Monday, 13 June 2016

1919 General Strike Memorial
Reflecting today’s Complacency, not yesterday’s Courage

When I do the annual General Strike tour I like to end at Victoria Park, to show how the legacy of the Strike resonates with politicians and the public today. And no there isn’t a huge monument there to the most significant political event in the city’s history. And that is the point of my approach to the Strike and the tour – there is nothing to mark the significance of the place, only a condo development and a boutique hotel.

Somewhat ironically but consistent with how City officials have treated the Strike for 97 years, the design for a General Strike Interpretive Centre has maintained a cancerous official neglect. The City has decided to play down the political meaning and social importance of the Strike with a bland and pedantic design that reflects more of today’s attitude than what actually happened in 1919.

First the location for the memorial is innocuous and irrelevant to the Strike. A tiny sliver of land next to a building at Lilly and Market is virtually invisible unless you are facing it and standing within meters.

Second, the City has allocated only $250,000 for the design and construction of the memorial.

Third. The design is based on text and rusting steel to reflect “multiple conflicting meanings.” As Monteyne Architecture Works describes their design, “It is a monument made primarily of weathering steel and multiple, conflicting meanings. The archetypal struggle for a fair deal that gripped the city almost 100 years ago mirrored the clash between classes and values that was occurring in other places, and the various oppositions that existed then continue to dominate our political and social discourse to this day.”

And fourth, there was no public input or consultation on the design. I had hoped the Selection Committee handpicked for the competition would have the creativity and courage to treat the task with more respect. But an open public process would have been commensurate with the nature of the Strike.

A historical period that was imbued with honour, sacrifice, solidarity and courage is written off as a mere competition and extension of class conflict in this winning design. An event that sent ripples of change to labour laws, social services, economic relations, urban design and the cultural character of Winnipeg is given a miniscule reference in an ambiguous sterile structure. Instead of having a monument that helps Winnipeggers and visitors understand and appreciate the contribution of the Strike, we get an abstract architecture that only vaguely reflects a calendar event with a scattering of benign references.

In 2019 the centenary of the Strike will be celebrated and that will be an opportunity for the citizens of Winnipeg to reflect their appreciation for what happened in and for Winnipeg. We will be able to expose the sacrifices and significance of the Strike and I’m fairly confident the people who supressed the Strikers will not be celebrating or holding events that commemorate ‘conflicting meanings.’

Information on the selection process and chosen design is at:
Dennis Lewycky

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

1919 General Strike gets attention for 2019

2019 will mark the centenary of the General Strike and a number of memorials and events are being planned for Winnipeg. The next few years will be exciting for everyone who has been aware of the importance of the Strike to so much of what Winnipeg is today. 
The Manitoba Federation of Labour is starting to plan a series of events for 2019. CentreVenture is looking at what should be done in the Exchange District. Strike the Musical will start shooting the film version soon that will be shown in 2019. And artist Noam Gonick is planning an installation on Main Street. The City of Winnipeg has invited proposals for a ‘Winnipeg General Strike Design Competition and Interpretation Installation at the corner of Lily Street and Market Avenue’.

While this City memorial could be a way for the City to exonerate itself, it appears it is going to maintain a pattern of virtual denial of the Strike it set almost a hundred years ago. The site proposed for the installation is small, obscure and funding is inadequate. Note:

·         Two years after the Strike the City destroyed Victoria Park where the strikers met daily. In 1924 a steam plant was erected on the site that functioned until 1984.

·         A reasonable plan to recreate a modest Victoria Park in 1999 as part of the North Main Development Plan was never implemented.

·         Proposals presented 10 years ago by the Labour History Project to develop a park and memorial on what was Victoria Park was rejected by the Planning Committee of the City.

·         Instead the land was sold to developers who built a condominium block and boutique hotel on the site that some historians call “the spiritual centre” of the Strike.

·         The condominium developer was required to place a memorial on its fa├žade in 2012 but a modest plaque created by the Province has not been used (word is they will put it up in 2019).

·         The memorial plaque that was put outside on City Hall in 1969 (by the Steelworkers where it could be publicly seen) was removed two years ago and is now in the basement next to the women's bathroom (where very few people will see it).

Considering this history of suppressing the Strike story, it is unlikely that the City will revise its plan for this token site for a memorial. However, someone may bid on the proposal and note that ‘Hell’s Alley’ was near this site where the ‘Specials’, hired by the City, attacked and brutalized strikers who were fleeing the North-West Mounted Police on June 21, 1919.

For the record, there are dedicated Winnipeggers who have not let the memory of the Strike fade away. In 1992, on the 75th Anniversary of the Strike, the Winnipeg Labour Council collaborated with community and government in a jubilant commemoration of the Strike.  Strike the Musical is a wonderful depiction of the personal passions and deep sacrifices made by the strikers. Tombstones have been erected for the two men shot by the police on ‘Bloody Saturday’. Each year there are about five Strike tours around the city to educate people, entertain tourists and keep the memory of the Strike alive. Historians teach about the Strike at both universities and The Manitoba Museum has a large Strike display. At least four web sites are repositories for photos, analysis and stories from the Strike, and there have been numerous books written and smaller markers erected to commemorate the Strike or parts of it by individuals.

Hopefully others will come forward to help commemorate what the strikers did then and how their courage and solidarity set the stage for so many social benefits we have today. If you or your organization is interested in contributing to these efforts, contact me and I will forward your information to the appropriate groups.

Dennis Lewycky