Manitoba History: When the City Stood Still: The Iconography of Dissent in the Winnipeg General Strike
by Wayne Chan
All cities have an internal rhythm of sound and motion—the periodic ebb and flow of traffic, the regular movement of public transit and daily deliveries, and the streams of people going to and from work. Underlying that rhythm is a motor powered by the kinetic energy of the city’s residents. Like the rising and setting of the sun, it is a reassuring rhythm—one that only has its modulations in the day of week and the forces of nature on occasion.
As the clock struck eleven on Thursday, the fifteenth of May 1919, the daily rhythm of Winnipeg faltered, stuttered, and then stopped. The motor of the city had ground to a halt. In the hours, days, and weeks to come, the streetcars halted, the telephones stopped ringing, the elevators ceased running, and the printing presses went silent, as men and women throughout the city walked away from their jobs.
In the spirit of Thoreau, the strike committee advocated non-violent civil disobedience, knowing full well that any violence on the part of the strikers would be used as a pretext by the authorities to break the strike by force. The committee instructed the protesters to “keep quiet, do nothing, keep out of trouble”, and not to carry weapons. “Leave that to your enemies”, the committee advised. “Continue to prove that you are the friends of law and order.” And remarkably, they largely managed to do so.
However, into the powder keg that was Winnipeg in the spring of 1919 came thousands of soldiers, who returned from the war to face unemployment rather than a heroes’ welcome. The soldiers were restless and refused to “do nothing,” which added a volatile element to an already tense situation. Both pro- and anti-strike veterans’ groups began organizing marches at the end of May, and continued to hold them in spite of a ban on 5 June. These demonstrations came to a head on 21 June, now called “Bloody Saturday,” a day in which two strikers were killed and scores injured when the Royal North-West Mounted Police charged into the crowd and fired on the protesters.
The most iconic image of the general strike—that of a streetcar being overturned by a mob on Bloody Saturday— is ironically, the least representative of the strike. As Dennis Lewycky states in The Magnificent Fight:
Many of the existing images of the strike were taken by commercial photographer L. B. Foote (1873–1957), and are found in nearly every article, book, and video of the event. The most frequently shown of Foote’s photographs are likely of the overturned streetcar on Bloody Saturday and the police actions on that day and in an earlier riot on 10 June. These were the two days in which clashes occurred between strikers and police.
Foote’s images carry tremendous weight in the historical narrative of the strike. According to University of Manitoba historian Esyllt Jones, Foote’s most iconic photographs have “accumulated multiple, evolving meanings” over the decades, which have been influenced by their long usage in different media. These intertwined meanings have “both enriched and limited our sense of the past.” This limiting aspect of iconic imagery can arise through its overuse, which may lead to a reductive oversimplification of complex events such as the general strike.
There is no question that Bloody Saturday was a pivotal event that precipitated the end of the strike on 26 June. The scenes from 10 June and 21 June are dynamic and actionladen, which helps to explain their popularity. Nevertheless, the focus on the iconography of one or two days diminishes what happened during the strike as a whole.
A counterbalancing image is one taken on 25 May by Sigrid Bjornson, showing a nearly deserted Portage Avenue without any streetcars, which was unusual even for the Sunday morning on which the picture was taken. This absence of activity is what the strike leaders wanted, and what occurred for most of the strike.
Both the overturned streetcar and the image of a deserted thoroughfare portray forms of civil protest—one violent, one non-violent. The former image represents two days of the strike; the latter represents the other days in which strikers tried to stay off the streets.
The Winnipeg General Strike was dissent writ large—a dissent that continues to echo today. It was formed by thirty thousand voices, of men and women who said “enough” to the status quo, and who said “enough” to low wages, unfair practices, and poor working conditions. The strike was born of the frustration and realization that one voice, or ten, or even a hundred voices could be ignored, but a hundred times a hundred voices, trebled, were a force to be reckoned with.
Thoreau once said that in the face of injustice you should “let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.” For forty-two days in the spring of 1919, thousands of ordinary Winnipeggers rose up and acted as counter-friction—as grit—in the machine and did what neither storm nor flood could do: they stopped the motor of the city.
1. D. C. Masters. The Winnipeg General Strike. University of Toronto, 1950, p. 48.
2. Strikers Hold Your Horses. Western Labor News, 6 June 1919, p. 1.
3. Kenneth McNaught and David J. Bercuson. The Winnipeg Strike: 1919, Longman, 1974, pp. 90–91.
4. Dennis Lewycky. The Magnificent Fight: The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, Fernwood, 2019, p. 39.
5. Archives of Manitoba. R. v. Ivens et al. exhibits 986-1001, 1003 and 1005-1008, G 7494 file 3, Exhibit 998 (front), 1919.
6. Esyllt W. Jones. Imagining Winnipeg: History through the Photographs of L. B. Foote. University of Manitoba, 2012, p. xi.
7. Lewis Bush. “What is an iconic photograph: Iconography and iconoclasm.” http://www.disphotic.com/iconography-andiconoclasm, 9 December 2013. [accessed 28 May 2019].
8. Archives of Manitoba. Sigrid Bjornson photographs, P8232/9, Photo 115, 1919.
9. Henry David Thoreau. Walden and Civil Disobedience. Signet, 1980, p. 229.
We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 4 June 2021