Robyn Benson, PSAC

Labour history


The Canadian Museum of “History” is about to erase all mention of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 from its exhibits. It was a strike that changed the face of politics in Canada, but it’s headed down the memory hole.

History, they say, is written by the victors. And since 2006, Stephen Harper and his government have been behaving like victors rather than democratic leaders—compiling lists of enemies, ramming through anti-labour legislation, shutting down dissent wherever it might arise.

The museum’s management claims that there is no political motive behind this latest move. We’ve heard this before, of course. The Canada Revenue Agency claims to be neutral when it audits only progressive charities and think tanks like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives for being too “political,” but not conservative-friendly outfits like the Fraser Institute and the Manning Foundation.

A random process? Forgive me if I’m a little suspicious of this latest move, despite the museum’s protestations of innocence. And I am less than impressed when management over there insists that only a few academics will be upset by tearing out these important pages of the past.

In case this really is just a bad error in judgement, though, here’s a short history lesson for the museum’s managers.

The Winnipeg General Strike began on May 1, 1919, when building and metal workers walked out for higher wages. The Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council called for a general strike in support of these workers, and solidarity was not long in coming. The women who operated the city’s telephones were next, and two weeks after the initial strike, 30,000 union and non-union workers had hit the bricks.

The photo, above, is of the replica of the Winnipeg Labour Temple, which is to be removed permanently from the museum. (The original was ploughed under in the 1960s to make way for the new Winnipeg city hall.) This meeting-place served more than eighty unions, and became the nerve centre of the strike, where strategy was planned and votes were held.

Needless to say, the employers and the municipal government fought back. The police, who were in solidarity with the strikers, were fired and replaced with 1,800 goons called “Specials” who were issued horses and baseball bats. Politicians called the leaders “bolsheviks” (today the word would be “terrorists”), and the press was stridently anti-strike. The strikers’ own newspaper was shut down. The general strike ended with the killing and wounding of several strikers by the “Specials” and the Royal North-West Mounted Police, followed by mass arrests and trials of the strike leadership.

Yet that was far from the end of the story. The massive resistance and solidarity shown by workers in Winnipeg (and by sympathy strikers across the country) was not wasted. Shortly afterwards, four strike leaders were elected to the Manitoba legislature. One was J. S. Woodsworth, later elected to the House of Commons, whose efforts there led to the introduction of the Canadian old age pension. He went on to help found the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, and became its first leader. The CCF became the NDP in 1962.

Now the NDP is surging in the polls. Even when the secret report on deep-sixing the exhibit was issued, the government was losing popularity. Is it too cynical to suggest that Harper is not keen on preserving the history of workers combining in solidarity and risking everything for social justice?

The truth is that all history is labour history: “Without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel would turn.” But too much of what we do is left out of the official stories, because it’s not considered important enough to preserve. Maybe this miserable decision by the Canadian Museum of History is just more of the same, after all. But it highlights the need for the labour movement to safeguard our own history, our own stories and memories—so that we may continue to learn from and be inspired by them.

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on May 26, 2015 10:50 AM.

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