Review: Victoria Author Publishes Book on Winnipeg General Strike
By Robert Hawkes
As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike, Michael Dupuis, a Victoria based historian and author, recently published The Winnipeg General Strike: Ordinary Men and Women Under Extraordinary Circumstances.
Winnipeg was gripped by a general strike from May 15 to June 26, 1919. At least 25,000 men and women joined the strike, and “both sides used any means, including spies and informants, to win the battle.”
On June 21, following the reading of the riot act, police charged the strikers on horseback. Two strikers were killed and as many as 45 were injured. Sympathy strikes took place in a number of Canadian cities including here in Victoria.
Following the strike, eight leaders were arrested and seven of them were found guilty and sentenced to terms of up to two years. Leaders were acquitted of the most serious charge, seditious conspiracy. Interestingly, three of the strike leaders were elected to the provincial legislature while still serving their jail terms.
I found the structure of the book slightly unusual, but effective. The first section, called facts, is a concise chronological listing of the events of the strike with each chapter representing one week of the strike, along with chapters devoted to the period before and after the strike.
An introductory chapter places the events of the strike within the historical context of the time, covering the tensions associated with unemployment and inflation, the return of soldiers, the struggle between a business class and workers, and fears associated with the Russian Revolution. The following quotation from the book nicely summarizes Winnipeg at the outset of the general strike: “Two words summarize labour’s experience in Winnipeg for nearly two decades prior to the six-week dispute: struggle and survival.”
The second and third sections are called Revelations and Insights. I found one of the most moving chapters, called Virtually Civil War, an interview the author conducted with 82-year-old Charles Plewman in April 1972.
I asked Michael about the messages from the story for our currently divisive time. “One of the outstanding features of the strike, which more than ever applies to how journalism is often practiced or perceived today, was the role of an indoctrinated press. Journalistic abuse by those for and against the mass tie up in May and June 1919 stirred up hatred among Winnipeggers, prolonged the conflict, and caused years of class bitterness after the strike was defeated.”
Michael has been interested in the topic since graduate school and published a previous book, Winnipeg's General Strike: Reports from the Front Lines, in 2014. He is also an author of a book on the Halifax Explosion that was reviewed in the Beacon last year. He has been consulted on several historical documentaries.
In doing historical research and writing a book, most authors feel strongly about the actions of some in the story, and I asked Michael about this. “I found it shameful that federal Labour Minister Gideon Robertson and Justice Minister Arthur Meighen falsely and deliberately characterized the strike as a threat to constituted government, avoided meeting with the strike’s leaders and authorized Winnipeg’s professional and business leaders to crush the walkout by any and all means.”
The author is giving illustrated presentations on the Winnipeg General Strike at Greater Victoria Public Library branches this month: April 17 at the Oak Bay branch from 2:00 to 3:30 and April 20 at the main branch from 2:00 to 3:30 p.m.
The book includes archival photographs of the people and publications. The author is travelling to Winnipeg next month and indicated to me that he was “…excited and grateful to be taking part in commemorative activities for the anniversary of such a unique and historic event in Winnipeg.” The official launch of the book will take place in Manitoba, although the book is currently for sale and more than 1100 copies have already sold.
As award winning journalist and film maker Andy Blicq wrote in a foreword to the book, “The living memory of the strike is gone now, but the lessons to be learned from the conflict remain fresh and more relevant than ever.”
The 185 page book (ISBN 978-1-9994530-0-8) is available at Munro’s downtown and at Indigo in Mayfair Mall at a price of $19.95.