On this date in Canadian labour history … 100 years ago!
Winnipeg, December 22, 1918
On Sunday, Dec. 22, 1918, city alderman John Queen chaired a labour meeting billed as a “Workers Rally to the Colors in the Fight for Liberty.”
The capacity crowd of 1,700 in the Walker Theatre came to order at 2:30 p.m., as Queen — a cooper by trade, a member of the Social Democratic Party of Canada, and a future member of the legislature and seven-term mayor of Winnipeg — announced that the meeting, co-sponsored by the Trades and Labour Council and the Socialist Party of Canada, would begin.
On the agenda were six speakers and three resolutions for consideration by the gathering. Each of the resolutions protested actions by the federal government at a tumultuous time in Canadian politics.
The ending of the Great War saw returned soldiers looking for work. Rampant inflation and the decline of real wages during the war years had fuelled labour unrest in both Canada and the United States.
Two revolutions in Russia in 1917 toppled the czarist autocracy and led to the Bolsheviks establishing the path to the formation of the U.S.S.R. in 1922.
Queen opened the meeting, pointing to the recent signing of the armistice as removing any further justification for federal governance by order-in-council, which had been used during the war years, including to justify both the incarceration of political prisoners and military intervention in Russia.
He advised the crowd that meetings such as this were being convened right across Canada to “restore to the people the freedom they used to have.” Those assembled loudly cheered this opening statement.
The first resolution was duly moved and called for the end of government by order-in-council, the repeal of all such orders and the “return to a democratic form of government.”
Methodist Minister William Ivens introduced the second resolution, calling for the release of all political prisoners incarcerated during the Great War. Some were jailed due to their nationality, others for their objection to the war.
Labour firebrand R.B. Russell introduced the final resolution, opposing military presence in Russia and calling for the withdrawal of all allied forces, “thus allowing Russia to work out her own political freedom without outside intervention.”
All three resolutions were adopted. The meeting ended with Queen calling for three cheers for the Russian Revolution.
The six speakers were all well-known citizens and activists. Russell and Fred Dixon were among the city’s best-known labour activists; both were powerful orators.
Union membership had almost tripled in Canada from 1915 to 1919 and strikes had more than doubled. The same experience was occurring in the United States. It has been estimated that one in five workers walked the picket line in both countries during this period, a massive period of labour unrest.
The Walker Theatre meeting was a charged atmosphere, with the fiery Russell calling for an end to capitalism and the establishment of a new form of government, such as was occurring in Russia.
Not everyone was cheering that day. Sgt. Maj. Francis Edward Langdale of the North-West Mounted Police was busy taking notes for the federal government. These notes, and others, would surface a year later, in the sedition trials held after the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.
The Walker Theatre meeting and other events external to the general strike would be relied upon by Winnipeg’s business community who, in the aftermath of the strike, pursued the private prosecution of arrested strike leaders, accusing them of an attempt to overthrow government in Winnipeg.
History has repudiated these trumped-up allegations. We now know that the federal government funded the private prosecutions, using money that had been earmarked for the well-being of returned soldiers.
We know that the provincial royal commission, appointed to report on the causes and effects of the General Strike, rejected the business communities’ conjecture that the goal of the strike was the overthrow of the established order in Winnipeg.
Finally, we know that the emergence of labour as force in Winnipeg and elsewhere frightened both elected officials and business interests.
Ironically, the Walker Theatre meeting, which was not much more than an exuberant public event for Winnipeg’s left community, showed both a radicalized and confident working class that may well have underestimated the fear they caused the ruling class.
This fear and reaction on the part of Winnipeg’s established order would soon clash with labour in the largest general strike in Canada’s history.