The Winnipeg Strike

Although many of the older citizens of Winnipeg today prefer to forget the events of the spring of 1919, the Winnipeg strike was a most significant occurrence in Canadian history, if for no other reason than that it was the first and only time in Canadian history that a major city was split clearly into two opposing classes. The strike was of particular importance in the life of Woodsworth, not, as one might assume, because it altered any of his convictions or left him embittered, but because it served as a searchlight focused on the facts which he was already fitting into a socialist analysis of Canadian life.

Woodsworth emerged from the strike period more determined than ever to pursue the course upon which he had embarked. From the time of his first contact with the strike, three weeks after its beginning on May 15, to the time of his arrest a few days before its collapse on June 26, and on through the sedition trial of 1920, he was prominent in the advocacy of the strikers’ cause. It is necessary, therefore, to look at some of the basic evidence of the strike period, and give in some detail a picture of the problems and attitudes created, in order to understand the part played by Woodsworth.

There are many different view of causes that, evidently lead to different conclusion of the Winnipeg general strike. Various interpretations have been advanced. One view originated with the Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand, and was carried on through the government prosecution in the strike trials, the Canadian Annual Review and the Cambridge History of the British Empire. This view sees the real aim of the strike as the establishment of a Canadian soviet government which would spread forth its power from the banks of the Red River.

An opposing interpretation finds its origin in the strike newspaper, the strikers’ defence committee established to fight the government indictments, and in the Report of the Robson Commission of July, 1919, which was appointed by the Manitoba Government to investigate the causes of the strike. According to this view there were no basic aims other than the improvement of wages, working conditions, and labour’s bargaining position. This argument sees the high cost of living, threatened unemployment, and the employers’ attitude toward collective bargaining as the real causes.

Additional support for this view can be seen in the comments of General Ketchen, the officer commanding in Winnipeg, who appears to have anticipated the conclusions of the Robson Report. As the evidence of unrest accumulated in the early days of June he wired to Ottawa suggesting that the federal government should deal with the cost of living problem under the War Measures Act, if not by price-fixing, then by a prices board to investigate complaints and with power to prosecute.

Such action, he argued, “… would allay universal indignation and unrest and go far to solve the situation. ” A third interpretation of the strike sought a compromise position. This can be seen in A. R. M. Lower’s Colony to Nation, and Edgar McInnis’, Canada, a Political and Social History, which lean slightly toward the strikers’ interpretation; and H. A. Logan’s, Trade Unions in Canada, which tilts almost imperceptibly the other way. Finally, D. C.

Masters’ monograph, The Winnipeg General Strike, vacillates between the two basic views and concludes, almost reluctantly, that the strike was not an abortive revolution. It is highly debatable whether the Winnipeg strike was planned by the conference, or even whether the leaders at Calgary constituted an organized revolutionary body. Both the One Big Union conference and the Winnipeg strike were products of general conditions affecting labor throughout the country–conditions particularly resented by the volatile westerners.

The Western Labor Conference was called by the secretary of a temporary committee established during the Quebec meeting of the Trades and Labor Congress in 1918. The key resolution at the conference, and the one upon which future action was based, was number 3: “Resolved that this convention recommend to its affiliated membership the severance of their affiliation with their international organizations, and that steps be taken to form an industrial organization of all workers. “