’s Committee appealed to the federal government by framing the strike as an attempted revolution writing in their own paper, The Winnipeg Citizen, “the so-called general strike is in reality revolution—or a daring attempt to overthrow the present industrial and governmental system.” Two MPs went down to Winnipeg in order to investigate the situation but refused to meet with anyone from The Central Strike Committee and were therefore influenced greatly by The Citizen’s Committee of One Thousand. This influence led the two MPs to conclude that the strike was “a cloak for something far deeper—an effort to 'overturn' the proper authority” and that “the motive behind this strike undoubtedly was the overthrow of Constitutional Government.”
The federal government authorized Winnipeg’s local government to use The Royal North-West Mounted Police as needed and expanded the criminal code’s definition of “sedition” in preparation for the arrests to come. This highly contentious expansion of the criminal code (Section 98) stated that “Any person who acts or professes to act as an officer of any such unlawful association, and who shall sell, speak, write or publish anything as the representative or professed representative of any such unlawful association, or become and continues to be a member thereof...shall be guilty of an offense…” For years following the strike, labour-friendly politicians would attempt to have it repealed. Nobody involved in the Winnipeg General Strike was charged under this section of the criminal code but it was used to prosecute members of the Communist Party of Canada during the red scare that took place during The Great Depression.
10 members of The Central Strike Committee were arrested on June 17, and 4 days later the strikers planned a “silent parade” in order to protest these arrests. The mayor attempted to have the club-wielding RNWMP disperse the crowd of thousands but to no avail. The crowd happened upon a streetcar being operated by a strikebreaker: they stopped it and tipped it off its tracks. The mounties then gave dispersal another try, this time firing their .45 revolvers into the crowd. In total, approximately 120 shots were fired, resulting in 2 dead and 30 wounded. The day was labeled Bloody Saturday and the Strike Bulletin published its account under titles such as “Kaiserism in Canada” and “The British Way”. The paper’s editors were arrested on charges of seditious libel.
The Winnipeg General Strike didn’t accomplish its short-term goals. However, it did significantly change the labour movement across the country. The strike inspired more unionism and more strikes across the country with workers from Nova Scotia to British Columbia walking out in support of the Winnipeg strikers. Following the strike, some of the former strikers founded the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation political party. The party had members elected to parliament and several provincial legislators and in 1961 merged with the Canadian Labour Congress to form the New Democratic Party, which is currently the fourth largest party in parliament.
The most consequential outcome was perhaps that the union movement in Canada was strengthened by the strike, with the infamous One Big Union reaching its peak popularity in the following year. It has been said that The Winnipeg General Strike set the stage for future labour reforms in this country. The unions that were built up following the strike gained even more power by the end of the 1930s in the wake of the Great Depression. By the 1950s, laws were created that gave protections to unions.
Many labour rights enjoyed by workers today can in some form be traced back to The Winnipeg General Strike. 1919 was the year when workers inspired a nation to take their side and look out for their labour interests. When they felt they weren’t being listened to by their employers they striked. When they needed a way to even the playing field with employers, they unionized. And when they didn’t see their own interests represented in the provincial and federal legislatures, they created their own parties. Many of the demands that were made during strikes themselves were not immediately met. Many unions failed to put employees on equal footing with their employers. And many of the small parties that were formed are no longer around, or are as irrelevant today as they always have been. But, some did succeed. The Canadian labour movement’s commitment to securing better conditions for Canadian workers is something to be admired, and hopefully something from which to draw inspiration as we look to enact our own changes on the future of Canadian society.