Winnipeg’s 42 Day Mini-Revolution?
by George Siamandas
On June 21 1919, near the end of the Winnipeg General Strike, saw the occurrence of the tragic event called “Bloody Saturday.” Two men were killed and 27 others injured as strikers fought the North West Mounted Police. The strike began on May 15 as about 30,000 strikers took to the streets. “In less than two hours the whole productive industry of an entire city was tied up. Not a wheel was turning in the big plans, not a street car was visible.” Workers were convinced that their cause of improved wages, the right to bargain as large groups and to organize politically were just causes.
On June 1 10,000 returning soldiers marched on the provincial legislature to express their support of the strike. On June 9th the entire police force is dismissed. Raids were conducted on strike leaders homes and offices and many like John Queen, R. B. Russell and A. A. Heaps were arrested. Viewpoints became increasingly polarized.
On Saturday June 21 the streetcars had started to run again and the strikers began to gather in angry protest. As one streetcar rolled north along Main St in front of City Hall, the strikers stopped it and set it on fire. At 2:35 pm mayor Gray read the riot act in front of City Hall. The North West Mounted Police rode south along Main St and in front of the Royal Tower near William and Main rode into the crowd with baseball bats and firearms. Two strikers were killed after the mounted policemen charged into the crowd of strikers.
Mike Sokolowiski a tin smith died instantly while Steve Schezerbanowes would die later. Caught in Hell’s Alley or the lane between Market and James Ave (in the centre of what is now the Centennial Centre), twenty-seven others were injured about 4:00 that afternoon. Ninety-four people were arrested including 4 women. On June 26 the strike committee called an end to the strike. The strike committee called on workers to send a large group of labour representatives to every level of government.
Worried employers saw a city paralysed by militant workers demanding collective bargaining, and higher wages; of mass demonstrations in the streets. Services were being lost. and the firing of the police force. Businessmen and government leaders felt they were seeing the beginning of a revolution and an effort to establish Bolshevism. On May 16th, a Committee of 1000 was created to fight the strike. It published a paper called the Citizen in which it branded the strikers as Bolsheviks. There was an actual fear of a revolution. There were daily mass demonstrations some of which were routed through the placid streets of Crescentwood. People are reported to have locked their doors.
FEAR & LOATHING IN CRESCENTWOOD
In the nice neighbourhood of Crescentwood where many of the committee of 1000 lived there was a growing unease. Lilian Allen who was 14 at the time remarked “It was very scary. We were afraid the north end would conquer us Crescentwood got organized.” The residents of Crescentwood were convinced by the extreme rhetoric of some of the union leaders like George Armstrong. After the police force had gone on strike, the men of Crescentwood volunteered to patrol the streets. They did this in pairs in two hour stretches from midnight on.
Mr WP Dutton’s chauffeur of 124 Harrow St, who had been an army sergeant, organized the men and gave them evening drills on the grounds of Kelvin High School. And in case the telephone lines were cut, a communications post was set up at the tower of Kelvin school in direct line of site of the Legislative building.
IT WAS NEVER RESOLVED
Since then the city has been divided. Winnipeg might have come as close to a revolution as has any city in North America. A Royal Commission was established. Did the workers intend to overthrow the government or were they looking for traditional economic goals? Commissioner Robson determined that the strike had been a protest over poor living conditions along with the “presence of radical socialists who had hoped for something else.” Winnipeg would never be the same again.