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An Interview with James Dunwoody

with David Millar

Manitoba History, Number 6, Fall 1983

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Colonel James Dunwoody D.C.M., D.S.O. came to Canada in 1912 with his parents from Belfast and joined a firm of chartered accountants in Winnipeg. He served in France with the Fort Garry Horse, receiving the Distinguished Combat Medal as a trooper in 1915 and the D.S.O as a Lieutenant in 1918. One brother was killed in 1916 with the 43rd Cameron Highlanders from Winnipeg. A second brother with a Winnipeg unit was “buried alive,” became shell shocked and never fully recovered.

Colonel Dunwoody played a brief but important part in the defeat of the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919. He was interviewed by David Millar at his home in Oakville Ontario in July 1969.

Q. How did you get back to Winnipeg after the war?

We came by train. The Fort Garry Horse were demobilized in Winnipeg, and the regiment de-trained at the CPR station in North Winnipeg opposite the Royal Alexandra Hotel, now demolished, marched up the main street to Portage Avenue, then west on Portage Avenue to the Minto Armories, where they received their last pay certificates—the men received their last pay certificates—and demobbed. On their way up on Main Street, there were jeering masses of civilians who hooted and jeered at the regiment as it marched past.

Q. And that was the first time you’d had any of that kind of reaction.

Oh yeah. Well, we were straight back from England—there was no time for anything previous to that so far as we were concerned.

Q. Did you have any idea what was making them act that way?

When I got to my parent’s home—and communicated with neighbours and friends, I found that the entire city was in a state of chaos. The telephones were manned by volunteers because the telephone operators had gone on strike. The fire department was manned largely by citizens, who, by the way, had formed the committee of one thousand to provide the necessary functions which were lacking, due to the strikers. Milk was delivered by the sign pinned or nailed on the side of the trucks “by permission of the strike committee.” Streetcars had been left burning in the streets—there was no streetcar service—motormen and conductors were all out on strike. The only people of a service nature who were still functioning were the police, city police, and they were reported to be in rather a turbulent state with some degree of uncertainty as to how long they would continue to function.

Q. Do you remember any of the friends whom you spoke to at this time?

No, not really, no. — Any that I remember, I’m afraid have departed this world. They were mostly neighbours and my parents.

Q. Where were you living at the time?

That’s a good question. My recollection is that it was a house on Walnut Street in Winnipeg. I may be wrong on that. At one time we lived on a street down near the Assiniboine River and—I’m a little confused now as to which house at that time we lived in.

On making enquiries from my neighbours and friends, I found that a volunteer police force, foot police, had been formed—to assist the police in carrying out law and order and it occurred to me and to one of my associate officers, Roy MacDonald a lieutenant also in the Fort Garry Horse, that a mounted police squadron would be of considerable assistance in the event of trouble breaking out. For one thing, it is easier for mounted men to patrol streets at night—than it is for foot police—they are not so liable to attack and can defend themselves better. So I saw the mayor and told him that I thought if he wished it that I could readily organize a squadron of that type—amongst the returned Fort Garry Horse, some Strathcona Horse, and some RCHA—Royal Canadian Horse Artillery all of whom had been demobilized, whose homes were in Winnipeg, and had been demobilized there. The mayor accepted with—I can’t say gratitude—but with enthusiasm and said that he would be delighted if such a unit could be formed. So, I set up some squadron headquarters in a skating rink just behind Shea’s brewery on Osborne Street and by telephoning the various milk companies and other sources where horses were used, I was able to assemble about between 150 and 200 horses and have them brought into the rink. Then it was a question of saddlery and so on which we were able to arrange. We had two or three mounted parades and about three or four days after we had been formed I had a telephone call from the Chief of Police, Chief Newton, who said that—“Dunwoody, my men have gone on strike—you will please take over the control of the city so far as mounted police are concerned.” We divided up into patrols and for five or six days we had no particular trouble. We patrolled particularly the North end where a good deal of previous disturbance seemed to have originated, but we encountered no trouble.

About a week or ten days later I received another telephone call from the Chief of Police that rioters had massed at the corner of Portage and Main, had completely stopped all traffic, and would I please arrange to have this mob broken up so that traffic could be resumed. We got mounted, and trotted down Portage Avenue and I stood up in my stirrups and called on the mob to get back to the sidewalks and let traffic resume. I was greeted by jeers and hoots. So, my men being armed with baseball bats, I gave the order to walk—trot—and we then trotted into the mass, using the batons where necessary in order to force a way through. We rounded the corner onto Main Street and the strikers then proceeded to—the mob seemed to back away onto the sidewalks. One incident occurs to me and that was that a man called Coppins—Corporal Coppins VC who disobeyed my orders by breaking rank and being hit over the head by a brick bat—turned his horse into the mob at the side and accompanied by another trooper was pulled off his horse and badly beaten up. We managed to rescue him and get him back into the line again. We made our way to the city hall and by that time the trouble was cleared. The mayor said that if he did not do it then, he would shortly read the Riot Act, and that would enable the Royal North West Mounted Police to be brought in and firearms to be used if necessary. There were a few snipers, shots may have been fired at us maybe no, but we had no casual ties from firearms. We roared back to the barracks afterwards and continued our police patrol.

Q. You said that as a result of this there was still some bitterness in Winnipeg it the following year.

There were hangovers of it in sense—when I’d get on a streetcar—the strike had no definite ending date wise—it just simply petered out in due course and one by one the services were resumed streetcars started to run again and so on, and once or twice as climbed on board a streetcar I would be greeted by a sneer from the conductor—they had conductors in those days—with the words “damn strikebreaker” or words to that effect, to which I paid no attention. There were minor outbreaks here and there particularly, perhaps in the North end, but they were not of a serious nature. Once the strikers, particularly the foreign element, realized that law and order had come to stay, they pulled in their horns and gradually went back to work.

Q. Did you have any riot control training at all, or were these just men with whom you had been to war?

That is true—we had no riot control training whatsoever. We had to use our own judgement as to what constituted enforcement of law.

Q. Well, who was it had the idea of getting the baseball bats or the batons?

I appointed, amongst my senior non-commissioned officers and one officer that I had, a small committee. We discussed the matter and a baseball bat seemed to us, as firearms weren’t permitted—we didn’t want them anyhow—a baseball bat is a useful weapon from the saddle. It can be used without creating permanent injury to the person who is struck by it—struck with it.

Q. But you did mention at one point that some of the men had bored holes ...

Officially, of course, I knew nothing of this, but I did understand some of the more belligerent troopers had bored holes in the shaft of the bats and poured some molten lead, simply giving it extra weight. That was the only point of it, but I didn’t actually see that myself.

Q. There is one thing that I think you, perhaps more than anybody, are in a position to inform me about, and that is the feeling amongst the returned soldiers generally. Surely it must have been a great shock for them to be treated in that way when they first arrived. What did people feel like at the time? What was the general current?

Well, it was a very frustrating feeling. Here was Winnipeg’s, if I may use the expression, “Crack Cavalry Regiment” coming back to its home town after five years service overseas and having suffered a great many casualties, and coming back to it parents, so to speak—we were all young men in those days—and to be greeted by hostile faces and jeering remarks and hisses and jeers, particularly amongst the foreign element who had not served during the war in any way, was quite a frustrating thing to our people and they resented it.

Q. They must have talked about this.

Oh, I’m sure they did. They didn’t talk to their officer, but I’m sure they talked amongst themselves.

Q. Were you aware that there were rumours, even as early as about the time of your arrival, that martial law would be established in Winnipeg? This has been suggested as one of the reasons why the troops were greeted that way.

No,—as we got to enquire into causes and effects, the picture was painted to us that the objective of the strikers and malcontents was to gain what they called the OBU or One Big Union so that if any one union went on strike, at the request of that union all unions went on strike. They could just paralyse the activities of the country. Winnipeg was the testing ground. If it succeeded there, Vancouver would be the next on the list, then Toronto.

Q. Do you remember where that information came from? Did it by any chance come from F.G. Thompson? or any of the men who met with Canon Scott and the strike committee?

I can’t remember at this time where—one was getting news from all sources at the time, I can’t remember any individual who gave me that information. There were stories, for instance, that Wellington Crescent, the homes there, had been allotted and these very nice, expensive homes, had been allocated to the strike leaders. But that was just talk—I never saw any maps or signs or credible evidence of it. That’s the kind of story that was going around, and there may have been some truth in it.

Q. What about the wearing of the Union Jack. There seemed to be some kind of symbolism connected with the Union Jack and people on the streets were sometimes attacked or roughed up because they were wearing it.

I don’t recall the Union Jack being worn. I don’t know who would wear a Union Jack—you mean as a buttonhole? ... I don’t recall anybody ever wearing it frankly, you mean a civilian? ... Don’t recall it. Of course, we were cloistered more or less up in our barracks and we didn’t see much of the downtown except when we were patrolling the streets and that was—most of our patrol work was done at night, as a matter of fact.

Q. How did you get the money to pay for the horses?

The city of Winnipeg paid for it They gave me a blank cheque from the city of Winnipeg. Through the mayor.

Q. Did you then come under the orders of the Chief of Police?

No, he merely requested. He didn’t give orders. Once his own men had gone out, he said “You are in charge.”

Q. So you were in fact the Chief of the Police Department.

Ex officio, right.

Q. Looking back on it now, do you think that all that could have been avoided? What’s your judgement about that.

You couldn’t answer that unless you had been in Winnipeg prior to the disturbances and knew precisely the rights and wrongs on both sides. We were certainly not in any position to judge. We were simply to keep the streets open, to see that vandalism was held to a minimum, but as to the causes, whether the strikers had some rights on their side, which they possibly did, we had no way of telling. We were just back from France and England and that was that.

Page revised: 27 October 2012

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