Sunday, 3 May 2009

Politics in the Park


Politics in the Park:

Winnipeg's Victoria Park During the General Strike

by Anna Penner,  Balmoral Hall, Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 40, Autumn / Winter 2000-2001

The following essay was the winner of the Manitoba Historical Society's 1999 Edward C. Shaw "Young Historians" Award.

Gray and empty, the old thermal power plant stands behind the Centennial Concert Hall. Each day hundreds of people drive past it, never even taking a second glance. It has been years since it operated, and today it stands waiting as the city decides what will happen with the land. However, beneath this desolate building, there was once a park which eighty-one years ago became the meeting place of thousands of workers fighting for their rights during The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. Although today the park has been destroyed, sacrificed in the desire for more building space, it is important to remember what it was and what it stood for. This park was Victoria Park, and during the six weeks of the General Strike, it became a place where the striking workers and their supporters could speak and be heard.

Victoria Park had been part of Winnipeg since 1900, when it had been named in honour of Queen Victoria. Located at the end of James Street, near the Old Labour Temple and two blocks from City Hall, the park was carefully tended, and a popular place, particularly in summer. One day after the Winnipeg General Strike began officially at 11:00 A.M. on the 15th of May, 1919, on the morning of May 16th, this peaceful park was filled with thousands of workers, all listening as Reverend William Ivens spoke. William Ivens was a socialist, who had been a minister until he was expelled from the ministry because he would not accept the authority of the Church. He was a member of the Central Strike Committee, had founded the Labour Church and was also the editor of the Daily Strike Bulletin. In his first speech at the park, Reverend Ivens urged the workers riot to give up their fight, saying "If you will but stand firm for a short time, we will bring them cringing on their knees to you saying: 'What shall we do to be saved?'" [1] He would repeat this message several times during the strike. In the six weeks of the Strike, every Sunday, Ivens would hold services of his Labour Church at the park. In these services news of the strike was relayed and prayers were said. Sounds of the workers singing the Labour Hymn could often be heard in Victoria Park: "When wilt thou save the people, Lord; O god of mercy, when?; The people, Lord, the people; Not crowns and thrones, but men." [2] This was the prayer of the thousands of families who gathered in the park to listen and to hope for their victory.