Manitoba History: Jean Arsin’s Winnipeg General Strike Film
by Michael Dupuis
Without radio, television, and the Internet in 1919, Canadians and Americans relied almost exclusively upon commercial daily newspapers, wire services and wireless telegraphy for news and views of the Winnipeg General Strike.  The one notable exception to this media coverage was 350 feet of black and white film shot during the walkout and shown in Winnipeg’s Lyceum Theatre on 5 August 1919. The man responsible for shooting, processing, editing and presenting this film was Winnipeg filmmaker and freelance cameraman Jean Arsin. This article will provide information on Arsin, examine his Winnipeg strike footage, and discuss the fate of his film.
Who Was Jean Arsin?
Born in Quebec on 23 August 1887, Jean Arsin came to Winnipeg around 1909 and was the city’s chief filmmaker in the city until 1920.  Though nothing is known of his formal education and training, he became a pioneer animator in Manitoba and in 1910 from a makeshift cottage studio on Selkirk Street in Winnipeg’s North End, he and fellow cinematographer Charles Lambly created Canada’s first in a series of 35-mm paper-animated cartoons.  From 1915 to 1919 the bilingual Arsin was also Winnipeg stringer for Fox Movietone News. As well, during the First World War he established Winnipeg Publicity Studios in the Avenue Block on Portage Avenue. In 1920, Arsin left the Manitoba capital and moved to Montreal where in 1923 he established Cinecraft, a company specializing in producing publicity films. He continued as a documentary filmmaker in Quebec until the late 1940s making films including La Primeur Volee (1923), Diligamus vos (1926), La Restauration de l’Isle Sainte-Helene (1937), and Les Cantons-de-l’Est: jardin de la province de Quebec (1940). Arsin died at sixty-three in Montreal on 3 January 1950. 
A few more details about Arsin’s professional life emerged soon after the Winnipeg general strike. On 31 July 1919 Arsin wrote to the “City Council of Winnipeg” on “Winnipeg Publicity Studios” stationary inviting “city officials and their friends” to view a “private showing of the Winnipeg Strike events and Peace Celebration film at the Lyceum Theatre, Tuesday the 5th of August at eleven o’clock p.m.”  Arsin’s business letterhead advertised that he was a “Free-Lance Cameraman for Canadian and American News Weekly”, and in three self-promoting statements on the same letterhead offered an insight into the operation of his film studio: “Producer Of Industrial And Educational Films Motion Pictures Of Purely Canadian Interest “,”The Winnipeg Publicity Studios Tell Your Business Truthfully In A Screen Story”, and “Tell Us Your Business We Will Submit You Scenarios Absolutely Free Of Charge.”  Finally, Arsin’s stationary indicated the location of his studios: rooms “616 and 617 of the Avenue Block at 265 Portage Avenue.” 
Arsin’s Winnipeg Strike Film
Though Arsin’s late night 5 August film presentation at the Lyceum Theatre did take place and “the views”, according to North America’s leading moving picture review magazine of the day, “were truly realistic”, it is not known which city representatives, if any, attended the event, and, more importantly, what the complete strike footage showed.  What is certain though is that later in August, Arsin attempted to sell municipal officials “a moving picture record of the recent general strike disturbances in the city.”  This “moving picture record”, most likely the same film footage shown at the Lyceum on 5 August, was 350 feet long (between five and six minutes) and included “close-ups of the street-rioting.”  Though we do not know how much Arsin intended to charge municipal officials for his strike film, city records indicate that the “finance committee” turned down his offer “on the ground that the authorities already had an interesting record for the archives in the police court reports and other documents.”  Interestingly, only two of the seven aldermen on the finance committee had been supporters of the general strike. 
While the complete contents of Arsin’s 350 feet of strike footage may never be known, parts of his original film have survived. The National Film Board of Canada has a total of two minutes and forty-four seconds of footage comprised of four “clips.“ One clip (ID 16534) is fortyone seconds and captioned “School children learn how to ride bicycles during Winnipeg strike. Huge crowd in schoolyard. Man showing kids how to turn on bikes, how to ride properly (Saint John School).”  The second clip (ID 19780) is forty-five seconds and captioned “Mayor of Winnipeg Charles Frederick Gray at Victoria Park (06/19/19) haranguing the crowd during the Winnipeg strike PAN [panorama] over crowd of strikers listening. Various shots of strikers marching on street demonstrating. Police in bobby-type helmets can be seen in foreground. Various shots of veterans demonstrating.”  The third clip (ID 5652) is thirty-nine seconds and captioned “Static shot of streetcars in Winnipeg.”  The final clip (ID 16535) is nineteen seconds and captioned “Shots of streetcars in garage during Winnipeg general strike.” 
According to National Film Board records, the source for the first two clips is “an unspecified newsreel cameraman”, and the source for clips three and four is “Associated Screen News.”  Given that the footage in clips one and two was taken during the strike the “unspecified newsreel cameraman” was almost certainly Jean Arsin. Likewise, assuming that the footage in clips three and four of the streetcars was shot during the strike, the cameraman once again would have been Arsin. How National Film Board obtained these streetcar clips is unknown. However one possible explanation is that after he moved to Montreal in 1920 Arsin could have sold this footage to Associated Screen News, and subsequently Associated Screen News could have turned the footage over to the National Film Board when it was established in Montreal in 1939. 
The second source for a portion of Arsin’s strike film is British Pathe News Footage.  British Pathe released newsreels in North America using Canadian material shot by Canadian freelance cameramen combined with images from British and American editions of Pathe newsreels. With a release date of 28 August 1919, the Pathe clip related to the Winnipeg general strike is forty-four seconds and titled “Strike Trouble In Winnipeg. Winnipeg where strikers attend meetings and marches. Police are filmed making arrests.”  The description for the clip is “Strikers rally during a 6-week long strike in Winnipeg, Manitoba. LS [Long shot]. Mass meeting with banners, “Britons never shall be slaves.” LS Strikers marching through streets. Good shot from center of street with strikers marching toward camera and waving their hats, in 2 groups on either side of camera. LS Strikers marching through streets. LS Arrested strikers being taken away by police.”  Of note, with the exception of less than ten seconds of “Strike Trouble in Winnipeg”, (the portion showing the mass meeting with banners “Britons never shall be slaves”); the Pathe clip is identical to the forty-five second NFB clip (ID 19780). Thus, between National Film Board and British Pathe holdings there exists a total of two minutes and fifty-four seconds of Arsin’s original strike footage.
What Arsin’s Street Rioting Footage Might Explain
The close-ups of the street rioting mentioned in the August 1919 Moving Picture World review of Arsin’s strike footage were most likely filmed in Winnipeg on either 10 June or 21 June. During the afternoon of 10 June 1919, a clash occurred at the intersection of Main Street and Portage Avenue between a mounted troop of baton-wielding “special police” and a large crowd of strikers, pro-strike veterans, strike sympathizers and men, women and children onlookers. There were many injuries during the fracas including two broken ribs to Frederick Coppins, a mounted special who was also a decorated (Victoria Cross) veteran. Then on 21 June 1919, subsequently known as “Bloody Saturday” after a 23 June headline in the strikers’ paper the Western Labor News, a much larger confrontation took place in the vicinity of City Hall starting at 2:30 p.m. This event involved a troop of armed and mounted RNWMP officers, 1,500 special police and hundreds of militia enforcing the Riot Act against a crowd of approximately 6,000 pro-strike veterans, strikers, and strike sympathizers as well as men, women and children onlookers. The ensuing violence resulted in the shooting death of registered alien Mike Sokolowski, injuries to many citizens and several Mounties, and arrests of nearly 100 Winnipeggers.
If the film Arsin attempted to sell to Winnipeg city officials in August 1919 included authentic close-ups of the street rioting of either 10 June or 21 June, the footage would have perhaps solved several controversies arising from events of those two days. First, was special policeman Frederick Coppins pulled from his horse and beaten by enemy aliens (foreigners) during the June 10 fracas as the Manitoba Free Press, Winnipeg Telegram and Winnipeg Tribune and many other North American daily papers sensationally reported.  Or instead, as the strikers defence committee later stated, did pro-strike returned soldiers in fact assault Coppins?  Or, as Coppins himself testified on 8 August 1919 at the strike leaders’ preliminary hearing, did his injuries result not by a beating but by being dismounted when the horse he was riding ran away after being struck by a flying bottle?  Second, during Bloody Saturday was Mike Sokolowski, as reported by the Manitoba Free Press, throwing a “missile” at the RNWMP on horseback when he was killed instantly in front of the Manitoba Hotel, or was he, as some contend to this day, an innocent bystander and victim of either a stray or intentionally fired Mountie bullet?  Third, were RNWMP officers on horseback fired upon from the roofs and windows of buildings as also headlined in the Free Press?  Finally, did the RNWMP fire into the crowds in front of City Hall before, during or after Mayor Gray read the Riot Act? 
Where is the Remainder of Arsin’s Footage?
Though parts of Arsin’s original film footage of the strike have survived intact at National Film Board and with British Pathe, what has happened to the remaining minutes, including the close-ups of street rioting? There are several possibilities. First, the missing footage might still be in Winnipeg left by Arsin in rooms 616 and 617 of his Winnipeg Publicity Studios in Avenue Block at 265 Portage Avenue. Though the Avenue Block building has been unoccupied for the past fifteen years, it still exists and there is the possibility that before Arsin left Winnipeg for Montreal in 1920 he placed his strike film in a metal canister and left or hid it in his studios.  Second, the next occupants of Arsin’s studios might have discovered his film.  Third, before he left Winnipeg, Arsin might have given the film to a Winnipeg colleague such as Charles Lambly.  Fourth, Arsin might have taken the film with him to Montreal when he moved there from Winnipeg in 1920. If this were the case he would have likely stored the film canister in his Montreal film studio Cinecraft.  Fifth, following the refusal by Winnipeg city officials in August 1919 to buy his strike film, Arsin might have sold it to British Pathe News, Fox Movietone News or Associated Screen News.  Finally, the possibility exists that the missing parts of Arsin’s strike film have been either destroyed or lost. 
1. For information on the press coverage of the Winnipeg general strike see my work “A Unique Career In Canadian Journalism: William R. Plewman of the Toronto Daily Star” Canadian Journal of Media Studies, 2007, vol. 1, p. 2. “Main Johnson: Reporting the Winnipeg General Strike for the Toronto Star” Prairie Forum, 2007, vol. 2 , p. 32. “Manitoba’s Own Kentucky Colonel” Manitoba History, February 2009, p. 60, “Remembering John J. Conklin” Manitoba History February 2007, p.54, “The Toronto Star and the Winnipeg General Strike” Manitoba History, June 2005, p. 49, “William R. Plewman, The Toronto Daily Star, and the reporting of the Winnipeg General Strike” Labour/ Le Travail, 2006, p. 57, “Winnipeg’s Red Scare” The Beaver, August 2007, and “Who Wrote the Stories? The Record Is Silent” Winnipeg Free Press, 21 June 2009. Also, on 4 January 2010 I conducted an interview with Winnipeg CBC Radio One’s Morning Show concerning Arsin’s Winnipeg Strike film.
2. The source for most of the biographical information on Arsin’s is his profile on the Manitoba Historical Society’s web collection Memorable Manitobans (www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people). My search for “Jean Arsin” in the extensive Manitobia web site (Manitobia) provided a total of nine entries in 1915 and 1916 among francophone papers Le Manitoba, La Liberte and Libre Parole. However, the entries almost exclusively referred to a “professeur” Jean Arsin with expertise in musical presentations. Thus, it is very unlikely this is the same Jean Arsin who produced the Winnipeg Strike film in 1919.
3. For information on Charles Lambly see his profile in Memorable Manitobans (www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/lambly_cm.shtml).
4. “Diligamus vos” was later renamed “Aimez-vous”.
5. Winnipeg General Strike Records, City of Winnipeg, Council Communications, Document 11950. The City of Winnipeg Archives provided a copy of Arsin’s 31 July 1919 letter to City Council.
6. Winnipeg General Strike Records, City of Winnipeg, Council Communications, Document 11950.
8. Moving Picture World, 1919, vol. 41, , p. 1350-1351. I thank Professor Gene Walz of the University of Manitoba for providing a copy of this publication.
9. Ibid. According to film experts, depending upon whether Arsin’s 350 feet of black and white footage was shot using 16 mm or 35 mm film, its length would have been between 5 and 6 minutes.
10. Moving Picture World, 1919, vol. 41, pp. 1350-1351.
11. Ibid. In the “Municipal Manual of the City of Winnipeg”, 1919, p. 20 states: “Council for 1919 … Committee on Finance Ald. F. O. Fowler, Chairman, Ald. J. K. Sparling, Ald. Geo. Fisher, Ald. A. L. MacLean, Ald. A. A. Heaps, Ald. R. H. Hamlin, Ald. J. L. Wiginton, and Secretary—M. Peterson.” I thank the Winnipeg Public Library for this information.
12. Aldermen Heaps and Wiginton were strong supporters of the strike.
13. National Film Board (NFB), http://images.nfb.ca/images/pages/en/ index.html, Shot ID 16534.
14. NFB, http://images.nfb.ca/images/pages/en/index.html, Shot ID 19780.
17. I thank Ragnhild Milewski of the NFB for information on the sources for the four strike clips.
18. The Canadian Pacific Railway incorporated Associated Screen News of Canada in 1920 and established the company’s headquarters in Montreal. While Associated Screen News produced the majority of newsreels, shorts and industrial films in Canada and remained active until 1958, for many years Fox Movietone News had its own cameramen, including Arsin, in Canada producing newsreels with Canadian content for North American audiences.
19. White Production Archives (WPA) Film Library, www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=29391. WPA Film Library is an American commercial archive that represents British Pathe newsreels in North America. WPA confirmed that it holds no other Winnipeg General Strike film clips, but it was unable to provide details on who originally shot and produced the film footage. See also footnote
20. 20. WPA Film Library, www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=29391. The British Pathe release date of 28 August 1919 provided by WPA almost certainly proves this clip was once part of Arsin’s strike footage.
21. WPA Film Library, www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=29391.
22. The Coppins’ incident provoked lively and usually inaccurate frontpage headlines and accounts in many mainstream newspapers. For reaction by Winnipeg’s three dailies see “Sergt. Coppins V.C. Narrowly Escaped Death at Hands of Aliens During Riot” Manitoba Free Press (MFP), 11 June 1919; “Sergeant Coppins Rallies Quickly From His Hurts and Several Ribs Broken By Alien Boots” Winnipeg Telegram, 11 June 1919; and “Victoria Cross Hero Attacked In Street By Austrian Thugs” Winnipeg Tribune, 11 June 1919. For dailies outside of Winnipeg on 11 and 12 June see “Man Who Won Victoria Cross Is Injured By Winnipeg Mob And Not Likely To Recover” Victoria Daily Colonist, “Returned V.C. Man, Acting As Policeman, Kicked and Injured; Fatal Results Feared” Vancouver Daily Sun, “Victoria Cross Man Dangerously Injured In First Strike Clash” Toronto Mail and Empire, “Winner of Victoria Cross Pulled from His Horse and Badly Mauled by Rioters” Charlottetown Island Patriot, “Strikers Battle Police” Chicago Daily Tribune, and “Victoria Cross Hero Beaten In Street Fight” San Francisco Chronicle. Almost all of the newspaper stories about Coppins alleged he was pulled from his horse and so badly beaten that he was not expected to live. As well, the accounts uniformly reported his ribs were broken by kicks and he suffered serious head injuries. For example, the Victoria Daily Colonist reported that he was injured by “severe kicks.” Finally, several Canadian papers also made foreigners responsible for Coppins’ injuries. The Vancouver Daily Province, Edmonton Journal and Calgary Daily Herald accused “foreign rioters” of beating Coppins, the Montreal Gazette, Quebec City Chronicle, and Toronto World blamed “two Austrians”, and the Toronto Globe stated Coppins’ “man assailants were aliens.”
23. Winnipeg Defense Committee, “Saving The World From Democracy” The Winnipeg General Sympathetic Strike May-June 1919, pp. 127-128.
24. Archives of Manitoba, M268 Preliminary Hearing Testimony, The King v William Ivens, R. J. Johns et al Testimony of Frederick Coppins 8 August 1919. During the preliminary hearing, the Manitoba Free Press also reported that “He [Coppins] said his injuries had been caused by a bottle, which struck his ribs. He did not say he had been pulled from his horse by the mob.” MFP, 12 August 1919.
25. See “Mike Sokolowski, a Registered Alien Shot Through Heart and Instantly Killed, Presumably While Stooping to Pick Up Missile” MFP, 23 June 1919. The Tribune also provided extensive news coverage of the events of Bloody Saturday. On 23, June the paper’s front-page main story included a head and shoulders photo of Sokolowski and was headlined “Killed In Act Of Hurling Rock At Mounted Policemen.” The story reported that “spectators to the shooting allege he [Sokolowski] had been particularly active in throwing missiles at the police and was in the act of hurling a stone at one of the mounted men when he was shot down.” Unfortunately, the anonymous Tribune reporter did not provide the names of the spectators who witnessed Sokolowski’s actions.
26. See “Police Fired On From Roofs and Windows” MFP, 23 June 1919.
27. See “Police Did Not Open Fire Until Several Minutes After Riot Act Was Read, and in Majority of Cases Fired Into Pavement” MFP, 23 June 1919. In Canada, the Riot Act has been incorporated in a modified form into ss. 32-33 and 64-69 of the Criminal Code of Canada and requires the assembled people to disperse within thirty minutes. In the case of Mayor Gray’s reading of the Riot Act on the steps of City Hall, there was certainly insufficient time given to those assembled to leave the vicinity before the RNWMP began firing the first of three volleys. While the Winnipeg press did not offer any criticism of the role played by Mayor Gray and the RNWMP in the shooting during Bloody Saturday, the editor of at least one major Western daily, the Edmonton Bulletin, wrote back-to-back articles challenging the accuracy of events reported in the Free Press. See the Bulletin “The Winnipeg Riots” (23 June) and “The Law Must Be Supreme” (24 June). The 24 June editorial went so far as to state: “Was the riot act read before the volley was fired, and if not who gave the order to fire?… It is to be hoped that the time has not yet come when constituted authority rules by force instead of law.”
28. Winnipeg CBC producer Gary Hunter provided information on the Avenue Block, which is currently owned by a government redevelopment agency and slated for restoration.
29. According to Henderson’s City Directory for 1920, there were no listings for rooms 616 and 617 Avenue Block. It appears Arsin’s studios remained empty for months after he left Winnipeg. In 1921 and 1922, proprietors William and Robert R. Gunn of John Gunn & Sons Limited (general contractors, builders and suppliers) rented both 616 and 617.
30. During the 1920s and 1930s Lambly worked as a photographer in Winnipeg. He eventually moved to Vancouver where he died at forty-seven on 14 April 1940.
31. Arsin established Cinecraft in 1923.
32. This scenario seems quite possible and there is evidence that points to at least one of these three companies, Associated News Service, having obtained two parts of Arsin’s strike footage.
33. The film could have been intentionally destroyed or destroyed by time. According to Shirley Hughes of the Toronto Film Society, if the film still does exist and it was shot on 16 mm, for cost and ease of use it would have been done on “safety” stock. If the film was shot on 35 mm, it probably was done on nitrate stock and this would make it very flammable and more prone to deterioration by dust and “goo.”
Page revised: 7 March 2023