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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2011

When the State Trembled

How A.J. Andrews and the Citizens’ Committee Broke the Winnipeg General Strike

Reinhold Kramer & Tom Mitchell. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2010; 464 pp; ISBN: 978-1-44264-219-5, cloth $75 CAD; ISBN: 978-1-44261-116-0, paper $35 CAD.

Reviewed by William Bruneau

There are Canadians who “remember” the vicious coal strike in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, in 1909, or the 1912 walkout in Cumberland on Vancouver Island that would become the Great Coal Strike, or the death of coal miner and working class rights’ advocate Ginger Goodwin in 1918, or the 1918 anti-conscription Easter Riots in Quebec City where four civilians were killed in a shooting match with army soldiers.

After World War I, even more of us “remember” the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, the topic of the book under review, the Regina Riot of 1935 (two deaths, 120 arrests), Quebec’s Asbestos Strike of 1949 (mass arrests and the beginning of the Quiet Revolution), and of course, many more infamous moments in Canadian labour history.

A 20-year-old in 1919 — the year of the Winnipeg General Strike — would be 112 years old today. What, then, does it mean to say “I remember” or “we remember” events going back two, three or more generations? A strict use might suggest a different verb: “I know about.” Still, it is not wrong to say “I remember” the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. This does not mean a person is recalling detail from some long-ago social studies class or university history seminar. Rather, it is an example of “collective memory,” or what French theorist Pierre Nora called a “lieu de mémoire” — a site or realm of memory.

If we talk of collective memory, we mean ideas and events that may have come to us in family life, or in a community where they are common currency, or where music featured them, or where art and architecture transmit them. If we talk of a site or realm of memory, we may mean an idea or place or thing or person that betrays or proclaims a connection to the past. There are street corners in north Winnipeg that broadcast, to the cognoscenti at any rate, distinct ideas and attitudes about the city, the country and the past.

Nora has shown it is possible to write history relying on studies of memory realms without denying the archives, facts and details of historical interpretation. His collective work, Les lieux de mémoire does that work for France. It is history “less interested in events themselves than in the construction of events over time … less interested in ‘what actually happened’ than in its perpetual reuse and misuse.” (from Nora’s 1996 preface to the English translation of Les lieux)

Stephen Endicott’s Bienfait: The Saskat­che­wan Miners’ Struggle of ’31 (2002) relies on archives and facts, but also deals explicitly with collective memory. The book has the virtue of brevity — 141 pages of text — and the advantage of having to describe two terribly flawed jury trials where union organizers Sam Scarlett and Annie Buller were prosecuted for inciting to riot. A protest during the Bienfait miners’ tumultuous 30-day strike led to the deaths of three workers, buried as martyrs, and remains an event in the collective memory of the prairies.

The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 invites treatment that mixes a discussion of context, fact and memory. Above all, it needs reliable, accessible and strong arguments. Kramer and Mitchell do these things, and their work deserves to be read by people outside the historical community.

The book’s title seemingly limits the work to the Citizens’ Committee that broke the 1919 General Strike, but as the reader soon discovers, the authors have given us much more than the title suggests. Kramer and Mitchell show in detail, and with surprisingly good humour, just how mid-level Winnipeg capitalists were able to “capture” the judicial system and to mitigate the effects of the General Strike.

They demonstrate how the Citizens’ Committee manipulated the federal government, and even arranged it so anti-labour leaders were officially charged with prosecution of labour leaders after the main event. We have extraordinary and fascinating detail of the way the strike committee functioned, how the business community responded, and of the short- and medium-term consequences of the strike.

Alas, the text runs to 323 pages, followed by 100 pages of endnotes, with a concluding index. The work is aimed at professional historians and students. It is the 39th in the University of Toronto Press series on Canadian social history, few of which have appealed to non-historians. UTP has done the authors a disservice in choosing a ridiculously tiny font. It didn’t fool this reader, who calculates the text runs to 180,000 words, not counting notes. Some of this may discourage nonspecialist readers … and that would be a shame.

After all, the volume embodies the good qualities, including excellent proofreading, traditionally associated with UTP books. As social history — and to my surprise, legal history — the book is first-rate. From end to end, it presents a reliable balance between description and analysis, exposition and argument.

Because it is long, or because the series editor was willing, Kramer and Mitchell have been able to present whole swathes of original documents, word for word. This turns out to be a good thing, for without the documents, readers might find unbelievable the behaviour of the federal government and the judicial system during and after the strike.

In western Canada the Winnipeg General Strike is remembered as an example of heavy-handed state oppression. I have always wondered how far that memory can be trusted. Now Kramer and Mitchell have dispelled my wonderment, or at any rate, have dissipated my doubts.

The main facts are these: between 1896 and 1912, the prairie provinces received a huge flow of immigrants under Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier’s settlement policy, but without ending Anglo-Canadian dominance in the region. Just before the conclusion of World War I, the Bolshevik-led revolution of 1917 had begun in Russia, a convulsion that was deeply worrisome to any who feared labour activism of any sort.

Then Canada’s soldiers returned from war, pressing for employment and opportunity. Economic uncertainty, racism, the rapid movement of entire populations, and finally the unsettling effects of a pandemic (the 1918–1920 flu) all added to an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear.

As in 1945 and 1955, the end of war brought high unemployment, an industrial turndown and inflation, which combined in Winnipeg with the accidental fact that workers from both the private and public sectors had been underpaid for years.

The Winnipeg strike began as a municipal labour action, but rapidly intensified as city council voted compulsory arbitration of disputes with its workers, and as federal mediation failed. Building and metal trades workers quickly grouped in union federations. By early May 1919, the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council had joined the cause and unionists from more than 50 locals voted to support the strike call. On May 15 the largest strike in Canadian history began.

The media claimed strikers were not-so-secret Bolsheviks. One might think this, along with worker indignation, explained why 30,000 workers walked off the job, closing the city’s factories, crippling its retail trade and stopping the trains, but the causes lay deeper.

The response of Winnipeg’s business and political élite was the creation of a counter-strike committee known as the “Citizens’ Committee of 1000.” The committee, actually numbering about 50, was modeled on similar committees in the United States. The authors amusingly show how A.J. Andrews, a prominent member of the Winnipeg legal community and founding member of the Citizens’ Committee, along with other leaders in the campaign against Winnipeg’s working-class revolt, used their influence to convince governments at all three levels that the Central Strike Committee and the Trades and Labour Council were entirely in charge of Winnipeg by late May. It was a short distance to the claim that strike leaders were guilty of sedition.

The authors also show how the legal system, mainly by making picketing difficult or impossible, helped to lead working people to organize themselves, in hopes of decent wages and working conditions.

By June 9, the Citizens’ Committee had persuaded the federal government to bring in the Royal Northwest Mounted Police (the RCMP’s predecessor) and special constables. The arrest of strike leaders in early morning raids on June 17 triggered a demonstration and violent police response four days later on “Bloody Saturday” that ended with two dead, dozens of casualties and federal troops occupying city streets.

An inquiry under Mr. Justice R.A. Robson, launched by the provincial government in July 1919, recognized, backhandedly, the justice of the workers’ cause, however unfortunate their methods. But by then the strike was long over and the preliminary hearing and trial of those accused of inciting a riot — an illegal act under sedition — was over. One labour leader had been deported, and several found themselves behind bars for many months.

It is a signal contribution of the book’s authors to show, using previously unknown letters exchanged between Andrews, directing the operations of the Citizens’ Committee, and acting Minister of Justice Arthur Meighen, how far the business community had co-opted the apparatus of state in 1919–1920. Equally valuable is the authors’ carefully evidenced and well-written discussion of the ethnic and racialist views of the Committee of 1000 and the administrative and judicial consequences of those views.

In 1983, the Solidarity Movement in British Columbia came within two days of creating the necessary conditions for a province-wide general strike. The Social Credit government of the day, famous for its business-minded and obscurantist policy, certainly helped. Rank-and-file unionists, including a sizeable contingent of University of British Columbia Faculty Association members (among them this reviewer), thought it would have been a good idea to go through with a general strike. The movement’s leadership and the premier of the day came to an understanding, and the air went out of Solidarity.

In reading When the State Trembled one can make a far better estimate of the advantages and dangers of a general strike. This adds to the value of the book. But above all, it is a well crafted and reliable history. It deserves a wide readership.

William Bruneau is professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia.