Manitoba History: Young Historians: Suppressing the Winnipeg General Strike: Paranoia or Preserving the Peace?
by Murphy Berzish
The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 can be considered among Canada’s first steps towards entrenching a democratic government and capitalist economic base. The strike, which began as a dispute between the metal workers and their employers, soon grew to be a “sympathetic” general strike which resulted in 30,000 workers walking off the job on 15 May 1919, leaving the city of Winnipeg essentially paralyzed. The “establishment” opposing the strike, consisting of the federal government, the municipal government of Winnipeg, the business elite, and the media, implemented harsh measures that caused the hardening of public opinion against the strikers and, ultimately, the suppression of the strike itself. The cumulative effect of the various actions taken by these different groups was deadly for the strike. One may wonder what the motivation of each of these groups was in acting as they did. Were they simply concerned with the restoration of essential services to a city that was being held hostage by illegal labour actions? Was their primary goal to maintain law and order and preserve peace on the streets, or were there more deeply rooted motives—motives that were based on the fear that a “democratic” society would soon be overturned and reformed as a Communist state?
In order to fully understand the motivations and beliefs of the establishment, however, it is first necessary to look at the period leading up to the Strike. This overview will give an insight into how the fears that fuelled the response to the strike were founded.
Until 1914, the labour movement had remained relatively quiet and withdrawn; its demands were moderate and were not accompanied by any widespread violence, demonstration, or protest. However, when the First World War began in 1914, the labour movement became more aggressive in its actions and more visible to the general public. In an attempt to gain more power, labour connected itself to Socialist beliefs that were derived from what the establishment would call “alien nations” and in doing so began to sow the seeds of fear and mistrust in the establishment. The first significant evidence of this increasing aggressiveness on the part of the unions occurred in May 1918, when a series of strikes took place in Western Canada, the largest and most widespread of which occurred in Winnipeg. Although not a general strike, the strike of 1918 affected many civil services, including power, waterworks, fire-fighting, telephone, railway and streetcar services. In order to promote their cause further, the strikers began publishing their own paper, the Western Labour News. Their efforts to sway public opinion, however, were in vain; the city council passed an amendment that took away civic employees’ right to strike.
The strikers became frustrated and labour leaders were in agreement that a general strike could be a valuable operation to make the city council repeal the amendment. Only through negotiation by a group known as the Citizens’ Committee of One Hundred was the strike of 1918 broken and the labour leaders satisfied.
Subsequently, on 22 December 1918, the Socialist Party of Canada gathered at the Walker Theatre to hold “a meeting dedicated to the purpose of finding no good at all in the government.”  The meeting was attended by large numbers of workers from various organizations such as the Metal Trades Council, the Carpenters’ Union, and the Western Labour News. Scattered amongst the “agitators” were small groups of secret policemen who were spying on the meeting and taking notes in order to report back to the military.  The deployment of these “secret agents” demonstrates that the government was already concerned about the threat posed by the Socialists. At the meeting, speakers expounded Socialist ideals, stating outright that “Capitalism has come to a point where she is defunct and must disappear,” and demanding that the Canadian military withdraw its troops from the war against Russia and ultimately strive towards the establishment of the Soviet system of government in Canada.  Additionally, the labour leaders proposed an idea known as the “One Big Union” (OBU). The purpose of this union was to eliminate all existing unions and engulf every single worker in Canada into one union in order to leverage massive bargaining power nation-wide. As stated by one leader, the eventual goal of the OBU was...
To add to the mounting unrest and tension, the Western Labour News began publishing articles that advocated the Soviet political position, complained about unemployment and threatened that “Unless these things change...we shall find that Bolshevism will not confine itself to Russia... will Ottawa ever wake up?” 
In March 1919, many labour leaders and activists from Winnipeg and other parts of Western Canada gathered in Calgary for a conference, the purpose of which was to discuss
During the conference, the discussion moved towards a debate over the One Big Union and how it should be implemented; however, the exact details were never completely spelled out. The issue of the OBU was put to a vote, along with a general strike vote, on a ballot that was sent out to every citizen of Winnipeg on 6 May. The results were announced on 13 May 1919, at the meeting of the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council. Although the results were incomplete, they were proclaimed with great fervour and energy: over eleven thousand were in favour of the strike and only five hundred were against. The committee decided to cast the die and put the strike into motion at 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, 15 May. The plan was that “all public utilities will be tied up in order to enforce the principle of collective bargaining.”  What the workers were trying to accomplish, according to the Metal Trades Council and the Winnipeg Building Trades Council, was “to move to a new form of collective bargaining, one which had been recognized in Vancouver in 1918 ... and was being advocated in many places in the United States.”  These actions taken by the labour movement, especially those which struck at the heart of a democratic government, could not be ignored. The threat of the collapse of democracy and capitalism and the substitution of Socialism was perceived as real. Although the Strike Committee’s position was strictly that of establishing the right to collective bargaining, the establishment would take a different view of the strike’s ultimate goal when the sheer scope of the walkout became apparent four days later.
At the time of the strike, daily newspapers—the Winnipeg Telegram, the Winnipeg Tribune, and the Manitoba Free Press—were the primary sources of information for the citizens of Winnipeg. Up to the time of the walkout on 15 May 1919, the role of the papers had been that of observer and reporter. The unions, however, began to take exception to the way news was being reported to the public. They felt that the press was biased and was thwarting their attempts to obtain collective bargaining. Newspaper reporters were excluded from meetings of the strikers because it was the strikers’ position that the newspapers were misrepresenting them. This feeling was so strong in the labour movement that the Winnipeg Tribune was boycotted by unions because of the unfavourable reports it had printed regarding the convention held in Calgary in March 1919, and the position it took against the formation of the One Big Union.  The Strike Committee, realizing how influential the press was, believed that it was imperative to silence the papers. The Strike Committee believed that forcing the papers to shut down would be “a case of simple justice to muzzle for a few days the enemies of freedom and truth.”  In order to achieve this goal the Strike Committee placed tremendous pressure on the typographers at all three papers and on 17 May 1919, they walked off the job, silencing the strikers’ most vocal critics.
The Manitoba Free Press initially was viewed as restrained and objective in the days leading up to its being shut down. When it was able to publish again under management, its tone had changed dramatically. The Free Press began blasting the strike organizers, labelling Russell, Veitch, Ivens, Robinson, and Winning as the “red five.”  The paper also took advantage of the strong feelings evoked by the First World War, trying to establish a link between the organizers and their quest for power and the influence of “Huns” in order to create a scapegoat.  The Manitoba Free Press feverishly continued to put forth propaganda in an attempt to convince both the strikers and the general population that the strike was having no effect. To this end, on 19 June, the Free Press printed an article released by the Citizens’ Committee. The goal of the article was to show the citizens of Winnipeg, as well as others around the country, that the strike was having no effect on daily life and that businesses were operating normally in the city of Winnipeg.
By reason of the actions of the Committee of One Thousand, representing all of the middle class citizens, the non-participant victims of the dispute between workers and employers, the city was speedily restored to a normal basis of business.
Meanwhile, the Manitoba Free Press also promoted the notion that the strikers were actually going to overthrow the government. The paper’s attacks against the strikers became more vicious over the following weeks and were aimed at convincing the public and the world that Winnipeg was about to be taken over by the Communists. The propaganda campaign put forth by the Manitoba Free Press was so effective at convincing everyone that a Communist coup was imminent that when the strike was finally broken, the headline in the New York Times, dated 22 June 1919, read: “BOLSHEVISM IN WINNIPEG “One Big Union” Assumed Entire Control of City, But Was Ousted by a Bourgeois Committee.” The newspapers, specifically the Manitoba Free Press, had succeeded, but what was it that drove them to speak as the voice of the establishment and to declare all-out war on the unions? It may have been a reaction to the denial of freedom of the press to the citizens, or it could have been simply a reaction to the fact that the strikers had basically tried to put the newspapers out of business by shutting them down. The search for the reason begins and ends with two key figures: John Wesley Dafoe, the editor of the paper at the time of the strike and Sir Clifford Sifton, the owner of the Manitoba Free Press. Dafoe was a staunch liberal and supporter of Canada who did everything possible to promote Canada as a Dominion. He stood up to both Prime Ministers Laurier and Macdonald when he felt that their policies threatened Canada, and more specifically, the West. Some felt that Mr. Dafoe was so pro-Canadian that he was anti-British.  His position on organized labour was simple: it should not exist. Dafoe’s position was made clear, as he did not differentiate “... between British socialism and Marxist communism, and he condemned them both with brutal vigour.”  He took the initiative in attacking the strikers’ position and wrote blistering editorials labelling them as “Communist revolutionaries under the influence of enemy aliens and the Bolshevik government in the newly formed Soviet Union.”  By trying to connect the Winnipeg situation with that of the Russian Revolution, Dafoe was able to stir up public opposition to the strike itself. Dafoe’s beliefs were so strong and so deeply entrenched that he was not going to stand idly by and watch his beloved country crumble under the weight of what he felt was an invasion by the “red machine.” He took the offensive at every opportunity and was determined to crush the threat, motivated by his powerful sense of nationalism and an innate desire to protect the country he loved.
Dafoe could not have mounted such a staunch opposition to the strike without the support of his superior, the owner of the Manitoba Free Press, Sir Clifford Sifton. In 1896, Sifton had been the Minister of the Interior in the Laurier government and he was no stranger to the political game and the workings of immigrants and aliens.  He decided to encourage a new breed of farmer to settle in Western Canada and actively sought out “Eastern Europeans, including Ukrainians, Doukhobors and other groups from the Austrian and Russian Empires.”  He felt that these people were better equipped to endure hardship than British immigrants, or groups from urban areas. It would appear that the apparent “threat” from this group which he felt was better suited to till the soil would not have sat well with Sifton. His background as both a federal minister and wealthy businessman made Sifton a prominent member of the business community and one of Winnipeg society’s elite. His status in society made him no friend of the average working man. In the opinion of some, “A man more unsympathetic to the cause of the working man never lived.”  Sifton, therefore, had no reason to be sympathetic towards the strikers. He had a vested interest in the outcome of the strike and he strongly supported his fellow members of the bourgeois community. He used his position in such a way as to maintain the capitalist status quo and ensure the continuation of democracy. Dafoe and Sifton had similar, and yet different motives, behind their actions against the strike, but they both used the fear and talk of political and economic overthrow as the fuel to ignite the other members of Canada’s establishment to band together and ultimately crush the strike once and for all.
The most powerful and effective opponent of the Winnipeg General Strike was the Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand, which, like its predecessor of 1918, the Citizens’ Group of One Hundred, was formed in response to the strike. The Committee of One Thousand was made up of members of the Winnipeg Board of Trade, the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association and the Manitoba Bar Association.  In short, the group was comprised primarily of the business community, the wealthy, and the elite. A lawyer who dealt with the group noted that “... newspaper editors, bankers, manufacturers and capitalists abounded.”  Although everyone knew of the existence of the committee, it operated as a clandestine organization with the membership list remaining unpublished. To this day many members have never been identified. There were, however, several prominent Winnipeggers who were named, including William Sweatman, Max Steinkopf, and A. J. Andrews. The question is, why did this group feel that it was necessary to form and become such a vigorous opponent of the strike? Should not these matters have been left in the hands of the three levels of the government? The members of this group obviously felt that they had the most to lose if the strike were successful. They were the “Captains of Industry” and they did not want anyone “rocking their boat.” The actions taken by the Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand were directed towards the maintenance of the status quo. They all had established businesses, they were reaping huge profits as a result of the war and they felt that the strike threatened economic activity in Winnipeg. At the outbreak of the strike, newspapers both in Canada and the United States were describing the strike as a “demonstration of essential Bolshevism,” which negatively affected the stock markets and discouraged foreign investors.  Fearful of an economic catastrophe, the Committee responded swiftly by publishing an article that tried to allay fears and let the world know that Winnipeg was still open for business.
When the strike broke out, the Committee’s initial goal was to keep everything running as smoothly as possible. If they could maintain essential services, it would weaken the strikers’ power over the city, as their goal was to shut the city down. The Committee members manned the fire department, steam plants, gas stations, and other services.  In order to keep things going the Committee raised between $800,000 and $1,000,000 from businesses in Winnipeg and outside the city in order to provide funds to pay volunteer workers.  On 19 May, the Citizens’ Committee published its own daily newspaper, the Winnipeg Citizen, which spoke out in opposition to the strikers’ paper, the Western Labour News.  The strategy adopted by the Citizens’ Committee was to convince the average citizen that the strike was linked to a world-wide Bolshevik revolt. It espoused the idea that “the real Trades Unionist had a deep commitment to his city and society ... but the Bolshevik was opposed to honest labour and its every interest.”  The Committee took the unprecedented initiative of bypassing both the provincial government—which was doing nothing—and the city of Winnipeg—which was doing little—in hopes that the federal government would intervene with force and break the strike.  Because the Citizens’ Committee was made up of members of the business elite, their motivations for breaking the strike are easy to explain: the strikers posed a threat to their business and the economy, and by breaking the strike they would be able to continue making money and doing business as usual. Although the strikers had been effective at shutting down the city, the Committee’s report tried to convince people otherwise and encouraged them to continue with life as normal. Since any perceived threat to the economy would hurt the Committee, it made sure to counter those threats through its actions as well as to explicitly deny that there was any sort of problem in the city.
On 21 May, A. J. Andrews met with Minister of Justice Arthur Meighen and Labour Minister Gideon Robertson. He described the situation as a revolution and not a strike.  Andrews himself took the lead and became a key figure in promoting the interests of the business community to the federal government:
He remained in constant contact with Meighen and fed him information, sometimes exaggerated, that led Meighen to believe conditions were worsening when in fact they were not. For example, he described the circumstance where one “special” constable was injured in a skirmish as a “riot” and claimed that the whole force of special constables had been “chased off the streets.” He hoped that this would convince Meighen to intervene.  These “specials” had been brought in to replace the Winnipeg Police who were fired en masse by the City under pressure from the Citizens’ Committee. Andrews had built such a reputation through his actions that twelve days after the strike began, Arthur Meighen appointed him to represent the Justice Department in an investigation to determine if there were grounds to arrest the leaders based on seditious or treasonable actions. 
The die was cast and the work of the Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand was done. They proved to be an extremely powerful and influential group; not only had they convinced the general public that Winnipeg was in a state of revolt, but they worked to have the city police fired and replaced with “hired guns” who were essentially a group of anti-strike thugs. The stage was set for the confrontation and violence which would prompt the federal government to intervene and break the strike. The Citizens’ Committee proved without a doubt that “money is power.”
The effects of the strike and the fear of a shift in the balance of power were not confined to Winnipeg. The federal government perceived the strike as a threat to democracy, and the result, they feared, would be nothing less than Communist revolution at the federal level. The fear of a “Red uprising” was perpetuated mostly by the government’s point man, Justice Minister Arthur Meighen. He was genuinely afraid that the Bolsheviks would soon be at his threshold, threatening to overthrow the government. In April 1919, the cabinet sent a telegram to Versailles, explaining to Prime Minister Borden that the situations in Vancouver, Calgary, and Winnipeg had degraded to the point where “Bolshevism” and “socialism” were “rampant” and that the intervention of the British navy might be necessary to calm things down.  Meighen was also on good terms with several members of the Winnipeg business community. Thus, he felt compelled to fight back against the strikers as long as the businessmen were under duress. He believed that if the strike succeeded, this would result in
Another important figure representing the federal government’s position was Senator Gideon Robertson, Minister of Labour, and a trade unionist who wanted the strike to fail at all costs. According to Robertson, a successful strike would equate to success for the OBU, which had as its goal the destruction of the international unions. As Minister of Labour, he was mandated to stand up for the unions and thus perceived the strike as a threat to his duty. On 21 May 1919, Robertson and Meighen arrived in Winnipeg in order to meet with leaders and officials in an attempt to rectify the situation. Meighen met with the MP for Winnipeg South, G. W. Allan, and declared that any postal worker who was not at work by 26 May would be fired. The next morning 150 volunteers were hired in order to replace the strikers, with the Citizens’ Committee offering over one hundred more.  The postal workers were not amused; many did not take the government’s ultimatum seriously and felt that they did not have to bow to its will. In addition, the situation with the postal workers spilled over to the railway mail clerks, who threatened to walk out of work on 28 May “because of the manner in which the government had issued its ultimatum to the other postal workers.” 
Because the federal government believed the stand taken by the newspapers, which insisted that immigrants were the problem, “The Act to Amend the Immigration Act” was quickly passed in Ottawa on 5 June 1919. This was devastating to the strikers as, under the new terms, anyone who plotted to overthrow the government would be deported. This new Act was amended within twenty-four hours in order that it might be “sufficiently wide to cover all except those born or naturalized in Canada,” after the Winnipeg lawyer A. J. Andrews expressed his displeasure that the most dangerous group of all, the British, were not affected by the Act.  The federal government also passed further legislation to increase the militia and passed an amendment to the Criminal Code that increased the sentence for seditious intent and broadened the scope of its definition. Both of these moves were made known to the strikers, which created further tension between the two sides. The Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand convinced the federal government that conditions were deteriorating rapidly. In response, the government bolstered General Ketchen’s militia with motorized machine gun units, an armoured car with three machine guns, 800 militia ready to move on a moment’s notice, in addition to the Royal North West Mounted Police the government had already sent. 
When the “forbidden” rally began on 21 June 1919, Mayor Gray had at his disposal the “special” force of nearly 2,000 men, the reinforced RNWMP contingent, and the militia, which was 800 strong and “armed to the teeth”. When the situation deteriorated after Mayor Gray read the Riot Act, a full-blown confrontation between the striking protesters and the establishment’s “army” occurred. This fateful day is referred to now as Bloody Saturday. When the smoke cleared, one striker lay dead, another was dying, and scores were wounded. Meighen and Robertson had succeeded in stopping the strike and ending the threat of the “Red Uprising”.
Winnipeg’s municipal government, specifically Mayor Charles Gray, played a key role in crushing the strike of 1919. He had been elected Mayor in 1918 and in the past had been a supporter of fair labour practice. When the strike broke out he initially tried to have the Province mediate the situation, but Premier Norris made it clear that the provincial government did not want to intervene. When the Strike Committee took the initiative to issue licences in order to authorize milk and bread delivery, Gray changed his position as he felt that the unions had crossed the line in undermining the City’s authority. Gray believed that in order to maintain control of the city he could not give in to acts which he viewed as “terrorist” in nature. He warned that they would not be tolerated, and failure to cease and desist would result in severe punishment. He felt that law and order should be maintained because the strike was likely to become more violent if it progressed much further. In order to maintain a firm grip on power, Gray felt that he had to preserve the peace, and he declared that “Law and order will be maintained at all costs. If any radical element tries to interfere with enforcement of law and order, we are prepared to smash it immediately.” 
Maintaining law and order under normal circumstances should have been easy, but these were anything but ordinary times. The municipal government had to resort to desperate measures. The entire City of Winnipeg Police Force was unionized and had not agreed to sign an agreement banning them from participating in a sympathetic strike. Fearing the worst, and wanting to maintain control, Gray, with the help of the Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand, ordered the hiring of 2,000 “special constables.” On 9 June 1919, the entire police force of two hundred and forty men was fired when they refused the City’s ultimatum. To help maintain peace and order, Mayor Gray issued proclamations against assemblies in public places in order to prevent confrontations between strikers and anti-strike sympathizers. With the police force out of the picture, clashes between strikers and “specials” were occurring with alarming regularity. On 20 June, Gray re-issued his proclamation against rallies for the third time after pro-strike veterans assembled in Market Square.  The next day Gray met again with the strikers and Senator Robertson, but the strikers wanted the streetcars to halt service and a settlement to be reached by 2:00 pm. Failing that, the strikers threatened to go on with their planned rally. Mayor Gray was furious. He reminded them that they had ignored his proclamations not once, not twice, but three times. He warned them that the marches would be stopped “peacefully if possible, but if not, other measures would have to be taken.” 
The wheels were now in motion and there was no turning back. The strikers insisted on their march and the mayor was determined to stop them. Gray believed that this final act of defiance would not be tolerated; so he personally requested that the RNWMP intervene and support the “specials.”  When the crowd became unruly and began to derail a streetcar, the Mounties stormed the assembled mob. As the two sides clashed, Gray read the Riot Act and at 2:35 pm the crowd was warned to be off the streets in thirty minutes.  Immediately following this final warning, gunshots were heard, and Mayor Gray, fearing that the situation had spiralled out of control, decided to take drastic action to regain control of the streets. He immediately drove to Fort Osborne Barracks and asked General Ketchen to bring in the militia to stop the riot. The General arrived with cavalry and machine gun units and began moving into the downtown area. With this final display of force, the crowd scrambled to clear the area. The strike had finally been broken and Mayor Gray had achieved what he had set out to do from the beginning: retain control of his city.
The motivations of each group in acting to suppress the Winnipeg General Strike were clear—each group was essentially acting in its own best interest. The mayor was fighting to maintain control of the city. The federal government perceived the strike as a prelude to a violent revolution and Communist takeover of the country; it took the situation in Winnipeg very seriously and used its considerable political power and military force to send a message to other labour supporters in the rest of Canada. The business elite and Citizens’ Committee, the groups with the most to lose, had no choice but to take matters into their own hands and thwart the strikers at every turn, even if it meant seizing control of essential services and assuming the power of the municipal government. The newspapers reacted vehemently to the silencing of the citizens’ freedom of the press and the attempted shutdown of the presses by fighting back against the strikers and portraying them as “Bolsheviks” and “revolutionaries,” and the images planted in the minds of the general public helped to turn the tide of the strike against the labourers. Although the motivations of each of the members of the establishment were different, they were bound by a common thread: fear. Their individual actions coalesced, not only to defeat the strike and restore order, but they also firmly cemented democracy and capitalism as the de facto standards of the new nation.
1. D. C. Masters, The Winnipeg General Strike. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1950, p. 13.
2. Ibid., p. 3.
4. Ibid., p. 4.
5. Ibid., p. 22.
6. Ibid., p. 29.
7. J. M. Bumsted, The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919: An Illustrated History. Winnipeg: Watson Dwyer Publishing, 1994, p. 23.
8. Ibid., p. 28.
9. Ibid., p. 26.
10. David J. Bercuson, Confrontation at Winnipeg: Labour, Industrial Relations, and the General Strike. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990, p. 100.
11. Bumsted, p. 31.
12. Ibid., p. 119.
14. Bercuson, p. 118.
15. Norman Penner, ed., Winnipeg 1919: The Strikers’ Own History of the Winnipeg General Strike. 2nd ed. Toronto: James Lorimer and Company, 1975, xviii.
16. Bercuson, p. 118.
17. Ibid., p. 100.
18. Ibid., p. 101.
19. Penner, xviii.
20. Bumsted, p. 85.
22. Bercuson, p. 132.
23. Manitoba Free Press, 9 June 1919.
24. Bumsted, p. 35.
25. Ibid., p. 49.
26. Bercuson, p. 122.
27. Ibid., p. 123.
28. Ibid., p. 125.
29. Bumsted, p. 35.
30. Bercuson, p. 124.
31. Bumsted, p. 52.
32. Bercuson, p. 124.
33. Penner, xvii.
34. Bumsted, p. 45.
35. Bercuson, pp. 133-134.
36. Ibid., p. 134.
37. Bumsted, p. 47.
38. Kenneth McNaught and David J. Bercuson, The Winnipeg Strike: 1919. Don Mills: Longman Canada Limited, 1974, p. 87.
39. Bumsted, p. 94.
40. Bercuson, p. 171.
41. Ibid., p. 172.
42. Bumsted, p. 95.
43. Bercuson, p. 173.
Page revised: 8 July 2016