1919 Inspires the ‘Occupy Generation’

The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike looms large in the annals of the 20th-Century’s peaceful protest movements. The six-week general strike (still one of the longest on the record books) shut down Canada’s then third-largest city, engulfing an entire country in sympathetic demonstrations and ending in the imposition of the War Measures Act…and a fateful day of bloodshed on Bloody Saturday, June 21st, 1919.

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What began as a strike by metal trade workers and carpenters in the face of unprecedented post-war inflation, soon grew to a city-wide general strike. The Federal Government – erroneously convinced that the strike was an “incipient Bolshevik revolution” – undertook strong arm tactics to suppress the strikers.  The entire police force was dismissed only to be replaced by a militia comprised largely of anti-immigrant war veterans.  A discriminatory federal law was enacted, which saw the strike leaders and a select group of immigrant scapegoats arrested and subject to immediate deportation.  The resulting national uproar brought tensions to a boiling point.

“Mike Sokolowski’s world bears an uncanny resemblance to ours.” - Steven Page, Barenaked Ladies co-founder and Strike! actor

Discrimination the Strike’s Undercurrent

But while the strike may have been the spark, the era was an already-explosive powder keg.  Discrimination towards the hordes of immigrants was an ever-present reality.  The “stalwart peasants in sheep skin coats” – the poverty-stricken Slavs and Jews of Europe – were needed by the wheels of industry and agriculture….but not wanted.  When the Great War broke out in 1914, tens of thousands of immigrants, many already citizens, were branded “enemy aliens” by virtue of their birth within the Austro-Hungarian empire. A system of prisoner of war camps saw some 8500 Europeans incarcerated for up to four years. After 1917′s Russian Revolution, the “First Red Scare” began; to be an Eastern European immigrant was to be considered a “dangerous Bolshevik revolutionary.”

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And yet, despite the danger, two-thirds of the strike’s participants were non-unionized, ethnic workers like the real-life Mike Sokolowski.  Poverty-stricken, marginalized and discriminated though they may have been, the immigrant class workers joined the cause in an unprecedented wave of solidarity.  And while the strike’s end was violent and its goals unmet, the legacy of the movement continues to inspire.

“I’m really inspired by the 1919 General Strike.  I think we need that kind of people power now.” - author & Canadian youth activist Brigette Depape