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Winnipeg General Strike, 1919.

Lewis Benjamin Foote

Luke Ottenhof is a freelance writer based in Kingston. His work has been published by The Guardian, Vulture, Toronto Star, CBC, Maclean’s and others.

Canada’s national claim to quiet, tiptoeing politeness as an identity trait is ahistorical for countless reasons, but one of the most glaring inconsistencies comes via the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. After the last major influenza pandemic shuttered the world a century ago, workers in the prairie city executed what was then the largest and most significant general strike in history. Over six weeks, 30,000 workers went on strike to fight for better living conditions for themselves and their neighbours. This wasn’t a blushing, bashful display of Canadian civility; it was a forceful, full-throated display of aggressive solidarity and organizing across an entire city, and it made history.

One hundred years later, Canadians have been thrust into a brutal situation similar to Winnipeggers’ in 1919. Insufficient wages, surging inflation, xenophobia, housing crises and profiteers fattening their bank accounts off of destruction: These were the grievances that spurred the Winnipeg General Strike, but they could be ripped from breakroom (or chatroom) dialogues across the country. Even the anti-immigrant rhetoric of 1919 holds as a disappointingly precise parallel as Jason Kenney has targeted South Asian communities as COVID-19 spreaders, and people blame “foreigners” as the cause of our grief.

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The more things have changed, the more they’ve stayed the same. Work – and the people who are or aren’t doing it – has become one of the COVID-19 pandemic’s critical stories. When news broke that Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government had been sitting on $12-billion in contingency funds, more evidence was foisted upon the argument that Canada’s working poor have been forced to toil for the past year under unsafe, unfair conditions as part of a long-running economic con.

COVID-19 hasn’t just poked a hole in that facade – it’s torn down the entire curtain, revealing the exploitation that underpins our lives. Canada’s top chief executives have gotten richer while hero pay for grocery workers was cut last summer. Most of us are discouraged from seeing our families, but implored to go to work. Like Winnipeggers in 1919, Canadians are angry and exhausted. That could mean that we’re primed to make history again. But this depends on Canadian workers, their labour leaders and whether or not they have the same collective convictions that workers had 100 years ago.

Two things remain certain. As the province slowly opens up, even in the face of new variants, workers will be most at risk. The second, as Mr. Ford reiterated earlier this week, is that contrary to desperate pleas from health care providers and policy leaders, there will be no paid sick days for Ontarians. For poor workers, or workers struggling to make rent, the choice has hardly changed in 11 months: risk catching COVID-19 at work, or risk being evicted at home.

These realities present both a clear message and moral imperative for workers and labour leaders: Work and the people who do it are the only things our leaders appear to care about, and leveraging and disrupting those things is necessary to rectify the imbalances around us. But the possibility and success of these tactics depend on collective fortitude and resolve that can only be marshalled by labour organizers and workers, moving in concert with one another.

So far, save for isolated instances of impactful wildcat strikes and work stoppages, organized labour hasn’t moved on this opportunity. Almost an entire year into the pandemic, modern Canadian labour’s biggest leaders have shown little interest in the radical tactics and politics of their predecessors. At best, they embody the NDP’s oppositional but palatable leftism; at worst, say some labour critics, they aid and abet public and private projects that undermine workers’ power. These leaders aren’t likely to call a general strike.

But the young organizers, activists and workers that represent Canadian labour’s new guard – well-versed in a more radical left politic than their leaders – are less action-averse, and the pandemic has only strengthened their convictions. Workers’ Action Movement, a sect of Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union, rails against the “labour aristocracy” who are mitigating their loss of personal luxuries by buddying up with business leaders instead of standing with their workers. Their demands are clear and comprehensive: “Let’s be unequivocal in our demands for a better society.” Labour Fightback, a Marxist collective of Canadian workers, promotes a similarly uncompromising approach.

This cohort isn’t focused only on the nuts and bolts of work, but the broader conditions under which it’s carried out: What good is a higher wage if it’s supplied by an employer who’s hastening the climate crisis, or counts bigots on their payrolls? These organizers and workers aren’t interested in returning to the way things used to be. Early in the pandemic, a mantra among leftist labour groups cropped up: “We’re not going back.” A better world is possible, they argued, and now is the time to draw up a blueprint for how to get there.

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But the Ford government’s steadfast refusal to implement paid sick leave for workers in Ontario, coupled with their emphasis on individual recalcitrance as the reason for the province’s most recent spike in COVID-19 cases, have created an environment that encourages suspicion and infighting rather than solidarity and mutual care. These precarities are looming while workers in general have rarely been so atomized and isolated. It’s hard to care for and support others – let alone organize and act – when your personal well-being hangs by a thread.

These conditions have created a unique paradox: They’re immobilizing and draining Canadian workers, while at the same time radicalizing these workers to class- and labour-consciousness. The situation facing Canadian workers – and the organizers who might lead them – falls again to a question of convictions. The Ford government’s individualist project gnaws at and loosens the solidarity and collectivity necessary to not just emerge alive from the pandemic, but to collectively reimagine a better way to live. We need to focus on generating the strength to advocate as a working community, with militant hope and vigour, to make that future a reality. If our governments refuse to perceive us as anything other than workers, let’s show them what organized workers can do.

This, after all, is not out of character for Canadians. It’s tradition – and the best traditions deserve to be honoured.

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