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Manitoba History: Site Review: Politics and Discourse: A Review of “1919: The Winnipeg General Strike: A Driving and Walking Tour”

by Lyle Dick
Parks Canada, Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 13, Spring 1987

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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R. E. Bray speaks to a crowd, 13 June 1919.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 is one of the most controversial events in Canadian history. It remains so largely for its perceived utility as an historical battlefield on which to fight current ideological debates in Canadian society. Marxists tend to see in this conflict between capital and labour a crystallization of the relations of class struggle, a necessary stage in a dialectical process leading to the overthrow of capitalism. Social democrats prefer to view the Strike as the catalyst that steered labour activity in the direction of civic and parliamentary politics, an interpretation that serves to validate their own political stance. Conservatives identify with the victors of the conflict, but since the right resorted to military might and violence to break the Strike they are less inclined than defenders of the left to mention this event, other than as a corrective to perceived imbalances in the historiographical debate. Liberals stress that while the Strike was not a revolution, Dominion authorites could not be blamed for perceiving it as one. Therefore they lament the “tragedy” of the event.

Given the widely diverging perspectives on the Winnipeg General Strike, often infused with emotion and ideological commitment, it is perhaps not surprising that governments have held off for so long before dealing with its commemoration. In 1986 the long neglect ended. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada unveiled its plaque to the Strike’s national significance, and the provincial Department of Culture, Heritage, and Recreation released its publication “1919: The Winnipeg General Strike: A Driving and Walking Tour.” This text is significant in that it is the first major provincial publication in the area of labour history.

In the present period of protracted fiscal restraint, government heritage agencies do not have the money to continue the expensive process of acquisition, stabilization, or restoration of historical resources that was widely practised from the 1960s to the early 1980s. They are generally hamstrung by the costs of operating their existing infrastructures of historic parks, and thus few new developments seem likely for the next few years. Yet the existing inventory of federal and provincial historic parks is heavily skewed toward the commemoration of middle-class or upper-middle class historical figures — usually Conservative or Liberal, male, and either Anglo or French-Canadian — reflecting the predominant status of these groups in the governments and private heritage organizations that commemorated them. For many years the only operating historic site in the city was Dalnavert, the home of Sir Hugh John Macdonald, briefly Conservative premier of Manitoba, son of Sir John A. Macdonald, and the police magistrate who interned at least twelve aliens who were subsequently deported without a hearing for their alleged involvement in the 1919 General Strike. Recently the province restored the impressive stone home of Captain William Kennedy, a well-to-do resident of St. Andrew’s parish. Now the homes of two French-Canadian middle class families have been restored and commemorated at the St. Norbert Heritage Park. There are no historic parks commemorating the working class in Manitoba.

In view of this unfortunate imbalance in the system, and the present scarcity of resources with which to rectify it, the development of walking and driving tours makes good sense. A tour can give the public access to the principal sites of complex events like the Winnipeg General Strike (at least, those sites that are still extant) and is a cheap means of commemoration. There are no acquisition, restoration or maintenance costs, and as a self-guiding booklet, the tour entails no additional expenses of presenting history. The draw-back is that this approach does not protect historical resources, but it may draw the public’s attention to the heritage value of particular structures, and perhaps owners will think twice before hauling out the wrecker’s ball. The provincial Department of Culture, Heritage and Recreation deserves credit for bringing an imaginative solution to a difficult heritage problem. At last, in 1986, we have the beginning of a serious attempt to commemorate labour history, and one hopes that comparable resource protections will follow.

In terms of the actual text of the tour, it seems appropriate to deal first with the important contribution of this booklet to public awareness of labour history. Within the limits of the available space, authors Gerry Berkowski and Nolan Reilly have provided an account that does justice to the diversity and richness of working class culture in Winnipeg’s first fifty years. They effectively explain the high levels of class consciousness that made Winnipeg’s labour movement a potent force in the early decades of this century. Their account is readable and thematically well organized, enabling the tourist to find individual sites or topics in the text, or to read the whole booklet as an integrated unit.

The actual tour consists of three geographical sections: the sites of factories, domiciles and institutions relating to working-class Winnipeg; homes and institutions of the Committee of 1000; and Central Winnipeg as the scene of conflict. For the most part there are still sufficient extant historical resources to help the tourist visualize the physical environment of the time. Two notable exceptions are Victoria Park, which was subsequently obliterated by a city power station, and the James Avenue Labor Temple, once situated somewhere in the vicinity of the Nonsuch gallery of the Manitoba Museum. Even the street has disappeared in this location, making it very difficult for the pedestrian to imagine how the original site appeared.

The authors make effective use of images to illustrate the topics treated throughout the text. Among the many photographs are those that show groups of workers, labour leaders and their homes, union meetings, and business leaders and their palatial homes. There are numerous shots of the strike events. Apart from their usefulness to the narrative, the photographs serve the more important purpose of guiding the public to the actual sites of Strike activity. Whether reading, walking or driving through this tour, tourists will have a far more vivid sense of the material and spatial dimensions of the Strike than they can obtain from other publications.

An excellent choice for the cover image is the colour reproduction of Toronto artist Robert Kell’s lithograph and water colour composition “Winnipeg 1919”—a split image depicting the Strike leaders in jail and the “Bloody Saturday” confrontation that resulted from their arrests. Moreover, the theme of Winnipeg’s class polarization through geographical segregation is effectively illustrated by a map and several photographs showing the North End as the home of the working class, and Crescentwood as the residential neighbourhood of the Committee of 1000. Despite subsequent demographic changes, such as the movement of many upper middle class residents to Tuxedo, and a changing ethnic mix in the North End, the city’s geographical divisions by class remain sufficiently intact to make the current situation a powerful analogue for class divisions present in 1919.

One recalls, however, that there were at least two sides to the conflict — capital as well as labour. Compared to the extensive passages devoted to labour, the treatment of the role of capital is slim and stereotypical. All readers of “1919: The Winnipeg General Strike” might have benefitted from an elaboration of the businessmen’s and industrialists’ involvement in the city’s early development, their interrelationships with governments and each other, and the world view that motivated their economic and political activities. I believe that these imbalances are not mere matters of emphasis but are central to a process of historicizing past events according to particular ideological perspectives and narrative strategies. These strategies include decisions as to what information and topics to include or leave out, the sequential ordering of the narrative and the application of various narrative structures.

A useful way to approach the narrative analysis of an historical text is study it in terms of story and discourse. Story is a chronology or sequence of events to which writers refer in constructing their historical accounts. Discourse is a narration or version of these events. The two terms are not synonymous. Writers vary greatly in the events they choose to employ in their works and frequently emphasize or suppress data insofar as they support or undermine the discourse. Even if there were a general consensus as to the pertinent events in a series there would be little agreement as to how to, represent them, since events relating to an historical process seldom follow a linear path, while writers are forced by their medium to treat one event at a time. All historians are therefore obliged to adopt narrative structures to link the events of the story into a coherent framework, the discourse. By identifying the operative structures, the reader can gain a better understanding of which aspects belong to the actual story and which are the products of the writer’s own viewpoint.

For the present analysis I have identified four levels of narrative structure operating in the Strike booklet; these include:

1) the binary opposition of characters and values;
2) figures of speech;
3) a romantic plot structure;
4) a particular sequence or ordering of events. I will deal with each of these in turn.

Binary structures are formed virtually everywhere in society. We use them as initial classifying mechanisms that enable us to differentiate one object or concept from another. Yet problems can arise when the binary forms cease to be used merely as heuristic devices and become inscribed as discrete or unchanging categories. In these cases the dualist vision begins to assume the character of an illusion; it creates differences between entities on the basis of a repression of differences within entities.

The walking tour text is organized into a series of binary oppositions constructed around the essential theme of conflict. These include oppositions of classes, individuals, places, institutions, and values:

Working class / Business class
R. B. Russell / T. R. Deacon
Strike Committee / Committee of 1000
North End / Crescentwood
Overcrowding / Spacious neighbourhoods
Noisy / Quiet
Poverty / Luxury
Tiny houses / Mansions
Vibrant communities / Insular community
Labour Temple / Board of Trade
Duty / Self-interest

Each binary construction functions to reinscribe the central duality of working and business classes and to emphasize the great differences between them. For example, the pathos of the crowded, noisy and polluted living conditions in the North End contrasts with the “spacious, quiet and luxurious neighbourhood” of Crescentwood. The selfless dedication of the Strike leaders is indicated by an account of their work “until the wee small hours” and a “weary tramp homewards”; this contrasts with the “profiteering” of Canadian corporations during the war. The binary oppositions represent in myriad form the authors’ account of the Winnipeg General Strike as a Manichaean conflict between good and evil. No ambiguities are intended; the text replays this theme on virtually every page.

The dualist character of the narrative is reinforced by colour-coded bars on the top of the booklet pages, with the section dealing with labour coded in red and the business section coded in blue. The other colour codes are black, used in the introduction and epilogue, and green, used in the section on Central Winnipeg. The coding is betrayed somewhat by the content of these sections, which is heavily oriented toward the elaboration of labour themes, even in the green and black sections.

An example of how binary structures in the Strike booklet function to suppress differences within entities is the presentation of the working class as a vital, united front in 1919. In the Introduction the authors refer to “solidarity [my emphasis] of purpose among working people,” “solidarity of Winnipeg workers in 1919,” and in Section 3, there is reference to ethnic cultural identities forming “the basis for a broader working-class solidarity.” Similarly immigrants “supported vibrant ethnic working class communities,” the Thomas Scott Memorial Orange Hall “was part of Winnipeg’s vibrant fraternal life in 1919,” and immigrants around Selkirk Avenue “created their own vibrant culture.” As counterpoint to working-class vibrant solidarity the authors relate the story of Crescentwood residents bolting their doors when a parade of 4000 strikers “approached the streets of this normally secluded residential district” and “marched along Wellington Crescent, singing and cheering their way.” This anecdote reinforces the image of the business class as a moribund force threatened by the unity and vitality of the workers.

Yet the unity of the working class has been achieved by omitting reference to any divisions within its ranks. Readers of Manitoba History will recall Mary Horodyski’s article “Women and the Winnipeg General Strike” (Spring 1986 issue), which documents anti-Strike as well as pro-Strike activity by working-class women. While the authors include a section entitled “Women Workers,” they choose to mention only the female supporters of the Strike. Similarly, returned veterans demonstrating against the Strike are dismissed as businessmen masquerading as unemployed workers:

... The Committee of 1000 assembled an anti-Strike group of “Loyalist” veterans composed of lawyers and insurance and real estate brokers ... Led by Frederick G. Thompson, a lawyer, they paraded to the parliament buildings.

This is not to suggest that there was not a conflict between two “sides” in 1919 or that the two sides, broadly speaking, did not represent two socio-economic classes. But it appears that in a number of instances the authors have emphasized differences between classes at the expense of differences within.

The binary format is reinforced by the use of particular tropes or figures of speech. Structuralist critics have argued that all human communication is reducible to two master tropes - metaphor and metonymy. Metaphor is the substitution of one concept or thing for another on the basis of analogy, as in the expression “my love is a red rose”. Metonymy is the use of a part to represent the whole, as in “The Crown,” signifying monarch and sovereign authority. Since metaphors and metonymies are abstractions and can never be exactly the same as the thing represented, we are always dealing with an approximation of meaning, or a “loose fit.”

Women volunteers at gas station during the strike.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The walking tour authors employ both of these major tropes, particularly metonymy, as every binary form serves as a metonym for every other binary form. Taking the earlier binary example, the described dreadful living conditions of Point Douglas are metonyms for the general working class experience, while Wellington Crescent mansions are offered as examples of the overall lifestyle of the business class. Similarly R. B. Russell is presented as representative of the Strike leadership, while T. R. Deacon is a metonym for the Committee of 1000. The metonymy R. B. Russell / Strike leadership is indeed a “loose fit” inasmuch as Russell was the most prominent radical on the interim Strike committee in which more conservative trade unionists predominated. Metaphor is used more sparingly in the text but a few examples will indicate its function. “Seeds” of industrial unionism “sprout” in the 1940s, signifying growth and development. Business leaders and the more conservative craft union structure are described as “rigid,” suggesting ossification and brittleness. Workers “march” through Crescentwood while mounted policemen are sent “scurrying back to their barracks.” Readers may wish to interpret for themselves the significations of these metaphors.

Literary techniques extend to the overall structure of the text. The historian Hayden White has argued that most historical works adopt one or a combination of four principal forms of emplotment: comedy, tragedy, romance, and satire. In the present case, the Strike booklet conforms most closely to the form of the romance. Romance is defined as a drama characterized by a hero’s transcendence over the world of experience and final liberation from it. Examples of romances include medieval myths and legends and the novels of Sir Walter Scott. What all romances share is the triumph of good over evil, usually presented in the form of an adventure story. In its complete form the romance has three principal stages: the conflict; the death struggle; and the discovery or recognition of the hero, who, if he has not survived the battle, at least is recognized as a hero by the end of the story. Romance is above all animated by nostalgia, a “search for an imaginative golden age in time or place.” As Northrop Frye has noted, romance is a “low mimetic” form; that is, it does not aspire to create “real people” so much as stylized characters that correspond to psychological archetypes in the reader’s imagination.

Most of these elements are incorporated in one form or another into the walking tour text. The theme of conflict is introduced in the penultimate section, entitled “Central Winnipeg: Scene of Conflict,” which introduces some of the principal locations of Strike-related activity and preliminary skirmishes leading up to the death struggle, the “Bloody Saturday” confrontation of June 21, 1921. The immortality of these events is elaborated in the epilogue:

... The local impact of the General Strike was enormous. It continues even today to shape political configurations in civic and provincial affairs. The importance of the General Strike, however, reached well beyond the Manitoba border. It planted the seeds of industrial unionism that sprouted in the 1940s and grew into the modern Canadian labour movement.

All romances require at least two principal characters — a hero, or the protagonist, and a villain, or the antagonist. In this account there is a collective hero, the working class, and an individual hero, R.B. Russell. The writers devote two pages to Russell, with more print and photographs than are used for any other character in the booklet. Among the many statements attesting to his heroic stature are: “his broad popular support among Winnipeg’s working people and national prominence as a socialist and trade union leader commanded respect for Russell even from his opponents”; “A staunch trade unionist, Russell’s intelligence and articulate voice soon brought him to prominence ...”; “Russell ... continued to be one of Canada’s most respected labour leaders ...”; and “In 1967 the Winnipeg and District Labour Council officially recognized Russell’s singular contribution to the labour movement ...”

If Russell and the working class are the heroes, prominent industrialists and military leaders serve as villains in the narrative. Their function is to provide dramatic counterpoint to the highlighted heroes. Among these characters are figures selected as representative of the Committee of 1000, such as T.R. Deacon: “A rigid believer in private enterprise, his opposition to trade unionism led metal workers at his plant to strike in 1917 and on May 1, 1919.” General Ketchen is included to show the military’s partisan role in the strike:

... At the Committee of 1000s first meeting, Ketchen warned that the regular army stationed at the nearby Osborne St. Barracks was too small to control the strikers and he called for a build up of the militia. He also advised Mayor Gray to swear in the “specials” recruited by the Committee of 1000 after Gray dismissed the regular police force because it was sympathetic to the strikers. Federal authorites later acted on Ketchen’s counsel when they arrested the strike leaders. On June 21, Ketchen dutifully responded to Mayor Gray’s request to bring out the militia and clear the strikers from the streets.

Characterization is here reduced to the essential binary structure, and subtleties are thus given short shrift. Characters are introduced to the extent that they conform to the desired stereotypes. When they do not do so, they are simply left out of the story.

The ordering of constituent parts of the narrative derives to a significant degree from the plot structure. We commonly assume that historical works reproduce the actual sequence of the events themselves. However, it is characteristic of stories, including histories, that the narrative assumes a logic of its own; that is to say, that “events,” particularly endings, result not so much from the actual chronology as from the discourse needs of the narrative itself. In the case of the Winnipeg General Strike walking tour, the presentation of a heroic conflict between workers and capitalists demands a conclusion consistent with this structure. Since the romance form demands the ultimate triumph of good over evil and the hero’s transcendence, the authors are virtually obliged to create such an ending to preserve formal consistency in the narrative. Inasmuch as the actual events of the Strike do not provide sufficient hope for labour’s transcendence, so the authors must look forward to a subsequent resolution. This is provided in the epilogue’s reference to the fruition of industrial unionism in the 1940s.

A principle of post-modern criticism is that all texts manifest certain ambiguities or contradictions that call into question their claims to truth. These ambiguities reveal to the reader the authors’ own doubts, conscious or unconscious, about their arguments. In “1919: The Winnipeg General Strike,” a key contradiction appears in the introduction. The authors state: “In 1919, the leaders of the Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council were not conspiring to create a revolution in Canada,” while at the same time stating on the previous page: “In cities and towns across Canada, workers through strikes and protests joined the Winnipeg strikers in labour’s revolt of 1919.” These two statements cannot be easily reconciled as they represent the contrary positions of the two opposing forces. Yet the fact that both statements are offered as fact tends to undermine the binary schema on which the text is constructed.

This problem underlines a significant ambiguity within the Strike leadership of 1919, and reproduced many times since in historiographical debates. To what extent were the Strike leaders seeking limited demands (wages and the right to collective bargaining) or a broad restructuring of the Canadian political framework (transfer of power from the legislative authority to the workers)? Most Strike historians have agreed with D.C. Masters’ observations that (i) there were “serious political differences” within the Strike leadership, most notably between the radicals (Russell, Johns, and Queen) and the more conservative unionists (Winning, Veitch, and McBride); and (ii) the Strike leaders “were not conspiring to create a revolution in Canada.” This latter conclusion is echoed in one of the authors’ statements, but by calling the Strike a “revolt” and by highlighting Russell as the central and representative Strike leader, they inadvertently advance the alternative conclusion, that is, that the radicals really were in charge in 1919 and their objective of restructuring the Canadian political framework was paramount.

Narrative contradiction also appears in two separate discussions of Mayor Charles Gray’s issuance of proclamations forbidding parades during the Strike. In Section 18 on Victoria Park, the authors write of Gray’s first such edict and state: “Gray’s declaration was not unwelcome [sic] by the strike leaders. They constantly implored the strikers to stay away from such parades for fear that they may [sic] turn violent.” Two pages later, when discussing the “Events of Bloody Saturday,” they write that “Parades and demonstrations were held at old City Hall ... until Mayor Gray issued an unconstitutional declaration which banned them after June 5 ...” The first statement constitutes a justification for the ban on demonstrations insofar as the Mayor’s action is seen to coincide with the Strike leaders’ own attempts to rein in their followers; this serves to legitimize their role as peace-makers. The subsequent condemnation derives from the fact that the declaration was applied against demonstrators protesting the Strike leaders’ arrests. Thus, the interpretation shifts according to the immediate ideological needs of the narrative.

Like all history, the walking tour text contains much that is in the realm of the rhetorical; that is to say, there are considerable differences between the related story and the writers’ own discourse. Abandoning the declarative form of the (more subtly rhetorical) plain prose discourse, the authors opt for the imperative form, asserting their position in a forceful way. Their high level of commitment has not kept the book-let free from contradiction. Moreover, while imperative texts are based on a strong desire to persuade, they often have contrary effects on readers who tend to tune out the sales pitch. Many users of the walking tour will perhaps consult the guide for its useful information, without necessarily accepting its principal interpretations.

Much writing on Canada’s labour history in the last ten years has focussed on perceived great moments of labour’s struggle or triumph in the past, principally strikes in manual labour occupations. These events are commonly elevated to near-mythical proportions in these accounts. For example Bryan Palmer, in his recent book on the working class experience, has exhorted Canadian workers of today to revive the spirit of the Knights of Labour of the late 19th century. Gerry Berkowski and Nolan Reilly seem similarly intent on recapturing the energy and vitality of Winnipeg’s strikers as a source of inspiration to present-day workers, just as in 1919 Canadian workers “took inspiration from Winnipeg.” Yet there is a curiously undialectical quality to these studies; they tend to pre-sent labour struggles not as events in an ongoing process but as frozen in time, encased as it were, within a frame of nostalgia.

Romance has its place in appealing to one’s hopes and dreams for the future, but when it takes precedence in the historian’s imagination, it can lead to a very distorted perception of past events. In the present text, a romantic orientation has led the authors at the end into a rather forced optimism, which places the most positive interpretation on the status of industrial unionism after its major defeat in 1919. The elaboration of dualist structures reinforces the interpretation of the Strike as a crystallization of class relations but even these discrete categories begin to break down under the weight of internal contradictions. The authors endeavor to represent the strikers’ own version of the events of 1919, but this viewpoint seems out of step with modern perspectives of “truth” as an ambiguity rather than an absolute. Confronted with the issues of a rapidly-changing capitalist structure, technological displacement of workers, a massive shift from blue collar to white collar labour, with accompanying diminution of union strength, present-day workers encounter a whole set of problems unanticipated in the simpler and heady days of 1919. They will consult and enjoy “1919: The Winnipeg General Strike” — as well they should — yet many may wonder what they could possibly share in common with the heroic militants of 1919.

Page revised: 5 August 2011

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