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Manitoba History: Book Review: Reinhold Kramer and Tom Mitchell, When the State Trembled: How A. J. Andrews and the Citizens' Committee Broke the Winnipeg General Strike

by Greg Thomas
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 71, Winter 2013

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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There is no doubt that the participants and the events surrounding the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike have generated considerable academic and popular attention over the years. One tends to forget, however, that the standard accounts by scholars such as D. C. Masters, Kenneth McNaught and David J. Bercuson were published over thirty-five years ago. Consequently, the time for a new and refreshing examination of the Winnipeg General Strike is long overdue. With their recent publication and evocative title, When the State Trembled, the co-authors from Brandon university, English professor Reinhold Kramer and Archivist Tom Mitchell, have presented their audience with an extraordinarily well-researched and revitalized interpretation and analysis of the Winnipeg General Strike.

If one harkens back to the earlier historiography, one might recall that the strike leaders in May 1919 were relatively well known and sympathetically portrayed, particularly by that generation of labour historians. Students of the events understood the role of the state primarily through the lens surrounding the participation and actions of the acting Minister of Justice, Arthur Meighen and his hard-nosed colleague, Minister of Labour, Gideon Robertson. What Kramer and Mitchell have accomplished in their publication is to pull the reluctant leadership of the Citizens’ Committee back on the main stage to illustrate how they exerted a dominant influence over the events during and after the Winnipeg General Strike. Specifically, this leadership would be in the persons of Isaac Pitblado, Travers Sweatman, James B. Coyne, Edward Anderson, Ed Parnell and especially A. J. Andrews. Ironically, Kramer and Mitchell set out to demonstrate that a “history from above”—focussing upon the intricate machinery of class domination—is no less applicable to a historic narrative than writing what, in their introduction, they call “history from below.”

The methodology broadly applied by the authors is a chronological narrative beginning on 15 May 1919 when the General Strike began throughout Winnipeg. It proceeds to trace the events involving the key participants through to 24 December 1919, when the trials of the strike leaders were winding down. The actions of the strikers and the reactions of the citizens and politicians are described and analysed as day-by-day responses to the situation on the ground.

One must warn readers that this technique, coupled with the exhaustive review of archival sources and a growing body of oral history accounts, results in a very elaborate read. To add to the complexity of the narrative, Kramer and Mitchell often digress from the events in Winnipeg to the broader context in Russia, Europe and elsewhere in North America where labour unrest was taking place after the First World War. While this certainly places the Winnipeg event in a more global context, it sometimes acts as a distraction from the key arguments.

Overall, however, the result of this narrative and analytical technique is a very learned and comprehensive portrayal of the Winnipeg General Strike. For enthusiasts of Manitoba history, Kramer and Mitchell have tracked down and incorporated recently accessible sources such as the Meighen-Andrews correspondence, in order to demonstrate conclusively how members of Winnipeg’s business and legal elite took control not only of the strike situation, but the trials afterwards. We are also reminded of how vulnerable the strike leaders from Eastern Europe were in comparison to their British-born comrades, when the federal government chose to unleash a particular legal interpretation of the Immigration Act.

This publication is a recent addition to the long standing Canadian Social History Series, which is devoted to indepth studies of major themes in Canadian history. Kramer and Mitchell have certainly reminded Canadians that returning to well-trodden areas of Canadian scholarship can result in refreshing and intellectually stimulating products. When the State Trembled is indeed, as its jacket cover suggests, a “masterful, riveting and fresh account” of this pivotal event in Manitoba’s history.

Page revised: 6 January 2018

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