100 years on: a Winnipeg General Strike reading list

A banner photo that shows the covers of all 12 books mentioned in the blog.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of a pivotal event in Canadian history.

On May 15, 1919, tens of thousands of ordinary working women and men in Winnipeg revolted by walking off the job, grinding the city to a halt, and setting in to motion what became a six week long general strike which was ultimately ended by brute force, violence and death.

Often the history of working people in Canada is neglected or lost to time, but the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike is a notable exception – it remains is a key moment in working-class history that academics, historians and labour activists have come back to time and time again, leaving us with a depth of analyses and published works.

The legacy of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 remains contested, but for those seeking to build working class movements today, I believe there is plenty that can be learned from that period of workers’ revolt in Canada.

From how it all began, to what happened in the years to follow, here is a list of some reading suggestions for those wanting to dive in:

MAGNIFICENT FIGHT: THE 1919 WINNIPEG GENERAL STRIKE by Dennis Lewycky

If you’re only going to read one book about the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike I’d make it this one. Lewycky’s book is well-researched, draws from a variety of resources, and brings it all together in a concise format. It’s accessibly written, not too academic in style, yet is a great resource that crams a whole lot of information in. Published this year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the strike, it is a timely book able to connect the events of a century ago to the struggles for justice happening now in 2019.

WE’RE GOING TO RUN THIS CITY: WINNIPEG’S POLITICAL LEFT AFTER THE GENERAL STRIKE by Stefan Epp-Koop

This book covers the period of municipal politics in Winnipeg from after the general strike through to the 1930s, a topic and time period I personally knew little about. After the strike, Winnipeg remained a city with deep divides: geographically, ethnically, along class lines, as well as within the political left. Stefan Epp-Koop does a wonderful job of taking the reader through a fascinating look at the (often ruthless) politics of the Citizens Committee, the Labour Party and the Communist Party as they continue to battle for who would run the City of Winnipeg. This book is a great resource for looking back on the municipal dynamics that continued long after the Winnipeg General Strike ended, for reflecting on what this legacy can help teach us about the present battles we face, and for reminding us the potential power of municipal governments.

1919: A GRAPHIC HISTORY OF THE WINNIPEG GENERAL STRIKE by the Graphic History Collective & David Lester

I was glad to see a comic book version of the history of the strike being released to commemorate the centennial of the strike. Comic books are such a useful and engaging tool for learning – with the added perk that it’s a quick read. So, if you’re looking for an accessible starting point, this illustrated version brings the story of the Winnipeg General Strike to life. Obviously, a comic format limits how much information can be included, but the Graphic History Collective has created a fantastic introduction for those seeking to learn about the Winnipeg General Strike. *This book is one of many great projects done by the Graphic History Collective.

PAPERGIRL by Melinda McCracken with Penelope Jackson

This young adult book is a fictionalized story of Cassie, a 10-year old girl from a working-class family living in 1919 Winnipeg. It’s a simply told, thought-provoking story which is rooted in feminism, justice, understanding, and ultimately about standing up for what’s right. It does a great job of bringing the time period and strike to life. I can easily see it as a book I would have enjoyed reading as a younger reader, and as an educational resource that could easily be used in the classroom as a way to introduce the story of the Winnipeg General Strike.

WINNIPEG 1919: THE STRIKERS’ OWN HISTORY OF THE WINNIPEG GENERAL STRIKE Edited by Norman Penner

Originally published in 1975, a new third edition was released this year with a new introduction by Christo Aivalis on how the strike is still relevant in 2019. This book contains three unique, significant historic records making it well worth the read:

  1. The strike leaders’ detailed written account of the events leading up to and during the Winnipeg General Strike – included in the book in its full format as it was published and sold by the Defence Committee for the arrested strike leaders.
  2. Peter Heenan’s disclosure of secret federal government documents from the strike, and his address to the House of Commons about them in 1926.
  3. Excerpts from strike leader W.A. Pritchard’s Address to the Jury as part of his defense in 1920.

THE WINNIPEG GENERAL STRIKE: ORDINARY MEN AND WOMEN UNDER EXTRAORDINARY CIRCUMSTANCES by Michael Dupuis

The new 100th Anniversary Edition expands on Michal Dupuis’ original book, but remains a quick read divided in to three parts: facts, revelations and insights. What I found most unique about this book, compared to others on the Winnipeg General Strike, is the insightful look it provides in to the biases and ideological rhetoric that was being used by both sides at the time – through using excerpts taken from the various newspapers, which were the crucial source of public information at the time.

THE WORKERS’ REVOLT IN CANADA 1917-1925 Edited by Craig Heron

In a series of well researched essays, this book looks beyond the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919, to examine the widespread workers’ revolt which was happening all across Canada coming out of the first world war. It brings us a much-needed collective memory and analysis of the workers’ revolt of the early 20th century. While the struggles took different forms in the different region of the country, there are common themes that transcend regional barriers – themes which are still relevant to struggles today.

Some other resources worth checking out:

  • The Alberta Labour History Institute has created many resources on the The Great Labour Revolt of 1919 including a new booklet by Alvin Finkel titled THE GREAT LABOUR REVOLT, 1919, which focuses on “general strikes and the larger strike wave of 1919 in Alberta”.
  • THE WINNIPEG GENERAL STRIKE by D. C. Masters – first published in 1950, this book is seen by many as the original in-depth analysis of the Winnipeg General Strike.
  • THE WINNIPEG STRIKE:1919 by Kenneth McNaught and David J. Bercuson – first published back in the 1974, this book built on the important work of D.C. Masters, with the inclusion new materials that weren’t available when his book was published.
  • CONFRONTATION AT WINNIPEG: LABOUR, INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS, AND THE GENERAL STRIKE by David Jay Bercuson – a somewhat academic read, but very informative resource studying the Winnipeg General Strike.
  • ON STRIKE: SIX KEY LABOUR STRUGGLES IN CANADA 1919-1949 Edited by Irving Abella – starting with the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919 this book allows readers to see patterns and trends of labour history by looking at six key labour struggles in Canada during the first half of the 20th century. (Extra points from me because it includes home town content with the Estevan Miners’ Strike of 1931.)

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