Manitoba History: The Third Force: Returned Soldiers in the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919
by Uduak Idiong
Introduction - Winnipeg, May 15, 1919
Canada’s third largest city, a booming prairie town, came to a stand-still. All utilities and services closed down. There were no streetcars, no garbage collections, no milk or bread deliveries, no mail, no telephones and no entertainment services. Water pressure was reduced to a level catering to one-storey buildings. By the end of the day over 30,000 working men and women, both unionised and non-unionised, had walked off their jobs and the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 had begun.  It would last for six weeks and end on Bloody Saturday in a pro-strike demonstration turned violent, leaving one person dead and thirty others injured. The strikers were opposed by business owners, all three levels of government (municipal, provincial and federal) and an anti-strike Citizens Committee of 1,000 and would eventually collapse to this wall of opposition. The Strike was not an insignificant local confrontation, but part of a large scale movement of dissatisfaction throughout the world. At the time of its occurrence, the Strike made news all over the world from as far away as Sydney, Australia and London, England where the dock workers refused to unload Canadian ships to show their support.
In many ways Winnipeg was a city at war with itself. The city was divided socially, economically, geographically and ethnically. While labour and business battled for power, there was also the ethnic problem. Winnipeg was divided into people of British origin and the more recent immigrants, mostly from Eastern Europe. These immigrants inhabited the area north of the CPR rail tracks, which provided not only a physical division between rich and poor but also an ethnic schism. During the war as Canadians fought in their home countries, these immigrants became potential enemies. These immigrants were labelled ‘aliens’ and lost most of their rights, such as freedom of speech and their Canadian citizenship. 
Although the Strike was for wages and working conditions, it was no accident that it should occur just after World War I. These problems had always existed, but the war served to suppress and later to aggravate them. The war brought inflation, increasing the cost of living while wages lagged behind.  It aggravated the already difficult relations between labour and business; union activity was curbed and workers were asked to sacrifice for the war effort, while they saw business profiting more and more. The government had promised a better future after the war. For Canadians to have sacrificed over 60,000 men and for nothing to have changed, was a bitter pill to swallow.
What of the men who had fought and survived? When the thousands of men returned to Winnipeg seeking the promised ‘New Jerusalem,’ they found instead their jobs taken by the ‘aliens,’ a deadly Spanish influenza epidemic, and the city involved in a new war. The war may have ended but the battle between Labour and Business raged on in Winnipeg.
For years the Strike was Canada’s ‘dirty little secret’ and historians avoided the topic all together. It was not until 1950, when D. C. Masters wrote his book, that the dispute began to be investigated.  Much since has been written on the Winnipeg General Strike. The historical debate is whether the strike was really a labour dispute about wages and work conditions or an attempt of a Bolshevik revolution, linked to the ‘Red Scare’ gripping North America at the time. Most historians tend to emphasize the actions of the strikers and their opponents. But what of the role of the returning soldier?
This essay will attempt to evaluate the importance of a third force in the strike: the returned soldiers. It will show they were a volatile force, capable of resorting to violence if their needs were not met and capable of tipping the balance of events. Although they were divided, some supporting the strikers and others not, what they had in common was their demand for the fulfilment of the promises made to them before the war, and their hatred for the ‘alien.’ The veterans participation in the Strike changed its nature and its outcome. The protagonists should have been Labour and the Employers; in addition, they become the veterans, the ‘aliens’ and by necessity all three levels of government. The modus operandi was to be peaceful:
Instead it became a series of violent confrontations. When asked how the soldiers would get their way a veteran leader replied ‘the way we did in France.’ 
Veterans in Winnipeg
Winnipeg, with its 67.4% British population, had sent the highest proportion of soldiers in Canada to war.  For them, demobilisation would not be easy as the ditty would suggest. When the war was over, the federal government had the massive task of bringing the men back to Canada. It was warned that demobilisation should be done gradually at a rate that would allow for the integration of the men back into the economy.  After many problems the men were finally sent home in order of ‘first over, first back.’ Due to these haphazard plans, 3400 men per month returned to Canada  and hundreds found themselves dumped back into Winnipeg and the surrounding area. War production had abruptly ceased and the immense number of returned soldiers that were thrust into the job market in the winter of 1918/1919 led to high unemployment and a fear of the pre-war depression of 1913 returning.
Soldiers were returning before the armistice and continued to do so until the end of 1919, including the months of the Strike. Both Labour and its opponents saw the veterans as potential allies and were concerned with how they would react to the Strike. Neither side knew in which camp the veterans loyalties lay, but they had evidence of their tendency to volatility and violence. Before their arrival in Canada, in the Rhyll  and Kimnel  Riots, disgruntled soldiers rioted over the slow pace of demobilisation, destroying shops which they believed to be profiting from their situation:
Back in Winnipeg, the veterans’ anger took the form of an attack on the Socialist Party headquarters on Smith Street on January 26, where they stormed the hall, pushed a piano out the window and threw books and pamphlets from the Party library. They then burnt the piano and literature. On January 28 a group of veterans visited Swift meat packing plant and demanded the alien workers be fired. There were reports of soldiers roaming Winnipeg looking for ‘aliens’ to intimidate and subjecting those found to ‘humiliating acts signifying their loyalty to Canada.’  The violence was not random, it was directed against the Socialist, who criticised the involvement of Canadian troops in the Allied attack of Russia, and against the ‘alien.’ Anti-immigrant feelings were part of the veteran make-up. One such Socialist was Sam Blumenberg; his cleaning shop on Portage Avenue, Minneapolis Dye House, was wrecked by a group of veterans. On their return from the war, the veterans sought out scapegoats for their problems and the ‘alien,’ who held the jobs they had given up to go to war, became the object of their frustrations. They persuaded themselves that the elimination of ‘foreigners’ would punish their wartime enemies and help with their re-establishment. 
The threat of the Strike was mentioned by the local papers, but it was overshadowed by the imminent return of the 16th battalion, the Canadian Scottish, and by the growing confrontation between the veteran and the alien. On May 1st, an eastern Member of Parliament accused the Manitoba government of exempting enemy aliens from deportation. The next day, the Great War Veterans Association (GWVA) began proceedings, demanding that aliens deemed disloyal by the Alien Investigation Board (AIB) should be deported and all but $75 of their property be confiscated and given to soldiers’ orphans and widows. After Premier Norris informed them that the AIB had no authority to deport aliens, veterans held mass meetings and tracked down The Socialist Bulletin. 
The Struggle for the Veteran
Despite the veterans being an uncontrollable element, both the strikers and the opponents made attempts to involve them in their cause. Both the Strike Committee and the opposing Citizens’ Committee of 1,000 asked the neutral GWVA to send members to join them. Why would either side want this uncontrollable element?
The veteran was important because he had shown his loyalty and sense of duty in fighting for the country. He was a hero and a figure of authority, especially in uniform. Whichever side he took would be the right side; in the eyes of many he would add legitimacy to either side. If the veterans had exclusively supported the opponents of the Strike, it would have been easy for the government to have ended the Strike forcibly and much earlier, but with so many veterans supporting the strikers the government had to be more careful.
The government courted the veteran by promising the establishment of an Alien Investigation Board, whose job was to issue cards to ‘loyal’ aliens and deport ‘disloyal’ ones.  Labour accused the employers of having
The Citizen, the official mouth piece of the Citizens’ Committee of 1,000 created during the strike, made attempts to sway the veterans to their side, stressing the alien problem, labelling the Strike as a Bolshevik revolution and praising the veteran’s sacrifice. 
The veterans would not side with those who devalued their sacrifices by criticising the war or the wartime Canadian government. And there were certainly strike leaders who were both pro-Bolshevik and critical of Canada’s military role in Russia, her war effort and conscription. Sam Blumenberg claimed that ‘Bolshevism is the only thing that will emancipate the working class ... There are thousands of men coming back who went over to fight.’ They say, ‘We have fought for this and by the gods, we are going to own it,’ and Frederick Dixon openly criticised the war, saying that it was fought for the increased benefit of the rich. 
Why then did the veterans support the strikers? Avery states that ‘the enlistment of veterans to the ranks of the strikers can be attributed to the active educational campaign launched by the local socialists.’  A quick look at the Western Labour News Daily Strike Bulletins shows at least one article pertaining to the veterans or a letter from a veteran, indignant at his situation, writing in to move others to support the Strike. The strikers reminded the veteran that the alien had been brought to Canada ‘as abject slaves’ by the government and employers.  The strikers had always wanted veteran support for they had seen that workers and soldiers councils had overthrown the Russian tsar.  According to labour historian Norman Penner, the Strike Committee sacrificed the immigrant labourers for this support, leaving foreigners out of the Committee.  It was clear who was more important. The strikers would even turn their back on fellow workers. Relations between labour and immigrant workers had never been good. The immigrant would usually work for less, was not unionised and was used by employers as strike breakers.
The veterans were violent, but no one dared curb their activity. On commenting on the attacks made on January 28, R. B. Russell noted ‘that the rioting veterans committed their worst excesses when “smartly dressed officers ... [and] prominent members of the Board of Trade” had urged them on.’  The police and military security officers made no effort to protect the foreigners. The same would be true during the Strike; neither side would actively try to stop the veterans, and the government would use the violence to its advantage.
The returning soldiers were the most opposed to Bolshevism and revolution, but many did support the strikers. Estimated numbers for the proportion of veterans that were pro-strike vary, some people place the figures as high as eighty-five percent , either way, there was a high proportion of veterans supporting the Strike. It is most likely that these men had been workers and maybe union members before they had gone to war, and on their return they joined the strikers. These men were against business who had profited from the war while they had gone to fight, and the situation of workers had remained unchanged. The men came back to find war widows living in poverty on small pensions and wages and saw the likes of Flavelle and Deacon, owners of big businesses, making record profits. The government was also slow to resolve these problems.  Again, the ‘alien’ problem was to sway the veterans. The immigrant worker was disliked by both labour and the veteran alike. And both agreed that after the Strike they should meet to ‘resolve’ the problem of the alien. Some veterans may not have supported the Strike completely, but saw it as a step towards achieving their own ends, which was getting back their jobs along with job security for the future.
Although many veterans were sympathetic to the strikers they would do things their own way. Many of the well-known incidents of the Strike were orchestrated more by the veterans than the Strike Committee. On May 29, a meeting of pro-strike veterans was called by Ex-Sergeant A. E. Moore, an employee of the provincial government in charge of the Alien Investigation Board. As a result, a delegation of 2,000 veterans visited the Premier and his Cabinet demanding special legislation to make collective bargaining compulsory for every employer in the province. The veterans were fed up with the status quo; they wanted immediate action. They demanded that the police ultimatum be withdrawn, and accused the Committee of 1,000 of using their influence to have the regular police, who were sympathetic to the strikers, removed and replaced with the militia. The militia on the streets were one step away from breaking the Strike. They called on the Premier to use his authority to curb the press and their attacks on the Strike leaders and the Strike as being Bolshevik. They left saying that they would not stand for threats of Martial Law and would not back down until Collective Bargaining and a living wage were granted. They informed the Premier that they would return the next day to hear his reply to their demands.
On May 31, a group of 10,000 veterans (5% of the population of Winnipeg) marched to the provincial legislation to hear the Premier’s reply.
Thousands packed into the Legislature and still thousands more waited outside in the rain. They did not hear what they wanted. The Premier told them that he had passed on their message to the press and had told City Council of their annoyance over the police ultimatum. When discussing the ultimatums he claimed that they were matters out of his control. He informed them that representatives of the Railway Brotherhoods were meeting with employees to settle the Strike. The Premier then asked the veterans to use their influence to end the sympathetic strike and convince the Trades and Labour Council to send someone to negotiate. This done he promised that the government would do everything in its power to settle the dispute. The veterans were not satisfied and called for the government to resign as it had accomplished nothing.
The veterans were moved to City Hall to talk to the Mayor. Council was in session but Mayor Gray adjourned to speak to the veterans. Once again they broached the subjects discussed with the Premier, especially that of the policemen, pointing out that the police had done all they could to maintain law and order an that most of the police were returned men who understood loyalty, having shown it at the front during the war. This meeting ended with the crowd booing the Mayor back into City Hall, but later that day the police ultimatum was suspended for a week. Had it been because of the veterans? Most likely, but it did not satisfy the veterans and they planned more marches. They would not give up until they were given a living wage and the right to organise. 
The pro-strike veterans had a strong impact on the strikers. Their support helped maintain the morale of the strikers and added credibility to the Strike. People could not easily believe that the Strike was a Bolshevik revolution when the strikers were being supported by the nations heroes. A June 14 dispatch to the London Times says, ‘The gravity of the situation is accentuated by the certainty a percentage of the returned soldiers are in sympathy with the strikers.’  The Strike Committee had been eager to gain the support of the veterans, but they had not fully anticipated how uncontrollable the veterans would be. While the Strike Committee warned its members not to hold demonstrations or mass meetings  after Premier Norris declared them illegal, the veterans still continued to hold them. Ironically it was this much desired support that would break the Strike.
Although the GWVA claimed neutrality, its men made up their own minds and took sides - not all returned men were pro-strike. For the most part, middle-class officers were decidedly anti-strike; one only has to look at Colonel Frederick Thompson, a lawyer who became a spokesperson for an anti-strike veterans group. According to Penner, the rank-and-file soldiers were most likely to remain neutral or pro-strike, but were persuaded by the red-scare propaganda to become anti-strike.  These men emphasised loyalty to ‘King and Country’ and believed that the Strike undermined these things. They saw that the government must make changes, but were willing to go about making reforms through the ‘proper channels.’ They too were angered by inflation and the high cost of living but their main concern was that of the alien. They believed that the alien was the cause of all their problems from unemployment to the spread of socialism/communism throughout Canada. And the only solution was for the deportation of the aliens and the confiscation of their possessions, the proceeds of which would be used to pay for veterans pensions.
On June 4, the first anti-strike veterans march was held to counter the earlier pro-strike veterans parade. This time 2,000 men marched to the Legislature to see the Premier and to assure him they would “assist duly elected authority in re-establishment of law and order.”  The Premier thanked them for their support and once again told them that the Strike must end before his government would confirm the right to collective bargaining. Like the pro-strike veterans, they would march again. Interestingly enough on June 5, both pro- and anti-striker veterans were parading in Winnipeg. While pro-strikers marched through the rich residential area of the south, which must have been quite daunting for the residents, the anti-strikers marched downtown. They would never meet thanks to the foresight of the leaders, who organised runners between the parades to avoid any possible clashes.
On June 6, Thompson, a returned soldier and lawyer, created the Loyalist Returned Soldiers Association after failing to convince the GWVA to abandon its policy of neutrality. Once formed, a President and Executive Officers were appointed to give assistance to the three governments. When the City asked for volunteers for its Special Police force to replace the regular police, who had voted to strike, members of the association stepped forward and were sworn in.  They stated that they were acting to maintain the loyalty sworn to the City and were handsomely rewarded, being paid $6 per day which was double the temporary discharge allowance of re-turned soldiers.  ‘It had taken the “Regulars,” a well organized, well disciplined force, many years of hard fighting to get a living wage, but the forces of reaction were willing to pay 2,000 green hands a larger salary without hesitation.’  They may have sworn to maintain law and order, but the actions of the Specials were sometimes quite the opposite. The day after being sworn in, a riot broke out between Specials and a crowd on Portage and Main and two days later there was an incident involving a Special who clubbed a man for not obeying him. A crowd appeared and the incident ended with the Special shooting a gun an accidentally injuring another Special. There were complaints about the Specials. However there was never any attempt by the authorities to stop these lawless acts.
The Loyalist Association also volunteered their services to man the fire-stations and alarms and to operate the streetcars. They also formed a militia that would play a part in the crushing of the Strike. Although Thompson claims that, “the Citizens Committee of 1,000 had nothing to do with the organisation and actions of the ex-soldiers of the Canadian Corps and their Loyalist Association in their efforts to go to the assistance of the lawful authority,” the Association nevertheless became identified with the Committee.
Around June 13th, both the pro-and anti-veterans held secret discussions to clear up ‘the question as to whether or not there was a Red element and object underlying the strike.’  Later, the Strike Committee sent four men, Winning, Russell, Scoble and Pritchard,  and the meeting was chaired by Canon Scott.  Thompson says when he asked where the strikers stood on the Bolshevik issue he got four different answers. The anti-strike committee left convinced that the strike was strongly influenced by ‘the Red element and the O.B.U.’ Both groups of veterans did reach a tentative conclusion on the Alien question and collective bargaining. Thompson notes that ‘probably both sides [were] after the same objective—a more capable and sympathetic Government—but differ in their consideration of the methods of obtaining this desirable result.’  The meetings were cut short by an order from Ottawa for the return of Canon Scott to his base, leaving things unresolved. 
This essay has shown the importance of the role of the veteran in the Strike. One cannot look at the Strike as being just an ‘epic labour struggle,’ for the events that happened involved not just the employers and the strikers. The crucial role of the pro-strike and anti-strike veterans can be seen in Bloody Saturday, the climax of the Strike.
Around midnight on June 16th, the police arrested the Strike leaders. Their houses, along with the Ukrainian Church, the Labour Temple and the Liberty Temple, were all searched for seditious material. Pro-strike veterans, not pleased with this action, organised a silent parade, against the wishes of the Strike Committee, to protest what they saw as an undemocratic act. The authorities made a failed last minute attempt to stop the parade. Thousands of veterans and strikers, along with their wives and children marched on June 21st. They planned to march to the Royal Alexandra Hotel to speak with Senator Robertson about the arrests, but things got out of control.
As the crowds gathered on Main Street, there was growing concern about whether the Specials could handle the situation. It was then that the Citizens’ Committee of 1,000 got its wish—the Mounted Police and the militia were called in. Mounted men in red and khaki  coats arrived on the scene and charged the crowd, while on the steps of City Hall, Mayor Gray read the riot act. Bloody Saturday had begun. During the ensuing rioting, a tram was tipped and lit on fire; there was also intense fighting between the crowd and Specials in alleys. Bloody Saturday has always been viewed as a battle between the police, strikers and the ‘alien,’ but it was just as much a battle between pro-strike veterans and anti-strike veterans. The Riot ended with two men dead, numerous casualties and ninety-four arrests.  Bloody Saturday had given the government the justification to call in the militia and forcibly break the Strike.
The strikers had wanted to show that a peaceful refusal to work could bring them victory, as the workers had in the Civic Strike of 1918, but by the end, the Strike had become more than just a labour dispute. The Strike of 1918 a few months earlier had been less radical when there were fewer veterans. The pro-strike veterans, with their eagerness for action, had taken the last stand and unknowingly done more damage than good for their cause.  The Strike was crushed and a year later an anti-strike veteran would claim that he and his fellow supporters had saved the nation during the Strike.  We can never really know the complete role of the veteran because of the lack of documentation and the atmosphere of secrecy that surrounded the Strike. By the time an interest was shown, most of the people who had lived through the Strike were no longer around to piece together the puzzle. The story of third force would become the missing chapter in the story of the Strike.
1. The population of Winnipeg at the time was 200,000.
2. Most ‘enemy aliens’ were sent to internment camps and a few were deported.
3. There was widespread belief among workers that inflation was high. Research differs on this point, so the real economic situation at the time is not known.
4. Masters began the debate about whether or not the Strike was a revolution. He concluded that it was really a labour dispute. He shows the importance of the Strike in the creation of the Labour movement in Western Canada.
5. J. M. Bumsted. “The Winnipeg General Strike reconsidered.” The Beaver: Exploring Canada’s History, June/July 1994, 36.
6. As quoted from the Western Labour News Strike Bulletin, May 20. D.C. Masters The Winnipeg General Strike. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1950), 48.
8. Desmond Morton and Glenn Wright. Winning the Second Battle. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), 1.
11. Charles Lipton. The Trade Union Movement of Canada: 1827-1959. (Montreal: NC Press, 1978), 185.
12. Thompson to Winnipeg Free Press, letter, F. G. Thompson Collection, Provincial Archives of Manitoba, 2. This letter was written in 1969, when Winnipeg was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Strike. Thompson said he wrote the letter to clear up the hearsay concerning the ‘intervention of ex-soldiers on the side of governmental authority, and the reasons for the intervention.’
13. Morton and Wright, 110-112.
14. Canada Chronicle, 1990 ed., 591.
15. J. M. Bumsted The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919: An Illustrated History. (Canada: Watson & Dwyer, 1994), 21-22.
18. Bumsted, 75. Loyalty was determined by the testimony of two reliable people. They had to declare that in the last four years the alien had been a loyal citizen.
19. Norman Penner. Winnipeg 1919. 2nd ed. (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1975), 93.
20. David R. Hampton. The Winnipeg General Strike 1919: Portrayal by the Media As A Bolshevik Revolution. 1986.
22. Donald Avery. ‘Dangerous Foreigners.’ (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1983), 84.
25. Penner, 46.
26. Avery, 83. Taken from OBU Collection, R. B. Russell to Victor Midgley, January 29, 1919.
27. Penner, 46.
28. Demobilisation was difficult for Canadians, who had never had such a massive number of veterans before. The army had been made up of volunteers and conscripts, who were paid $1.10 per day. On their return they had to fight for pensions, jobs and housing. Earlier veterans had been left as cripples to beg on streets or were dependant on family, friends or public charities. WWI was different; there had been too much sacrifice for the men to go unnoticed, something had to be done. Morton and Wright’s book is aptly named, as for many veterans integration back into civilian life was another battle.
29. Penner, 84-95.
31. After June 9 veterans began holding mass meetings in Victoria Park, which became known as the Soldiers’ Parliament. Strikers also used this park and after the Strike the city had it paved over in a symbolic gesture.
32. Penner, 129.
33. Penner, 109.
34. Thompson to Winnipeg Free Press, letter, 7-8.
35. Gerald Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984), 362.
36. Penner, 127.
37. Thompson claims that the Strike Committee called the meetings to ‘discuss differences’ in an endeavour to convince the anti-strike veterans to take a neutral stand.
38. These men had all immigrated from the British Isles and were important men in the Strike Committee. Winning was the President of the Trades and Labour Council; Russell, a labour radical and leader of the One Big Union (OBU), would later go on to form the CCF - a labour party; Scoble would later break with the TLC when it became affiliated with the OBU and Pritchard, organiser of the OBU, took over Winnings’ position in July 1919 when the TLC affiliated with the OBU. Pritchard and Russell were amongst the leaders arrested on June 16/17.
39. Rector of St. Matthews’ Church, Quebec, and canon of the cathedral. He was the beloved and famous ‘Padre’ of the soldiers for his personal courage and for his understanding of the soldiers problems.
40. Thompson to Veterans, 1919 letter, F. G. Thompson Collection, Provincial Archives of Manitoba, 1.
41. Thompson wonders what might have happened had Canon Scott stayed to address the planned gathering of returned soldiers on the subject of the Strike. The Canon had come to the conclusion that the Strike Committee had gone too far. Had he talked to the men, might he have persuaded some pro-strike veterans to leave the side of the strikers and, therefore, ended the Strike earlier? We will have to wonder along with Thompson.
43. Bumsted, 56. The khaki coats were Mounted Policemen who had just returned from fighting in Russia with the British North Russian Expeditionary Force.
44. The police and the militia were the ones with arms, smuggled into Winnipeg, and the Specials wielded baseball bats and wagon yokes. While the strikers resorted to rock and bottle throwing, it is not believed that this side was armed. Of the two people that died, one died instantly and the other later of gangrene developed from his gun wound. Countless injuries went unreported and some ‘aliens’ were deported for their role in the Riot.
Page revised: 26 September 2012