The 1919 General Strike is among Winnipeg’s most important historical events.
Along with the Red River Rebellion led by Louis Riel in 1870 and the flood of 1950 that led to the construction of the Red River Floodway, these historical points showcase the bravery, strength and resolve of Winnipeg.
Harriet Zaidman masterfully addresses the 1919 strike in City on Strike. The author conveys this event using characters Jack and Nellie Sitner, the youngest children of the Sitner family, to portray a two-person
perspective of the strike.
The book weaves history and fiction together to create a satisfying and relatable tale. With mentions of the grandiose Wellington Crescent community and the longevity of the Winnipeg Free Press building still located on Carlton Street near Portage Avenue, to highlighting Winnipeg politician A.J. Andrews and famous photographer L.B. Foote, the book effectively structures the scene of the strike.
The book’s strength lies in its simplicity and ability to relate to current social discourses. Racism, prejudice, classism and economic inequality, police brutality and manipulative media (actual fake news) are just some of the issues highlighted throughout this book.
Chapters 1 through 12 depict events that would lead up to the strike and Bloody Saturday, the June 21 climax of the strike, during which North-West Mounted Police (the predecessor to the RCMP) opened fire on protesters, killing two and injuring dozens. It follows the Sitner children as they navigate school, home life and, for Jack, work delivering newspapers.
One of the most innocent scenes takes place in Chapter 3, when Jack meets William Andrews. The young boys immediately befriend each other, and though they are of different socioeconomic classes, William helps Jack deliver papers and plays with him.
Jack is at the centre of some of the most gripping scenes of the book. In Chapter 5, he attends a short-notice school assembly, where principal Maxwell informs the students of Britain’s victory in the First World War but shockingly tells the students that immigrants who are striking are the soldiers’ new enemy.
In Chapter 9, Jack breaks the strike to sell newspapers to help his poor family. His efforts are admirable, but he gets beaten up for selling the Winnipeg Free Press and West Labour News, which support the Citizens Committee of 1000 and the Strikers Committee, respectively. He does not inform his family that he continually sells newspapers, which raises his mental and physical stress to the point where he vomits.
Chapters 13 to 18 detail the events and aftermath of Bloody Saturday. Zaidman stitches together scenes that increase in intensity for each subsequent chapter. The battle between the strike supporters and the police are vivid scenes, and readers are left
frantically page-turning, especially in Chapter 15, when gunshots are fired, and Jack’s father may have been shot.
It can be almost otherworldly to consider the prices, pay rates, dressing customs and cultural cues from 1919, but the book is incredibly relevant in today’s society, which continues to struggle against injustice. Cans of peaches once priced at 29¢ and a fashionable dress for less than $3 may be laughable today. However, the effects of war and PTSD, economic struggles and prejudice remain lamentably relatable.
Published in Volume 74, Number 13 of The Uniter (January 9, 2020)