Canada's History

Taking a stand


Pensions. Sick leave. Weekends off. Vacation pay. We take these benefits for granted today, but each was won thanks to the historic efforts of unions.

The labour movement arose in the mid-nineteenth century in response to the industrial­ization of society. During the 1800s, thousands of people, both in Europe and in North America, left their villages and towns to take up jobs in cities. In Canada, factories sprang up in major centres like Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg. The factories provided plenty of employment, but the work took a heavy toll on employees.

Lured by the promises of regular wages and upward mobility through honest work, many workers discovered that their dream jobs were in reality quite nightmaris­h when it came to quality of life. Many toiled seven days per week and up to eighteen hours a day in dangerous conditions. Taking time off — whether to care for sick children or to tend to a personal injury or illness — was a luxury most workers couldn’t afford. Indeed, failing to show up for work due to family issues was often a firing offence.

Speaking of children, many were forced to work in order to help to support their families. Workplace safety was an afterthoug­ht, though, and injuries were common. In addition, some children and women were sexually abused and harassed by their employers without recourse.

This year marks a major milestone in the advancemen­t of workers’ rights. A century ago, beginning in May 1919, thousands of workers in Winnipeg rose up to demand fairer treatment by their employers.

What began as a simple labour dispute in the metal and building trades ballooned into a massive general strike that sparked sympatheti­c work actions across the country. The strike was put down by violent means in June 1919, and some strike leaders faced politicall­y motivated criminal charges in its wake. This only served to further galvanize the labour movement.

In this issue, Brandon University historian James Naylor recalls how government­s and business leaders colluded to exacerbate ethnic and economic divides during the Winnipeg General Strike. Blaming the work stoppages on “enemy aliens,” meaning non-British immigrants, officials sought to paint the labour revolt as a Bolshevik plot — essentiall­y, a Russian revolution redux in Western Canada. In the end, the repression only served to strengthen the labour movement.

Elsewhere in this issue, we explore the tragic aftermath of Toronto’s Great Stork Derby; we take a journey on a historic Quebec batteau; and we remember the life of a woman who lived through not one but two of the past century’s worst disasters — the sinking of the

Titanic, and the Halifax Explosion. In the meantime, visitors to Winnipeg this spring and summer will be able to relive the events of the strike: A musical production on the topic will run through the summer at a local outdoor theatre, and a motion picture on the strike will debut later in the year.

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