1134 Winnipeg’s historic moment
The Reporter and the Winnipeg General Strike
by Michael Dupuis (text) and Michael Kluckner (illustrations)
Vancouver: Granville Island Publishing, 2020
$24.95 / 9781989467282
Reviewed by Ron Verzuh
Winnipeg 1919: A unique retelling of the historical general strike may reach new and younger audiences
We’ve heard many versions of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike story. We’ve read it in history books and graphic novels, seen it in videos and plays, heard it on radio documentaries, and even hummed along to it in a new musical called Stand! It is not just a historic moment in the ongoing struggle of Canada’s working class; it is the historic moment. Michael Dupuis adds to the versions with a unique approach that promises to stretch the story to new audiences, especially younger ones.
This is not Dupuis’s first time out with this story. He’s published two other non-fiction books on the subject, but this time he has managed to bring to life the human side of the 40-day strike through a novel. He is helped by the black and white line drawings of Michael Kluckner (Vanishing British Columbia) depicting some of the main action. Probably most notable is the iconic image of strikers overturning a streetcar.
We start with a brief prologue where we meet the narrator, William Patterson, a rookie reporter for the Toronto Advocate, a stand-in for the Toronto Star, the paper Dupuis says provided the fairest coverage of the confrontation in Winnipeg.
Next we are introduced to the war-damaged Sergeant Pat “Bear” Flanagan, a returned soldier who is embittered after the loss of his wife and child. Bear is looking for someone, anyone, to blame.
From there, Dupuis knocks on the doors of strike leaders, some of them socialists, and of the Citizen’s Committee of 1,000, led by the tenacious lawyer Alfred Andrews. We also meet General Ketchem in charge of the local military, and Labour Minister Senator Gideon Robertson, a former labour leader who has lost his sympathy for the workers.
Complicating the story is the uncertain contingent of returned soldiers, some of them strike supporters, and others willing to serve as special police constables during the historic shutdown of Canada’s fourth largest city. Some, like Bear, have come home angry, disillusioned and shell-shocked. Most are looking for work and some unfairly blame immigrants for taking their jobs.
At first, Patterson resists the temptation to take sides, preferring to report rather than participate in the news. Nevertheless, when he meets strike leader Abraham Heaps, an alderman, William Ivens and his family, and even Bob Russell, the “Bolshevik sympathizer” and socialist autodidact, he is clearly impressed with their determination and organizing abilities. Ivens, a Methodist minister, edits the Western Labour News, the strike paper that informs the 35,000 people on strike or in sympathy with it.
As the strike wears on, we meet other strike leaders such as Helen Armstrong, who feeds the hungry at the Labour Cafe, J.S. Woodsworth, who later founds the Canadian Cooperative Federation, and labour reformer Fred Dixon. We also meet several citizens caught on the strike’s front lines such as Amy Wells and Mike Sokolowski, a Ukrainian worker. Patterson eventually shows his sympathies, but he never takes off his reporter’s hat. He can serve the city best by sending accurate dispatches to the Toronto paper.
Patterson meets other reporters, such as Col. Graham H. Davies, a braggart who runs his own wire service, and Bob Crandall, formerly of the Winnipeg Free Press idled by the strike. The Advocate reporter learns the hard way that he is in a take-no-prisoners competition for the elusive scoop.
Dupuis paces himself in building the tension to a climax. This gives him time to discuss the ideological battleground that the citizen’s committee, the mayor, and other newspapers seize upon. For them, Winnipeg is a line in the sand separating law-abiding working people from rabble-rousing left-wing revolutionaries who are using the strike to establish a soviet style dictatorship.
Again to Dupuis’s credit, he does not slip into a rhetorical argument about which side to choose. Patterson’s reports to Toronto, some articles printed verbatim in the book, are straightforward, by-the-rules journalism. From today’s perspective, or even in real time, this could have been hard to do. The lines were tightly drawn. You could be accused of Bolshevik sympathies or you could be labelled a pawn of the boss class. You were on one side or the other and there was mischief afoot from all sides.
In the end, Dupuis’s reporter guides us into Mayor Charles Gray’s reading of the Riot Act and Bloody Saturday when special constables, using live ammunition, clashed with strikers and returned servicemen in one of the most deadly events in Canadian labour history.
As history tells us, the 10 strike leaders are arrested, charged with conspiracy and sent to Stony Mountain Penitentiary. Dupuis ends his story with a comment from his reporter: “If the final verdict sends them to prison, I can assure you the law and justice will be two entirely different things.” History has since confirmed that prediction.
Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian and documentary filmmaker who focuses on social movements. Verzuh’s work has appeared in The Ormsby Review since it was founded in 2016. Editor’s note: Ron Verzuh has recently reviewed a republished 1990 book by Elizabeth May, about the fight to save Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, as well as books by Rosa Jordan, Vera Maloff, Peter Nowak, David Laurence Jones, Gary Steeves, Ian Haysom, John O’Brian, and Scott Stephen for The Ormsby Review.
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