Magazine article Canadian Dimension

The Legacy of 1919

Magazine article Canadian Dimension

The Legacy of 1919

Article excerpt

For six weeks in 1919 over half of the working people in Winnipeg went on strike. They were striking in support of the metal trade and building trades workers, whose employers were refusing to negotiate with them. Half the people on strike were not even members of a union.

The Winnipeg establishment thought this was a revolution in the making. They convinced the Federal government of this, and the strike was crushed by the police and the militia. One died when the Mounted Police fired into a demonstration following the arrest of the strike leadership. Some strikers were imprisoned, others were deported, and thousands more lost their jobs.

Why commemorate the Winnipeg General Strike? Why not let its 75th anniversary pass as unnoticed as its 73rd and 74th? Why this strike rather than the giant rail strikes of the turn of the century, why not the Amherst General Strike? Practically every day of the year marks the anniversary of some defeat in the history of the labour movement.

There are many answers to these questions. They range from the banal (there are plenty of good photographs of the Winnipeg Strike compared to most strikes) to the debatable (the Winnipeg strike represents a clear expression of the radical and exceptional nature of the Western Canadian working class).

But I have a short list of reasons why the strike is worth remembering.

It make us (meaning people who feel part of what used to be known as the Left) feel good. This means we are undoubtedly romantizing and batching in the same sort of nostalgic glow that characterizes so much of the popular media. As long as we recognize that, I say so what.

It is worthwhile remembering because it is so hard to do. Several years ago Manitoba historian Nolan Reilly and Gerry Berkowski put together an excellent Winnipeg 1919 walking and driving tour. It takes people through many historic Winnipeg neighbourhoods and provides a real sense of what the strike was about. …

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