The 100th Anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike and Bloody Saturday, June 21, 1919
I suspect the official arrival of summer on June 21 this year may have gained greater attention from Canadians than the 100th anniversary of Bloody Saturday and the Winnipeg General Strike. After all, this is Canada where winter is long and cold, and summer is short and warm. Many people were focused on the victory of the Raptors and the 75th anniversary of D Day in World War 2.
Still, as we prepare for the national election on October 21, I think there are some important issues today that mirror conditions of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.
With a population of 180,000, Winnipeg was the 3rd biggest city in Canada in 1919.However; similar to the rest of the country, the end of World War 1(1914-1918) revealed many problems in Winnipeg. Families had lost loved ones during the war, but as the fighting stopped, the Spanish Flu killed more people.
Returning veterans found it difficult to get jobs. Because of profiteering during the war the cost of living had skyrocketed, while wage increases over the 5 war years had remained low. What could be done?
After the failure of 3 months of negotiations with the Winnipeg Builders Exchange (WBE), the unions involved went on strike on May 1. Many other business leaders refused to bargain with the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council(TLC) and threatened to fire those who tried to form unions.
Anti- strike newspapers labeled union leaders as Communists or Bolsheviks (a reference to the 1917 Russian Revolution), or “enemy aliens”(a loose reference to people of the German, Austrian, or Ottoman Empires).
On May 13, a large majority of Winnipeg’s 12,000 union people (TLC) democratically voted to support the strike against the WBE, by organizing a sympathy or general strike. Surprisingly, within days another 18,000 non-union workers joined the general strike…bringing the total to 30,000 strikers. With support from family members the strike had the support of most Winnipegers.
After being on strike for 6 weeks, the strikers and their supporters were becoming tired, fearful, and hungry .We must remember that in 1919 there was no Old Age Pensions, or Canada Pension Plan, or national Medicare.
On June 16, ten of the strike leaders, all born in Britain or of British descent had been arrested in the middle of the night and taken to Stony Mountain Federal Penitentiary. They were charged with sedition, ie) attempting to overthrow the government by violence.
The following Saturday, June 21, striking war veterans organized a silent parade to protest these arrests. Photographs taken during the strike show that women and children had joined the protest parade on Main St. in front of the present city hall.
Suddenly an electric trolley car driven by a scab appeared. The protesters were furious. The trolley car was stopped, tilted off its rails, and it’s cushions set on fire. The mayor of Winnipeg read the Riot Act ordering the protesters to disperse.
At the same time, following a pre-determined plan of action, approximately 50 men on horses (a combination of Mounties, militia and “special” police) rode into the protesters. 2 men were killed, many were injured, and some were afraid to go the hospitals for fear they would be arrested. Vicker machine guns were set up by the military at major intersections along Main St.
The strike had been crushed. People returned to their jobs on Monday only to discover that some had lost their jobs for participating in the strike.
Three of the strike leaders were elected to the Manitoba legislature while in jail. One of the leaders, John Queen was elected Mayor of Winnipeg for many years. Another leader, Methodist minister (now the United Church of Canada) Rev. J S Woodsworth was elected to parliament and helped to found the CCF in 1932…which evolved into the NDP in 1961.
Less than two months after the strike collapsed, Manitoba Judge H.A.Robson held a provincial inquiry into the causes the strike. His report concluded:
“It is too much for me to say that the vast number of intelligent residents who went on strike were seditious…. but the cause of the strike was the refusal of collective bargaining …and the dissatisfied and unsettled condition of Labour at and long before the beginning of the strike.”
With some variations, Canada in 2019 seems to mirror many of the problems of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. Today the gap between the wealthy and the poor is widening and affordable housing is difficult to find. Some Canadians have no dental or pharmacy plans.
Many Indigenous Canadians face serious problems and prejudice, as do some refugees and immigrants. Especially on the Internet, parts of the media spread hysteria and prejudice. Some people are cynical and seem to have lost hope in democratic elections and government.
Forces outside Canada appear to be interfering in our country. And sadly, fewer people see the churches as a source of God’s love and wisdom.
Thank you Lord for allowing us to live in Canada.
Please give us the grace and wisdom we need
to help build your kingdom as we prepare
to vote in the October 21 national election.