The Winnipeg General Strike trials: a new Co-Lab challenge

By David Cuthbert

This year marks the centenary of the Winnipeg General Strike, one of the most pivotal events in Canadian and world labour history. As my colleague Kelly Anne Griffin described in an earlier blog post, the strike saw over 30,000 men and women from various backgrounds stand together for six weeks to demand collective bargaining rights, fair wages and more power for working people.

The strike is also historically noteworthy for the federal government’s role in its suppression, and for the deportations and criminal prosecutions of some of the strike’s leaders on questionable charges. Among the numerous records related to the Winnipeg General Strike held by Library and Archives Canada (LAC), a large, two-volume Department of Justice file provides powerful evidence of the federal government’s involvement in the strikes and of the public’s response to the arrests and trials of the strike leaders. This file is known as RG 13 (Department of Justice), 1987-88/103, Box 36, 9-A-1688, “William Ivens and Robert Russell the King Vs. the A/M Regarding the Winnipeg Strike.”

A selection of digitized documents from the first volume of this file is now available as LAC’s latest Co-Lab challenge. The Co-Lab is a crowdsourcing tool that the public is invited to use to enhance the description and discoverability of particular archival documents. By contributing transcriptions, translations, tags and descriptive text through the Co-Lab challenge, individuals can help improve LAC’s search tools and enrich everyone’s experience of the historical record.

Telegram dated August 29, 1919, from the Women’s Labor League of Elmwood Winnipeg to the Minister of Justice condemning the government’s actions toward the strike leaders and demanding their release.

Telegram from Women’s Labor League of Elmwood Winnipeg to the Minister of Justice, August 29, 1919 (e011201449)

Arthur Meighen and A.J. Andrews

Department of Justice file 9-A-1688 earned some notoriety among historians of the Winnipeg General Strike following the publication in 2010 of a book by Reinhold Kramer and Tom Mitchell, When the State Trembled: How A.J. Andrews and the Citizens’ Committee Broke the Winnipeg General Strike. Kramer and Mitchell carefully examine the correspondence in the second volume of this file. They demonstrate the extraordinary extent to which the federal government’s response to the strike was guided by representatives of the Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand, a private group established by members of Winnipeg’s business and ruling classes to oppose the strike.

Prominent local lawyer and former Winnipeg mayor A.J. Andrews emerged as the principal strategist of the Citizens’ Committee. After persuading Acting Justice Minister Arthur Meighen to appoint him as an informal representative of the federal Department of Justice, Andrews sent frequent reports to Meighen on developments in Winnipeg. Andrews argued that foreign revolutionaries had orchestrated the strike, and he urged the federal government to take decisive action. He saw the strike as a political opportunity to defeat the labour movement and tried to thwart any negotiations with the Central Strike Committee.

Meighen was initially reluctant to encroach on the jurisdictions of the civic and provincial governments by intervening in the strike. Nevertheless, with the encouragement of Andrews, Meighen amended the Immigration Act in early June to permit the federal government to deport British-born individuals suspected of subversive activities. This amendment allowed the government to target some prominent leaders of the strike, many of whom were trade unionists born in Great Britain, who had previously enjoyed the same rights as Canadian-born citizens.

Arrests in the night

In the early hours of June 17, Andrews ordered the Royal North-West Mounted Police (RNWMP) and a squad of “special constables” recruited by the Citizens’ Committee to raid the Central Strike Committee headquarters and the homes of several strike leaders. The RNWMP seized documents and books as evidence, and arrested R.B. Russell, William Ivens, George Armstrong, R.E. Bray, A.A. Heaps, John Queen, Max Charitonoff, Oscar Schoppelrei and Moses Almazoff. More arrests, of others also perceived as strike leaders, including William Pritchard, J.S. Woodsworth, Samuel Blumenberg and Fred Dixon, followed over the next week. R.J. Johns was arrested when he returned to the city.

The first page of a typewritten document listing and summarizing the documents obtained from Room 30 of the Ukrainian Labour Temple. The descriptions include short summaries of minutes from Central Strike Committee meetings.

A list of documents confiscated from the Ukrainian Labour Temple after the Royal North-West Mounted Police raided the Central Strike Committee headquarters in the early morning of June 17, 1919 (e011201486)

The federal state’s apprehension of the leaders inspired immediate outrage among supporters of the strike. A group of war veterans organized a silent march to protest the arrests, which led to the large June 21 gathering on Main Street that triggered the explosive events of Bloody Saturday. Another group of veterans submitted a petition to the Department of Justice requesting their own deportations from Canada, because they felt that “this Country is not Governed in the Democratic Spirit for which we fought.”

A petition dated June 24, 1919, with a typewritten statement followed by columns for signatures, addresses and the number of family members. The signatures, addresses and family members listed below the statement are in manuscript.

A petition signed by war veterans requesting their own deportations because Canada is no longer “Governed in the Democratic Spirit for which we fought.” (e011201484)

A “seditious conspiracy”

Shortly after the detention of the strike leaders, Meighen was surprised to learn that Andrews wanted to charge some of the men under the Criminal Code, rather than the Immigration Act. Meighen resisted this approach for as long as he could, but with the return from Europe in early July of Charles Doherty, the Justice Minister for whom Meighen had been acting, Andrews found an audience more receptive to his plan. Ultimately, only the four detained strike leaders of Eastern European ancestry—Blumenberg, Charitonoff, Schoppelrei and Almazoff—had immigration hearings, and all but Almazoff were deported.

The intention of Andrews to criminalize the strike was evident at the preliminary hearing for Russell, Ivens, Armstrong, Bray, Heaps, Queen, Pritchard and Johns. (The trials of Woodsworth and Dixon took place later.) Each man faced charges of six counts of involvement in a seditious conspiracy and one count of committing a common nuisance. Importantly, the charges related not only to the men’s actions during the strike but also to the ideas they had espoused and the public statements they had made over the previous year. The Crown, with Andrews as its lead prosecutor, maintained that the men had contributed to the strike by promoting conflict between social classes and by advocating the overthrow of the Canadian government. As Andrews phrased it during the preliminary hearing, “They started the fire and it was still burning.”

Moreover, the judges presiding over the preliminary hearing concurred with the argument by Andrews that the eight men could not be trusted to refrain from speaking and agitating for their cause in public. In a shocking decision, the judges denied the strike leaders release on bail while they awaited their trial date. Although an appeal would overturn this decision a month later, the injustice endured by the jailed strike leaders inspired another campaign of protest, one that is richly documented in the Co-Lab documents.

A manuscript letter on yellowing paper dated August 26, 1919.

Letter to the Minister of Justice, Charles Doherty, from William G. Irwin of Winnipeg (e011201451)

Shortly before the trial was set to begin in November 1919, the prosecution separated R.B. Russell’s case from those of the other seven accused leaders, partly to facilitate the appointment of a jury more favourable to a conviction. Found guilty by the jury on all counts, Russell was sentenced to two years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary. The trial of the remaining seven leaders in January 1920 resulted in the convictions of six of the defendants, with only Heaps cleared of all charges.

The Manitoba Court of Appeal upheld Russell’s guilty verdict. With no dissenting opinions in the provincial appeal, the case was ineligible for reference to the Supreme Court of Canada. Nevertheless, Russell’s supporters elected to send his case to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) in Great Britain. The JCPC was reluctant to interfere in a foreign criminal case and declined the appeal, but the document submitted to petition for appeal offered a detailed summary of the charges and evidence against Russell and the other leaders. It also contained lengthy extracts from the transcript of the trial and a summary of some of the legal indiscretions that, in the petitioners’ view, contributed to Russell’s wrongful conviction.

A page of typescript, with a handwritten note in the left-hand margin at the top of the page.

First page of the Petition for Special Leave to Appeal (e011201487)

According to Mary V. Jordan, Russell’s long-time secretary, the judge who presided over Russell’s first trial asked on his deathbed to speak with Russell, presumably because the judge felt guilty about the trial’s outcome. However, Russell refused to visit him.

An appeal for collaboration

LAC’s latest Co-Lab challenge offers participants a chance to examine in great detail some of the public and legal responses to the Winnipeg General Strike. As noted above, Kramer and Mitchell’s When the State Trembled provides a thorough discussion of the behind-the-scenes efforts by A.J. Andrews to break the strike, as documented in the second volume of Department of Justice file 9-A-1688. By focusing on the first volume of the same file, this Co-Lab challenge highlights some of the public expressions of support for the strike leaders and invites participants to reconsider the verdicts of the Winnipeg General Strike trials.


David Cuthbert is an archivist in the References Services Division of the Public Services Branch at Library and Archives Canada’s Winnipeg office.

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