The working class people of Winnipeg referred to her as ‘Ma’ a term of respect and affection for a woman who fought with such determination and passion to protect their rights.
Filmmaker Paula Kelly called her ‘notorious’ titling a 2001 documentary about her The Notorious Mrs Armstrong.
A CBC feature dubbed her the Wild Woman of the West because she was such a fiery and outspoken advocate for women’s labour rights.
The Toronto Star newspaper once labelled her The Business Manager of Women’s Unions.
I first became curious about Helen Armstrong when I moved to Winnipeg in 2011 and saw a mural on a building near my home in the Exchange District that told the story of the Winnipeg General Strike. It featured only one woman. Who could she be?
A little research led to me discover that the woman in the mural was Helen Armstrong. She had been born in Toronto in 1875 the eldest of ten children and had grown up in her Dad’s busy tailor shop. He was a labour leader and so Helen often overheard men having fiery discussions about politics and workers’ rights.
It was in her Dad’s shop at a labour meeting that she met a young carpenter named George Armstrong whom she married. They settled in Winnipeg in 1904 and had four children.
The labour causes Helen eventually took on were legion. She vigorously advocated for the working women of Winnipeg whether they were store clerks, stenographers, telephone operators, waitresses or laundresses.
She fired off letters to politicians complaining of poor wages, unfair layoffs, unhealthy working conditions and abuse. She walked the picket lines and had no fear of the police or court officials.
In 1917 she became the president of the Winnipeg Women’s Labour League and in May of that year led a strike for the women who worked in Winnipeg’s Woolworth’s department store.
During the next two years, she organized a union for women working as hotel housemaids and others for biscuit factory workers and knitting machine operators.
But it was during the Winnipeg strike of 1919 that Helen really came into her own. Helen was only one of two women on the strike committee. Her impassioned speeches drew strikers to the cause. She stood out in front of businesses early in the morning when women were coming to work and convinced them to join the strike.
She established the Labour Cafe which provided strikers with free meals. Some days they served 1,500 meals to those who had lost their wages because they were on strike.
Helen was arrested twice during the strike for disorderly conduct and when it finally ended both she and her husband George were in jail.
In the early 1920s, Helen unsuccessfully ran for Winnipeg City Council twice but continued to work to protect women workers advocating for laws that would afford them better wages and working conditions. In 1921, Helen helped persuade the government of Manitoba to become one of the first two provinces to institute a Minimum Wage Act for women. The hourly rate for women was 25 cents per hour.
Helen and George eventually moved to California to be near one of their daughters. Helen died there in 1947.
Paula Kelly who documented Helen’s life on film says that Helen “didn’t mince words, didn’t pull punches and didn’t care what people thought of her. ” Kelly said. “Clearly, she was not concerned about consequences. She was concerned about action and making issues visible and making change.”
I have been unable to find any tribute to Helen in Winnipeg. Does anyone know of a plaque or street name or building named in her honour?
In my latest novel Sixties Girl, I named an imaginary school after her, but I’d like to know if there is recognition of her contributions somewhere in the city. If there isn’t I think there certainly should be.
I wish I could have personally met Helen Armstrong the notorious, wild and warm labour organizer who bravely crusaded for the women workers of Manitoba.
But I’m glad that the mural near my home introduced her to me and I at least got to know her as an important Canadian historical figure.
Note: The mural pictured in this post was on the wall of the Whiskey Dix establishment. It was destroyed in a bad storm in 2012.
The Winnipeg Strike- Fact or Fiction