Whose 1919? David Lester’s Graphic History of the Winnipeg General Strike and the settler-colonial problems of class struggle in Canada

As I finish writing this review, sore from a workday ferrying documents here and there for the bourgeois juridical apparatus, I find myself perusing the University of Manitoba’s online archive of the “Strike Editions” of the conservative Winnipeg Telegram.

Published during the Winnipeg General Strike 100 years ago, two stories on the front page of the June 6, 1919 Telegram stick out to me. The lead headline: “MAYOR GRAY ASSAULTED.” Winnipeg’s mayor of the day is said to have been attacked by a mob of strikers while two police officers looked on, refusing to intervene. A smaller headline, toward the bottom of the page read: “STRIKE COMMITTEE ISSUES STATEMENT.” The strike committee is reported to have made a statement disavowing any harbouring of “enemy aliens” and pledging to “support all efforts on the part of the authorities to deport the undesirable aliens in our midst.”

100 years ago today, these pages were distributed. This slanted snapshot of a city embroiled in full class war is fascinating and bewildering. Police officers supported striking workers against the mayor, while strike leaders denounced “enemy aliens.” Knowing that the city of Winnipeg was in its third week of a 35,000 person strike for the right of collective bargaining, a strike supported by even the city’s police force, illuminates the picture somewhat.

Citizens committee slanders the strikers as “Bolshevik” aliens

In Winnipeg, especially in communities around the labour movement, the story of the 1919 strike is a familiar tale, and with good reason – the events of the six week general strike, the longest in Canadian history, are thrilling. Winnipeg’s annual Mayday parade is often host to historical remembrances, it’s celebrated through musical theatre, sight-seeing tours, various commemorative installations – to the point that it sometimes seems remembering our bygone moment of glory is a stand-in for active organizing in the present. Nevertheless, imagining this seemingly remote, depressed, and divided city I grew up in turned upside down by working class power was always a source of wonder to me.

For those unfamiliar with that story 1919: A Graphic History of the Winnipeg General Strike by David Lester and the Graphic History Collective will make a great introduction to this exciting history. The foreword, by James Naylor of Brandon University lays out some of the international and economic context to the strike and analyzes some of its fallout. By situating the story in relation to the colonial politics that set the stage for the economic conditions in the prairie city, and by reminding us that social justice struggles continue to animate the spaces that were the staging ground of 1919, the book gestures to a historical awareness beyond that of classic labour movement narratives of the strike vis-a-vis the uneasy relationship between labour movements and Indigenous sovereignty. 

However, a meaningful exploration of the ways in which the settler working class benefits from colonial and imperial accumulation is limited by a narrative confined to the strike itself. In 1919, Winnipeg was making every effort to rid itself of Indigenous presence, and labour movement histories have often ignored this relationship. By taking an uplifting tone in its conclusions, Lester’s 1919 invokes the strike as a beacon of inspiration to all the social progress made in Western Canada in its wake, from the formation of various centre-left parties and other subsequent strikes, to grassroots social movements today. While this move to celebrate legacies of the strike is stirring, it runs the danger of glossing over the central contradictions of the society that produced it. In Naylor’s statement that “attempts to turn workers against each other during the strike mostly fell flat,” the “mostly” hangs in the air, belied by invocations of the upstanding britishness of the trade union leadership which appear in the pages that follow, the familiar rejoinder to the accusation of the strikers’ “alien bolshevism”. 

Dissecting the political dynamics of contradictions between class and anti-colonial struggle in 1919 is not necessarily the task of a more introductory comic book, and scholarship in this realm can be found in other recent works, some of which 1919 makes reference to. But I do think that if 1919 had taken a more granular approach to the working class institutions and daily lives of those communities labeled “enemy alien,” the book could have contributed more to an understanding of the Winnipeg General Strike and its memory in the production of working class identity in Canada, whiteness, and solidarity.

Graphic representations of life and struggle

Presented as neither a comic nor a graphic novel, but as a “graphic history,” 1919 is composed of pen and brush drawings which aim to capture the atmosphere of the strike, often replicating iconic photos. The drawings are linked together by narration and commentary, with a quote or popular sentiment thrown in here and there through speech bubble. While this format pulls one along through the events and sparks the imagination, these strengths could be taken further. I think the graphic history approach could take greater advantage of the possibilities of comics – more dramatization and character development might draw us into the human reality of the strike’s organization and help us relate to its base and its tensions.

The events of June 26 known as “Bloody Saturday,” the climactic end of the strike, are the focus of 34 pages of the 93 page comic. At the peak of the action, expressive, full page, ink-splattered drawings take us through the overturning of the streetcar, setting it ablaze, the terrifying charge of the mounted police, and the death of a striker minute by minute with the time ticking by in the corner of each page.

Here, Lester draws together the horrors of war, fresh in the memory of many strikers, as foreshadowed in earlier pages laying out the disappointed plight of working class soldiers returning from the First World War, and the horror of this martial assault on the workers at home.  As labour historian James Naylor notes in his foreword, internationalist sentiments among workers issued from the observation that the Canadian bourgeoisie was willing to repress them with the same brutality as the German government they had been told to revile.

I found most dramatic the sequence that depicts workers readying themselves for the “Silent Parade” that escalates into the famous clash, opposite a page of Mounties loading guns and mounting up. Uneasy apprehension builds between the panels showing a man smoking, hands washing dishes, a woman brushing her hair and then drinking coffee, hands tying shoelaces. The activity of everyday life and domestic labour, usually mundane, is imbued with narrative gravity when the day that greets the subjects is one in which they direct their energy toward their class interest.

Panels detailing the different preparations for the high confrontation of the strike, by police and by strikers

Class struggle or imperial belonging: lessons from 1919

1919: A Graphic History refers to valuable lessons which are still to be learned from the strike, and the simple power of solidarity is the lesson imparted here. But what were the sources of the strength and unity in the strike? And what were the fault lines? 

The line between “enemy aliens” and respectable unionists was not as clear as the bourgeois press – and some strike leaders – claimed. The strike would have been unimaginable without the institutions of working class counter power – the benevolent associations and labour temples with their social functions and printing presses, built out of the pockets of the workers and based in the immigrant communities of the North End. These communities had, as yet, little reason to identify with the Canadian national project, and through experiences of class struggle in multiple countries, they inherited the revolutionary internationalist tradition, while maintaining their distinct communities as cultural bonds.

The disillusion of working class soldiers with the “senseless slaughter” overseas, and the lack of future awaiting them upon return was certainly another condition for the feelings of solidarity that undergirded the strike. But Lester also refers to a speech by carpenter union and Socialist Party organizer George Armstrong, specifically noting the growth in the Canadian economy brought by the war and invoking the workers’ entitlement to a share of this profit. The Canadian ruling class was not willing to cut a deal along these lines yet, and opted to crush the strike with brute force instead, but the deal would come after another couple decades of class strife and a second World War. 

Today’s Winnipeg is structured by exactly this compromise. Winnipeg’s North End, the seat of the general strike, is home to the largest urban Indigenous population in the country. Government cuts to social services and infrastructure and steadily increasing criminalization of this community has produced a city divided along colonial lines, a public discourse where whiteness confers entitlement to public space, property, and murderous police protection. The internationalist solidarity that made the strike so strong has been undermined through the transition to whiteness enjoyed by central and eastern European workers who in 1919 faced xenophobia and criminalization. The deal demanded by leaders like Armstrong in 1919, that those workers who serve and uphold Canadian colonialism and imperialism are guaranteed a share of its spoils, has been struck. 

Settler colonialism in the infrastructure of 1919

Opening section of the graphic history links the atmosphere of the strike to Prime Minister John A MacDonalds national policy and the settlement of the west

Near the opening of the book, we are told that our story takes place in the aftermath of the Northwest Resistance of 1885, wherein the Canadian government waged war against Cree, Metis, Assiniboine, and Saulteaux nations resisting the colonial push west. Indeed it was in response to these rebellions that the restrictive (and illegal) pass system was instituted, displacing the Indigenous trade and political life that founded Winnipeg. We are also informed  in the book’s set up of the construction of the Winnipeg aqueduct in 1919, which transports the city’s drinking water from Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, an Anishinaabe community whose accessibility and water quality have suffered ever since, and which has been under boil advisory since 1997.

In a May 14, 2019 Winnipeg Free Press column commenting on the racism intertwined with the strike, Anishinaabe scholar Niigaan Sinclair noted that before the construction of the aqueduct, settler Winnipeggers relied on Métis door-to-door water delivery and that the loss of this work led to the impoverishment of urban Métis communities. He also pointed out that while people the government recognized as First Nations were confined to reserves at this time, likely a quarter of the city’s population was mixed-race Indigenous people – perhaps lumped in with the “enemy aliens” of eastern Europe in anti-strike propaganda, but often missing from labour movement historical accounts of the strike.

As far as I know, the Strike Committee did not address these Métis labour issues – however door-to-door delivery of other essential goods and services, such as bread and milk, was vital during the General Strike. Delivery trucks were accompanied by placards, proclaiming them “Permitted by Authority of the Strike Committee”, in order to distinguish their operators from scabs. This famous placard is shown in one panel of the book, affixed to a wagon, and it was such assertions of the strike’s sovereignty over the city that reportedly caused Prime Minister Borden to fear breakdown of order and real revolution. 

What do we make of the displacement of Indigenous economic activity and the dispossession of Indigenous waterways while the settler working class, oblivious, fights to establish its control over services and share of profits? The contradictions of 1919 seem very similar to those of today.

Contested legacies of 1919

1919: A Graphic History closes with a sort of montage of subsequent labour movements in Canada, focusing on protest movements which have taken up the space of the Portage Avenue and Main Street intersection in Winnipeg – from No One Is Illegal, to Shoal Lake 40 solidarity, and Idle No More. The accompanying text tells us “the memory of the strike belongs to all working people, that win or lose, every battle teaches us about the power of solidarity.” But the round dances at Portage and Main of Idle No More did not inherit the tradition of radical occupation of that space from the General Strike – they precede it, returning to that space which the strikers fought in during a period of Indigenous removal from it.

Who the memory of the strike belongs to and inspires depends on how we understand the story. If it is an early point in a progression from a union coalition politics to a broader social justice movement, then it has little to offer those whose life ways have been attacked by the enclosures of water and land that are the precondition to capitalism. But if it is a moment where contradictions at the heart of the society that necessitated those enclosures are opened up, creating the potential for the exploited to recognize their common cause with people targeted by imperialism around the world, then it is worth revisiting. 1919: A Graphic History of the Winnipeg General Strike, bolstered by historical analysis in its foreword, is a useful and clear account of the strike with attention paid to holding some of the disparate threads of history in dialogue with each other. Easy and fun to read, with an urgent energy, this book will certainly familiarize and interest its audience with this important history and in doing so can further the vital conversation around the character of class struggle in settler colonial Canada.

JH Feicken is pacific document exchange driver number 22 who publishes in collaboration with the Volcano editorial collective. Associated acts: Jane Harms (sound) and @ksrrk (internet)

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