Remembering 1919 from Woodsworth House
While labour unions and other groups in Winnipeg prepare to commemorate the centenary of the Winnipeg General Strike in their own fashion, we thought it fitting to offer you a reminder of the part that the one-time resident of our little house on Maryland St. played in one of Canada’s most explosive social episodes.
In May of 1919 J. S. Woodsworth was on a national speaking tour. Woodsworth was a pastor who had garnered a name for himself as an advocate of social and economic equality. He spoke at gatherings and published articles denouncing the exploitation of capitalist bosses and celebrating the worker’s demands for improved wages and rights. His religion and politics were intertwined. In his own words,
“He serves God best who serves his fellow-men.” One of two characteristics of the final religion were: Individual freedom would have to give place to social service; religion would be democratic in its organization; and it would involve change in ethical standards. For example, the test of honesty would not be: “Have I wronged some particular person?” but “Have I rendered adequate service to the community?”
J.S. Woodsworth, quoted by Grace MacInnis in J.S. Woodsworth
Woodsworth had been booked to speak in Winnipeg before the strike began, by invitation of Rev. William Ivens of the Labor Church. When Woodsworth arrived in Winnipeg on June 8, at his scheduled date, the strike was already on its twenty-fifth day. Before a crowd of approximately ten thousand workers, women and men, Woodsworth spoke of solidarity, economic and political justice, and he affirmed the cause of the strikers. He would remain in Winnipeg, publishing and writing for the Western Labor News, even as a warrant for his arrest was issued. Eventually he was jailed for his participation in promoting the general strike. (Charges against him would later be dropped.)
Following the Winnipeg strike, Woodsworth and others formed a new national political party, the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation, which favored a socialist-democratic approach. That party would go on to influence the social-democratic character of Canadian social policy. During that political period following the strike, Woodsworth’s house on Maryland Street served as place where people gathered to discuss issues and strategize for political change.
The educational history of this house that now holds the Centre for Christian Studies runs deep. Woodsworth taught classes on economics and socialism in its rooms.
It makes perfect sense that at this time when Canadians are remembering the legacy of the Winnipeg strike, we who are associated with the Centre for Christian Studies would want to remember the social gospel links that connect social justice campaigns of 1919 to the diaconal work undertaken by many across the country today.
But vigilance and self-examination are also warranted, sobering our memory and celebrations.
One of the major issues at the heart of the Winnipeg strike that sometimes gets lost behind the language of ‘worker’, ‘working conditions’, and ‘living standards’ is the issue of Canadian racism and attitudes toward immigrant populations. The strike was used by those in authority to stir up popular suspicion and animosity toward immigrants from countries in southern Europe, eastern Europe, south Asia, east Asia, and the Caribbean.
Woodsworth’s record on matters of immigration and cultural diversity in Canada are far less admirable than his general defense of democratic socialism. While studying at CCS in 2017 Nancy Renwick explored a more critical view of Woodsworth. Gathering several sources, including Woodsworth’s 1909 book, Strangers Within Our Gates, Renwick reminds us that Woodsworth adhered to the view of racial hierarchy, with Northern Europeans at the top of his ladder and “Negroes and Indians” at the bottom. He regarded immigration in Canada as a positive opportunity only to the extent that the immigrants were able to assimilate into Anglo-Christian culture. And those on the bottom of his racial hierarchy were deemed least able to assimilate (Renwick, 2017).
Renwick notes that Woodsworth certainly changed his views from 1909 to his later political period, stating that he began to see how eugenics and racial hierarchy was being weaponized against the working classes (Renwick, 2017). Regardless of where Woodsworth himself ended up in his understanding of cultural diversity and solidarity, we have to imagine that his record of racial supremacy has some, or as much of a lasting impact as his record of democratic socialism.
Xenophobia and racism continue to shape policy, social life, and economic life in Canada. And one reason for this, we must admit, is because movements and institutions that proclaim their commitment to equality and liberation often don’t or don’t know how to confront their own legacies of xenophobic and supremacist activity.
Remembering the Winnipeg General Strike will arouse newfound feelings and thoughts about solidarity. And true social solidarity cannot permit supremacy of any kind. Work remains to protect many of the labour rights that Woodsworth fought for, but equally, the hard work remains of upending the xenophobia and racism in our society that Woodsworth didn’t fully acknowledge as a real obstacle to a just, humane, and flourishing society.
David Lappano is a member of the Program Staff at the Centre for Christian Studies.