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Feeling History

A few short days ago, May 15th, Fay and I were in Winnipeg for our daughter’s birthday. 

My daughter said to me, “This is a significant day.” I, a little taken aback by her lack of modesty, replied, “Of course! It is the day your mom and I were blessed with a wonderful gift–you!” “I am referring to the fact,” she hastily replied, “that you, an avid history fan, failed to point out that today is also the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike.”

She was right. On May 15, 1919, telephone workers in Winnipeg, at 11:00 in the morning, walked away from their posts. Winnipeg ground to a halt, as union after union united together to challenge the establishment. 

The strike lasted 42 days, ending in violence and tragedy. 

What was gained? Immediate gains for the workers were few. Several of them went to prison and two of them were to die, shot while protesting on June 21, 1919- Bloody Saturday.

While the Strike may have left a legacy of bitterness and controversy, it became a watershed for future labour reform. There arose a continued determination of the workers to have full rights to unionize and gain the protection of collective bargaining. Almost three decades were to pass before those rights were eventually secured. 

Yes, tragedy and death may have struck Winnipeg in the spring of 1919, but a better Canada was to arise from the ashes of that strike.

So, yes Lesley, May 15th is a significant day. A day for all workers in Canada to look back to the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, and take a moment to contemplate what it means for them.

The evening of May 15, 2019, I went to downtown Winnipeg to the site of the protests that erupted one hundred years ago. I wanted to be closer to those days. I entered Winnipeg’s main library branch searching for memories that would assist me to feel, as well as remember, what had happened a few short blocks from that library. The kind librarians listened to my requests and helped me to find and listen to a recording of a musical co-authored by Danny Schur and Rick Chafe, aptly titled, “Strike!”

The play tells through, in part, the means of a love story, the events of that painful and compelling time.

Musicals are intended to evoke emotion. And, for me, this one did just that. I sat captured by the stirring songs that thread the story together. 

I stepped back onto the streets of downtown Winnipeg with a feeling that I call, re-living a moment in history. It was 9:00 pm – the streets were quiet – few cars – few people - yet I could almost hear the thousands of footsteps, the cries of protest, the thundering hooves of horses as mounted police charged with clubs swinging and guns firing into the screaming crowd of men and women demanding that their desire for a fairer way of life be heard.

Yes that charge virtually ended the strike itself, but it did not end the causes that the dead, the wounded, and the thousands of their compatriots were seeking.

Those causes found an eloquent spokesman – James Shaver Woodsworth. Woodsworth was an ordained minister who headed a city mission in the slum-like area of North Winnipeg. Woodsworth wrote editorial after editorial espousing ‘the social gospel’ and demanding that the causes of The General Strike be heard and acted upon. Charged with ‘seditious libel,’ Woodsworth was arrested in the strike’s after-math. The charges were eventually dropped.

But Woodsworth refused to drop his calls for ‘social justice’ and he became a beacon of hope for the supporters of the crushed strike.

Elected to the Canadian House of Commons on the platform of ‘Human Needs before Property Rights’ Woodsworth went on to become, as his fellow parliamentarians nicknamed him, ‘The conscience of Canada.’.

With Woodsworth and others becoming its spokesmen, The Strike truly became a Watershed in Canadian history. It served as a platform for the rights of all Canadians and a way to bring about ‘social justice.’

I am most happy that I, that night of May 15, 2019, revisited the streets of Winnipeg and heard the echoes of May 15, 1919. They deserve to be remembered – not just in Winnipeg but throughout Canada.

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