Winnipeg General Strike Travel Ideas
May and June 2019 marked the 100 anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike. While I certainly know little about the history of the U.S.’s northerly neighbor, I do know that the strike was the largest in Canadian history and included over 30,000 workers and sympathetic strikes in as many as 30 other Canadian cities. The strike began on May 1 and May 2nd, when the Metal Trades Council and Building Trades Council were unable to secure a contract after three months of negotiations. The 12,000 members of the Labor Council voted on June 13th to strike in support of the Metal and Building trades and for collective bargaining rights in general, with only 645 members voting against this. 12,000 non-union workers also joined the May 15th strike, which shut down the city and put its functions under worker control for 42 days. Although the strike failed, it was a monumental exercise of worker power, the specter of which won some later labor reforms. Throughout May and June of this year, but also through the rest of the year, there are special events and exhibits to mark the centennial of the strike. Since I live in Duluth/Superior, which is under seven hours to drive to Winnipeg, I decided to visit for the anniversary of the strike. The road trip included my mother, so out of fairness to her, the whole trip did not focus on labor history. However, I did take in a few strike history related tourist attractions.
Strike! The Walking Tour:
Between May 1 and August 31, visitors to Winnipeg can join strike themed walking tours in the Exchange District. These tours are either one or one and a half hours. I opted for the one hour tour, which of course, is less in depth but probably more suitable for my mother (who opted not to go along at the last minute). The one hour tour only costs $8 CAN and in my case, ended up being a private tour as no one else had signed up. The tour is packed with information, so it may be useful to bring a notebook. The tour is run through the Exchange District BIZ, a non-profit tax funded entity centered around development and tourism. Despite this orientation, the walking tour was sympathetic to the strike and generally anti-capitalist themed. The tour begins with an overview of the social conditions leading up to the strike, such as the concentration of wealth and power among Winnipeg’s elite, post- World War I economic problems, and the union movement and strike that had occurred the year prior to the 1919 strike. For instance, between 1913 and 1919, the cost of living had increased 75%. The cost of living was about $1500 per year for a family, whereas annual income was around $900. Increasingly, workers sought to organize against the conditions in which they could barely live and were buoyed by the Russian revolution as well as strikes in Vancouver and Seattle. Highlights of the tour include the former location of Victoria Park, where workers gathered to learn information about the strike, held rallies and events, and labor church services on Sundays. The park is long gone as the city turned it into a water heating station in 1922, though there is a plaque on the nearby condo. Another highlight was Hell’s Alley, which is located between Market Avenue and James Avenue. This is where special police and Mounted Police rounded up protestors on Bloody Saturday, cornering them to beat them up and arrest them. Over ninety people were arrested and hundreds injured. This violence and repression successfully crushed the strike, which ended June 26th. The walking tour finished up by the new Bloody Saturday monument in front of City Hall, where police fired on the crowd and killed two people after the strikers nearly toppled a street car. The Exchange District is steeped in strike history and this is a great way to get an overview of the events, people, and context of the strike.
Strike 1919: Divided City- Manitoba Museum:
Between March 22, 2019 and January 05, 2020, visitors to the Manitoba Museum can enjoy their strike exhibition entitled “Strike 1919: Divided City.” As the name suggests, the exhibition seeks to highlight the perspectives of various segments of society during the strike, ranging from strikers, business people, or ordinary people not involved in the strike. The exhibition is expansive, with many ways to interact with the information including short films, character dramatizations, personal accounts, artifacts, and recreated scenes. Honestly, the museum itself is so large that a person could spend all day visiting, as it features indigenous Canadian history, natural history, a planetarium, Animals Inside Out, and much more. With that said, this is a great place to delve deeper into the history. While there is far too much to mention, I will draw attention to a few artifacts. The museum has a small collection of police weapons and offers a little history about the special police. Basically, the police of Winnipeg were sympathetic to the strike. For instance, all but 16 of the 240 member police force were fired for refusing to sign a loyalty pledge and rejecting unionism. Because the police were on the side of the strikers (something which socialists generally don’t view as a common role for police) the Citizen’s Committee of One Thousand (a pro-business, anti-strike organization) had to recruit a special police force to do their bidding. They were not well trained or disciplined, often motivated by anti-communist and anti-immigrant sentiment, and they were crudely armed with wooden clubs and uniformed with white armbands. Other artifacts of interest are signs which read, “Permitted by Authority of the Strike Committee.” These signs were posted in the windows of businesses which were allowed to function during the strike by the authority of the Strike Committee. This attests to the power of the strike, as police, fire fighting, milk and bread delivery, the city’s water, etc. were among the many services operating under the auspices of strikers. Strikers truly controlled the entire city as mail service, telegraphs, and streets cars were stopped. It is believed that 1/6 of the city’s population participated. Other signs eluded to “One Big Union” which was a conceptional and organizational demand of some workers who wanted to join a broad, revolutionary labor union that crossed industries and regions. The Manitoba Museum has a lot to offer, but is a little expensive. Basic Adult Admission is $19.50 for one area, but is as much as $32.70 if a person wants to visit the Planetarium and Science Gallery. The basic admission was more than enough for me.
Canadian Museum for Human Rights:
I was skeptical that the Canadian Museum for Human Rights would be worth visiting. I thought that it would be a shrine to UN Peacekeeping. It isn’t that I don’t want humans to live the best and fullest lives possible, but the narrative of human rights is often tied to a softer side of imperialism which is enacted through international organizations, charity, microloans, pacifism, multilateral militarism, and Keynesian capitalism. The museum was nothing like that, or at least not abhorrently so. Related to the Winnipeg General Strike, there was an entire floor dedicated to the struggle for human rights in Canada. Various struggles were highlighted in open cubbies, where visitors could gain a brief overview of the struggles of an oppressed group. These struggles included the fight for women’s rights, LGBT rights, First Nation rights, disability rights, the plight of escaped slaves from the United States, Japanese internment, immigrant rights, the rights of religious minorities and war resistors, and finally, the strike. There wasn’t anything in the strike section that I hadn’t learned on the walk or at the Manitoba Museum, but the museum puts this struggle in context of many struggles in Canadian history. This is definitely worth visiting and a way to learn about injustices in Canadian history. Many people in the United States idealize Canada as the place to escape to in the face of reactionary power in the U.S. However, this floor should demonstrate that the United States and Canada are both founded on shameful histories of oppression and genocide and the social conditions of both are a function of the struggle of the oppressed. Like the Manitoba Museum, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is a bit expensive. But, the admission includes eight floors of information about the struggles of people all over the world. It also features a special exhibition on Nelson Mandela and the fight against apartheid in South Africa. The view from the top of the museum is fantastic. It is important to note that the museum takes a smorgasbord approach to human rights, so it has been critiqued for not adequately addressing the plight of Native American people in Canada and from using water (in the reflection pool) drawn from a reservoir which has not provided drinkable water to the local Native American population for several years. The building is fabulously constructed, but at a high cost when 75% of First Nation children in Manitoba live in poverty and there is a large indigenous homeless population in Winnipeg. I spent two hours at the museum and was very rushed, so a visit should probably take three to four hours. A one day ticket costs $21 CAN.
Bloody Saturday Monument:
The Bloody Saturday Monument was part of the walking tour, but is worth visiting on its own. The monument was unveiled on June 21, which is the day that I visited the sculpture. The unveiling ceremony included fireworks and speech by Mayor Brian Bowman, though I was tired from the long day and did not attend this event. The statue is a large street car tipped at a 20 degree angle and located at the corner of Main Street and Market Avenue. It is a few feet away from where the original street car was tipped over by strikers on June 21, 1919, which set in motion the police violence against the crowd. 20,000 marches had gathered at that spot to protest the arrest of strike leaders. When I visited the second time, there were two wreaths placed at the monument in memory of the two men shot and killed by the police. During the strike, street cars were not operating as these workers were among the first to join the strike on May 15th. All street cars were out of operation by the first hour of the strike. As a crowd of marchers gathered on June 21, two street cars operated by strikebreakers approached the crowd, who saw this as an attempt to break the strike. They attacked street car 596, knocking it off its wire, smashing windows, and setting it on fire after failing to tip it entirely. It was set on fire by a female striker. Because the incident unleashed police violence, the street car became symbolic of the strike. Eventually that particular street car was repaired and returned to service, but the strike was forcefully ended and many workers were fired and arrested. Another street car operating at the time, 356, can be seen at the Winnipeg Railway Museum during Doors Open Winnipeg. The monument itself was created by Noam Gonick and Bernie Miller (who died in 2017).
For more information: http://heritagewinnipeg.blogspot.com/2018/09/the-streetcar-and-strike-reflection-on.html
These are just a few ideas of how tourists can learn more about the Winnipeg General Strike. The Dalnavert Museum is also featuring a strike exhibit called “Strike 1919: Our Cause in Just.” This will be running between May 1 and Sept 29 and features artifacts from Sir Hugh John Macdonald, who owned the Dalnavert House and served as Police Magistrate during the strike. In May, the museum featured several lectures. I did not visit this particular museum, but the admission is $6. The labor temples associated with the strike are mostly gone, with the exception of the Ukrainian Labor Temple, which is located at 591 Pritchard Ave. This would also be a great place to visit for those thirsty for more history. For more information on various plaques and historical buildings, there is a list in this article: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/1919-winnipeg-general-strike-monuments-1.5128440
There are some events which commemorated the strike, such as a run of Strike! The Musical, but there are no more performances this summer. There are also a series of strike theme cemetery tours offered at Brookside cemetery. Group tours can be arranged with Paul Moist if there is a group of ten or more. Otherwise, there is a scheduled tour on August 10. Once again, I did not attend a cemetery tour, but this seems like a great way to learn more about the strike, especially the individuals involved. For more information about this and other strike related events, here is a brochure: http://mayworks.org/wp-content/MayWorks_Program_2019.pdf
This brochure from Manitoba Unions also contains some events and tours:
It was great to visit Winnipeg during the 100 anniversary of the strike. While my entire visit was not dedicated to partaking in strike history, I was able to learn a bit more about Canadian labor history. This is a great time to visit. Hopefully this guide can direct others towards some neat tourist attractions and that others see a few of the things that I didn’t, such as the Ukrainian Labor temple and Dalnavert Museum. Labor history usually isn’t central to the tourism of most people, but certainly important in informing us about what has happened in the past and opening up our imaginations to what might be possible in the future. The strike is a lesson in solidarity, but also in the power of workers to take control of their lives and city. 100 years later, general strike seems like an impossible hope with too many barriers and too much to lose, but many of the workers were not even a part of a union and women didn’t even have the right to vote. Meals and strike funds had to be raised/made on their own. We are always faced with daunting challenges, but together we can rise above them.