I am taking a course at the McNally Robinson community classroom from Roland Penner, a former dean of the University of Manitoba law school and the province’s Attorney General in the 1980s. The course is called Winnipeg History- Fact and Fiction. In each class Roland gives a quick overview of an event in Winnipeg’s history and then introduces us to novels which have been written about those events. I decided I would try to read one novel about each event.
In our first class we looked at the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. For six weeks beginning in May more than 30,000 Winnipeg workers walked off the job. The strike was the product of poor working conditions, unemployment–especially in the case of returning World War I soldiers, the economic recession and the activity of union organizers. The strikers wanted an eight-hour work day, collective bargaining and a living wage.
The strike virtually brought the city to a stand still. Work stopped at the railway yards and factories. Winnipeg had no mail, streetcars, taxis, newspapers, telegrams, telephones, gasoline, or milk delivery. Most restaurants, stores, and even barber shops closed. Police, fire fighters, and employees of the water works joined the strike.
The strike leaders were arrested and imprisoned and the strike ended on June 21,1919 when a contingent of Royal Northwest Canadian Mounted Police charged a group of strikers, killing two and injuring 30 others.
The novel I read about the strike was Fox by Margaret Sweatman. There is a rather elegant and obviously wealthy young woman on the cover. Her name is Eleanor and it is basically through her eyes and that of her upper class friends and family that we view the strike. Eleanor leads a very privileged existence and knows little about the lives of Winnipeg’s working class. However when she begins a romantic relationship with a book store owner who is a strike supporter, her eyes are opened to the working conditions of Winnipeg’s lower class as well as the suffering they experience as a result of the strike.
Although it is clear author Margaret Sweatman’s sympathies lie with the strikers, interestingly her grandfather Travers Sweatman was one of the company of 1000– a group of Winnipeg citizens who banded together to bring about the unconditional defeat of the strike. They hired 2000 militia men to take the place of the striking police and discouraged all attempts to try to find a peaceful negotiated settlement with the strikers. Margaret’s grandfather was an attorney who helped in the legal prosecution of the strike organizers. One wonders if writing her novel was a way for Sweatman to do penance for the sins of her grandfather.
I was glad I knew some general information about the Winnipeg Strike before I read Fox. I think I would have been pretty confused otherwise, since Sweatman doesn’t provide a straight forward narrative but rather a kind of crazy jumble of newspaper articles, lists, headlines, stories, letters, poems and journal entries. She does a nice job of juxtapositiong events–a high society wedding is described right after we read that the strike leaders have been arrested– while Eleanor is hosting a tobogganing party the union leaders are meeting illegally at the Walker Theatre. Margaret shows what clear and widely disparate economic and social class distinctions existed in Winnipeg at the time of the strike.
What next? In our next class we are going to look at famous Winnipeg crimes both in fact and fiction.