Tag Archives: General Strike

A Victim of Power (Corp) and Police: The La Presse Conflict and the Suffocation of Michele Gauthier (Activists Killed by Cops Series)

A Victim of Power (Corp) and Police: The La Presse Conflict and the Suffocation of Michele Gauthier

On November 2, 1971, some 2000 people crowded inside and outside the church at Ste-Rosalle, their fists raised in the air in a silent and sombre but striking show of defiance and solidarity, They had gathered together in the rural area, a small village near St-Hyacinthe, some 45 miles southeast of Montreal, to pay respect to a fallen comrade. Her name was Michele Gauthier and she had been killed by police in the service of a government set on protecting a major corporate partner, the La Presse newspaper recently purchased by key capitalist power broker Paul Desmarais, head of the aptly named Power Corp.

Michele Gauthier was a young college student at CEGEP Vieux-Montreal. An activist and self identified feminist and Leftist, she had been killed by police during a vicious police attack on a demonstration in support of locked out La Presse workers the previous Friday night. During a sustained assault on marchers police fired off rounds of tear gas. Michele Gauthier suffocated from the stifling gas. A brutal and awful way to die.

The police killing of this young college student and activist played a radicalizing role among the broad Quebec working class unlike any seen in other cases of police violence in Canadian history. It would lead many to completely change their view of police and the laws—from being seen as neutral arbitrators of social consensus to violent, interested, upholders of class inequality, exploitation, and fundamental injustice.

This would spur a radicalized willingness to confront, even to break, laws that were now revealed as illegitimate and unjust. It would contribute to a breakthrough against the socialization that teaches conformity, respect for police, and the lowering of expectations to what elites deem to be reasonable or respectable.

Less than a year later it would erupt in the form of a general strike, and a broader insurrection, in Quebec. Only a few years later a second general strike would be launched across Canada on the basis of solidarity, infrastructures, and lessons learned in Quebec.


Aptly Named: Power Corporation, Paul Desmarais, and La Presse

The La Presse strike has its roots in the actions of a notorious and centrally important figure of the Canadian power elite. That is one Paul Desmarais, political funder and Svengali of numerous Canadian parliamentarians of various stripes, including Prime Ministers Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien, and Paul Martin Jr. At the heart of this power elite nexus is the institution of Power Corporation, the political economic juggernaut run by Desmarais over decades.

Desmarais merged his Trans-Canada Corporation Fund with Power Corporation (the holding company of the Peter Nesbitt Thompson group) and grew it. Power already had a history of union busting, vicious bargaining, and intensification of exploitation (profitability) (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 93).

Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa was a Power director (along with Prime Minister to be Paul Martin Jr.). At least 10 members of the Quebec government’s General Council of Industry were linked to the corporation. Power Corporation Secretary Claude Frenette was former president of the Quebec federal Liberals (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 93). Power was believed to a be a main financial backer for the Liberal Party (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 93). They also maintained strong connections with the Quebec Conservatives. This included connections between Desmarais and future Premier David Johnson (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 94).

Power had secured the largest private media monopoly in Quebec, owning three other daily papers (in Sherbrooke, Granby, and Trois-Rivieres, the three largest weeklies in Montreal, two Sunday papers, 12 other reciprocal weekly papers, and 10 radio and television stations. They controlled ideological production in Quebec for French language media.  Onyx Films, a film company owned by Power, actually made films for the RCMP, an interesting wrinkle in power elite relations.


The Lockout and Strike at La Presse

Desmarais bought the La Presse newspaper only a short time before the strike of 1971 and his politically motivated actions were largely responsible for it. A strong Rightist and herald of  muscular capitalism (neoliberalism), Desmarais sought immediately to turn the paper into a propaganda vehicle for nationalist (federalist) and hyper-capitalist ideology. He targeted journalists who disagreed with or would not capitulate to his mission.

Desmarais sought to provoke an illegal strike of journalists by locking out typographical workers. Knowing the Leftist and unionized journalists would not cross the picket line, Desmarais planned to then fire them. In the words of Alan Hetitage of the International Typographers Union: “I don’t think they were after us. They wanted the journalists. If we had put up a picket line we would have been dead because the journalists would have respected it and lost their jobs” (quoted in Sweetman 2004). The typesetters strategically chose not picket—thus not playing into a setting of a trap for the journalists.

After five months of being locked out the union movement held a mass demonstration, a solidarity strike of sorts, to show support for the locked out La Presse workers on October 29, 1971. The company and government moved to attack the workers with legislation. The union organizers were accused of promoting violence simply for striking. At one point workers keenly created a vehicle blockade of the building, parking their cars around its perimeter. This borrowed a famous tactic that had been successful during the 1945 strike by United Auto Workers (UAW) members against Ford in Windsor, Ontario.

The company tried to divide and conquer labor by blaming outside agitators from US unions for provocations and the delay in settlement. Workers turned to labor federations to build boycott campaigns of the newspaper and advertisers (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 98). The company managed to win an injunction prohibiting more than eight people from gathering near the building at the same time.

Notably La Presse implemented intrusive security, surveillance measures, including microphones to capture conversations among workers and closed circuit television. Thus they innovated measures of labor process management that have now become widespread.

The day after the mass demonstration, on October 30, the reactionary Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau re-introduced a ridiculous and one-sided pro-company anti-demonstration law for the city in consultation with Liberal (neoliberal) provincial Premier Robert Bourassa. This draconian piece of anti-democratic and class-biased legislation had already been declared illegal by Quebec’s Superior Court. Drapeau decided, after consultation with Bourassa, that the bylaw could still be legal because the court decision was under appeal (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 97). In announcing the re-introduction Mayor Drapeau refused to answer questions from the press.

The Drapeau government put a ban of more than eight workers gathering near the La Presse facilities. As part of the repressive government defense of their corporate sponsors a no-protest zone of fifty blocks around the La Presse building was established in law. It was to be a “forbidden zone” within the city itself. A clear provocation.

Union leaders declared the ban illegitimate. They would march. And with purpose.


The March

Beginning at Square Saint Louis a crowd of more than 15,000 workers showed up in a show of defiance set to march against the corporation and governments at various levels. Public attention on the planned march spread well beyond Montreal (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 97). Public interest and concern were piqued by outrage over the anti-democratic protest ban which was seen clearly as a gift by the government to their corporate allies.

On the day of the march, organizers sought to avoid confrontations and violence by staying along Dorchester Street, the dividing line between the “free city” and the “forbidden city” (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 98). The march began along St. Denis.

They headed toward La Presse headquarters. Picking up parts of the pavement as they marched the demonstrators were confronted by a police barricade outside the La Presse building at Craig Street.

On Dorchester, the police had other plans. As they proceeded the demonstrators found their route blocked by hundreds of riot police and several city buses. This left them no option but to continue on St. Denis into Viger Square. Police had set a trap something akin to what today is called a kettle. At Viger Square a cul-de-sac was formed by a police barricade right in front of police headquarters at Craig and Gosford streets (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 98).

The trade union leaders even offered themselves up for arrest in the manner of symbolic protest and civil disobedience. Instead, after only 15 minutes, police charged the crowd.

Police, protecting La Presse, moved violently against the assembled workers and supporters. One account describes police actions against the protesters as “sadistic” (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 98). People were clubbed indiscriminately. Police sued their three foot long clubs on any and all that they chose or encountered. Neither size nor age offered deterrents against them. The police riot squad was deployed against the marchers. More than 100 Montreal police officers took part in the attack. There were around 60 arrests and around 300 demonstrators suffered various injuries, in addition to the death if Michele Gauthier. Police tracked people down at the local hospital, beating people who sought medical assistance. Tear gas was fired wildly into the streets. It was this mass deployment of  tear gas that would kill Michele Gauthier, suffocating her.

The police violence and the killing of Michele Gauthier radicalized the union movement. The union leaders held a press conference the next day. At it they declared their illusions about society shattered. The police they said had behaved in an “inhuman” fashion. They took to calling the police “Drapeau’s Gestapo” and “two-legged dogs” (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 98). The Montreal Policemen’s Brotherhood was read out of the trade union movement, where it never should have been in the first place.

Yvon Charbonneau said the murderous actions of the police were proof of the “collusion of the political and economic powers” directed against the working class by this power elite. The result of the police assault was, he said, that the public “has received an accelerated lesson in history” (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 99). It was an important lesson in sociology and criminology too. In that act of brutality the mask of liberal democracy slipped and the police, and the state they are the front line for, were revealed as an institution of bare class power, not an agency of social protection and service.

This was a significant shift, coming in the context of the assault on social resistance undertaken by the federal and provincial governments under the pretext of the October Crisis and the actions of the urban guerilla FLQ. At that time Prime Minister Trudeau had deployed the army to occupy Quebec and hundreds of union and Leftist activists were arrested—despite having nothing to do with the FLQ and its actions.

During the march, notably, nationalist slogans and placards were greatly outnumbered by anti-capitalist ones, such as “Capitalism equals unemployment, socialism equals work [in French]” (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 98). The makeup of the crowd was markedly blue collar. Many had not attended protest marches previously (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 98).


The Funeral

At her funeral on November 2, Michele Gauthier’s pall bearers included Marcel Pepin, president of the Confederation of National Trade Unions, Louis Laberge of the Quebec Federation of Labour, Yvon Charbonneau of the Quebec Teachers Corporation, a student from her CEGEP Vieux-Montreal, a member of the Front de Liberation des Femmes, and a press worker representing the locked workers at La Presse (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 107).

For observers and commentators at the time, the thousands who attended the funeral and most of the people who they represented in their organizational capacities viewed Michele Gauthier unambiguously as a martyr (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 107). She was remembered as a committed and serious activist in women’s liberation and Left wing politics.

In the Quotidien Populaire, the daily paper of the locked out La Presse workers, she was given a full page “In Memoriam.” In it her husband Michel offered a powerful testament:

“A victim of violence jointly and deliberately planned by the economic powers and the political powers, this frail young woman lost her life because she dared protest peacefully against those who treat workers like cattle. I dare to hope that this terrible event will help us understand the necessity of uniting in the face of a more and more oppressive power, and to fight for the ideal which animated Michele: a Quebec where liberty, justice and equality reign.” (quoted in Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 107)


Government Inhumanity

The response of the provincial government was particularly despicable, showing starkly the ruling Quebec Liberal’s unflinching, and unconscionable, support for the employers. When Gauthier’s death was raised in Quebec’s National Assembly, the Liberal caucus responded with derisive laughs and hoots. This in response to a police killing of a young student standing with locked out workers being mistreated by an aggressive employer. Liberal Party Whip Louis-Philippe Lacroix went further in asserting the government’s dedication to its corporate masters by calling for an investigation, not of the police or even La Presse) but of the labor leadership (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 107).

Montreal’s legendary, and infamous, mayor, Jean Drapeau, added his own offensive and insensitive take on events and the actions of his own police force. He stated obnoxiously and contemptibly: “It’s dishonest to say somebody died because of the events Friday night. Nobody died at the demonstration. Madame Gauthier could just as well have lost her life at the Santa Claus parade” (quoted in Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 107). Yet there was no word from the mayor on how many times or why Santa Claus parade goers have been subjected to bombardment by massive quantities of tear gas.


Organized Resistance

Organized labor in Quebec came out of the La Presse battle with a unity not previously seen. As Sweetman suggests: “It’s often said that few things are more radicalizing than the end of a police baton, and on Oct. 29, 1971, the end of the baton—clearly and deliberately wielded by the state—was felt by the entire working class of Quebec” (2004).

The La Presse strike and the various solidarity actions showed a militant and unified model for tactical social action. It suggested  Common Front that could bring together diverse workers and overcome divided and competitive craft union models as existed at La Presse before the lockout and strike.

The QFL and CNTU, the two main labor federations ended their rivalry and with the Quebec Teachers Corporation formed a Common Front. Notably, newly recognizing their real social basis they called on all progressive forces—political groups, students, unorganized workers, unemployed people, welfare recipients—to join together in a now apparent shared goal—the overthrow of capitalism ad the development of socialism (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 99).

Laberge considered the growing militance and push for socialism as the “great national battle” (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 102). Cooperation and pursuit of reforms, which had dominated labor movements in Quebec, were now revealed to be a certain dead end. And this went beyond nationalism to seek a coalition with English Canadian workers against experiences of exploitation and oligarchy that were shared in common.

This Common Front model and the militant direction opened to workers through the strike raised important possibilities for working class organizing and for claims on workers power—even workers control. Such a Common Front could mobilize and support and defend hundreds of thousands of workers. It could provide strength against employers—not only private capital, but the state.

Organization is key. As Laberge would state:

“It would be illusory to dream of some revolutionary cataclysm. Some people believe in effect that the collective consciousness of exploitation will unleash an irresistible liberation movement and all we have to do is to let ourselves be carried along with it. I don’t believe miracles happen by themselves. We have to organize efficiently, starting with often humble and discreet tasks.” (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 106)


CNTU members were provided a militant study guide: “Ne comptons que sur non propres moyen” (“Let us count only on our own resources).

The La Presse strike and the solid actions of organized labor, especially during the police assault of October 29, showed the divisions between the working class Left and the Quebec nationalist Parti Quebecquois (PQ). After the police assault PQ leader, and legend, Rene Levesque incredibly had denounced the labor leaders as fanatics. In his words, he would “rather live in a South American banana republic” than in a Quebec influenced by the “ranting and raving of labour leaders” (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 112).

Before the QFL convention of November 1971 the PQ’s National Council did try to manage some reconciliation, offering a “mini manifesto” expressing support for labor’s goals of democratic restructuring of the economic and social systems. But Levesque silenced Robert Burns, a former CNTU lawyer who sat as PQ member of the National Assembly for Maisonneuve , telling him to leave the party if he did not like it. Burns, for his part, had said that the PQ was acting like little more than the progressive wing of the Liberal Party.

Anglo social democrats and unionists offered chauvinistic and divisive assessments. Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) head Donald McDonald reinforced Trudeau’s view, suggesting that the strikes in Quebec were not strikes but revolutions and sided with his state and corporate bosses in suggesting that they needed to be put down.

Having gained essential experiences in organizing and confidence in their actions, the workers’ movements in Quebec wold provide the impetus for struggles that would be among the most significant of the last half of the twentieth century, not only in Quebec or Canada but in North America. Quebec workers provided the inspiration and organizing force behind the largest general strike in North American history in 1976. The Canada-wide general strike of that year was launched against wage controls promoted by the federal Liberal government of Pierre Elliot Trudeau (yes, the father of that guy). More than 1.2 million workers across Canada took part in the general strike. That strike provided an example of working class solidarity across assumed barriers of language and culture. It provided an important counter to Anglo chauvinism and nationalism alike.


General Unrest

Throughout the year of 1971, social struggles, class struggles, would build and grow. New levels of labor militancy and direct action would spark and spread. October of 1971 would gain the title of Quebec’s “Blue Collar” crisis (Palmer 2009, 362).

Growing and high unemployment, continuing poverty, and job losses in even higher tech sectors with supposedly greater job security contributed to widespread unrest in the province, not only in Montreal. The crisis for capital and the state would  provide a revitalization of labor. Rural protests targeted the corporate monopolies in the resource industries, often the sole major employers in the towns (Palmer 2009, 362).

In Cadillac, a small town between Val d’Or and Rouyn, about three-quarters of the town took part in a week long highway blockade to stop the shutdown of the molybdenite mine that they viewed as theirs, not capital’s (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 103). In Manneville, about 400 miles northwest of Montreal, the townsfolk fought against riot police who had been transported in to repress protests over woodcutting rights (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 103). The whole town at Mont-Laurier mobilized against wood plant shutdowns throughout 1971. In Shawinigan, home of federal cabinet minister, and future Prime Minister of Canada Jean Chretien, there were numerous demonstrations.

Residents of Cabano blockaded railways and blew up bridges used by KC Irving after the company failed to live up to promises to build a plant and increase jobs in the area (Palmer 2009, 362). They even threatened to set fire to the company’s existing facilities.

In Sept-Iles, two thousand steelworkers and 1500 machinists walked out of the American owned companies (Palmer 2009, 362). One journalist, Malcolm Reid, reported on the Sept-Iles uprisings as follows: “They don’t read much Trotsky in Sept-Iles. But the workers of this iron port way out east on the St. Lawrence put themselves at the head of the May revolt in Quebec with something that looked like what Trotsky called ‘dual power’” (quoted in Plamer 2009, 362). This is a remarkable claim, suggesting that workers were devising and developing new forms of self-directed, self-governing activity outside of, beyond, and against the formal apparatuses of state and capital. These were manifestations of working class self-determination in formation.


Common Front

The shared experiences of state repression and recognition that the state was willing to take the lives of people standing for social justice and to respond to such atrocity with no remorse, steeled the labor movement. It would encourage a further coming together in solidarity that would see a Common Front developed over and against previous divisions within the labor movement and between its various groupings.

Many familiar with Canadian labor history will know of, at least in some general detail, the Quebec Common Front and the General Strike of 1972. Involving more than 300,000 workers, it was, up to that point, the largest general strike in Canada. Infamously union leaders, including Louis Labarge, Marcel Pepin, and Yvon Charbonneau were arrested and sentenced to a year in jail for urging striking workers to break state injunctions against them.

The Common Front was formalized politically at a mass rally at the Montreal Forum, famed home of the legendary Montreal Canadiens hockey team, only four days after the police assault on the La Presse demonstration. Around 14,000 people turned out on only 24 hours notice for a militant and affirmative show of solidarity and resolve (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 99). The meeting was chaired by Michel Chartrand and Louis Laberge, Yvonne Charbonneau, and radical lawyer Robert Lemieux. Much of the Quebec trade union leadership participated.

Michele Gauthier’s memory was a present and vital part of the evening. Referencing the assault by police and ensuing street battle only a few nights previous, Louis Laberge declared from the podium:

“We give serious warning to the wealthy and to the established powers that this first victim might be followed by others, but in future the victims won’t only be on our side” (quoted in Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 100).


Speakers one after the other called out and condemned the governments of Trudeau (federal), Bourassa (provincial), and Drapeau (Municipal). They identified the struggle as a battle against “the wealthy, propertied capitalists” and for “democracy, social and economic justice, liberty and equality (Chodos and Aud der Maur 1972, 99-100). These were distinctly and emphatically declarations of class war—on the other side, the side of the exploited against the exploiters (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 99).


Mass Direct Action

In response to the state jailing of the union members in an attempt to break the strike, workers upped the ante. Several towns on the North Shore were operated by and defended by workers (including Joliette, Sept-Iles, Sorel, and Thetford). Numerous factories in the towns became worker run organizations for the period of the strike. This signalled a potential move from a strike to workers control of industry. It posed the prospect of revolution in real terms. Several television stations were taken over by workers and 22 radio stations were controlled by workers. Anti-union newspapers were simply forced to stop publishing over that period. Entire towns came under workers control.

When news of the jailing of Laberge, Pepin, and Charbonneau reached Sept-Iles, a community on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, unionized workers left their jobs and initiated something of an insurrection. They blocked the only road leading into town, they closed the airport, they took over the local radio station (CKCN). Within hours their town was truly their town.

In response, the local bourgeoisie organized a vigilante group to inflict violence on the workers and to seize back the property they believed to be theirs (as capital believes all property to be as their natural right). The name of their vigilante group was a priceless statement of bourgeois law and morality. The Comite des Citoyens Respecteux de la Loi et de ‘lOrdre was headed up by the president of the local Chamber of Commerce.

A statement released on behalf of 6500 union workers in Sept-Iles stated: “We have finished with respecting laws that crush people, laws that are defined by the traditional elite” (Gellner 1974, 170). The bourgeoisie was more focused on property and its typical disparagement of workers. In their statement they explained themselves:

“Goons, drunkards, loudmouths  and revolutionaries were taking over our town and were sabotaging our homes, hurting our businesses and breaking up our property. It was time for us to take affairs in our own hands and end the reign of terror.” (Gellner 1974, 169, emphasis added).

Of course, the real issue was that the police force that had always taken care of these things for the property owners and business elites were frightened into inaction for once. So the usual customary, legal and “respectable” means of the state, usually reliably available to capital was, in this instance, not available. And as a result its real social function was once again put on proper display.

The general strike was successful in winning several concessions from employers or from government. The arrested and sentenced union leaders had their sentences reduced, to four months from one year. Even more, bosses were put on the defensive, unable to carry out their preferred or desired austerity plans against the working class.

Some politicians and bosses might have come to believe that revolutionary syndicalism might have been put in the grave alongside the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919. The La Presse strike of 1971 showed that revolutionary syndicalism still existed or had been resurrected in a Canadian context. And it showed that it still provided the most striking model of effective working class resistance, even in a distinct economic, political, and cultural context.

Said jailed CNTU President Marcel Pepin in 1972:

“Not since the days of the Industrial Workers of the World, since the days of Joe Hill and the battle for the eight-hour day, has a North American union movement been so dedicated to the tradition of revolutionary syndicalism.” – Marcel Pepin (jailed President of the Confederation of National Trade Unions, 1972)


The Common Front was so widespread that police were put into the position of acknowledging, against their own preferences, that they could neither contain it not put it down. Instead they were, again and again, in setting after setting, compelled to stand back. They understood that they would lose any decisive clash in that context of united workers power. And this is a crucial lesson to be held throughout.

It confirmed the claim pressed by syndicalists historically of the power of the general strike. A mass mobilization of the organized working class committed to militant action and self defense can sideline the police and their repressive force. This is the lesson of class struggle and revolutionary syndicalism.

Yet while many will know something of the Common Front and 1972 general strike, few if any will recall or know anything about the catalyst for the uprising of May 1972. That is the 1971 strike at the La Presse newspaper and the police violence against striking workers that left a young feminist and Leftist student, Michele Gauthier, dead at the hands of Montreal police.




The La Presse conflict would become one of the signal events in labor history in Quebec and in Canada. Yet it is largely forgotten outside of Quebec. And the name Michele Gauthier, and the causes  for which she stood, has been largely lost to history. This is an effect of power. We are too often left unaware of the humble heroes who, without fame or attention, put themselves on the line to stand for social justice and a better world against forces of control and domination, exploitation and repression.

This silencing allows power to tell its own particular story about our society and its true character. In Canada, the overlooking, the too easy forgetting, the silencing of the screams of pain, the muffled gasps, of regular people striving for a better world, has allowed state and capital, politicians and police, bosses and brigands to pose the country’ history as one of peace and progress rather than regressive and repressive violence. It allows power to paint a picture of a social consensus that has never existed and is only an image imposed by force.

Michele Gauthier’s sacrifice and her commitment, her active pursuit of solidarity and search for a better world must not be left to history. It must return as a part of the present of social justice and struggles against the everyday violence of power. She helped to galvanize a movement and forge commitments which posed revolutionary alternatives as real world prospects. She contributed to a development of working class solidarity and unity that seemed unlikely only months before.

This is of growing importance today in a period in which forces of reaction and outright fascism and ruling class brutality are on the upswing and growing. It is absolutely crucial as the exploited and oppressed look for examples of winning strategies and tactics and new ways of envisioning social alternatives to the dominant structures of power and domination, dispossession and accumulation. And as people in struggle debate the nature of the state and the nature of resistance and protests and seek to affirm the legitimacy and necessity of community self defense and militant collective direct action.


Further Reading

Chodos, Robert and Nick Auf der Maur. 1972. Quebec: A Chronicle 1968-1972. Toronto: James Lewis and Samuel, Publishers

Palmer, Bryan D. 2009. Canada’s 1960s: The Ironies of Identity in a Rebellious Era. Toronto: University of Toronto Press

Sweetman, George. 2004. “General Strike: The 1972 Rebellion in Quebec.” North-Eastern Anarchist 9. https://www.ainfos.ca/04/nov/ainfos00381.html



Breaking the General Strike: The Mounties Kill Strikers Mike Sokowolski and Mike Schezerbanowicz in Winnipeg (Activists Killed by Cops Series)

The Winnipeg General Strike of May and June 1919 stands as perhaps the signal moment of working class resistance and open class conflict in the industrial Canadian context. It remains a still resonant example of working class militance, organization, resolve, solidarity, and vision. It stands too as an unmistakeable symbol of the violence, repression, and racism at the core of the Canadian state. The Winnipeg General Strike offers a clear reminder of the state connection with and willingness to act in support of capital, and to do so using all means in its monopoly of violence. It also shows the racism of the Canadian state and its willingness to divide and conquer workers on the basis of ethnic background and/or national origin. Finally it shows the readiness of the state, and its major cultural symbol (the RCMP in its earlier incarnation as the Northwest Mounted Police), to kill. Labor historian Edward Seymour describes the reaction to the strike by government authorities at all levels as simply “vicious” (1976, 19).


Class Rule in Winnipeg

Labor historian David Bercuson suggests that business in Winnipeg was anti-union from the start, with unions viewed as an impediment to the climate in which business and investment could grow and prosper in the emerging industrial center (1975, 1–2). While this was certainly true of virtually all other cities, Bercuson argues that what was somewhat unique in Winnipeg was the extent to which the city was run by business associations and the particular costs of trade with national and international markets given the city’s isolation and distance and the associated higher transportation costs compared with say Toronto or Montreal. This great distance from both supply sources and markets impelled an obsession with keeping costs (labor particularly) unsustainably low (Bercuson 1975, 2).

In addition to these factors, Bercuson adds another, more curious one. This, he says, was the history of Social Darwinism prevalent among the ruling elite in Winnipeg. He notes that many of Winnipeg’s industrial and political leaders were nouveaux riches who had humble beginnings but had made it rich in the growing boom town. They took their success as a sign of personal strength, even superiority, and saw this as a sign that they were natural, and legitimate, leaders. The self-made man could not sympathize with those who, because of personal weakness, needed to organize collectively with others (Bercuson 1975, 2).

Winnipeg had experienced many, often bitter, strikes in the first decades of the twentieth century. Workers sought recognition of unions and collective agreements while bosses were largely successful in keeping unions out of workplaces. Throughout, local government dominated by businesspeople, invariably sided with employers and owners.



The War Economy and Class Struggle

Economic pressures and political dissatisfaction contributed to growing tensions between labor and management by 1918, the last year of the war. While workers were making the sacrifices of the war, employees did not want to share any of the benefits of economic gains within the war economy.

Bercuson suggests that inflation during the war period played, in his view, the most important part in stoking industrial conflict over the war years and in the period immediately following the end of the war (1975, 4). Inflation meant that those workers outside of the war industries and munitions manufacturing especially who could not achieve significant wage gains were faced with declining standards of living and rising costs (Bercuson 1975, 4). In Winnipeg, few workers worked in the arms industries so most were faced with declining living standards throughout the war years and beyond.

At the same time, labor shortages among skilled workers in particular meant that conditions for union organizing were favorable. This was also fueled by general anger among workers over conscription, the compulsory military service program initiated by Prime Minister Robert Borden in 1917. Indeed the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada (TLC) came to advocate a national general strike against conscription in 1917 (Bercuson 1975, 5). While the planned general strike did not come off, it planted the notion of the tactic of mass opposition to government and capital in the general intellect of workers across the country.

This was a period before full legal standing and recognition for unions and employers could routinely seek and receive court injunctions against picketing during strikes. This allowed bosses to bring in scabs and continue production contributing mightily to the regular defeat of strikes. In Winnipeg in 1917 alone, three strikes had been defeated in this very manner (Bercuson 1975, 6).


The 1918 “General Strike”

In April 1918, strikes of three unions of civic employees generated discussions of sympathy strikes of all civic workers (Bercuson 1975, 6).  When the unions reached a tentative agreement with a committee including the mayor and members of council, the city council, through Alderman F.O. Fowler sought to add an amendment that city employees take a no strike pledge for the future. The “Fowler Amendment” looked to take away city workers’ right to strike and was supported by the Winnipeg Board of Trade and the Free Press. It was vehemently opposed by the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council (Bercuson 1975, 6).

In response to the Fowler Amendment, city firefighters stopped work the very next day. Ten days later, 13 trades, amounting to 7000 workers, had joined in the work stoppage. Water, fire, light and power, telephone, railway maintenance, and public transportation were impacted (Bercuson 1975, 7).

The Board of Trade futilely tried to keep operations running by supplying scabs. Desperate, and facing growing momentum for workers and a rising movement the city government turned to a new private grouping to negotiate with the unions. This Citizens’ Committee of One Hundred came to an agreement with the workers that was almost the same as the initial one of May 13, 1918. This new agreement was accepted by a somewhat chastened city council and the strike ended on May 24. According to Bercuson the “workers’ victory was almost complete” (1975, 7).

The conclusions of this 1918 general strike were unmistakeable. The general strike had won the day in a context in which unions acting alone were always losing. It was only this combined and coordinated power that had allowed the workers to win, let alone to win so convincingly. It was well recognized that each union acting on its own would have been defeated (Bercuson 1975, 7). Another outcome was to radicalize workers who now saw greater possibilities for gains and were not as willing to accept less. The employers had the government and courts on their side and could use them. Yet workers united in a general strike could defeat even that combined force of elites.

This was further reinforced when a hoped for general strike in support of the Metal Trades Council in July of 1918 did not materialize and the metal workers were defeated. And this even as the Metal Trades Council had achieved a combination of unions in the industry. The civic workers had gained support of workers in all industries.

In recognition of this fact, in December 1918 the Trades ad Labour Council passed a motion that gave it the power to call out on strike every union member in the city based on a straight majority of all the city’s union members (Bercuson 1975, 8). This mechanism would come into effect only a few months later.


A Radical Period and the Rise of the One Big Union

The end of the war brought new and renewed hopes that the sacrifices made by so many would be rewarded with a new social foundation of justice and improved social equality. Yet the hopes of most were soon dashed by governments that sought a return to the pre-war status quo. This led to growing discontent and resentment. Not only among industrial workers but among a cross section of Canadian residents, including returning veterans who felt cheated and lied to.

Another factor of inestimable significance in this context was the revolutionary wave sweeping Europe in the post-war period. Revolutions in Russia in 1917 and Germany and Hungary in 1918 suggested that real social change was no pipe dream and could be had for those willing to fight for it. There was no need simply to wait or be patient. Waiting was now seen as a chump’s game, a boss’s dream.

At a Western Labour Conference held in Calgary on March 16, 1919, participants moved for secession from the conservative, craft dominated TLC. They called for a new national labor body organized on industrial lines, rather than by each craft within an industry. The new grouping would be called the OBU, the One Big Union. In structure and approach it resembled syndicalist organizing as in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The OBU was an explicitly radical formation, not anarchist, supportive of the Bolshevik revolution and influenced by Marxism.

They sought a referendum to see if Canadian workers supported a national general strike beginning on June 1 in demand of the 30 hour work week (Bercuson 1975, 12). The OBU was formally launched during the first week of June at a founding convention in Calgary. At that point the Winnipeg General Strike was into its third week. The OBU provided the nightmare figure for government and employers in Winnipeg even though it had played no direct part in the strike to that point.


The Winnipeg General Strike

The Winnipeg General Strike was founded in conflicts in the metal and building trades during April and May of 1919. Lack of progress in making gains in wages, for the buildings trades, and union recognition, for the metals trade, led to a call for a general strike vote under the Trades Council motion of December 1918. Facing a stalemate the Building Trades Council called for a strike of their members for May 1, Mayday, 1919.

The Metal Trades Council, a grouping of craft unions representing workers in contract shops, auto repair, etc. had waged and lost nasty strikes in 1906, 1917, and 1918 (Bercuson 1975, 14). In 1919 they again pressed their attempt for higher wages and the 44 hour work week but were rebuffed by contract shop owners who felt every reason to be confident they could win against yet another union effort. The contractors had benefitted from use of injunctions and had deployed professional strikebreaking firms against the metal workers in the past (Bercuson 1975, 14). The recalcitrant metal works companies were Darwin Bridge, Vulcan Ironworks, and the Manitoba Bridge Company. The MTC sought a nine hour work day and full recognition for unions. On May 2, 1919, the metal workers responded to employers’ intransigence, especially that of the big employers, with a third strike in three years. They sought a shorter work week, wage parity with workers in the railway shops, and union recognition (Bercuson 1975, 15).

At this point the broader union movement in the city was ready for action in defense of their interests. Three trades were on or facing strike action. Others had recently concluded nasty negotiations and were left angered by the process. During the weekly Trade Council meeting of May 6, it was reported that a visiting worker of German origin, attending metal trades shops on behalf of his local, had been arrested. Upon release he spoke to the meeting of government backing employers (Bercuson 1975, 16). The Trades Council meeting decided to poll every union member in the city on their support for a general strike with a decision to be taken at the meeting of May 13. The results of the voting would show more than 11,000 workers in support of the general strike while only a tiny number of 500 were opposed (Bercuson 1975, 17). Thursday, May 15 at 11 AM was decided upon as the start time for the strike.

A Strike Committee was formed that would include three delegates from each of the unions represented on the Trades Council. They would act as the representative body for future negotiations during the strike.

The situation in the metal trades was dire as employers refused even the slightest hint of compromise. Efforts by Premier Tobias Norris and Mayor Charles Frederick Gray to avoid the strike were unsuccessful. A last ditch effort of May 14 by Gray, Norris, and the provincial attorney-general also failed.

At 11 AM on May 15, 1919, Winnipeg was on strike. The response to the call was near total. Within the first day more than 22,000 workers were out on strike (Bercuson 1975, 17–18). Participation by workers was unanimous in 94 of 96 unions involved in the strike (Bercuson 1975, 18). As Bercuson illustrates:


“Firemen left their stations, telephones were shut down, the city’s electrical workers left turbines and transmission equipment unattended; telegraphers and others responsible for keeping a modern city in touch with the world refused to work. At the waterworks a skeleton staff remained behind at the request of the Trades Council to provide a meagre thirty pounds pressure, sufficient for single-story dwellings. Commercial establishments of every sort, from moving-picture houses to restaurants were closed.” (1975, 18)


In British Columbia 60,000 workers walked out in sympathy strikes. Alberta railway shop workers walked out. Support was also strong in Ontario with 15,000 workers going on strike (Seymour 1976, 19).

To understand the participation of workers requires appreciation of the decades of bitter struggle preceding it and the sense among workers that there was no alternative option. This was a context of open class war and bitter hostility between labor and capital. Yet only one side was ready and prepared to use force.

Most strikers did not see themselves as a revolutionary force. For their part the strike leaders took a cautious approach, refusing even to condone peaceful pickets (Bercuson 1975, 20). To allow for distribution of essentials like milk and food the Strike Committee took the advice of J.W. Carruthers, owner of the Crescent Creamery Company, and issued cards to delivery workers informing the public that those doing bread and milk deliveries were not scabs (Bercuson 1975, 20–21). The Strike Committee issued cards stating: “Permitted by authority of Strike Committee” (Bercuson 1975, 21). For local government this was portentous, raising the prospect of workers taking over and managing effectively public services.

The mayor did not want civilians realizing that necessities of life could be provided by a structure outside of the government or its authority. Government did not want to allow the appearance that city administration could be taken over by city workers, who knew how to do the work and did it well, with no need for the government as a middle manager. In an error of strategy the Strike Committee succumbed to a vote of council on May 20 and complied by removing the cards the following day.

Prime Minister Borden, insistent in sending a strong anti-communist message and securing the Canadian state some recognition as a reliable emerging imperialist convoy, would not accept even a settlement that gave the appearance of some success for the striking workers. He would only allow total defeat for the strike or a capitulationist settlement that made clear the workers had been forced to swallow employer demands (Bercuson 1975, 22). Indeed the federal government would play an active and central role in the defeat of the strike. Commissioner A.B. Perry and the Royal North West Mounted Police (RNWMP) would be a major player in those government actions against the strike.


Police Force

Concerned that the regular police were not reliably anti-workers, anti-strike forces led by Brigadier-General H.D.B. Ketchen, commanding officer for the Manitoba military district proposed formation of an alternative force of “special police” to replace or add to the regular force (Bercuson 1975, 22). The city at the behest of Ketchen and Citizens’ Committee recruited the special police drawing primarily from anti-strike veterans and middle strata students. The “specials” were actually paid $6 per day, a wage that was higher than that paid to regular police, showing the hypocrisy and political character of the government and employers alike. It also showed the real lack of concern with legitimacy and the ease with which elites jettison such pretensions when their class interests are up against the wall. When the newly recruited special force was around 2000 members, most of the regular force, nearly 240 officers, was fired. From June 10, Winnipeg was under control pf thousands of men who were openly hostile to the strikers and the strike and who were entirely incompetent and untrained. The specials constituted a gang, a thug force, on city payroll. They immediately set about using physical violence to break up even small public meetings of strikers.

The connection of the police to the military and the engagement in social war by government were unmistakeable. A militia composed largely of volunteers was organized with about 5000 volunteers (Seymour 1976, 17). Ketchen coordinated activities of the NWMP and set up a training program for the newly recruited militia. Former officers were brought in to command the militia. The willingness of the federal government to use lethal force against civilians was clear. Ottawa secretly shipped machine guns to Winnipeg under cover of “regimental baggage” among the freight of the demobilizing 27th Battalion (Bercuson 1975, 23). Ketchen also had an armored vehicle made available for forces in the city. An armored car fitted with three machine guns and holding six sharp shooters was ready and available at Fort Osborne Barracks (Bercuson 1975, 23). The NWMP were issued four machine guns mounted on trucks (Bercuson 1975, 23). They had 60 mounted forces ready for quick deployment. Two mobile militia troops with a motorized machine gun section with two guns apiece, mobilized infantry escorts and a company of motorized infantry were also available (Bercuson 1975, 24). Ketchen had at least 800 troop forces available in addition to the specials and other militia members.


There Are No Neutral’s There: State and Capital United against Workers in Winnipeg

Opposition to the strike consisted of the powerful alliance of employers and government. They were supported by Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand, an anti-union, anti-strike grouping positioned as the voice of “neutral” residents but which was anything but. The Citizens’ Committee was based on the Citizens’ Committee of One Hundred and included members of the Board of Trade, the Manufacturers’ Association, and the Winnipeg bar (Bercuson 1975, 18). Notable members included elites such as H.B. Lyall, an official with Manitoba Bridge and Board of Trade member; A.L. Crossin, a broker with Oldfield, Kirby, and Gardner, an insurance and loan firm, who was also a member of the Board of Trade; J.E. Botterell a senior partner in Baird and Botterell, a grain and stock brokerage, who was also with the Board of Trade; and Isaac Pitblado, a senior partner of the law firm, Pitblado, Hoskin, and Company, that handled the personal business affairs of the federal Minister of the Interior, Arthur Meighen (Bercuson 1975, 18–19).  The Chair of the Committee was A.K. Godfrey, an executive with the Canadian elevator company who was the president of the Board of Trade in 1917 and 1918.

The Committee supported the employers against the workers and provided thousands of volunteers to scab on the strikers (Bercuson 1975, 18). They also waged an ideological battle against the strikers, branding the union leaders as Bolsheviks. In the words of one striker: “The man who goes out to fight for his master is a brave Briton. The man who comes home to fight for his Mrs. is a bloomin Bolshevik” (quoted in Seymour 1976, 21). With access to secret government conferences they also advised the contract shop owners over the course of the strike (Bercuson 1975, 18).

The Winnipeg General Strike made clear in unquestionable terms the role of the state as an active, forceful supporter of capital rather than a neutral arbitrator. Rather than being disinterested players in disputes, as much criminology and legal studies of the liberal democratic state insist, the state acted in an interested manner on behalf of capital. They actively and consistently took sides. Both the federal and provincial governments immediately intervened on behalf of employers. Striking workers faced the combined efforts and forces of employers and governments. This meant that they faced the legal, political, and military force of the state acting on behalf of the employers they sought to gain concessions from.

Gideon Robertson launched an ideological campaign against the OBU blaming it for trying to foment revolution. He also set a deadline for a forced return to work of post-office workers. Postal workers were ordered back to work under conditions that they sign a pledge not to strike in the future. As the deadline passed the majority of postal workers in Winnipeg were fired and replaced with scab volunteers (Bercuson 1975, 19). The federal government fired 190 postal workers in Winnipeg when they refused to sign the anti-strike pledge. This mechanism of ultimatum and imposed deadline became the preferred means for treating all government employees. It was used against railway mail clerks, provincial telephone employees, firefighters, clerks, and waterworks workers at the city level. Most refused the ultimatums and were fired.

The federal government under Borden was unified in their opposition to the strike and in their commitment to defeat the workers on behalf of capital and the national (bourgeois) interest. They condemned the strike as a revolution. As in other cases like On to Ottawa two decades later the Prime Minister and cabinet expressed a fear that workers would overturn the established (exploitative) order, and pose a real alternative to existing structures of authority. Minister of the Interior, and future Prime Minister, Arthur Meighen saw in Winnipeg the possibility of a single union in Canada with the power to call a single general strike. This was clearly a sign of the immense power of labor if it ever organized jointly and in a united manner.

And working class unity was key. In virtually every lengthy strike there is an attempt by employers and/or government to split the membership. Often this involves targeting some members as militants and blaming them for intransigence. This often happens through efforts to make a minor offer that might satisfy some conservative demands, gaining some member support, while ignoring or overlooking other significant demands. So-called radicals are then posed as being unreasonable or asking for demands that cannot be granted at the expense of the discomfort of other members who have to endure an unnecessarily long strike.

Four weeks into the general strike Senator Robinson made a move to divide strikers and isolate radicals on the strike committee. On June 16 he secured an agreement from the contract shop employers to recognize craft unions in their workplaces. This did not include recognition of the Metal Trades Council. Robertson published this agreement in the newspapers to move public opinion against the strikers. At the same time the Senator ordered the arrests of Strike Committee radicals under dubious circumstances. Unfortunately moderates on the committee fell into Robertson’s trap and began negotiations to end the strike under the June 16 offer conditions (Bercuson 1975, 25).


The Violence of Law: Pernicious Legal Action then and Now

At this point one of the shameful episodes in Canadian state history unfolded. Legislation was introduced in the House of Commons to amend the Immigration Act to allow for the deportation of British subjects not born in Canada. On June 6 the federal government had, in only one hour of discussion, passed amendments to the Immigration Act to allow easier arrest and deportation of so-called “enemy aliens.” In another attempt at divide and conquer the government sought to split workers on the basis of ethnicity, heritage, or national origin. The legislation passed three readings without debate in 20 minutes. It was granted approval by Senate and given Royal Assent in under an hour, which was the quickest passage of legislation in the history of Canadian parliament (Seymour 1976, 20).

Amendments were also made to the Criminal Code section on sedition. The infamous Section 98 was passed which made it a crime to belong to an association that had as a purpose the change of government, industry, or economy through use of force or through advocacy or defense of the use of force (Seymour 1976, 20). Note that this could punish someone simply for defending the use of direct action or armed struggle. The offense was punishable by a maximum sentence of twenty years. One could be imprisoned for up to 20 years simply for printing, importing, distributing, or selling any material that either advocated or defended the use of force (Seymour 1976, 20). The Section 98 was an explicitly anti-communist amendment aimed at criminalizing working class struggle, peoples’ resistance, and anti-capitalism.

Anyone targeted in this way could be subjected to seizure of any property belonging to or even suspected of belonging to such an association. The property could be seized without warrant and forfeited to the Crown if it had simply been shown that a person had attended meeting of such a group, distributed its literature, or spoken publicly in support of it in some way (Seymour 1976, 20). Notably there was a reverse onus in play, counter to legal standards in liberal democracies, such that an accused had to prove they had not acted in defense of such a group rather than, as is regular legal practice, the state carrying the burden of proof.

Significantly, and of great note, these measures are precisely the same as have been restored since 2001 in Liberal and Conservative federal government Anti-Terror Acts. This should be troubling to the contemporary reader.

In the early morning of June 18 several strike leaders and supporters were arrested including some under authority of the newly amended Immigration Act and taken to Stony Mountain penitentiary where they were held while the government worked to deport those it could. The arrested included R.B. Russell, secretary of the MTC, George Armstrong, a streetcar motor person, William Ivens, editor of the Western Labour News and a key spokesperson for labor, A.A. Heaps, a labor representative on Winnipeg Municipal Council, and John Queen, alderperson for Winnipeg’s Ward V (Seymour 1976, 20). The arrests provoked outrage nationally. The MTC in Toronto called for a general strike to release the strike leaders. Miners in Cape Breton wired Ottawa to say: “We pledge ourselves to do all we can to bring about a general strike all over Canada (quoted in Seymour 1976, 20). Meighen sought their immediate deportation. Others, including A.J. Andrews, were concerned this would turn public opinion against the government and it was decided the men would be released on bail if they agreed to participate no longer in the strike (Bercuson 1975, 25).


Not What They Fought For: Veterans Support the Strike

By this point, however, the flow of events was beyond the grasp of the Strike Committee and other forces were taking center stage. Among them were thousands of World War One veterans who, disillusioned by the lack of improvement in working and social conditions, which they believed they had fought for, after the war, were solidly in support of the strike and its aims. Returned veterans rejected a Citizens’ Committee request to oppose the general strike and the strikers. Quite the contrary, a mass rally of 10,000 ex-soldiers demonstrated at the provincial legislature to demand an immediate settlement to the strike, legislation to protect collective bargaining, and withdrawal of ultimatums to striking public sector workers (Seymour 1976, 19).

As the general strike went on these veterans groupings became more and more vocal and militant (Bercuson 1975, 25). They began organizing lively public demonstrations of support for the general strike. Starting at the end of May they undertook mass parades throughout the streets of downtown Winnipeg, often marching to the legislature, City Hall, or the Headquarters of the Citizens’ Committees (Bercuson 1975, 25). This was an open show of strength, solidarity, and resolve on behalf of the strike and in opposition to the forces of the government, business, and reaction. They also held loud rallies and assemblies in Victoria Park hosting speakers from the Strike Committee and others in support of the Strike (Bercuson 1975, 25).

In response to this reactionary veterans organized counter-demonstrations against the strike. The Mayor came to issue bans on parades on multiple occasions during the strike, bans which more negatively impacted strikers given the size and strength of the pro-strike veterans’ groupings.

In response to the arrests of radical strike leaders and the threats of deportation, and the restarting of street cars, the strike supporting veterans decided on June 20, in a mass rally outside City Hall, to hold a protest the following day.

The next morning, Robertson, Gray, and NWMP Commissioner A.B. Perry met with delegates of the veterans groups to try to avert the demonstration. They could not or would not agree to meet the veterans’ demands of removing the street cars from the streets, settling the strike within four hours, and speaking with the Citizens Committee to convey this (Bercuson 1975, 25). For his part Andrews threatened the veterans with resorting to “other measures” to stop the parade, a clear implication of possible force and violence by police (Bercuson 1975, 26).


Bloody Saturday

As mass crowds gathered across from City Hall in preparation for the march, Acting Police Chief Newton informed Mayor Gray that the force of specials was not prepared to deal with a crowd of that size. Newton agreed with Gray’s assessment that the NWMP be called in and Gray was off to the Mounties’ headquarters to ask Commissioner Perry to intervene. Perry was more than happy to oblige and directed 54 mounted officers and 36 in trucks to take the streets.

By the 2:30 PM parade start time several hundred people had already taken to the streets in an attempt to stop the street cars that had foolishly been driven into the area (which could only be taken as a provocation). Two cars were stopped near City Hall with one taken off its wires and its windows broken

It was at this point that the NWMP arrived on scene and charged the crowd. On multiple runs through the assembled gathering they swung batons on veterans and strikers. The police were met on the second charge with rocks and bottles from the crowd. On a third charge the Mounties brandished cocked revolvers (Bercuson 1975, 27). At 2:35 PM Mayor Gray entered a parapet at City Hall and gave formal reading of the Riot Act. He gave the assembled protesters 30 minutes to leave the streets or face arrests. Before he could even return back inside City Hall he heard the NWMP officers fire into the crowd of civilians.

The order to shoot was given by NWMP Inspector Mead who, perhaps in a moment of panic, had determined to put down the crowd following the second mounted charge. The first shots were fired only moments after Gray had given protesters half an hour to disperse and the shooting by police continued over a terrifying period of several minutes

In the volleys of shots striker Mike Sokowolski was killed instantly, shot in the heart. On the whole around 100 people were injured in the police assault. Striker Mike Schezerbanowicz, shot in the legs, would later die of gangrene resulting from his injuries as inflicted by police gunfire.

Police and the City tried in the aftermath of the police assault to blame protesters for firing a shot but it has been determined that no shots came from the crowd, the only shots came from police. The RNWMP officer in command provided the following account of the assault: “About 120 bullets in all were fired into the crowd of men, women, and children. They were not marching around the streets but standing in front of the City Hall. Many were running away when we fired on them” (quoted in Seymour 1976, 20).

Indeed the police claim of initial fire from their targets is a common and ongoing ploy used to justify shooting and killing civilians. It is an excuse that is used falsely in cases right up to the present day. Not a single NWMP officer was hit by any gunfire. Even Inspector Mead acknowledged that he gave the order to fire out of a desperate desire to disperse the crowd, not because he was responding to any shots fired by anyone in the crowd.

As fearful members of the crowd attempted to disperse they were set upon by NWMP officers and specials who took advantage of the situation to brutalize fleeing marchers and take out their animosity toward strikers and the strike. As if this were not enough the state piled on further. General Ketchen released the militia who arrived in the city’s downtown within minutes thanks to auxiliary transport provided by the Citizens’ Committee (Bercuson 1975, 27). The militia brought the militarized machine gun section supported by cavalry. More than 80 marchers were trapped by police and arrested.

By evening the NWMP, militia, and specials had secured several blocks of the downtown area and kept the scene clear until the next day.

After Bloody Saturday Winnipeg was placed under military control. Four days after Bloody Saturday the Strike Committee called off the general strike, effective June 26. After six weeks, the largest General Strike in North America at that time, the strikers had gained none of their demands. Thousands of workers were blacklisted after the strike. Union meetings were banned in Winnipeg (Seymour 1976, 21).

The violent alliance of state and capital had proven too much to overcome, even as the strikers could have won the day had capital not been able to rely on the force of the state.

And this is the key lesson. While many talk of the separation of state and market, the capitalist “free market” or invisible hand of the market, in Canada as elsewhere there has never been a capitalist market without the sustaining power of the armed monopoly of the state. And no such market could even exist without it.


Lessons Learned

The failure of the strikers was in failing to move to a dual power situation in which they would maintain and provide essential services on the basis of their control of labor power and knowledge and capacity of the services in question, outside of government or business. Furthermore, they underestimated or misunderstood the role of government, at all levels, in violently buttressing capital and the state’s willingness to deploy lethal force to maintain capitalist social order. The strikers never seriously considered the necessity of armed defense of the strike and left the military field to police alone. This despite the great support they held among veterans.

The Winnipeg General Strike posed a real material alternative to established state capitalist order. This frightened business and government both. Unfortunately the general strike requires that workers, as those who produce and deliver goods and services, assume some of the roles of economic and social service provision. In doing this in a spirit of solidarity rather than social service or charity, they can show a better way of social organizing and justice. They can also build relationships of solidarity with other civilians that social service and charity providers cannot. This is a basis of mutual aid as the organizing principle for social relations.

As David Bercuson suggests: “The rapid increase of labour’s power in Winnipeg was a shock to the cozy arrangements and alliances that had existed between capital and government for at least four decades” (1975, 29). Unfortunately the strikers failed to understand or assess the role of the state, taking a fatally liberal approach that the state would serve merely as honest brokers or reasonable arbitrators.

As Bercuson notes: “The leaders of the strike urged their followers to hold to a non-violent course so they could avoid open confrontation with the government and its police and military forces. They did not realize that this confrontation actually began at eleven A.M. the morning of May 15” (1975, 29). This was social war but it was only being waged fully by one side, that of capital and its allies in state.

Historian Irving Abella suggests that decades of trauma for the labor movement in Canada followed from the suppression of the Winnipeg General Strike (1975, xii). While the movement had high hopes and solid prospects prior to Winnipeg, the actions of the state and capital left the movement in disarray and started a process of declin

While union membership union membership and organization had expanded quickly during the war, after the state violence in Winnipeg, membership declined dramatically throughout the 1920s with organizations paralyzed and leadership divided against itself (Abella 1975, xii). This decline would not be reversed until the years of the Second World War when labor again made significant gains. And the decline was impelled by the force of the state and the use of police to attack, and kill, working people simply organizing to improve their lives.



Abella, Irving. 1975. “Introduction.” In On Strike: Six Key Labour Struggles in Canada 1919–1949, Irving Abella (ed.). Toronto: James Lorimer and Company, xi–xv

Bercuson, David. 1975. “The Winnipeg General Strike.” In On Strike: Six Key Labour Struggles in Canada 1919–1949, Irving Abella (ed.). Toronto: James Lorimer and Company, 1–32

Seymour, Edward E. 1976. An Illustrated History of Canadian Labour 1800-1974. Canadian Labour Congress: Ottawa