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Winnipeg, 1919: How understanding the past is a product of the present

Bryan Palmer reviews an important collection of essays on the General Strike


Demonstrators protest the trials of the Winnipeg General Strike leaders. Photo courtesy National Archives of Canada.

General strikes are not necessarily revolutionary acts. But they can, in certain circumstances, advance the prospects of revolution. Not all who participate in general strikes demand or desire revolutionary transformation, but attitudes towards them and a willingness to promote such widespread withdrawals of labour often separate those who do from others whose endgame is less radical. Too often general strikes are typecast as ultimatist acts, aimed at bringing down the state and vanquishing capitalism. In actuality, these mass strikes have often been waged with more limited and quite specific purposes in mind, however much the struggle to achieve these aims may prove transitional, providing a bridge to advancing (but underdeveloped) class consciousness, strengthening oppositional power, levelling blows at constituted authority. In any case, rare is the revolutionary upheaval in the modern period not marked by initiatives that bear some resemblance to the general strike; many momentous class conflicts have culminated in such struggles.

Not a few of these massive work stoppages epitomize the ideal of working class mutuality cherished by socialists, guided as they have been by what Eugene Debs referred to as the “Christ-like virtue of sympathy.” The proliferation of sympathetic strikes paralleled the history of general strikes and gained ground from the 1880s onwards, often aligned with militant mobilizations associated with the Knights of Labor, the Pullman boycott campaign of 1894, the Industrial Workers of the World, and early communist-led industrial union drives.

The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 occupies a particular place of Canadian pride as a global workers’ revolt that erupted in the 1917-1923 years. A massive walkout that brought the country’s third largest city to a standstill, 35,000 joined a strike in support of collective bargaining rights for building and metal trades workers when half of those refusing to work were not even members of an organized union. The Winnipeg protest was hailed as part of a “revolutionary tide” constituting nothing less than a “world-scale” tsunami promising the realization of a working class “Soviet regime.” Among revolutionaries in the left-wing of New York’s Socialist Party, on the Scottish “Red Clydeside,” and within Antonio Gramsci’s Turin-based Factory Council Movement, western Canadian workers were hailed as a vanguard in the spring of 1919. Across Canada, too, there were those standing fast with their striking comrades: general sympathetic strikes called in support of the Winnipeg militants rocked dozens of locales in the Canadian west, from large cities such as Vancouver, Regina, Calgary, Edmonton, and Victoria to smaller railroad junctions like Dauphin and Souris, Manitoba; northern Ontario outposts—Fort Frances, Rainy River, and Sioux Lookout—followed suit, the ferment reaching into the Canadian metropolitan centres of Toronto and Montréal, extending as far east as Amherst, Nova Scotia.

If international revolutionaries regarded the clash of classes in Winnipeg during the spring of 1919 as a harbinger of a better world being made through struggle, Canada’s capitalists and their servile state were of a like mind. They pulled no punches in drawing on the full arsenal of repression at their disposal, skirting legal niceties and lowering a devastating boom on the Winnipeg strikers, whose leaders were subject to detention and deportation, scapegoating and state trials. Losing the immediate battle, Winnipeg’s working class secured, according to Ian McKay’s account in Reasoning Otherwise: Leftists and the People’s Enlightenment in Canada, 1890-1920 (2008), a measure of “moral prestige,” a “useable future” resting on the symbolism of a heroic refusal of all that an atavistic triumvirate of capital, the state, and a conservative craft union officialdom advocated.

A century after the momentous events of 1919, it was perhaps inevitable that a reassessment of Winnipeg’s General Strike be undertaken. A conference convened, and an edited collection of essays ensued. For a Better World: The Winnipeg General Strike and the Workers’ Revolt assembles 13 essays drawn from the conference proceedings and solicited from those engaged in academic research relevant to the broad class upheaval of which the 1919 events were an important component. These specific commentaries are introduced and concluded with wide-ranging essays on the historiography and meaning of Winnipeg’s historic confrontation, written by editors Naylor, Hinther, and Mochorok, in which they confront the analytic conundrum posed by a local event that became scaffolded on international revolutionary aspirations; a struggle for relatively commonplace collective bargaining rights routinely regarded as a Bolshevik challenge to capitalism’s less than civil society; and a battle that ended in defeat but that has been heralded as a “victory in disguise.” Layered into such complexities are recent concerns, in which the carnage of colonialism is mandatory to address. Winnipeg 1919 was apparently not only what those of the time insisted it was: a resolute class struggle pitting workers and their allies against entrenched capital and a belligerently bellicose apparatus of governance. The general strike of yesteryear’s socialist memorialization, a privileged site of class struggle fomented by capital’s demanded hegemony and the volatile context of 1917, which included the pressure-cooker of the First World War and the threatening prospects of world revolution unleashed by the working class coming to power in Russia, was something else as well. In the words of the editors this major class battle was also “a settler colonial imaginary that did not see Indigenous people as part of a modern economy and labour force.”

The major proponent of this latter colonial reinterpretation of the traditional text of 1919’s interpretation in For a Better World is Adele Perry, author of the opening essay in this collection, a discussion of how Indigenous lands and resources were appropriated to divert water to Winnipeg, creating what was, at the time, hailed as the longest aqueduct in the world. In Perry’s view, the Winnipeg General Strike leaders “accepted the core promise of settler colonialism as part of their wages of whiteness,” the class mobilization that they headed animated by a fundamental erasure of Indigenous peoples, their traditional ways, and the privatization of the commons on which First Nations, Métis, and Inuit depended. When the police refused to sign the “Slave Pact” imposed upon them in June, or when strikers reached into a cultural reservoir to insist that as British-Canadian citizens they had rights which would not be trampled upon, Perry notes that this all made “clear who was included and who was excluded” from the experiment in radical democracy that so many have insisted was fundamental to unfolding class conflict in Winnipeg in 1919. In this analytic accent, 1919 constituted a discernible shift, in which orthodox socialists supposedly displaced the limited and condescending consideration of Indigenous peoples characteristic of past liberals and labourites with a decisive removal. In drawing a picture of a shift away from past interest in “Indigenous labour and land rights” that surfaced sporadically in working class initiatives in the 1880s and 1900s, and asserting that this was not visible in Winnipeg in 1919, Perry certainly exaggerates the significance of limited late 19th-century and pre-First World War developments and perhaps fails to adequately explore the undoubtedly bounded ways in which Indigeneity was addressed by socialists and others associated with the workers’ revolt. “By 1919,” Perry concludes her discussion of the Winnipeg General Strike and the dispossession of Shoal Lake First Nation in the creation of an aqueduct supplying water to Winnipeg with a blunt, if undoubtedly accurate, assessment: “that Indigenous people might be part of a radical future being called forth by the Strike was unthinkable.”

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.”
Karl Marx (1845)

Perry’s essay sets a new analytic stage on which contributions to For a Better World enact their often orthodox interpretive dramas of 1919. Her adroit recognition, long avoided, is immensely useful: as the General Strike was in the making, necessitating a class rejoinder to capitalist imperatives in the workplace, colonial dispossession of Indigenous peoples was ongoing, largely given a free hand with Winnipeg’s mainstream labour movement willing to celebrate the modernization of the urban infrastructure and its water supply, unconcerned with how capital and the state enabled the appropriation of a vital First Nations resource and the marginalization and detrimental consequences this entailed for the Shoal Lake 40 reserve.

Struggles against these reciprocal processes of capitalist development and colonial dispossession have rarely come together in Canadian history. This constitutes a tragic separation enfeebling the left, evident in the general separation of the major oppositional struggles of the mid-1880s: the 1885 Riel Rebellion of Métis-First Nations in the west and the 1886 class-based Great Upheaval led by the Knights of Labor. Certainly, the extent to which the Winnipeg working class of 1919 was intellectually incarcerated in the prevailing conventional wisdoms, in which First Nations and Métis peoples were largely out of mind, if not quite out of sight, is not surprising. Yet what is missed in this current analytic accent—in which the contemporary inclination to elevate ‘race’ over class, rather than explore their mutual imbrications, factors crucially—is an appreciation of the context of historic possibility.

A photo from circa 1916-17 showing the construction of the aqueduct that brought Shoal Lake water to Winnipeg. Photo courtesy City of Winnipeg Archives.

Canada was made on the basis of Indigenous dispossession, its embeddedness in capital’s accumulative needs as undeniable as was the ideological edifice of First Nations “savagery” and the necessity of Indigenous suppression that hardened over the course of the 19th century. Capital’s fostering of the kind of erasure of indigenous peoples, fundamental to developments premised on the privatization of land and resources, was about something more materially rooted than whiteness, however precious that condition proved to so many Anglophiles. Perry and others identify this attachment to whiteness and its material advantages as integral to the unfolding of class conflict in Winnipeg in 1919. This racialized regime of accumulation was, by this point, decades if not a century and more in the making, expressed in colonial practices, capitalist development, and legislative enactments reaching from the 1850s into the passage of the 1876 Indian Act. It registered in dispossessions that gathered momentum with the treaty processes of the immediate post-Confederation years, the alienation of Indigenous lands being the unstated fourth plank in a national policy resting on the declared pillars of tariff protection for Canadian industry, settlement of the west, and the building of a transcontinental railway. That a morass of ideological conventional wisdoms associated with the typecasting and marginalization of Indigenous peoples permeated working class circles is undeniable.

This undoubtedly blinded many participants in the General Strike to the extent that at the same time as capital was exploiting them, it was also reaping profit from the forcible dispossession of First Nations peoples. Could this working class, itself a product of complex reconstitutions, have vaunted over the limitations of its actually-existing consciousness to mount a simultaneous battle against the subordination of all of humanity? Would that it had been thus, but it was not to be. Did this mean that such workers, struggling valiantly at their own point of production, should be considered as little more than partners in the denial of an Indigenous presence, alongside capitalists and state agents like the aqueduct promoter and mayor of Winnipeg, Thomas R. Deacon, who profited from First Nations dispossession and a multi-million dollar capitalist enterprise in ways entirely different from workers of the city’s North End, whatever their access to water diverted from Shoal Lake? This infrastructure, moreover, while it certainly benefitted all Winnipeggers in decades to come, and stranded Shoal Lake peoples in an increasingly despoiled environment, profited capital disproportionately, wildly so. And were socialist militants, assailed as Bolshevik enemies, and in some places forced to kneel in the street and kiss the ensign of empire, really to be regarded as little more than a fifth column of deletion, writing First Nations and Métis peoples out of the creation of a better world, the proletarian underside of settler colonialism and racial capitalism? Perhaps, to some extent, but the story is likely much more complicated and differentiated.

To ask such questions is not, it needs to be stressed, to excuse the racism of many white workers, deny the ways in which settlers materially gained from Indigenous dispossession, suppress the extent to which socialists of British origin were far more critical of empire’s depredations in India than in Mi’kmaq, Métis, and Musqueam territories, or skirt the difficult challenges a history of struggles always constrained necessarily raises. Recognition of this, however, can proceed through contextualization, one vital component of which is a rigorous and sober assessment of the pivotal issue arising from an interrogation of capitalism and colonialism as the foundations on which Canada emerged: cui bono? Who benefitted, in what ways, and by how much, was not unrelated to what elements and agencies within society orchestrated, and were responsible for, the bulk of Indigenous dispossession, as well as extracting surplus within factories and mills, railway yards and metal shops. Ideas and identities of whiteness cannot be isolated from the practices, policies, and political economy determined largely by, and serving the interests of, a ruling class and its institutions of governance. That powerful and distinct social stratum and the state committed to its wellbeing, were premised on and rooted in capital accumulation, acquisitive individualism, containing and thwarting dissidents, and the seemingly timeless attachment to empire, willing to reach into a considerable well of repression to preserve the obscene inequity in the distribution of wealth that was generated by this formidable set of developments.

Many of the specific contributions to this collection of essays make this abundantly clear. Gregory S. Kealey’s account of how the Winnipeg General Strike helped usher the Royal Canadian Mounted Police into being, creating a “first line of defence against overt domestic unrest,” buttresses studies of the local Citizens’ Committee of 1,000 and past official histories of the RCMP, revealing just what the radical leadership of the 1919 Strike was up against. A hard-hitting exposé by Myer Siemiatycki reveals how timid, craft-union bureaucrats, ensconced in the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada, sabotaged the very idea of a general strike, believing, naively and wrongly, “that they could leverage the threat of labour radicalism to extract concessions from employers and the government.” This adds a pivotal dimension to a sorry tale of class betrayal, suppression of militant activism, and malfeasance. Within the workers’ movement itself, Siemiatycki notes, there were those committed to derailing a “forceful challenge to constituted class relations in Winnipeg and the country as a whole.” Rarely do this volume’s local studies of general-strike-like movements and class struggle mobilizations elsewhere—in Seattle, Kansas City, Montréal, Edmonton, and the Crowsnest Pass—pick up on the settler colonial reinterpretation put forward by Perry, preferring instead to accent the class struggle dimensions of their stories. This, too, animates Henry Trachtenberg’s assessment of Winnipeg’s Jews and their support for the General Strike and an ongoing attachment to a politics of the left.

Clash between strikers and the Special Police on June 10 at Main Street and Portage Avenue during the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. Photo courtesy the Winnipeg Tribune photograph collection.

Mikhail Bjore’s narrative of Edmonton’s militant actions posits that class struggle combatants nurtured “a highly sophisticated analysis of nativism and how it was instrumentalized,” reproducing a page from the Edmonton Strike Bulletin headed “The Alien Bogey Man.” Undoubtedly politically astute in its insistence that workers should not be distracted by ruling class attempts to stampede advocates of class struggle into a confused and counterproductive assault on racialized immigrant labourers, the document nonetheless exhibits too little of the polished refusal of chauvinism and bigotry that Bjore reads into it, with specific clauses suggesting that ruling authority had at its disposal sufficient “information regarding the undesirables among the aliens.” Hardly a ringing declaration deploring a politically-mounted nativism! “The Alien Bogey Man” further noted that nothing stood in the way of employers “discharging these undesirables, and replacing them with returned soldiers.”

These veterans of the First World War, as a fascinating and deeply researched discussion by David Thompson suggests, were often transformed by the Winnipeg General Strike, with some among them coming to profane “the sacred values of patriotism, legality, ethnic exclusion, and class inequity.” In the One Big Union (OBU) stronghold of the Crowsnest Pass, addressed in For a Better World by Tom Langford, there truly was “no alien enemy but the capitalist.” Perhaps nowhere else in Canada was the animating mythology of the OBU and the “spirit of the Winnipeg General Strike” more intricately entwined. As a consequence, the radicals of the mining region faced “close surveillance and antidemocratic repression.” This, in conjunction with other actions on the part of those concerned to stifle working class militancy, ultimately sounded the death-knell of the OBU: United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) boss, John L. Lewis, undermined radical opponents in the District 18 coalfields of the Crowsnest Pass; an intensified campaign against “enemy aliens” and the revolutionary Socialist Party of Canada was mounted by reactionaries; and a state-employer alliance dangled the carrot of wage concessions and dues-checkoff for UMWA members as a condition of employment. Yet even with the OBU driven from the Crowsnest Pass, radical oppositional politics continued coursing through the mining towns of Alberta and British Columbia.

The essays comprising For a Better World thus contain a contradictory interpretive dynamic, in which a present-minded insistence that the Winnipeg General Strike unfolded within a white working class erasure of Indigenous peoples co-exists with a more traditional analytic accent on the politics of class struggle. Furthering this complicated conceptualization, in the hands of different authors the mobilizations of 1919 can be portrayed as animated by radicalism or more mainstream, liberal, concerns. Sharon Reilly’s discussion of the ways in which 1919 has been represented stresses that public histories and museum initiatives often use storytelling and artifacts to argue that “the Strike was fought to achieve a living wage, decent living conditions, and the right to organize,” and that “labour rights are human rights.” This is both undeniable and, perhaps, insufficient, just as the editors’ conclusion—that “an informed and active public labour history is the best memorial to Winnipeg’s workers of 1919. The Strike’s legacy lives”—seems inadequate if the point is not just to interpret the world but to change it. As David Frank insists in his contribution to this volume, “historical commemoration is to a large degree not about the past but about speaking to the present and pointing to the future.” There is simply no getting around the essential argumentative point: do we want to situate Winnipeg 1919 only within what it undoubtedly was—a struggle for rights that have come to be realized and accepted as legitimate bourgeois-democratic entitlements, although always contested and in danger of being withdrawn—or do we, in contrast, extrapolate from that baseline to suggest that this epoch-making class struggle was and remains part of a contested history that cries out for more. This inevitably confronts revolutionary possibility, even if this appeared unlikely in the circumstances of 1919.

Adele Perry’s suggestion of the limitations within which 1919 unfolded with respect to colonialism is grappling with this conundrum, but in ways that tend to back away from the accomplishments of the strikers. In an ahistorical sleight of hand, Perry would prefer the strikers appreciate what we have come to grasp a century later. Historical actors, confronted with capitalist exploitation, found it difficult to vault over history’s murky moats, traversing decades of obstruction and obfuscation to land on the terrain of all-encompassing confident certainty about widening the nature of their struggle. To be sure, there were always isolated figures and instances of movements capable of addressing Indigenous dispossession, but as capitalism and colonialism marched forward in paired seven league boots, their developmental footprints depressed understandings of how truly oppositional struggles needed to be waged in tandem against both the profit system and the alienation of First Nations lands and suppression of Indigeneity.

As class struggle peaked in the Winnipeg General Strike and an embattled working class faced an avalanche of repression, the eclipse of Indigenous grievance, while certainly unfortunate, should not be all that surprising. One of the tragic aspects, not only of 1919, but of much Canadian history, is that we can now understand that the theft of the surplus produced by the working class and the theft of Indigenous lands and resources have been bifurcated, however much they have always been reciprocal undertakings in the making of a Canada both capitalist and colonial. If we now recognize this fracturing and the ways struggles associated with distinct halves of this divide have too often proceeded as if they were separate and unequal mobilizations, this realization has been a long time in the making. And it has not been achieved without loss. We are now no closer to mounting an effective politics of opposition than we were in the immediate aftermath of 1919. For if progressive politics in our time has advanced greatly on many issues, most decidedly on the imperative of addressing Canada’s colonial past and its legacies for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples, a socialist, class struggle politics remains far more elusive in 2023 than it appeared to Winnipeg’s workers in 1919. Many of us on the left would crawl through streets of broken glass to make our way to an alley of overt class confrontation as enthralling and unambiguously militant as were events of Winnipeg’s May-June 1919.

“Every class which is struggling for mastery, even when its domination, as is the case with the proletariat, postulates the abolition of the old form of society in its entirety and of mastery itself must first conquer for itself political power in order to represent its interest in turn as the general interest, a step to which in the first instance it is forced.”
Karl Marx (1845)

A politically-charged, scrupulously-researched, and politically-informed labour history of Winnipeg’s 1919 events remains to be written. As invaluable as are the many pieces of this history that have been put together over the last decades, David Bercuson’s Confrontation at Winnipeg: Labour, Industrial Relations, and the General Strike (1974) remains the basic narrative history of the 1919 upheaval. It is now clearly wanting, both in its liberal interpretive conventionality and in many empirical gaps, which a fresh historical reconsideration would necessarily address.

Winnipeg’s Victoria Park, which not only acted as a locale to deliver speeches, but also as a rallying point for marches during the 1919 General Strike. Photo courtesy the L.B. Foote Collection/Archives of Manitoba.

The essays in For a Better World will be part of that project to be. It is notable, however, that the events of 1919 in Winnipeg itself, how they unfolded and the complexities confounding the strikers, are very much the background to this collection, rather than its centerpiece. Far more of this book addresses the workers’ revolt beyond Winnipeg, and a case can be made that only three or four of the 13 essays actually focus on the cataclysmic events that rocked the gateway to Canada’s west. Those discussions focus on discrete aspects of the conflict, highlighting particularities rather than presenting anything approximating a fresh overall interpretation of one of the iconic happenings of the country’s labour history.

One rather large elephant stalking the pages of this important collection remains the socialist leadership of the strike. It was confronted with a class struggle that unfolded within a non-revolutionary situation that nevertheless seemed to be forcing the impulse of revolutionary possibility to the forefront. These socialists, many of them schooled in the Socialist Party of Canada, then in the throes of dissolution, and wedded to the mythological and mercurial attractions of One Big Unionism, were opposed by powerful adversaries, not only in the predictable quarters of capitalist employers, various levels of the state and their agents of repression in the courts and the “armed bodies of men” they had at their civic, provincial, and national disposal, but also among segments of “socialist” counterparts. Such moderate figures were prone to appease working class aspiration with the placation of liberal reform, and were buttressed by an ensconced layer of trade union tops concerned with preserving labour organization within capital’s acceptable and respectable boundaries of incorporation. Revolutionary socialist organization, in the aftermath of the First World War, the fracturing debates pitting syndicalists, nascent communists, and all manner of advocates of “production for use, not profit” against one another was, as the Winnipeg events of 1919 unfolded, in disarray, about to be reconstituted in the Communist International, which itself would soon succumb to a debilitating ossification.

Some of the best of the leading proponents of the General Strike were thus impaled on the dilemma of how to lead, what to expect of a state they had never encountered in quite the same way that they would confront it in 1919, and how to stay an increasingly difficult course in which capital proved a formidable foe, one whose arsenal of repression was too often inadequately appreciated by those against whom it was directed. These radical working class leaders did, in many ways, a remarkable job, which is precisely why the legacy of 1919 lives on in spite of so many detractors. But Winnipeg’s General Strike leaders tended, like the socialist intellectual, W.A. Pritchard, to adapt to events, rather than direct them.

Pritchard, who had read Lewis Henry Morgan, certainly one of the most insightful and sympathetic ethnographic scholars writing on 19th-century North American First Nations, was not given to knee-jerk erasures of Indigenous peoples, even if he did not manage to lead a socialist assault on the pillaging of Indigenous waters at Shoal Lake. He championed British freedoms, but he was no advocate of capitalist, imperialist, colonizing empire. Pritchard, like many other revolutionary socialists of the First World War era was learning as he was agitating. The lesson that history might be directed by socialist agency was not yet part of his schooling, which tended to adhere to an evolutionary model. A certain mechanical unfolding of social transformation happened as systems were replaced by one another, their ideologies felled by the inner contradictions of distinct social formations, leading inevitably to advances in civilization and human progress. This was how the past looked as antiquity and slavery gave way to feudalism and then capitalism. Socialism, in Pritchard’s worldview, was the inevitable next stage in humanity’s development. Pritchard thus lived within the material actuality of the precedents and protocols of bourgeois democracy, responding to courtroom interrogations as to how the General Strike came to be: “The workers stood for open discussion and decision by ballot. That was how this strike was called.” Growth from change was Pritchard’s mantra, and he saw revolution coming through evolution, rather than being made by direct socialist intervention. “Only fools try to make revolutions,” Pritchard famously said in 1919, “wise men conform to them.” The wise men in Winnipeg, however, were the cynical capitalists, who understood that might could well define right: they had no intention of conforming to working class revolt; they opted to crush class enemies; when they had the chance to direct history, they did so, unashamedly and with no remorse.

Pritchard’s axiom on revolution serves as an epitaph for Winnipeg 1919 and the workers’ revolt of which it was a part. As the communists of the 1920s came to appreciate, this kind of fateful acceptance of destiny proved an inadequate basis on which to wage class struggle in 1919, even if to only achieve collective bargaining rights, improved wages, and better working conditions. As a strategic approach to radical, root-and-branch socio-economic transformation it left a lot to be desired. One of the legacies of 1919, then, in spite of the conflict not being waged as a revolutionary struggle, was that it helped to clarify how a revolution might be made. In that making, as Marx noted in 1845, class struggle culminating in a revolutionary overthrowing of those dominant within the state and the capitalist economy is necessary because only through such active revolutionizing of the entirety of socio-economic-political relations can society succeed “in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.” As our contemporary appreciations of “the muck of ages” widens to include so much that needs to be addressed we should perhaps exercise both humility and critical scrutiny of the general strikers of 1919. They fought in ways that were quite often advances over our current struggles at the same time that they understandably failed to always live up to modern-day sensibilities and expectations.

Bryan D. Palmer, a long-time contributor to Canadian Dimension, is an historian of labour and the left. His forthcoming study, Capitalism, Colonialism & Canada, 1500-2023: How the Past is Before Us, will be published in 2024.


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