Politics in the Park: Winnipeg's Victoria Park during the General Strike

Article excerpt

The following essay was the winner of the Manitoba Historical Society's 1999 Edward C. Shaw "Young Historians" Award.

Gray and empty, the old thermal power plant stands behind the Centennial Concert Hall. Each day hundreds of people drive past it, never even taking a second glance. It has been years since it operated, and today it stands waiting as the city decides what will happen with the land. However, beneath this desolate building, there was once a park which eighty-one years ago became the meeting place of thousands of workers fighting for their rights during The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. Although today the park has been destroyed, sacrificed in the desire for more building space, it is important to remember what it was and what it stood for. This park was Victoria Park, and during the six weeks of the General Strike, it became a place where the striking workers and their supporters could speak and be heard.

Victoria Park had been part of Winnipeg since 1900, when it had been named in honour of Queen Victoria. Located at the end of James Street, near the Old Labour Temple and two blocks from City Hall, the park was carefully tended, and a popular place, particularly in summer. One day after the Winnipeg General Strike began officially at 11:00 A.M. on the 15th of May, 1919, on the morning of May 16th, this peaceful park was filled with thousands of workers, all listening as Reverend William Ivens spoke. William Ivens was a socialist, who had been a minister until he was expelled from the ministry because he would not accept the authority of the Church. He was a member of the Central Strike Committee, had founded the Labour Church and was also the editor of the Daily Strike Bulletin. In his first speech at the park, Reverend Ivens urged the workers not to give up their fight, saying "If you will but stand firm for a short time, we will bring them cringing on their knees to you saying: `What shall we do to be saved?'"(1) He would repeat this message several times during the strike. In the six weeks of the Strike, every Sunday, Ivens would hold services of his Labour Church at the park. In these services news of the strike was relayed and prayers were said. Sounds of the workers singing the Labour Hymn could often be heard in Victoria Park: "When wilt thou save the people, Lord; O god of mercy, when?; The people, Lord, the people; Not crowns and thrones, but men."(2) This was the prayer of the thousands of families who gathered in the park to listen and to hope for their victory.

The people who started the General Strike, were the workers of the Metal Trades Council. The employers had refused to bargain with the Union, and the metal trades workers felt this was unfair. They were also being denied their basic rights, such as a fair wage. They went on strike and asked other workers in other industries to strike with them out of sympathy. On May 6, the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council, which represented the labour unions, took a vote to see whether or not they would support the workers and join the strike. Over eleven thousand voted to join the strike, and only five hundred had voted against. The Council set the beginning of the strike for 11 A.M. on Thursday, May 15th. The first workers to leave their jobs were the telephone workers. They left work at 7:00 A.M., and were not replaced, but most of the workers stopped at 11:00 A.M., the time that had been set. The buses stopped running, the post office shut down, restaurants were abandoned by their employees, even elevators stopped. Between 25,000 and 30,000 workers in both the public and private sectors walked off their jobs. Winnipeg was without things such as mail, taxis newspapers, telegrams, telephones, janitor service, or barbers. At the beginning of the strike there was also no gasoline, milk or bread, and very little meat. The waterworks employees remained at work, with permission of the Strike Committee, but the water pressure was reduced, so as to provide only for basic necessities. …