Sunday, May 24, 2015

Renovated Canadian Museum of History excludes former exhibit on Winnipeg General Strike

A room in the Canadian Museum of History was modelled on the meeting room of the James Street Labour Temple in Winnipeg where workers met for discussions that led to the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.
In renovation plans for the Museum of History, located in Gatineau Quebec, the room will be excluded. Officials promise, however, that the labour movement will still be included.
The Star newspaper was able to obtain documents pertaining to the renovation through a freedom of information request. One document, a renovation risk assessment, claimed that there were few risks associated with the decision to shut the exhibit down: “Changes can be made to the module with few political or institutional risks. Some comments by academics cite the closure as evidence of the museum’s lack of interest in working class history . . . . The removal of this module represents minimal risk to the museum, though it will entail communications challenges to the academic community."Interesting that the challenge is to meet the objections of the academic community and not labour groups or the general public. The dismantled exhibit is to be replaced by a new Canadian History Hall that is scheduled to open on July 1, 2017. The Star notes:The Canadian Museum of History has come under public scrutiny in the past couple of years, following a controversial change in name — it was formerly known as the Canadian Museum of Civilization — and mandate that had critics accusing the Conservative government of using the Crown Corporation to rewrite history in its image.
David Morrison, director of research and content for the new Canadian History Hall denied the Conservative government had any influence on the decision to do away with the exhibit: “Government is certainly not telling us what to put into the hall. Nor do they know what we are putting into the hall. We are not reporting to them and they are not telling us what to do. There is a very high level of cynicism and paranoia out there"
The Canadian Labour Congress had no influence on the decision. Morrison has not consulted them yet. The group expressed concern about the elimination of the exhibit.
A short account of the General Strike can be found as part of the museum exhibit. A much more detailed description is given in the Wikipedia entry.
The strike began at 11 in the morning on Thursday 15th of May 1919 with 25,000 to 35,000 Winnipeg workers walking off the job. Authorities were shocked when police and fire fighters joined the strike. Many returning war veterans also supported the strike. The strike lasted six weeks and culminated in Bloody Saturday on June 21st when a huge demonstration of about 25,000 strikers was broken up by Royal Northwest Mounted Police who charged the crowd on horseback beating them with clubs and firing weapons. Two strikers were killed. When the crowd dispersed into the side streets they were met with special deputized police who clubbed them. Crowd control was not high tech in those days. There were sympathy strikes in many other cities including Brandon the other main city in Manitoba.
Many who took part and were leaders in the strike became important political figures later. One was James Shavers Woodsworth, a cleric, who later became leader of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation(CCF) the predecessor of the New Democratic Party. While the Communist Party of Canada had not yet been founded many opponents of the strike considered the strikers Bolsheviks. One important leader of the strike Jacob Penner later was an important figure in the Communist Party of Canada after its formation in 1921. Penner reminisced about the strike in 1950:The Winnipeg General Strike is immortal. It lives in the memory of those that are still with us and who took such an honourable part in the struggle for the rights of the producers of wealth. It lives in the memory of the sons and daughters of those that participated and to whom this story is being related by their parents during quiet family hours.
Penner was elected to the Winnipeg city council in 1932 and served until 1960 and was replaced by another Communist Party stalwart Joe Zuken who served another two decades, indicating the radical tradition in the north end of Winnipeg was long lasting. Penner's son Roland became dean of the University of Manitoba law school even though he was involved in his youth with the Communist Party. He later joined the New Democratic Party and became Attorney General of Manitoba. Another son Norman was a professor at York University who wrote an interesting history of the General Strike as seen through the eyes of the participants.