Kennet McNaught and David J. Bercuson, The Winnipeg Strike: 1919 (Longman, 1974).
I grew up the North End of Winnipeg, not far from the Ukrainian Labour Temple and the Winnipeg headquarters of the Communist Party of Canada. I played soccer at R.B. Russell Vocational High School, but never knew anything about him. I don’t remember anything about the strike being mentioned in elementary or high school. Danny Schur’s musical Strike! didn’t premiere until the year I went to library school, when I was 28. This despite the characterization of the city as “Radical Winnipeg”.
And I think, now, I know why the history of the strike is played down, not to say ignored, despite the fact that now, in 2017, a memorial has been unveiled near the site of “Bloody Saturday”. Not only was the strike defeated through a combination of government interference, employer intransigence, and the terror of Winnipeg’s bourgeoisie (and the strike committee’s own confusion), but if it’s true that “when the strike was labeled revolution and crushed, the future of Winnipeg as a city of growth and industrial vitality was also crushed” (120), then it makes sense that the history of the strike would be sanitized and co-opted into bourgeois entertainment or chaste memorial, but that even the geography would be erased and forgotten.
In reading this book, I had to look up where Victoria Park was, since it doesn’t exist anymore; like the Labour Temple, it has vanished beneath successive waves of development. Now, what was once Victoria Park is a set of high-rise condos, part of the gentrification of downtown Winnipeg that has been proceeding for the last 10-15 years or so. There’s not much left of the built environment of the strike. The streetcar system, which proved so contentious, and which occupy such an important place in the outbreak of State violence on Bloody Saturday, is long gone.
What’s interesting to me is the idea that the strike was part of a Bolshevik plot to spark Communist revolution in Canada. Whether Winnipeg’s bourgeoisie and the provincial and federal government’s honestly believed this, or simply used it as a pretext not to negotiate with the strike committee, to call in the militia and the mounties, we will perhaps never know. But the class divisions described in this book ring true to me as someone who grew up in class-divided Winnipeg:
Reading of the hundred’s of ‘alien’ [= Slav] workers making their way through frigid, snow-bound streets to applaud ‘Bolshevik’ agitators, the affluent citizens of Wellington Crescent and Fort Rouge could almost see their own blood added to the foreign red which was besmirching their wintry scene. (42)
These stories were stirred up primarily by the newspapers (of which more later), but also - for political purposes - by the mounties themselves:
What the mounties were looking for was any sign of seditious conspiracy, and what the reporters were looking for was exciting news - especially if it could be inferentially linked to ‘Bolshevism’ and the dreaded foreigners of the city’s north end.
It made sense, then, that the strike committee should “pressure” the typographers of the three Winnipeg daily newspapers (the Winnipeg Tribune, the Winnipeg Telegram, and the Winnipeg Free Press) to walk off the job and contribute to special strike editions of the Western Labor News. This was, in the Labors News’ opinion, “a case of simple justice to muzzle for a few days the enemies of freedom and truth”.
While it is beyond question that the three newspapers in Winnipeg had always shown a pronounced anti-union partisanship, their temporary suppression induced in them a yet tougher attitude marked by daily predictions that violence was just around the corner. (53).
One of the fascinating things about the strike was how the strikers maintained a discipline of non-violence even when roused, even among demobbed veterans of the first world war. The violence that ended the strike was brought on by the State and executed by the state, spurred on by the fears of the Winnipeg bourgeoisie and the employers. Those fears were stoked by the newspapers.
According to the strike committee, ‘had it been possible to keep the newspapers closed up for the duration of the strike there would have been no disorder…’ (53).
Which brings to mind a letter written by Lenin to Myasnikov on 5 August 1921 - two years after the Winnipeg strike - regarding “the freedom of the press”:
All over the world, wherever there are capitalists, freedom of the press means freedom to buy up newspapers, to buy writers, buy and fake ‘public opinion’ for the benefit of the bourgeoisie. […] To place in its hands yet another weapon like freedom of political organizaton… means facilitating the enemy’s task, means helping the class enemy. (Slavoj Zizek, Lenin 2017, p. 6-7).
In today’s world of fake news and perennial clashes over freedom of speech, it is important to remember that the clashes are not new, they have been with us for a very long time now. It’s easy to forget that when, like the geography of the strike itself, historical knowledge is allowed to fade away. It is important to study, to read, and to remember.