Winnipeg General Strike Centennial to celebrate lesser known contributions

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Dennis Lewycky stands in front of the Burton Cummings Theatre, which used to be known as the Walker Theatre and was an important gathering place for the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. Photo by Bernice Pontanilla

The role women and immigrants played during the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike will take on a more prominent role in this year’s centennial celebrations, and longtime local activist Dennis Lewycky couldn’t be happier.

Lewycky, one of Winnipeg’s strike tour leaders, is the author of a new book on the strike called Magnificent Fight.

In it, Lewycky touches on the contributions of the returning veterans from the First World War, the immigrants who came to Canada with dreams of a more democratic way of life, and women who had been in the workforce while the men were off fighting in the war.

“It was the one moment in our history when working people really stood up for their rights,” said Lewycky during an interview at the Yellow Dog Tavern across the street from the Burton Cummings Theatre, which was known in 1919 as the Walker Theatre and was an important Strike meeting place.

“Just think: what example do we have of 30,000 to 35,000 people banding together for six long weeks for two basic things, a living wage and collective bargaining.”

Lewycky said strikers wanted to be active participants in building a better future: the living wage was so families could be part of the economy and have a decent lifestyle, including better health and education for their children, and collective bargaining so that they could contribute to the economy and benefit from it.

“It wasn’t just self-interest,” he added. “Today, maybe it’s hard for us who are becoming so much more individualistic and materialistic to recognize, but that was ‘collective benefit’ that they were seeking, it was wanting to share the resources of their labour and the country, so it was a tremendous opportunity for them to stand up and I think it’s an opportunity for us today to reflect back on those important ideals.”

In previous commemorations of the Strike, the role women played was not as prominent. For example, few Winnipeggers know that it was the “Hello Girls,” our telephone operators, who were the FIRST to walk out on May 15, the first day of the General Strike. By 11 a.m., 30,000 union and non-union had joined the Strike.

In the past decade, one of the women strikers gaining more attention is Helen Jury Armstrong, who was as heavily involved in the Strike as her husband George Armstrong. She was the only woman on the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council, which spearheaded the Strike, and spoke out forcefully for wage equality between men and women. She also helped organize a soup kitchen for strikers to eat and was one of several women arrested and sent to jail.

Lewycky said he hopes today’s youth, recent immigrants and women can see themselves – along with longtime Winnipeggers – more fully in the international, historic event that is the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.

“We really need to aspire to these higher ideals than just capitulate to the trauma and the tragedy of Trump, Brexit, and things that are happening around the world,” Lewycky concluded.

“It’s an opportunity for us to show our principles and stand up for what we know is right for our society. We can be hopeful, legitimately hopeful.”