By Kelly Anne Griffin
In the spring of 1919, tensions boiled over in Winnipeg. Social classes were divided by both wealth and status. Labourers gathered in a common front, and ideas about workers’ rights spread.
Canada’s largest strike and its greatest class confrontation began on May 15. Even though changes were slow to come in the aftermath of the six-week general strike, it was a turning point for the labour movement, not just in the city of Winnipeg but for workers across this sprawling country.
During those important weeks in 1919 Manitoba, workers fought peacefully and tirelessly for basic rights such as a living wage, safety at work and the right to be heard; these things are often easily taken for granted in our own day and age. The Winnipeg General Strike was a revolt of ordinary working-class citizens frustrated with an unreliable labour market, inflation and poor working conditions. Collectively they fought, and united they stood.
The perfect storm
The labour market in Canada was precarious in 1919. Times were difficult for skilled labour, and inflation made it harder and harder for workers to make ends meet. For example, in the year 1913, the cost of living rose by 64 percent. In addition to insecure employment and inflation, the success of the Russian Revolution in 1917 contributed to unrest among workers.
Unions were gaining traction in Canada and growing quickly. As a result, labour leaders met in an attempt to form One Big Union. Although unions had become more common, employers did not recognize bargaining rights.
The First World War also contributed to what happened in Winnipeg in spring 1919. The length and magnitude of that war inevitably resulted in many changes for the economy and an increase in employment at home. But when the war ended, production dropped, and a rush of returning soldiers struggled not only to adjust to civilian life but also to find jobs.
Work was scarce in the once-booming prairie city. Some returning soldiers also viewed immigrants as having taken jobs that should have been theirs instead. Many Canadians, both soldiers and civilians, had sacrificed much during the war, and many thought that their reward would be a better life. Instead, at war’s end, their hardships increased as they faced unemployment, inflation and an unstable economic outlook.
On May 1, 1919, building workers in Manitoba declared a strike after many futile attempts at negotiation. They were followed the next day by metalworkers. Two weeks later, the Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council called for a general strike.
On the morning of May 15, telephone operators in Winnipeg did not report for work. Factories and storefronts remained closed, mail service stopped, and transportation ground to a halt. Over the next six weeks, around 30,000 workers, both unionized and non-unionized, took to the streets and made their sacrifices for the greater good.
A city divided will not stand
The strikers were orderly and peaceful, but the reaction from the government and employers was often hostile. As is the case with any labour dispute, the views of the working class and the views of the ruling class were very different. Some attempts were made to bridge the communication gap in the lead-up to the strike, to no avail.
The social setting in the city at the time aggravated the situation. Though strikes were not new—in 1918, for example, North America had a record number of strikes—the events in Winnipeg were unprecedented in size, nature and the seeming determination of those on strike.
The Central Strike Committee, made up of representatives from each of the unions, was created to negotiate on behalf of the workers and to coordinate essential services during the strike. The Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand was the organized opposition from the government and employers. From the outset, the Citizens’ Committee ignored the strikers’ demands. The strikers were portrayed in the media as a revolutionary conspiracy, a dangerous radical uprising based on Bolshevik extremism.
There were many displays of solidarity across the country in the form of sympathy strikes. The issues that had reached a boiling point in Winnipeg were manifest across the country, and these acts of support were of great concern to the government, and to employers throughout Canada. This fear saw the government finally intervene in the strike.
The Citizens’ Committee held the firm view that immigrants were largely to blame for the strike. As a result, the Canadian government amended the Immigration Act to allow British-born immigrants to be deported. The definition of sedition in the Criminal Code (controversial section 98, repealed in 1936) was broadened so that more charges could be laid. The government’s actions also included jailing seven Winnipeg strike leaders on June 17, who were eventually convicted of a conspiracy to overthrow the government and sentenced to prison terms ranging from six months to two years.
Saturday, Bloody Saturday
On June 21, 1919, the strike reached a tragic boiling point. Main Street in Winnipeg was a scene of unprecedented upheaval.
The normally peaceful demonstrations took a violent turn. Strikers overturned a streetcar and set it ablaze. The Royal North-West Mounted Police and the newly created Special Police Force, astride their horses and heavily armed, waded through the crowd swinging bats and wielding wagon spokes as weaponry. Machine guns were also used. Two strikers were killed, 34 wounded, and the police made a total of 94 arrests. Western Labor News, the official publication of the movement, was shut down. Five days later, feeling dejected and fearful of what they had witnessed on Bloody Saturday, the strikers ended their efforts for change.
Short-term pain for long-term gain
Those who have been on strike will attest to the struggle of living on strike pay. The extent and duration of the Winnipeg General Strike reflect the deep passion, and anger over their plight, of the workers at the time.
As we consider the history 100 years later, what do we see as the legacy of the events that unfolded over six weeks in Winnipeg?
At the end of the strike, the workers won very little for their valiant efforts, and some were even imprisoned. It would take nearly 30 more years for Canadian workers to secure union recognition and collective bargaining rights. To add insult to injury, the immediate situation in Winnipeg worsened, with the economy in decline. The tensions and sentiments that led to the uprising lingered, which caused increasing divisiveness in labour relations in the city.
Still, it is undeniable that the strikers’ fight helped to pave the way for where we are today. The provincial election in Manitoba the following year, 1920, saw 11 labour candidates win seats, a positive step toward legislative change. Strike leader J.S. Woodsworth, who was imprisoned for a year because of his leadership during the strike, founded the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, predecessor of today’s New Democratic Party.
Although the strike ended without the desired gains, the ideals it stood for live on. Workers in Winnipeg rallied around the common challenges faced despite differences in race, language or creed. A century later, Canada has made great strides regarding workers’ rights, and much of this is thanks to the solidarity and resilience of the general strikers in Winnipeg during that fateful spring in 1919.
Kelly Anne Griffin is an archival assistant in the Science and Governance Private Archives Division of the Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada.
Her canvases capture the devastation of war but also signs of hope and renewal. At great cost to her health, this artist created one of the few authentic collections of paintings of war-torn Europe. She considered her work to be a gift to Canada. She donated the majority of the collection of paintings to the Public Archives of Canada, now Library and Archives Canada, in 1926.
We sit down with retired assistant professor of history at the University of Manitoba, Kathryn Young, and Dr. Sarah McKinnon, former vice-president at the Ontario College of Art and Design, and former curator at the University of Manitoba.
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Maple syrup is made by boiling down or reducing sap collected from sugar maple, red maple or black maple trees. It is a sweet condiment unique to North America and enjoyed worldwide. The First Nations communities of southeastern Canada and northeastern United States were the first people to collect maple sap and discover its many benefits.First Nations communities taught British and French settlers how to collect sap and make maple syrup. Europeans incorporated the use of iron or copper pots, making it easier to boil the sap longer to create syrup with a thicker consistency. Today, Canada is the leading producer and exporter of maple syrup and related maple products, commanding over 70 percent of the global market for these commodities. The province of Quebec alone produces more than 90 percent of Canada’s maple syrup quota. Visit the Flickr album now!
The ulu is a knife with a semi-circular shaped blade which translates as “women’s knife” in the Inuit language of Inuttut. Ulus date back 4,519 years ago (2500 BCE). Ulus from 1880 discovered on Baffin Island were found with the blade adhered to the handle by an adhesive made from clay, dog hair and seal blood. In the 1890s, some ulus created by Western Inuit had holes through the handle and the blade. The two pieces were joined together using rawhide, whalebone and pine root. The Copper Inuit of Victoria Island (the eighth largest island in the world and part of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories) used copper they mined to make ulu blades. When slate and copper were scarce, some Inuit turned to whale baleen or ivory for the blades. The crescent-shaped blade was originally made of slate, but today it is made of steel. Steel was available after 1719, through the Hudson’s Bay Company. Blades could be semi-circular or triangular and were attached to the handle with a single post or with the post having a piece in the centre taken out. The handle of the ulu might include ornate drawings and engravings specific to the woman who owned the knife. Handles are usually made of wood but can also be made of bone, antler or ivory.
The size of an ulu depends on the personal preference of its owner or the region where it was made. A husband or other male relative sometimes presents an ulu to a woman or they are passed down from one generation to the next.
The cutting and slicing power of the ulu blade comes from the handle, allowing the force of the blade to be directed over the object to be cut. This allows the woman to cut through strong, dense objects, such as bone. The design of the ulu makes it easy to use with one hand. Ulus are multi-faceted tools that vary in design to suit diverse needs. Larger ulus cut game or fish and a smaller ulu removes blubber and shaves skin. Even smaller ulus cut skins or trim small pieces. Tiny ulus help sew or cut ornate pieces used as inlays in sealskin clothing.
Looking at most tools designed by humans, the ulu holds a special place. It is one of the only tools that is female-centric and has become an important cultural symbol. Its likeness serves as an award medal in events such as the Arctic Winter Games and is a prominent design element in contemporary Inuit art, crafts, and fashion design. They are often displayed prominently in the home as works of art in and of themselves. Used for thousands of years across the northern regions of North America, the ulu continues to be functional, powerful, and diverse.
Ellen Bond is a Project Assistant with the Online Content Team at Library and Archives Canada.
Working dogs learn and perform tasks to support and sometimes amuse their owners.Regardless of whether they are purebreds or mixed breeds, these dogs are trained to do a variety of jobs very well. Some of the jobs include pulling carts and sleds, herding livestock, hunting, as well as providing valued services to the community such as policing, search and rescue, therapy, and guarding homes, businesses and buildings. The breed chosen often depends on what the job requires; however, most dogs share common canine traits of strength, discipline, intelligence and loyalty. Visit the Flickr album now!
By Shane McCord
The recently concluded Library and Archives Canada (LAC) exhibition Premiere included four drawings by midshipman Robert Hood (c. 1797–1821). These drawings were first presented on the Discover Blog in April 2015, shortly after they had been acquired by LAC. Robert Hood was a talented draftsman, cartographer, scientist, natural historian, and anthropologist before the term existed. He is remembered today for his participation in the 1819–1822 Coppermine Expedition, led by John Franklin. While on this expedition, Hood was the first to document various species of animals and insects. He was also the first to note the electromagnetic nature of the aurora borealis. Posthumously, some of his drawings were reproduced and published in Franklin’s account of the expedition, which included a glowing report on Hood’s work and conduct.
While Hood is known, to a degree, for the contributions to scientific knowledge he made during the expedition, his story is also remembered for the part he played in a now infamous love triangle between himself, a Dené woman known as Greenstockings, and Sir George Back, another artist who was part of the expedition. The story, which includes a failed duel between Back and Hood, has been told many times and is neatly summarized in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry for Hood.
All the members of the expedition were suffering from malnutrition and exhaustion, and Hood did not survive. He was likely near death when he was killed by a fellow member of the expedition, the voyageur Michel Terohaute. Terohaute was executed for the murder, and was later suspected of cannibalism.The first of the four drawings shown in the Premiere exhibition is a double portrait of two Inuit guides and interpreters, Tattanoeuck (“Augustus”) and Hoeootoerock (“Junius”). Tattannoeuck was a member of three expeditions, two with Franklin (1819–1821, 1825–1827) and one with Back (1833–1835). He was heavily involved in these expeditions and was well respected by his companions, to the point that Sir John Richardson, a member of both the first and second Franklin expeditions, named a species of butterfly Callophrys augustinus in his honour. Hoeootoerock was separated from the members of the Coppermine Expedition during the crossing of the Coppermine, and is presumed to have died there.
Two of the drawings are depictions of northern mammals: a mink and a cross fox. At the time these works were produced, such species were becoming objects of study in Western European science. Images such as these were among the primary reasons why Hood, an officer with a talent for drawing, was selected for the expedition. Apart from their aesthetic value, these images were important as evidence of wildlife in the region of the expedition and provided valuable information for the expansion of the fur trade.The final and most interesting drawing shows the interior of a Cree tent. The inscription is “Interior of a Southern Indian tent; taken on the Basquiase Hill, Cumberland House, Hudson’s Bay. The tent is made of Moose skin parchment; the cloathes [sic] of the indians are made of skins. The cloth obtained from the English factories. March 25th 1820 Robert Hood North Land Expedition.” The drawing is valuable for the anthropological information it provides and for its historical context. In Hood’s journal from the expedition, he describes making such a drawing on March 31, and he provides several anecdotes regarding the people in the tent. It is yet to be determined if this is that same drawing and there is an inaccuracy in the dates, or if Hood made a second drawing. All four of these drawings relay important documentary evidence about the region of Cumberland House, in what is now northern Saskatchewan. These drawings are also fascinating simply as items carried on that ill-fated journey. The Franklin expeditions are an important part of the history of Canada’s development as a nation, and the tragic aspects of the first expedition in particular have made it one of the most popular and well-known episodes in Arctic history.
Shane McCord is an art archivist in the Archives Branch of Library and Archives Canada.