1919 Winnipeg General Strike — returned soldiers added degree of credibility to the strike


Swearing in of special constables during the strike (Manitoba Archives).

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)

Winnipeg newspapers reported the premier told the returned soldiers he would not give up his office, but would use every effort to implement legislation improving labour conditions in Manitoba. Premier Tobias Norris said he passed on the soldiers’ message to the press and mentioned to city hall that they objected to the ultimatum.

After the meeting with the premier, the soldiers marched on city hall where they met with Winnipeg Mayor Charles Gray. The soldiers expressed their sympathy with the police, In the end, the mayor was heartedly booed and retreated to city hall. It is possible the city’s decision to delay implementing the police ultimatum for a week was the result of this meeting.

The role of returning soldiers provides an example of the division by class during the strike. For the most part, those sympathetic to the strikers had been non-commissioned officers and the rank-and-file, while those opposing the strike had been officers. 

Colonel Frederick Thompson, a leader of the anti-strike forces, formed the Loyalist Returned Soldiers Association after he failed to convince the Great War Veterans’ Association to abandon its neutrality. It was members of Thompson’s association who answered the city’s call for special constables. The specials were paid $6 a day, which was twice the temporary allowance for returned soldiers.

Members of the loyalist association also manned firehalls and operated streetcars during the strike.

The pro-strike and anti-strike factions among the soldiers took turns marching off to see the premier and participating in parades. Their only common ground was that they both believed the alien element was the problem.

Thousands of soldiers returned to Winnipeg after the war to find employment was scarce and jobs had been  taken by “foreigners” while they served overseas. The  soldiers believed the “foreigners” were recruited by the government and the private sector to serve as a source of cheap labour. In supporting the strike, the returned soldiers shared similar views with the  labour movement that “foreigners” had been taking away jobs from Canadians.

Speaking in the House of Commons on June 2, Major George W. Andrews, MP for Winnipeg Centre (first elected in 1917, he was termed a Conscriptionist — someone who favoured conscription during the First World War), businessman and REALTOR®, defended the returned soldiers “as good and as loyal citizens as Canada ever had, there are many of my own comrades who stood in the trenches in France ... on strike. I say, standing in my place here, that  eighty per cent of the returned men of Winnipeg (some historians later peg the figure at about 85 per cent) are in sympathy with the strikers and the object of this strike ... it is absolutely the same principle of sticking together that was employed in France ...

“Twice this afternoon I have heard the term ‘Bolsheviks’ applied to the strike leaders in Winnipeg,” he added. “Gentlemen, if you apply the term to those men you apply it ot me, because they are my friends.”

Andrews said the strike leaders, including veteran Roger Bray, who was spokesman for the striking soldiers, were socialists, not Bolsheviks.

Unlike after the end of the Second World War, returned First World War veterans were not given major benefits by Ottawa to ease them into civilian life.   Whatever the soldiers achieved after being demobilized was the result of persistent negotiations with the Borden government.

Whatever the motivation of the soldiers, their support added a degree of credibility to the strike, although it was their unregulated militancy which had a dramatic effect on the strike’s outcome. Once mass meetings and parades were prohibited by Mayor Gray, the Strike Committee urged the strikers to keep the peace and avoid participating in these so-called illegal actions. The committee had no such influence over the returned soldiers, who established a “Soldiers’ Parliament” at Victoria Park, which was renamed by the soldiers as Liberty Park. Victoria Park, established in 1900 at the end of James Avenue, no longer exists, but during the strike was the most significant rallying point for workers and soldiers as it was just two blocks from city hall.

Mayor Gray addressed the soldiers at  Victoria Park on June 6, saying he stood firm on his ban of parades through Winnipeg streets.

“I am in a most trying position and I am doing the best I can,” the mayor told the 20,000 soldiers and strike sympathizers at the park (Telegram, June 7). “Some say that I am working for the Committee of One Thousand. If I address them, then you say that I am partial to them. Because I am down here today I suppose some will say that I am working with, or playing to, the labor men. Let me tell you this — I do not stand for the rule of the Committee of One Thousand; I do not stand for rule by the labor temple; I do not stand for any section — I stand for all.”

The mayor stressed he was not a member of the Citizens Committee and would not become one.

Mayor Gray said the responsibility for law and order in the city rested solely in his hands, and he promised to follow his honest convictions when dealing with the existing situation. He said he was not opposed to sympathy strikes, but believed they should not be extended to include pulic utilities.

Brigidier-General H.D.B. Ketchen, the commander of the local militia, also made an appearance at Victory Park, as did Canon Frederick Scott, a decorated pastor with the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War, who experienced first-hand the horrors of trench warfare. Often, the pastor advanced into battle with the men, comforting those who were wounded and providing encouragement to those engaging the enemy. He is the author of the renowned book based on his war diary, The Great War As I Saw It.

Ketchen was so assuring that he received three cheers at the end of his speech about having “a hard row to hoe.” He vowed to maintain his neutrality and not to be influenced by any faction. Despite his so-called neutrality, Ketchen was in constant communication with Ottawa and urged Gray to establish the force of special constables. He also recruited 800 returned soldiers to bolster the ranks of the local militia, with one section stationed at Fort Osborne Barracks and another at Minto Barracks. The mobile sections, consisting of a troop of Fort Garry Horse, a motor machine-gun unit with two guns apiece, infantry escorts in trucks and a company of motorized infantry,  could be quickly called upon in the case of an “emergency.” As well, the Mounties had received four machine-guns for their own use.

Canon Scott said a mistake had been  made when some men had been refused the right to form a legal organization, and that collective bargaining was a constitutional right.

Just a day before the rally in Victoria Park, Mayor Gray was said by the Western Labour News to have gone “crazy” when demanding police release a man with a revolver.

“Mayor Gray rushed after them bareheaded like a maniac through the streets, and overtook the police with their prisoner at the corner of Rupert Street and the lane in back of the Strathcona Hotel.”

The mayor was alleged to have shouted, “Release that man at once, and let him go! Release him!”

On the other hand, the Telegram reported Mayor Gray had sped to the police station when informed of the arrest. When he reached the station and jumped from his car, three rioters had the mayor firmly in their grasp, “tearing at his clothes and striking him,” but Gray beat them off by “his worship’s vigorous use of fists,” 

Burly S.A. Blair intervened to protect the mayor, according to the newspaper.

The man arrested was Major Howard, a Canadian secret service officer, who was shortly released at the mayor’s urging, but the police kept his gun.

Crowd at Victoria Park during the strike (Foote Collection/Manitoba Archives).

The first real use of violence occurred on June 11 at the corner of Main and Portage. A riot was apparently provoked by the RNWMP ( now RCMP), who briefly charged the crowd, and by “specials,” who used their batons in an attempt to disperse the strikers.

“So excited were these men that they lashed out at everybody promiscuously, and received a shower of missiles in reply,” reported the Western Labor News.

One of the mounted specials, Sergent Fred Coppins,  was unhorsed “and understood the meaning of rough-house. Several ‘blackjacks’ were wrenched from the ‘specials’ by strikers, and are now on exhibition at the Labor Temple.”

Badly-bruised, Coppins was rushed to Tuxedo Military Hospital for treatment. Coppins won a Victoria Cross “For Valour,” during the First World War. 

Another incident involved a special who had been jostled at the corner of Higgins and Main. The special pulled out his baton and hit the offender, resulting in a throng gathering to protest his use of force. During the ensuing fray, T.S. Morrison, a special, was shot in the left thigh by another special constable riding in an automobile. 

According to the Telegram, the special who shot the constable and another man from the automobile were taken to the police station, but no charges were laid and they were released.

A day later, Manitoba Attorney-General Thomas H. Johnson offered a $500 reward for the conviction of the person or persons who assaulted Coppins, and another $100 was offered for the conviction of anyone who had thrown missiles during the riot.

After being released from hospital, Coppins answered accusations  by M.G. Barron, a member of the Strike Committee, that he had ridden on the sidewalk into the crowd and was assaulted not by aliens as claimed but by members of his own overseas batallion, by saying: “I didn’t ride on the sidewalks at all that day, but I did ride on to a safety islandinto the dirtiest bunch of aliens I ever saw in my life, after they had thrown bottles and stones. There was not a returned (soldier’s) button worn amongst the whole crowd” (Telegram, June 24).

W.J. Shepard, secretary of the local Army and Navy Veterans’ Association, said the  attack on Coppins had caused a number of returned soldiers to rethink their position on the strike. He said it was the foreign element that had been responsible for the riot. “Bolshevik agitators were at the bottom of it,” he said.

Despite Shepard’s musings, thousands of returned soldiers continued to support the strike. The Great War Veterans Association maintained an official position of neutrality during the strike, but its membership was mainly composed of returned soldiers who supported the strikers.

During the same day of the riot, “trouble”was started at the Swift-Canadian Plant, by “alien enemies who are taking the opportunity afforded by the strike to foment revolution ...,” according to the Telegram. “Special and federal police acted swiftly and arrested two dangerous and notorious aliens who were placed under guard and later removed under strong escort to the police station.”

Following the day’s action, the special police were ordered to carry arms.

Women played a large part in the Winnipeg General Strike. Of the 35,000 who were out, several thousand were women. In fact, 500 telephone operators, of which 90 per cent were women, were among the first to walk out on May 15 in sympathy with the striking metal and building trades.

The Labour News reported in 1918 that hundreds of Winnipeg “girls” drew the “magnificent wage of $5 a week, and thousands getting less than $10.”

The major female figure during the strike was Helen Armstrong, who was also a member of the Strike Committee.

“For Helen Armstrong, feminism and labour activity went together,” wrote historian J.M. Bumsted in his article on the strike that appeared in the Spring 1994 Beaver. “At a mass meeting after the strike, she told her listeners that ‘women’s vote had given us the club. Now we want women to use it’.” Armstrong was arrested several times during the strike and was jailed for some days when the authorities refused her bail. Eastern newspapers later called her “The Wild Woman of the West.”

At the instigation of leaders such as Armstrong, women strikers became known for their many attacks on “scab” volunteers taking over their former jobs.

The woman’s role in Manitoba politics expanded during the war when women were becoming an integral part of the local workforce. Their expanded economic clout and political activism led to the Norris government giving women the right to vote in provincial elections in 1916, the first province to grant such a right.

Women pumped gas during the strike (Manitoba Archives).

The Women’s Labor League opened a kitchen in the Strathcona Hotel on the corner of Rupert and Main to feed primarily single women strikers. The kitchen was later forced to move to the Oxford Hotel on Notre Dame where its larger facilities allowed 1,200 to 1,500 free meals to be served daily. Male strikers were welcome, but they were required to make a donation to pay for their meals, although if they were unable to pay, they could  obtain a ticket for a free meal issued by the Relief Committee.

The Citizen’s Committee also provided women volunteers to pump gas and to keep the telephone lines open, as well as deliver the anti-strike daily  newspapers. “Girl newsies” became the primary sellers of the Labor News on the streets of Winnipeg.

The committee claimed by June 4 that due to its volunteers all services, utilities, telephones, water, electrical power, the post office and wholesale and retail deliveries had virtually returned to normal. It alleged the defeat of the strike had panicked the Strike Committee to the point that it “played its greatest card by ordering out the bakery and creamery workers and deliverymen on strike again, in an effort to starve the community into sudden submission.”

The maintream local media was openly against the strike. It wasn’t until the so-called strike leaders were arrested in the middle of the night that a faint protest was made by newspapers such as the Free Press against the arbitrary arrests by the federal government.

“Charging the daily press with unfairness and bias is one of the favorite pastimes of the strike leaders, according to an editorial (June 17) in the Free Press. “No one has been more steady on this job than Mr. Ivens, editor of the Labor News. He preaches it all the time; speakers at pro-strike meetings fling the charge around ...; half-informed conversationalists make use of it. In fact, there are times when the newspapers loom up as the largest figure in the strikers’ horizon ... It is the strikers’ own paper, the ‘people’s paper,’ they would have us believe, wherein is published the truth, all the truth and nothing but the truth.”

The editorial criticized the Labor News for not publishing news about failed strikes or disputes resolved in Canadian cities such as Regina, and the return of a “number of crafts” to work in Winnipeg. 

Another Free Press editorial (June 24) accused the Labor News of being “a steady exponent of the point of veiw of the Russian Bolsheviks. It has been their consistent apologist.”

But for the most part, newspapers were content to accept the allegation in the Citizen that Roger E. Bray, the leader of the veterans’ parade, was “a Bolshevik and in favor of establishing Soviet Government in Winnipeg.” 

Actually, Bray, a butcher by trade born in England, was a socialist noted for his oratory skills.

Letters to the editor in the Free Press specifically mentioned the role of Bolsheviks in the strike, including a lengthy one published on June 7 by John MacLean, who said, “I fancy Russian Bolsheviks could hardly have found a more fitting soil outside Russia for the seeds of their doctrine.”

What didn’t help the strikers’ cause in the dailies was the fact that the newspapers were forced to cease publication in the early days of the strike when pressmen and stereotypers walked out in sympathy with the strikers.

Following the march by the war veterans through the residential streets housing Winnipeg’s business elite, mayor Gray banned parades. The federal government under the instigation of Meighen then built up the RNWMP contingent in the city to join the 2,000 special police whom the strikers branded as thugs. 

On the other hand, Andrews called them local businessmen “who are not working for the pay that is offered but patriotism.”

Still, the Strike Committee, saying it wanted to maintain order, urged strikers to stay home and avoid demonstrations.

On June 17, “the hand of justice stretched out,” according to the Telegram, when 21 strike leaders were arrested. The arrests occurred in the early morning hours using RNWMP and the specials.

At the Crescent Creamery plant, police arrested 10 men “bearing foreign names,” while other arrests were made as the strike leaders slept in their homes.

The strike “ringleaders” arrested for “seditious conspiracy” were R.B. “Robert” Russell, who was responsible for organizing the Metal Trades Council in 1918 and a proponent of the One Big Union; George Armstrong, a founding member of the Socialist Party in Winnipeg; William Ivens, the founder of the Labour Church in 1918 and editor of the Labor News; Bray, the leader of the striking soldiers; John Queen, a city alderman and socialist; A.A. Heaps, a city alderman and member of the Social Democratic Party; Richard J. Johns, another member of the Social Democratic Party and proponent of the OBU; and labour leader William Pritchard. 

James Woodsworth, who took over the editorship of the Labor News after Iven’s arrest, was later arrest for seditious libel, but released, as his involvement in the strike was minimal at best. Woodsworth had been in Vancouver when the strike broke out and returned to Winnipeg when it was well underway.

Fred Dixon, an MLA first elected in 1915, was also charged with seditious libel after taking over the editorship of the Labor News following Woodsworth’s arrest, but during his 1920 trial his impassioned defence led to his acquittal. Dixon also served as the spokesman for the Strike Committee.

Caught up in the dragnet and arrested were so-called enemy aliens Max Charitonoff, who published the Robotchny Narod (Working People), the organ of the Ukainian Social Democratic Party; Moses Amazoff, known as a radical activist and described as a socialist; and A. Shoppelrei, also described as a socialist. It should be noted that Amazoff intentionally hid out in Gimli during the strike.

Alfred J. Andrews, the federal  justice department’s representative in Winnipeg, wrote Arthur Meighen, the acting justice minister, that an “extra precaution” was also holding the strike leaders under the Immigration Act to prevent them from being released on bail.

During the height of the strike, the federal government enacted new amendments to the Immigration Act, allowing deportation for a number of offenses “by word or act” against the “constituted authority.” The amendment was designed to deport so-called undesirable aliens, but no Canadian nor anyone British-born who was a naturalized citizen of Canada. On the other hand, “naturalized aliens” of other nationalities could be deported.

The Labour News said the "men of foreign birth were arrested to give colour to the ‘alien agitator’ cry which has been raised.”

Free Press editor, J.W. Dafoe, who opposed the strike, wrote that the arrest of the strike leaders would create martyrs for the cause of labour in the province “and will also supply them with a plausible excuse for failure.”

Besides arresting the strike leaders, who were then incarcerated at Stony Mountain Penitentiary, the police raided the various labour halls in the city, including the Ukrainian Labour Temple at 591 Pritchard Ave. It was at this temple that the most damage was done, as the police smashed a back door lock to gain access and then broke glass shelf doors in the library, strewing books and papers about, as well as shattering a glass chandelier.

In addition, the homes of 30 “socialists” were raided and ransacked.

Mayor Gray said the city had not sanctioned the actions against the labour temples and leaders, adding they were authorized by the Canadian government. “I have consistently deplored any strong methods,” he said, “especially when we appear to have passed  the dangerous crisis ... their overthrow was simply a matter of days.”

Among the documents seized from the Winnipeg Labour Temple was a letter from Russell allegedly admitting to having receive “Bolshevik funds.”

The Strike Bulletin said too much had been made by the term “Bolshevik funds” in the letter, as it was a phrase used in “jest” between labour organizations and applied to the more radical members of the Socialist Party of Canada, who claim to be in opposition to the Labour Party, who are charged with being moderate reformers. “An ordinary worker would never imagine from reading the letter that the funds referred to come from the Bolshevik organization.”

Yet, Canadian Senator Gideon Robertson claimed the “documents seized in (the) raid show (a) deep and serious conspiracy.”

It was reported in mid-June that Canadian and American secret service constables had been investigating thousands of dollars traced to “revolutionary organizations” in the U.S. Packages of money and pamphlets were said to have come from socialist sources in Indianapolis, Chicago and New York to be used to foment revolution. 

A day after the arrests, streetcars again operated on city streets. The presence of the streetcars was an ominous sign to the strikers, who were witnessing a major blow to their stand. Tensions mounted with some calling for violent confrontation, although the Strike Committee urged the strikers and solders to remain calm and do nothing to stop the streetcars from running, a directive that was obeyed until June 21.

A.W. McLimont, the vice-president and general manager of the Winnipeg Electric Railway Co., said men  who refused to return to work were not dismissed from service: “They left of their own free will. The service must be resumed — if not with the old employees then with the new men, and, as there are only a certain number of positions to be filled, and lots of men looking for permanent work, my advice to the men is to get a job while the getting is good.” (Next week: part 3)