1919: A Powerful Interpretation of Canada’s Most Famous Strike
“History is an important resource for people who want to change the world.” (vii)
This opening line captures the philosophy of the Graphic History Collective (GHC), whose books and posters have not only helped to amplify the history of marginalized populations, but breathe new life into how we present history. The GHC projects have seized the visual medium to intertwine historical knowledge and context with the sort of impressions which can only be summoned through the poignancy of illustration.
In this way, 1919: A Graphic History of the Winnipeg General Strike is a worthy addition to an already impressive lineup. After an introduction by historian Jim Naylor, which lays out the rationale for the Strike being rooted in a national and international working-class revolt against capitalism, the graphic novel begins in earnest.
The project is a wonderful distillation of the Strike’s series of events, antecedents, and motivations of its key actors, elevated with evoking images that place the reader among the strikers. Particularly immersive is the minute-by-minute depiction of the Bloody Saturday clashes where, with almost no words, the story of that day is told. You can see the workers protesting jailed Strike leaders, the overturning of a scab-operated streetcar, and the violent response from thugs and Mounties, including their killing of immigrant workers Mike Sokolowski and Mike Schezerbanowicz.
Crucially, the book perceptively roots the origins of the Strike, not just in the developments of total war and industrial capitalism, but in the systematic dispossession and genocide of the Indigenous peoples who called these lands home. Capital’s dominance of the city and its environs would have been impossible without it. Along this line, the book does well to connect the events in Winnipeg to working-class protest across Canada and the globe.
Much more could be said, but it is imperative to note how David Lester and company deftly demonstrate how the Strike materialized, starting as a plan laid by the city’s craft unionists, before expanding to include most of the city’s working-class, women and men, union and non-union, British and non-British. Equally noteworthy, the book highlights how Canada and Winnipeg’s capitalist elite organized to crush the Strike, largely through a systematic program of redbaiting, thuggery, show trials, and bigotry. It was they—supposedly—who stood for venerated British institutions in the face of Bolshevik and ‘alien’ interlopers.
It should be stressed that this graphic novel finishes strong in demonstrating that the Strike’s impacts aren’t crystalized in 1919. Rather, it influenced broad Canadian labour and left movements, from the more immediate expansion of industrial unionism and rise of the Communist Party and Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, to the longer-range influence the event had in inspiring activism, protest, and social reform generations later, including in our own times. This acts as an effective bridge to the GHC’s Direct Action Gets the Goods, which examines the broader history of how strikes have wrought social, political, and economic change in Canada.
But above all, 1919’s greatest strength is that it has deep value, both for those unfamiliar with the history of the Strike, and for even the most seasoned scholars of the Canadian labour and left movements.
There is much here for everybody.
Christo Aivalis is an Editor of Active History, and SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in History at the University of Toronto. He the author of The Constant Liberal Pierre Trudeau, Organized Labour, and the Canadian Social Democratic Left, and recently wrote a new introduction for Winnipeg 1919: The Strikers’ Own History of the General Strike (Lorimer, 2019).