Unbreakable: The Spirit of the Strike
An exhibition commemorates the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919
The one hundredth anniversary of the start of the Winnipeg General Strike–Canada’s most famous strike–takes place on May 15, 2019, and to commemorate the occasion the U of M Archives & Special Collections has curated an exhibition entitled Unbreakable: the Spirit of the Strike. UM Libraries has also created a digital archives exhibition online, a collaboration between multiple archives, museum and libraries.
The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 is considered by many to have been an important stepping stone in developing modern labour relations in Canada, particularly the right of employees to access collective bargaining.
30,000 workers went on strike, shutting down both public and private utilities and services from water to building and metal trades, from streetcars to telephones, and from garbage collection to milk and bread deliveries. The strike lasted six weeks, ending only after a demonstration turned violent on June 21, injuring 30 and killing one on the day that became known as “Bloody Saturday.” Another person died later as a result of their injuries. The scale of the strike was noted around the globe, and reflected a larger movement of workers fighting for their right to a living wage, better working conditions and collective bargaining.
Although the collections that the archives holds relating to the strike are small, placed side-by-side they provide a pretty fulsome narrative of the key events.
We start with the lead-up to the strike, with the end of the First World War
Men returned from the ravages of the war with little reward for their service; unemployment was high as munitions factories closed down. Winnipeg had sent more to war than anywhere else in Canada, and the return of the 16th Battalion in May of 1919 added further pressure. Besides rampant inflation, low wages and poor working conditions, an influenza epidemic had a devastating effect, with many succumbing.
At the same time, local business owners were intensely nervous about the prospect of socialism or Bolshevism overturning the capitalist system in Canada.
On May 1, 1919, the metalworkers go on strike. We have a few original records and publications from Vulcan Ironworks, Manitoba Bridge & Ironworks and Dominion Bridge, the three organizations involved in the first strike.
Our next focus is the women who went on strike, as they were the first to officially begin the Winnipeg General Strike by not showing up for their shift at the telephone exchange early in the morning on May 15, 1919.
We depended on the previous research by staff member Mary Horodyski, who scoured contemporary newspapers for information. We have extensive photographs of the strikers that were taken by independent photographer LB Foote.
Most of the police force was dismissed by the Police Commission, though a few stayed on provided they signed an oath of loyalty, also known as the Slave Pact. They were replaced with special constables, after referred to as the “Specials.” A truncheon, armband, badge and buttons borrowed from the Winnipeg Police Museum provide a graphic illustration of worsening relations. Sir Isaac Pitblado, an alumnus of the University of Manitoba and a member of the Citizens’ Committee of 1000, provided us with a number of materials that were used during the strike. The Citizens’ Committee, made up of local business leaders lead the fight against the strikers.
The battle over food and drink took place as the Winnipeg Trades & Labour Council tried to control access to milk, bread, and other foodstuffs to put pressure on the city.
A significant battle over news also took place–the archives holds copies of the Western Labor News and the Winnipeg Citizen. An original bulletin of the Brandon Trades and Labour Council is also available.
The Winnipeg General Strike photos from UM Archives & Special Collections.Bloody Saturday,” June 21, 1919, when special constables and the Royal Northwest Mounted Police plunged into a crowd of strikers who had gathered in Market Square. This led to the strike being called off, and the strike ended at 11 AM on June 26, 1919.
Finally, we have a section devoted to the aftermath when the strikers were on trial and both sides published their perspectives.
Note: This article has been corrected. A previous version stated that the mayor dismissed all of the police; however, the dismissal was by the Police Commission and a few stayed on provided they signed an oath of loyalty, also known as the Slave Pact. The strike was called off on June 26, not June 25 as previously stated; though an announcement was made on that day, the strike ended the next day, June 26, at 11AM.
Looking at these materials gives one a glimpse into one of the most influential events in Winnipeg history and we invite everyone to visit and see for themselves. The archives is open Monday to Friday 830 to 4:30 PM and the exhibition continues until September 30.
The University of Manitoba Libraries is also launching an online exhibit about the strike, featuring content from the U of M Libraries, the City of Winnipeg Archives, the University of Winnipeg Archives, the University of Calgary Archives and Special Collections, and the Winnipeg Police Museum. The narrative for the exhibit was developed through the Libraries’ Research Services and Digital Strategies unit, the City of Winnipeg Archives, and the Association for Manitoba Archives.
Unbreakable: The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike
April 22 – Sept. 30, 2019
Mon-Fri, 8:30 to 4:30
Archives & Special Collections
3rd Floor, Elizabeth Dafoe Library
Online launch May 15, 2019 at:
Opening talk and reception: “Stand!” Danny Schur will speak about his movie adaptation of “Strike!”
May 2, 2019, 7:30 pm
Archives & Special Collections
A reception follows. Everyone welcome. For more information, call 204-474-9986 or email archives [at] umanitoba [dot] ca
Read more about the digital archives exhibition.