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A crowd gathers outside the Union Bank of Canada building on Main Street during the Winnipeg General Strike on June 21, 1919.

/The Canadian Press

During the Winnipeg General Strike of May and June of 1919, more than 30,000 workers walked out to demand living wages, better working conditions and collective bargaining rights. It remains one of the greatest examples of collective action in Canadian history and an inspiration to activists in the labour movement and beyond. Although the strikers’ demands ultimately weren’t met, the strike changed the political landscape, with several of its leaders holding public office and one, J.S. Woodsworth, going on to lead the NDP-precursor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF).

In 2019, there are lots of opportunities to find out more about the Winnipeg General Strike. The strike’s centenary is being marked by performances, exhibits, lectures, tours, public art, film – and plenty of books.

For the hard-core history buffs

Winnipeg 1919: The Strikers’ Own History of the Winnipeg General Strike. Third edition. Edited by Norman Penner. Introduction by Christo Aivalis. Lorimer, $24.95.

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Penner’s book is a collection of primary sources, largely from the strikers’ perspective. According to Aivalis’s introduction, Penner’s editions in the early 1970s helped kickstart scholarship about labour history.

For the generalists

Magnificent Fight: The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike by Dennis Lewycky. Fernwood, $22. In his preface to Magnificent Fight, Dennis Lewycky, a long-time social activist in Winnipeg, asks himself why he wanted to write a strike history when so many historians have already done the job. His answer: the desire to understand why it happened and what came after. The book spends much of its real estate on context – the social conditions that led to the strike, and its aftermath. The book is “for people who wouldn’t necessarily read a history book,” Lewycky says.

For young adults

1919: A Graphic History of the Winnipeg General Strike by The Graphic History Collective and David Lester. Between the Lines, $19.19.

1919 uses startling black-and-white images in a sometimes chaotic and violent representation of a sometimes chaotic and violent history. Multiple spreads feature June 21, 1919 – known as “Bloody Saturday” – when Mounties stormed a crowd of protestors, killing two. 1919 is the most strident of the centenary books, but, of the books for adults, the most accessible. It would also be appropriate for teens.

For fiction fans

Fox by Margaret Sweatman. Second edition. Afterword by Alison Calder. Turnstone, $19.

Like the Penner book, Margaret Sweatman’s Fox is a new edition of a classic: Sweatman’s first novel, from 1991, republished in advance of the strike centenary. A literary historical novel, Fox has been compared to books such as Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion. Fox is presented in short fragments from multiple points of view, straddling the working-class north of the city and the elite south. This edition includes a new essay on the book’s significance by University of Manitoba English professor Alison Calder. As a literary work, Fox is different from the other strike centenary books. It’s by far the most nuanced, pitched to readers instead of activists or educators. The strike is the theatre in which the characters move, but Fox is powerful because of its characters and its writing.

For kids

Papergirl by Melinda McCracken with Penelope Jackson. Roseway, $13.

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Melinda McCracken was a Manitoba writer who wrote Papergirl in the 1980s but after she died in 2002, the book was published posthumously in May. For younger middle-grade readers, Papergirl follows 10-year-old Cassie as she struggles with scabs and mean rich kids while selling the strike’s news organ on the streets of Winnipeg. Papergirl features a prominent cameo by strike leader Helen Armstrong.

City on Strike by Harriet Zaidman. Red Deer Press, $14.95.

Winnipeg’s Harriet Zaidman, a former teacher-librarian, also hands her protagonist newspapers to sell. Zaidman’s young characters, including the 13-year-old lead, Jack, find the strike confusing and their loyalties divided. City on Strike includes several historical cameos, notably by L.B. Foote, who shot the famous photographs of Bloody Saturday. City on Strike is for older middle-grade readers.

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