The tipping point
Visual for a new sculpture commemorating the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. Courtesy of Bernie Miller and Noam Gonick.
Summer solstice marks the 99th anniversary of Bloody Saturday and the 1-year countdown to the 1919 General Strike centenary, that catalytic crisis and genesis of the modern Canadian labour movement. Along Transcona’s industrial corridor on the far eastern edge of Winnipeg, DMS Industrial Contractors are preparing to weld the subframe for a replica of the Brill streetcar that was tipped off its tracks and set ablaze, ending the workers’ uprising. The streetcar’s provocative appearance on Main St. during the 30,000-strong rally at city hall, triggering the mounted police’s killing of Mike Sokowolski (shot in the heart) and Mike Schezerbanowicz (died later of gangrene), raises questions.
Six weeks into striking transit workers’ halting of trolley-car service, with the strike committee effectively running essential services and a worker base committed to a nonviolent resolution, was the streetcar tipping the work of the economic elite seeking an inciting incident worthy of a push-back dramatic enough to end the work stoppage? The answer to this mystery may have died with members of the Citizens 1000, the business people who enlisted a private militia to patrol the streets wielding wagon spokes. But one concrete takeaway from the climax is the most famous image ever captured in Winnipeg: the tipped streetcar surrounded by onlookers photographed by L.B. Foote.
Until last year, the only acknowledgment of this historical moment was a plaque hidden in the underground walkway beneath city hall. With renewed investment in public art by the Winnipeg Arts Council, who are overseeing this project with help from Heritage Canada, myself and sculptor Bernie Miller set out to create a memorial streetcar in bronze adjacent to the site of Bloody Saturday, on the present day Pantages Plaza at Market and Main St., one of the city’s busiest intersections.
We wanted a visually impactful work illuminated at night, its angular profile sinking into the plaza’s surface, connecting us back across the century to L.B. Foote’s photo.
With a year to go, we are looking for an expert in architectural lighting who can design an expressionistic gradient system to light up the frosted windows of the vehicle. Bernie Miller died last October. He was a fan of CD’s Alert Radio program and he moved to Winnipeg where we met on the Board of the Plug In ICA. His permanent installations can be found in front of Toronto’s Metro Hall and overlooking Vancouver’s False Creek at the foot of Davie St. Dr. Jeanne Randolph, Bernie’s life partner and an artist/ author is representing Bernie’s aesthetic sensibility as the work is manufactured, and filmmaker Erika McPherson will be making a documentary with CBC.
To ensure that this piece acts as a site to celebrate the gains of the last century, and a meeting place for the next century’s debates, the 1919 Centenary Committee has undertaken a fundraising drive from the international union movement to fund this memorial. If your union would like to contribute, please contact GMcFarlane@mfl.mb.ca.
Noam Gonick is a filmmaker and artist, currently working on a centenary project for the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike in the form of an illuminated life-sized streetcar in bronze, tipped over and sunken into the street at the site of Bloody Saturday.