A page in Canada’s history: Carnegie libraries

By Sara Chatfield

A black-and-white photograph of a two-storey stone building with a columned portico and ivy growing up its sides.

The Ottawa Public Library opened in 1905, funded by a Carnegie grant. (a044774-v8)

Libraries have always been special places for me. When I was young, my grandmother worked as a reference librarian at my local library, making my visits to the library extra memorable. I have always appreciated the scope of what you could find within the walls of a library: I loved the books, the magazines and chatting with the librarians about new arrivals. But the thing I loved most (and still love most today) about libraries are the buildings that house library collections, especially historic Carnegie library buildings. Carnegie libraries are distinctive buildings built in the late 1800s and early 1900s by Andrew Carnegie to promote free library access in North America and the world.

A colour photo of a one-storey building with brown-brick exterior walls and a green roof. A small set of stairs and a railing lead up to the entrance.

The Renfrew Public library, built in 1919/1920 and funded by a Carnegie grant. Photo credit: Sara Chatfield

To me, Carnegie library buildings have a majestic yet welcoming appearance. The early buildings (1901–1905) were not designed according to standardized plans. The architects, who hailed from Canada and the United States, were free to use their imaginations. Later buildings have similar design elements, such as arched windows, cupolas, porticos and symmetrical columns.

A black-and-white photo of a two-storey building with a columned portico. A man is walking in front of the building. Power lines can be seen to the right and behind the building.

The Galt Public Library, built in 1903, through a Carnegie grant given in 1902 (a031832)

I am not alone in my love of Carnegie library buildings. A former Ontario Minister of Citizenship and Culture once wrote that “Carnegie libraries represent a significant part of the cultural history and architectural heritage of Ontario.”

Carnegie libraries would not have existed without Andrew Carnegie and his lifelong love of libraries and learning. Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919) was born in Scotland and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1848. He amassed a fortune with his Carnegie Steel Company, which he sold in 1901. He placed the money from the sale in trust for philanthropy, which became his main occupation. In total, the philanthropist gave grants to build 2,509 free public libraries to English-speaking communities worldwide. Andrew Carnegie believed the best way to provide free education and foster growing communities was to establish public libraries.

A black-and-white photograph of two ornate buildings, one with a columned portico and a cupola. People walking, a street car, and power lines are in the foreground.

The Vancouver Public Library (right) opened in 1903 with funding from a Carnegie grant. Since 1980, this building has served as the Carnegie Community Centre, which houses a library branch on the main floor. (a009531)

Carnegie provided the grant for each library building, but did not contribute funds towards the purchase of books or staff salaries. To secure a Carnegie grant for a library, cities and towns had to fulfill the “Carnegie Formula.” Among other criteria, this formula stipulated that cities provide the site, guarantee an annual budget and ensure free public access. Many applications for grants were refused because a town or city already had adequate library services or would not be able to guarantee the yearly funds needed for the upkeep of the facility. Some communities did not apply for or accept money from the Carnegie foundation, as they viewed Andrew Carnegie as a robber baron and disapproved of his business methods.

Of the 2,509 Carnegie libraries built in the early 1900s, 125 were constructed in Canada. Of those 125 libraries, 111 were built in Ontario. The majority of the libraries were built in the United States and Great Britain/Ireland. Carnegie libraries were also built in South Africa, Australia, Serbia, New Zealand, Fiji, Mauritius, Barbados and Guyana, among other places.

A colour photo of a brown-brick building with several beige accent columns as well as pediments and curved windows. There are red flowers to the left in the foreground.

The former Perth Carnegie Library, now known as the Macmillan Building. The two-storey library was designed in the Beaux-Arts style by renowned architect Frank Darling. The building was severely damaged by fire in 1980 and restored in 1982. Photo credit: Emily Tregunno

I have always found it interesting that the Carnegie Foundation gave grants to build libraries in both small towns and large cities. For example, in 1901, a grant was given to Ayr, Ontario, whose population was 807. At the time of construction of its Carnegie library, Perth, Ontario, had a population of slightly more than 3,500 residents.

A brown brick 2 storey building with curved windows on the top floor. The entrance is glass and there is a yellow fire hydrant in the foreground.

Ottawa’s Rosemount Branch of the Ottawa Public Library, built in 1918. A major renovation to upgrade the branch took place recently. Photo credit: Sara Chatfield

Many library collections outgrew their original Carnegie library buildings. Some of the buildings have been torn down, some have been damaged by fire, some of the buildings have been repurposed, and some municipalities have chosen to expand and renovate. Ottawa’s Rosemount Branch, originally known as the Ottawa West Branch, is an example of a Carnegie building that has undergone substantial renovations. Interestingly, the 1917 grant to build the Ottawa West/Rosemount Branch was the last of its type given in Canada.

A black-and-white photo of a two-storey square building with a large number of pedimented windows, a columned portico and a small balcony. There is text written across the bottom, which reads “HJW, 1788, Dawson Yukon, Carnegie Library July 1907.”

The Dawson City, Yukon, Carnegie Library. The grant for this library was given in 1903. The building was designed by Robert Montcrieff. Construction was completed in 1904. (a016721-v8)

Unfortunately, some communities could not sustain the financial strain of maintaining a library. The Dawson City library, built in 1903/1904 was popular and well attended. However, by 1920, the city’s population had shrunk to fewer than one thousand people, and the city could not continue to fund the institution. In 1920, the building was sold to the Masonic Lodge.

A black-and-white photo of a two-storey square building with several windows, some of them arched, an arched entrance, and columns. The building is surrounded by a decorative metal gate. There is text written across the bottom, which reads “Carnegie Library.”

The Winnipeg Carnegie Library, built in 1904/1905. This was the city’s first public library. It served as the city’s main branch until 1977. (a031593)

From 1995 to 2013, the Winnipeg Carnegie Library building was home to the City of Winnipeg Archives. According to a 2019 report by the Association of Manitoba Archives, construction was under way in 2013 to transform the former Carnegie Library into state-of-the-art facilities for the municipal archives, when an intense rainstorm damaged the roof and sent staff and the archive holdings to a temporary warehouse location.

Of the 125 library buildings built in Canada from 1904 to 1922, approximately 20 have been demolished. Several of the buildings are still being used as libraries as originally intended.

  • A colour photograph of a brown-brick building with a curved entrance. Two short flights of stairs lead to the building entrance.
  • A colour photograph of the inside of a library. A large skylight, book shelving and computer terminals can be seen in the room. There are four windows at back.
  • A colour photograph of a beige building with a columned entrance and a pediment above the front door. There is single set of stairs leading to the building. The words “Public Library” are etched above the entrance.
  • A colour photograph of a large room with three windows, two hanging lights, a black mat and book shelves.
 

Keep an eye out for these historic buildings. You might come across one in a small town near you!

Additional resources:

  • Local Library, Global Passport: The Evolution of a Carnegie Library, by J. Patrick Boyer (OCLC 191759655)
  • The Man Who Loved Libraries: The Story of Andrew Carnegie, by Andrew Larsen and Katty Maurey (OCLC 970404908)
  • The Best Gift: A Record of the Carnegie Libraries in Ontario, by Margaret Beckman, Stephen Langmead and John Black (OCLC 11546081)
  • Ottawa Carnegie Library – Application for State papers (RG2, Privy Council Office, Series A-1-a, vol 964)

Sara Chatfield is a project manager in the Exhibitions and Online Content Division at Library and Archives Canada.

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.

The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike: six weeks of solidarity in the fight for workers’ rights

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.

Black-and-white image of strikers in a crowded city street holding signs.

Strikers gathered peacefully on the streets for six weeks in 1919, standing as one to fight for basic labour rights that we often take for granted today. (a202201)

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.

Sign reading “Permitted by authority of strike committee,” with a date stamp and a signature authorizing the notice.

The Central Strike Committee, which represented all of the unions affiliated with the Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council, was tasked with communication and keeping order in the city. The lack of services because of the strike caused suffering for many poor families. To tackle this, the committee authorized operation permits, as seen here, for essential services. (e000008173)

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.

Black-and-white image of strikers filling a street in front of a large building.

On June 21, 1919, crowds gathered outside the Union Bank of Canada building on Main Street. By the end of the day, 2 strikers were dead and 34 wounded in what became known as Bloody Saturday. (a163001)

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.

Black-and-white image of a streetcar with smoke rising from it, with onlookers in the foreground.

On Bloody Saturday, the usually peaceful demonstrations turned violent. Strikers overturned a streetcar and set it on fire, and the authorities escalated the situation. (e004666106)

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.

Black-and-white image of protestors in a street, with a sign reading “Prison bars cannot confine ideas.”

The arrest of leaders of the Winnipeg General Strike in June 17 led to Bloody Sunday. Here, a group of demonstrators protest the trials of the men arrested. (C-037329)

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.