Manitoba History: Review: Jack Walker, edited by Duncan Fraser, The Great Canadian Sedition Trials: The Courts and the Winnipeg General Strike, 1919-1920

by J. M. Bumsted
University of Manitoba

Number 54, February 2007

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Jack Walker, Q.C., edited by Duncan Fraser, The Great Canadian Sedition Trials: The Courts and the Winnipeg General Strike, 1919-1920 Winnipeg: Legal Research Institute of the University of Manitoba & Canadian Legal History Project, 2004, 244 pages. ISBN 1896257488, $22.99 (paperback).

When Jack Walker died of cancer in 1994, he left behind him a manuscript that focused on one of the more neglected aspects of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike: the subsequent treatment of those regarded by the Canadian government as the ringleaders of the strike. That story was a complicated one, and it required an experienced lawyer to do it justice. Walker was in many ways the ideal person to undertake the task of chronicling the tale of the courts and the strike, being a lawyer with an historical bent and considerable energy for research. He did extensive research and uncovered an enormous amount of relevant material, which is now the “Walker Papers” at the Provincial Archives of Manitoba. Unfortunately, Walker became ill in the middle of his work, and his manuscript at his death was “in progress.” It apparently languished around the law faculty for some years before being brought to fruition by Duncan Fraser (and others). The manuscript was finally published in 2004.

As often happens with such projects, the results are somewhat less than totally satisfactory. One gathers from the Preface that it was Walker’s intention to produce a relatively accessible account, not lumbered “with academic footnotes and lawyer’s jargon.” Whether the publishers who had earlier encouraged him to carry on with his research would have allowed him to produce such a popular account is another question entirely, for the result is probably the wrong sort of book for Walker to have written. The subject is one that cries out for documentation and, if not lawyer’s jargon, at least a clearly stated lawyer’s perspective.

Within the past few years, the trials have come to assume much greater importance to Canadian history, perhaps even more importance than the strike which touched them off, chiefly as further examples of the abuses of civil liberty of the period of the Great War. The trials were some of the most public sedition trials in modern Canadian history. Most of the strike leaders were actually tried and convicted by a jury of their peers on charges of seditious conspiracy, although conspiracy charges are normally avoided by the prosecution like the plague, because sedition is so hard to prove and so much can go wrong. In gaining convictions, the government was forced to put its case and prove “intent” to the satisfaction of a jury, the only point in the entire historical record of the strike where the question of the behaviour and intention of the leaders of the strike were subjected to the rigours of the adversarial system of British justice. Whether the convictions mean that the juries were correct in asserting that the intent of the strike (and strikers) was potentially revolutionary is another matter entirely. The Crown took enormous advantage of its position and the situation, and only a lawyer can possibly make sense of the legal manoeuvring and the thicket of legal documentation to decide whether or not the trials were fair and the results proper expressions of jury opinion. At the same time, the trials provide through the evidence introduced and the testimony given a rich fund of information about many aspects of the strike available nowhere else, such as the names of additional members of the Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand.

Obviously Walker commented extensively on the trials from a legal perspective in the course of what amounted to a play-by-play narrative of the trials mixed with analysis. However, it is not always clear from the text which legal perspective he was using or what his criticisms were. One of the problems with legal history is the difficulty of disentangling acceptable past practice from unacceptable practice. I suspect that a careful editor would have insisted that Walker be clearer on this point. Was Walker saying that the government exceeded fair play (as defined at the time) or went beyond the bounds of fair play in terms of our time or as measured by some other standard? Frankly, I was surprised by how mild Walker’s comments about Crown performance and behaviour often were. He was far less critical of the Crown than many of the general historians who have written about these matters. I was less surprised by Walker’s strictures against the defence, since ham-handed defence was the norm in state trials. It was, of course, unforgivable that Robert Cassidy should admit in the trial of Bob Russell that he had not read all of the evidence formally submitted and had apparently not advised his client of what he could expect in the way of cross-examination. Since Russell was deliberately chosen as the first to be tried, his conviction set an important precedent.

While I am not critical of this book for its absence of documentation, I suspect that in the end Walker would have included some. He would probably also have included an index.

Page revised: 21 May 2020