1919 Winnipeg General Strike — Bloody Saturday was the beginning of the end


Mounted special constables on patrol during the general strike (Manitoba Archives).

by Bruce Cherney (part 3 of 3)

The arrests of the strike leaders and the presence of the streetcars in operation provoked the violent climax of the Winnipeg General Strike. On June 21, pro-strike veterans scheduled a parade, despite Mayor Charles Gray’s ban, to protest the arrest of the key strike leaders. Free Press editor J.W. Dafoe had been right when he said the arrests would create “martyrs” for the cause.

Gray addressed the crowd, reminding them of the ban. He also issued a proclamation to the press reiterating “my former proclamation, that there will be no parades until after the strike. Any women taking part in a parade do so at their own risk.”

But, federal officials, pro-strike veterans and the Strike Committee were unable to come to an agreement that would stop the parade.

While the talks were going on, a crowd had gathered around city hall to watch the parade, including women and children.

As the 2,000 gathered in Market Square near city hall, Gray was panicked by “inflammatory speeches” which he believed were meant to incite a riot  and therefore called upon the RNWMP to patrol the streets. By 2:30 in the afternoon, police and 36 trucks arrived at the corner of Portage and Main. A streetcar driven by a Citizens Committee of 1,000 volunteer passed by city hall, was pulled off its tracks, and people began to break its windows and then set it on fire.

Streetcar being flipped over, June 21 (National Archives of Canada).

The RNWMP trotted through the crowd as they passed the Union Bank. Most wore the traditional red, but some wore army-style uniforms, which enraged the veterans, who booed as they came by. 

Gray said the Mounties were only attempting to disperse the crowd when they “were pelted with stones and bottles by the mob.” He said he witnessed the “Mounted Police being hard pressed by a rabble of aliens,” when he “read from the parapet of city hall the riot act in the prescribed manner.”

The RNWMP charged into the crowd, only to be met by another barrage of bricks and stones. A third attack by the police quickly ensued. This time the police had clubs and revolvers in hand. As they turned into the crowd on William Avenue, they opened fire.

“One man, standing on the sidewalk, thought the mounties were firing blank cartridges until a spectator standing beside him dropped with a bullet through his breast,” wrote a reporter for the Western Labour News, the newspaper of the strikers. 

Mike Sokolowski, an innocent bystander who lived on Henry Avenue, was killed during the June 21, 1919, mêlée between strikers and police in front of city hall. Steve Schzerbanowicz died in Winnipeg General Hospital two days later from a gunshot wound that became gangrenous which was inflicted by a Mountie. Originally from East Selkirk, Schzerbanowicz had been living on Lizzie Street since the strike began. The Telegram accused the man of being “most active in rushing the Mounted Police and in stoning them...” on June 21.

Gray fled to the Fort Osborne Barracks after hearing the crack of gun shots, where he called upon Brigadier-General Ketchen to use the militia “in aid of the civil authority to quell riots.”

The general ordered out the militia and Gray accompanied the force to the scene of the unrest.

RNWMP charge down Main Street on June 21 (National Archives of Canada).

Hundreds of special police left the Rupert Avenue police station after the RNWMP opened fire on the crowd and cordoned off Main Street to prevent fleeing strikers from leaving the area. About 200 people were trapped by the special police in an alley between Market and James streets. Batons and gun fire were used by the police to subdue the strikers. In a few minutes, 27 people were injured.

Acting-deputy Philip Stark of the “specials,” who was reported by the Free Press (June 23) to be “in the thickest of the fight,” said the strikers were in many cases armed.

“Inspector Henry Green charging up the alley in the rear of the (Labour) Temple was fired on from the roof of one of the buildings facing on James Street,” according to the Free Press. “A number of shots were fired on him, none taking effect.”

Green of the “specials” was reported to have been unable to see the face of the man, but was able to describe the weapon used as “a pearl-handled revolver of small calibre.”

The Free Press claimed the “specials” were “efficient in dispersing the crowd ... There was no hanging back. The specials were out to clean up the rioters, and clean them up they did.”

It was reported that over 100 rioters were arrested, including six women. One woman was accused of setting fire to a streetcar on Main Street. The newspaper said two women were seen rushing down the street, “urging the ‘boys’ to ‘kill the dirty scabs,’” operating the streetcars.

When the militia appeared,  the Free Press said “an alien rushed down to Higgins Avenue, where a large crowd of foreigners had gathered. He shouted just two words, ‘machine guns,” in his own language, and the crowd melted away in less time than it takes to tell it.” 

“By evening Winnipeg was an armed camp; hundreds were wounded; one man was dead, another dying,” wrote Artibise. “Faced with the reality of brutal, naked force, the Strike Committee admitted defeat and called the strike off at 11 a.m. on June 26.”

The efforts of the workers during the six-week course of the strike seemed to have ended fruitlessly. Some, such as the police, had lost their jobs. The only concession won by the strikers was for the provincial government to establish a royal commission to conduct an impartial review of the causes behind the strike.

“Owing to the prompt action of the citizens of Winnipeg the strike has failed its purpose,” wrote Andrews to Meighen.


Militia preventing further demonstration in the aftermath of Bloody Saturday (Manitoba Archives).


But what truly ended the strike was the armed militia, specials and RNWMP controlling the streets, intense emotional stress and workers without salaries to provide food, clothing and accommodations for a six-week period. 

Alfred J. Andrews told acting federal Justice Minister Arthur Meighen that the strike leaders “were all legally arrested and are now in custody under criminal charges of seditious conspiracy and publishing seditious libel and I think the evidence will be forthcoming to convict the majority of them on these charges.” 

On June 25, Andrews wrote to Meighen that “it only seemed to me fair” that the arrested strike leaders be allowed out on bail of $2,000 each and two sureties of $1,000. 

From his letters, Andrews appears to be almost apologetic for having arrested the leaders, since some obviously associated the arrests with Bloody Saturday. Indeed, the soldiers had proposed the “Silent Parade” as a demonstration against the arrests.

“The federal government’s behavior in the arrests and subsequent trials need not be defended, but its malicious quality was intended to prevent other issues, particularly the question of the intent of the strikers, from being examined on their merits,” wrote J.M. Bumsted in a Spring 1994 Beaver article.

“The defense in the conspiracy trials made much of the fact that not all of the strike’s leaders had been arrested or charged, and that many of those arrested were not really leaders of the strike at all.”

Bumsted said Andrews confused the questions of “revolutionary activity” and strike leadership.

“Indeed, the federal government always operated on the assumption that what was happening in Winnipeg was not simply a labour action, but a potential revolution. “

What can be said absolutely about the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 is that labour lost the strike. Many newspapers, including the Winnipeg Citizen and the New York Times, called it the defeat of Bolshevist rule and the triumph of the middle class.

“The dictatorship of the proletariat was broken by the counterorganization of the Commitee of One Thousand, so called, actually numbering many thousand of that class which the Bolsheviki (sic) are fond of calling the bourgeosie,” said the June 22, 1919,  Times, which extensively covered the Winnipeg General Strike.

The Telegram (June 28) said the “loyal citizens of Winnipeg had won a hard-fought fight ... The employers of Winnipeg have suffered great loss. They have endured much undeserved annoyance and inconvenience. They have been unreasonably provoked to the point that would justify extreme exasperation. But they must remember they are big men, who ought to look at things in a big way, and ought to banish from their hearts any sentiments that might be cherished by meaner spirits.”

Despite its call to banish “meaner spirits,” the Telegram also said that “no agitator ... should find work in this city. This will be simple justice. It would also be patriotic — for it would protect us against the machinations of conspirators in the future.”

A June 23 proclamation issued by Mayor Gray reinforced this message: “Any foreigners who make any threats of any kind or in any way intimidate or worry would-be workers in the slightest degree can expect immediate deportation to Russia or wherever they come from.” Of course, since the strike leaders were predominately British-born, they couldn’t be deported “back” to Russia, but only to Great Britain.

The strike leaders arrested on June 17 were eventually brought to trial. Samuel Blumenberg, Michael Charitinoff, Solomon Almazoff and Oscar Schoppelrie appeared before an Immigration Board of Inquiry presided over by Judge R.M. Noble. 

Of the four, only Schoppelrie was deported and that was not for his alleged role in the strike, but for having crossed the border illegally three years earlier. Blumenberg voluntarily left for the United States. Charitonoff appealed to Ottawa and was eventually released. 

The 31 “foreign rioters” arrested on June 21 by the RNWMP, primarily on the basis of rumour and circumstantial evidence, were denied formal deportation proceedings, but appeared before Winnipeg Police Magistrate Hugh John Macdonald who ordered them sent to the internment camp at Kapuskasking for “safekeeping.” 

Macdonald, the son of former Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, was an appropriate  choice to prosecute the alien element, as shown by his letter to Meighen on July 3, 1919: “As Police Magistrate I have seen to what a large extent Bolsheviki ideas are held by Ruthenians (Ukrainians), Russians and Polish people, whom we have in our midst ... it is absolutely necessary that an example should be made ... they do not understand generous treatment and consider it only extended to them because the Government is afraid of them; indeed, fear is the only agency that can be consistently employed ... if the Government persists in the course that it is now adopting the foreign element here will soon be gentle and easily controlled as a lot of sheep.”

Despite the protests of the defense council appointed by the Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council — T.J. Murray, Marcus Hyman and E.J. Murray — the “foreigners” were subsequently deported in secrecy. 

Of the other eight leaders, five were found guilty of the charges laid against them and served jail sentences ranged from six months to two years.

The Royal Commission which investigated the strike concluded that the strike was not a criminal conspiracy by foreigners. Justice H. A. Robson wrote in his report, that “if Capital does not provide enough to assure Labour a contented existence ... then the Government might find it necessary to step in and let the state do these things at the expense of Capital.”

According to the commissioner, “the specific and immediate cause of the general strike was the refusal of the employers in the iron contract shops to recognize the demands of their workers for agreement by those workers in the method of collective bargaining indicated by the Metal Trades Council on behalf of those employees ... Labor considered that the refusal of the demand of collective bargaining ... was a blow struck at labor organization. The general strike was an attempt by direct action to secure the demand of labor.”

Yet, the commissioner also found fault with the strike’s socialist workers, who made the “utmost use of the strike to advance their own plans, and to convert the general strike into a particularly socialist movement and to thrust themselves into its leadership.”

The federal government paid Andrews — he was Crown counsel during the Immigration Board of Inquiry — and his associates in the Citizens Committee fees for services rendered (Jan Chaboyer and Errol Black, Conspiracy in Winnipeg). The federal justice department also paid $12,332 to the Winnipeg-based McDonald Detective Agency for work associated with the prosecution.

Organized labour thereafter was hostile towards the Conservatives, particularly Meighen and Senator Gideon Robertson, for their forceful role in putting down the strike. Combined with high tariffs in the federal budget passed in the same year (which farmers disliked), this contributed to the Conservatives' heavy defeat in the 1921 election. In the election, the farmer-supported National Progressive Party became the Official Opposition in the House of Commons, assisting the Liberals’ rise to power by taking votes away from the Conservatives. The Liberal government, fearing the growing support for hard left elements, pledged to enact the labour reforms proposed by the Commission.

Labor News writer A.P. Chew said on July 11 the lesson learned from the failure of the general strike was “that purely economic movements of the working class can be broken by the power of the state when all other means fail ... Justification for the use of force against them had therefore to be manufactured,” by claiming the movement was revolutionary as shown by the utterances of certain leaders at the OBU meeting in Calgary, while ignoring the Strike Committee’s standing offer for collective bargaining and reinstating the strikers. 

It was imperative workers acquire “political weapons wherewith to fight the class struggle,” he added.

The one opening remaining for labour was the political arena, and it was used effectively. While the strike marked the climax for such leaders as R.B. Russell, Bill Pritchard, Richard Johns, Roger Bray, and George and Helen Armstrong, according to Brandon University history professor Tom Mitchell (Manitoba History, Autumn/Winter 1999-2000). “For others, including J.S. Woodsworth, John Queen, Fred Dixon, and A.A. Heaps, martyrdom in 1919 served as a springboard to success in electoral politics — municipal, provicial and federal — in the wake of the strike.”

Woodsworth was elected as a labour MP in 1921 and was the leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation; Queen became mayor of Winnipeg and was a long-serving MLA; Dixon, already a  Labour MLA when the strike occurred, continued in this capacity until his retirement in 1923 due to ill-health; while Heaps became a CCF MP.

Business did eventually come to an accommodation with labour; other than this, historians are still arguing about the effects of the strike.

Historian Alan Artibise said the strike “marked the city’s passage from a relatively simple, pioneer, rural oriented community to a more complex, technological and highly urbanized metropolis. The significance of this major event in Winnipeg’s history is that it crystallized in one occurrence the tensions that had been developing in the community since its inception. It also spelled the end for several decades of much of the goodwill that certain groups in the city had been attempting to foster.”