Commemorating the 100 year Anniversary of Winnipeg General Strike

Winnipeg unveils 1919 General Strike monument near Hell’s Alley

Area around Lily and Market was site of some of the most intense fighting between strikers and police

By Darren Bernhardt, CBC News –  Posted: Nov 02, 2017

Winnipeg General Strike monument is at the corner of Lily Street and Market Avenue in the East Exchange District.

(John Einarson/CBC)

A monument commemorating the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike has been unveiled near an area that became known as “Hell’s Alley” during the six-week event that saw some 30,000 workers walk off their jobs.  The Winnipeg General Strike monument is at the corner of Lily Street and Market Avenue in the East Exchange District.

Crafted primarily from weathered steel, the monument by Monteyne Architecture Works was selected by a jury as the winner of a City of Winnipeg design competition to honour the labour movement that resulted in Canada’s most famous strike.

It echoes the steel structures of the early 20th century and is also a nod to Winnipeg’s Vulcan Iron Works, a Point Douglas landmark, according to a city news release. Around 1919, Vulcan was one of the city’s largest foundries and many of the striking workers came from there.

Winnipeg General Strike monument

“I want to congratulate and thank Monteyne Architecture Works for being able to create a very unique and inspiring piece of architecture that all Winnipeggers can appreciate and enjoy,” Point Douglas Coun. Mike Pagtakhan said.

Designed to be accessible to all Winnipeggers, the monument at the corner of Lily Street and Market Avenue also provides a shortcut to Lily from Rorie Street, and a sheltered place to meet for lunch or before the theatre, the city release says.  It features a map of the surrounding area, information about the strike, bench seating and a stage area that can double as a venue for events.

General Strike archives

RCMP on horseback charge into the crowd of strikers on North Main Street on June 21, 1919. (National Archives of Canada/David Millar collection)

 

“Hell’s Alley”

The general strike, which lasted from May 15 until June 25, 1919, started as a much smaller conflict between the city’s building trade and metal shop workers and their employers.

Fighting for the right to collective bargaining, a living wage and an eight-hour working day, they walked off the job on May 1.

Winnipeg General Strike

A streetcar is overturned in Winnipeg on June 21, 1919, which became known as Bloody Saturday during the general strike. (Archives of Manitoba/Foote Collection)

Not getting anywhere in their demands, the strikers made an appeal for solidarity to the Trades and Labour Union, the central union body representing many of Winnipeg’s workers.  The union agreed, hoping to shut down the city to force the strikers’ demands to be met.

On May 15, 1919, about 30,000 workers in the public and private sectors walked off their jobs.  Elevators stopped moving, streetcars and mail delivery were halted and telephone communications went silent. Nothing moved without approval by a strike committee.  Sympathy strikes broke out across the country.

In response, Winnipeg business leaders organized a “citizens’ committee” to oppose the strike, and turned to the federal government for help.

Strike monument

The monument as seen in this artist’s conceptual drawing from the City of Winnipeg. (City of Winnipeg)

It had been only 18 months since a general strike in Petrograd, Russia, led to the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II, and the Canadian government feared a similar revolution at home.  The Royal Northwest Mounted Police were brought in, and Winnipeg Mayor Charles Frederick Gray fired most of the city police force, which was sympathetic to the strikers but stayed on the job as an essential service.

The officers were replaced with 1,800 special constables, recruited and paid for by the business community. Known as “specials” by the city and “union busters” by the workers, each constable was set up with horse and a baseball bat to keep order.

Intense fighting

The area surrounding Lily Street and Market Avenue was the site of some of the most intense fighting between the strikers and the police.  A stretch of nearby Elgin Avenue, which once led to city hall and is now occupied by the Centennial Concert Hall, became known as Hell’s Alley for the vicious and bloody clashes.

The worst of those happened on Bloody Saturday, June 21.  The RNMP and the special constables rode on horseback, swinging bats and firing revolvers into a crowd of thousands of workers, killing two and injuring countless others.

The strike ended a few days after that.  Seven of the strike leaders were convicted of a conspiracy to overthrow the government and sentenced to jail terms ranging from six months to two years.