Winnipeg City of Contradictions

By Lennon, Richard | Canadian Dimension, September-October 2004 | Go to article overview

Winnipeg City of Contradictions


Lennon, Richard, Canadian Dimension


Winnipeg's history is one of contradictions. On one hand, it was once the "Gateway to the West"--the flourishing outpost on the frontier of Anglo capitalism, where dangers were met and fortunes won. On the other hand, it was the city of labour and struggle--the point of entry for thousands of immigrants who arrived to find a harsh city of destitution and disease. Out of their struggles sprung a wealth of labour and social activism and progressive political thought and organization.

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While settlement on the banks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers dates back 6,000 years, Winnipeg emerged as a major city in the 1880s following the establishment of railway access from eastern Canada. This allowed for the movement of capital, goods and the commodities necessary to replace subsistence agriculture with the production of an agricultural surplus for export. Almost overnight, Winnipeg grew from a small community of 8,000 to become the financial, wholesale and retail node of western Canada. By 1913, Winnipeg's population reached 140,000, making it Canada's third-largest city.

The arrival of labourers at the same time as fortune seekers and business barons set the stage for almost immediate conflict over such things as union recognition, wages, health and safety, the length of the working day, and investment in public works. Despite frequent defeats, important gains were made between 1910 and 1918. Women, who often worked seven days a week for wages far below those of men, played a major role in the labour movement, as well as in the Suffragette movement so that, in 1916, Manitoba became the first province to allow women the vote.

Winnipeg's business and political elite emerged as migrants from Britain and Ontario arrived to outnumber French and Metis residents and establish an ethnic dimension to the city's class divide. After 1900, massive numbers of immigrants arrived from Eastern Europe to find a city rife with ethnic hostility. Winnipeg's ethnic divide persists to this day, with an overlap of British ancestry and higher incomes in the southern and western parts of the city.

Class conflict culminated in the 1919 General Strike, called to support the metal and building trade unions' struggles for recognition. The business and political elite of Winnipeg, alarmed at what they saw as Bolshevism, defeated the citywide strike through the arrest of its leaders and a violent attack on its supporters. Despite this, the strike represents a watershed in terms of political consciousness: in the provincial election that followed, 11 labour MLAs were elected, with three of these still in jail at the time. Many, particularly those from the Ukrainian and Finnish communities, gravitated toward the Communist Party, which played a significant role in the labour movement and succeeded in electing candidates, most notably Joe Zuken, who sat on city council from 1934 to 1983. Most workers appeared to prefer a reformist approach, however, like that envisioned by J.S. Woodsworth; he was elected to the House of Commons in 1921 and would go on to help establish and lead the CCF, the forerunner to today's NDP.

Winnipeg's dramatic growth began to stall in 1913, with the onset of a recession, the relative saturation of agricultural and investment opportunities and, among other factors, the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. This latter development allowed goods to be shipped to Vancouver, undercutting Winnipeg's role as the distribution hub of western Canada; Winnipeg nevertheless soon developed a diversified manufacturing base. …

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