Great War Veterans and the Winnipeg General Strike

Veterans hoping to find prosperity and opportunity in peacetime were to be sorely disappointed, returning to a Canada whose social and economic landscapes had been dramatically altered by the exigencies of the war and which posed great challenges for reintegration. While Great War veterans across the whole of Canada faced these difficulties, those who found themselves in Winnipeg faced an added challenge as they rapidly took on a central importance in a two month long, city-wide general strike.

Image: Anti-strike veterans march in a parade. Note the rhetoric of the banner which, like the strikers, protests the economic conditions of the postwar period but identifies the ëalien enemyí and revolutionaries who would undermine ëlaw and orderí as their cause. Source: Manitoba Archives, David Millar P8232/5.
While veterans had been returning to Canada over the course of the war in small numbers, the scale of post-Armistice demobilization, beginning in earnest in January of 1919 and mostly complete by the summer months of that same year, was wholly different [1]. Given their newfound significant numbers and social capital, veterans were sought out by both the strikers and the government to strengthen their respective positions. Both had cause to believe that veterans would align with them. For their part, the strikers believed that the veterans, many of whom had been laborers in the same industries and under the same harsh conditions before the war, would be sympathetic to their position owing to this common experience [2]. The government, on the other hand, believed that veterans could be brought onside by connecting the strike with ‘enemy aliens’ (a term used for individuals of Central and Eastern European origin) and ‘revolutionary socialists’ groups with whom, the government had good cause to believe, veterans would have little sympathy [3]. While both these calculations were grounded – at least partially – in truths, one must exercise caution to not overly homogenize the experiences of veterans who, despite their shared wartime experiences, “continued […] to participate as individuals” with a diversity of beliefs, opinions, and identities [4].
While at first content to oblige the Strike Committee’s calls for ‘orderliness’ (which meant “staying home and [avoiding] trouble”), by the end of May, large segments of the strikers, including veterans, became increasingly restless [5]. Arthur Moore, who had been a sergeant in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), organized a meeting of soldiers with pro-strike sympathies on May 29th in one of the earliest attempts to mobilize veterans as a group. This meeting would send a delegation to Premier Norris demanding, under threat of large-scale public demonstrations, that the strike be settled through compulsory collective bargaining [6]. True to their word, on May 31st, following a lack of government action, up to 12,000 veterans marched to the Legislative Building to once again confront Premier Norris, marking the beginning regular mass public demonstrations [7].
On June 3rd, some 2000 members of the Great War Veterans’ Association (GWVA) passed a resolution by a two-thirds majority supporting the strike and organized another parade for June 5th [8]. Those in opposition, led by Frederick Thompson, an enlisted soldier of the Winnipeg Grenadiers who was wounded at Amiens, began to organize counterdemonstrations to begin June 4th and would organize the Returned Soldiers’ Loyalist Association (RSLA) as an alternative to the GWVA [9]. Responding to the threat of alternating mass public demonstrations, and the potential for violence this engendered, street parades were banned by government decree on June 6th – though public gatherings of both pro and anti-strike veterans would nevertheless continue to be held throughout June.
Some veterans, particularly those opposing the strike, went further in their participation. When the regular police force was dismissed on June 9th given their sympathetic attitude towards strikers, an ad-hoc force of anti-strike “specials” was raised to replace them. Amongst their ranks, one could find many veterans. A notable example was Frederick Coppins, a former serviceman who had won the Victoria Cross for his role in eliminating multiple enemy machine gun positions in France. On June 10th, while dispersing a crowd, Coppins was dragged from his horse and assaulted leading to an outcry across large segments of the public. That this event, and not similar instances of violence against strikers or other specials, received the attention that it did demonstrates the elevated social status afforded by military service [10].
The ‘last hurrah’ of the veterans, and indeed of the strike, was the June 21st parade, following the sudden arrest of the strike leaders several days prior. Veterans believed that, in the power vacuum that had emerged, only they could prevent what appeared to be an imminent collapse of the strike and so organized a parade in direct violation of the June 6th decree [11]. Though turnout was significant, the parade would devolve into violence, as police fired into the crowd without giving them sufficient time to disperse, killing two and wounding many others [12]. Despite this failure, the significant involvement of veterans is indicative of their increasing prominence in Canada: for perhaps the first time in Canadian history, veterans were a numerically significant social group that could exercise a non-negligible influence on Canadian society and politics, and this would have notable ramifications in the 1920s.
[1] Cook, Tim. Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1917-1918 Volume Two [italicize title]. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2008, 596 ; Bumsted, John. The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919: An Illustrated History. Watson & Dwyer Publishing Limited, 1994, 21.
[2] Bercuson, David. Confrontation at Winnipeg: Labour Industrial Relations, and the General Strike. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990, 143.
[3] Bumsted, The Winnipeg General Strike, 21; 45. Already, in the “January Riots”, groups of demobilized soldiers had intimidated members of both these groups and damaged their property.
[4] Bercuson, Confrontation at Winnipeg, 142.
[5] McNaught, Kenneth and David Bercuson. The Winnipeg Strike: 1919. Don Mills, Ontario: Longman Canada Limited, 1974, 50; Bumsted, The Winnipeg General Strike, 38.
[6] Bumsted, The Winnipeg General Strike, 40-41.
[7] Ibid., 43.
[8] Ibid., 46.
[9] Bercuson, Confrontation at Winnipeg, 147.
[10] Ibid., 155.
[11] McNaught and Bercuson, The Winnipeg Strike: 1919, 89-90.
[12] Ibid., 91.

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