In 1918 the world was rocked by a global pandemic. Doctors were stumped by how to treat this mysterious virus that was killing patients. Masks were worn, people quarantined, families were torn apart by death and illness. One year into the pandemic, North America was rocked again, this time as the masses took to the streets sparked by the Winnipeg General Strike. The labour movement growth and impact extended beyond Winnipeg as strikes took place across North America. The Winnipeg General Strike is a moment that set the foundation for many workers’ rights today.
To separate the pandemic and the strike is to be naïve at how pandemics remove the liberal veil attempting to hide class oppression. The Winnipeg General Strike makes clear that the rhetoric that “we are all in this together” in a pandemic is a myth, because in a colonial and capitalist society there is no “together.” There is the ruling class living off the very lives of the working class, and the pandemic reveals how the ruling class is willing to sacrifice the working class for wealth accumulation and maintenance of a system that breeds and requires inequality.
To understand this more acutely, we can go back in history to see what life was like in Winnipeg at the time of the pandemic. In 1910 Winnipeg was a booming industrial town that accumulated and concentrated wealth: there were 19 millionaires, more per capita than any other city in Canada, yet workers who produced that wealth struggled to survive. At the time, the average family needed an income of $1,500/year to cover expenses, but the average income was only $900/year.
Segregated by over 24 railroad tracks, working class families struggled against the south side employers who kept wages low and working class power suppressed. Housing in the North End, Winnipeg’s working class neighbourhood, was overcrowded and had poor ventilation. According to the 1908-09 Annual Report of All People’s Mission, in one particular neighbourhood there were 120 families in just 41 houses—more than 20 people per house.
It has been reported that the first case of the 1918 flu in Winnipeg occurred in the spring on the south side of the tracks—the upper class part of town. But it didn’t reach pandemic proportions until the fall when it ravaged the North End. Poor housing combined with limited access to medical care resulted in a high death rate. The death rate in the North End was 6.2/thousand people, compared with 4.2/thousand in the south end.
Long before the pandemic, the workers living in the North End were exploited, angry, and resisting their oppression. Yet the pandemic was a breaking point. No longer could the anger be contained. Too many people were dying. Employers clearly didn’t care, as business and landlords padded their pockets with profits made off the backs of workers. For years labour had been organizing across Canada, and in May 1919 the years of organizing, years of exploitation and resistance, erupted in a collective rage. After a global war, a global pandemic and prospects for a global revolution, 35,000 workers took to the streets. With each of those workers representing families, it is estimated that nearly half of the population of Winnipeg was behind the strike. The strike not only shut down the city, but the Central Strike Committee took over operations of essential services—giving a glimpse into democratic working class power.
The state’s response was swift and violent. Businessmen and politicians formed the Citizens Committee of 1000 to counter the strike, backed by the federal government. This Committee hired scabs, called the strikers ‘alien scum’, sought to revise Canada’s immigration policy and formed their own militia—the Specials—to attack the strikers. The Citizens Committee of 1000 was a marriage of government and capital, using brute force to squash resistance.
But the strike leaders focused on economic reforms and did not challenge the Canadian state, even as it criminalized and attacked them. As Norman Penner, prominent Winnipeg historian, writes, “the Strike Committee even sought to discourage the holding of demonstrations in order to avoid the slightest appearance of provocation. The fateful June 21 parade of returned veterans and their families in support of the arrested strike leaders was billed and carried through as a ‘silent parade,’ with no banners, songs, slogans or speeches.” But the state didn’t need any provocation. On June 21 the Specials (the corporate backed militia) and the North West Mounted Police (the colonizing army on the prairies, precursors to the RCMP) attacked a workers parade and killed two strikers, and on June 25, the Winnipeg General Strike came to an end.
While inspiration for labour reform was celebrated, the strike did not bring down capitalism. As Penner noted, “in spite of the charges that it was a revolutionary plot, the impact of the Winnipeg General Strike led away from revolutionary ideology and strengthened reformism. It did this because Canadian capitalism, contrary to predictions from the left, was not at the end of its tether but only at the end of phase one.” Its additional pitfall is that it failed to target Canada at its core by attacking where state and business has always merged—in the displacement and colonization of Indigenous lands.
From Flu-1918 to COVID-2019
One hundred years later the pandemic and the solidified relationship between government and capital is not so different. The colonial and capitalist Canadian state continues to implement policies and protections for the purpose of wealth accumulation while attacking those who dare to organize. Corporate landlords profit off evictions, and corporations backed by the state continue to steal Indigenous Land for the sake of capital development. And when people resist, they are faced with police and prisons.
Once again this system fuelled a pandemic, and once again it does not impact everyone equally: 80% of the Covid19 cases in Toronto are in racialized working class neighbourhoods. The ruling class retreated to their home while COVID-19 rampaged through farms, factories, long term care homes, and grocery stores. At the same time, unemployment in Toronto reached 11.5% in October 2020 (up from 6.4% in 2019), while employers like Loblaws report increased profits. The pandemic revealed what has always existed: a system sacrificing people for the sake of capital. Working class lives existing for the profit of corporations.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the Toronto housing crisis, which existed long before COVID-19. At the start of the pandemic, minimum wage was $14/hour and the average one bedroom costing over $2,000/month in Toronto: even a person with a full time job could not afford to rent an apartment. This is not an accident but the result of state and corporate power. Doug Ford froze the minimum wage, forcing working class families to work multiple jobs in order to pay their rent. In addition, corporate landlords have been quick to reprisals and evictions for anyone that pushes back and organizes against their power. This places working class families in a constant state of precarity—homelessness is always a threat, creating a situation where the risk to fight the system is severe, ensuring a segment of the population remain exploitable and expendable.
One year into the pandemic, corporations reported profits and small businesses were given relief through tax breaks and grants. Laid off workers were able to apply for $2000/month of emergency ‘benefits’, yet for many it was hardly enough to cover rent. Families were forced to choose between rent and food. The thousands of people who lost their jobs and could not pay rent were brought to the Landlord Tenant Board (LTB) for eviction. Evictions were delayed until July 2020, but resumed in August when the LTB reopened. Under Ontario’s stay-at-home orders, sheriffs pressed pause on physically evicting people, but LTB remained open and carried out online hearings. From November to January the LTB held more than 13,000 eviction hearings. Every level of government had the opportunity to prevent this by using their emergency powers to cancel rent. They chose not to. They chose, instead, to secure the wealth of corporate landlords.
Groups like Keep Your Rent and People’s Defense—both groups which are led by working class power—have been active in fighting for tenants’ rights prior to the pandemic and when it hit, they were ready to mobilize. Both of these groups have been relentless in their fight for working class power and housing justice, forming tenant unions and mutual aid groups in buildings, in addition going toe-to-toe with police and landlords exposing the partnership between state and corporations in their quest to maintain wealth while keeping the working populations precarious.
While tenants are fighting displacement from their homes, Indigenous Land Defenders are fighting displacement from their lands from the ongoing state-corporate colonization project. Prior to the pandemic CoastalGas Link, in partnership with the government, moved forward with the construction of a pipeline through Wet’suwet’en Territory without the permission of the Hereditary Chiefs – violating the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous. Then the RCMP raided Wet’suwet’en territory and arrested Land Defenders and their allies. In response, Indigenous activists and their allies rose up to shut down Canada. Indigenous youth occupied the BC legislature, Mohawk Warriors blocked the tracks in Tyendinaga, and across the country thousands of people took to the streets and highways in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en Land Defenders.
While the lockdown temporarily put public protests on hold, the struggle for Indigenous sovereignty continues. In the summer of 2020, Haudenosuanee Land Defenders reclaimed land near Six Nations. The Haldimand County had sold unceeded Haudenosaunee land to Foxgate for a suburban expansion of Caledonia. Haldimand County and Foxgate refused to acknowledge that this was still part of a land claims process, and without the consent of the community, began clearing the land. In July 2020, Haudenosaunee Land Defenders reclaimed their land, calling it 1492 Land Back Lane, and have remained on their land despite police raids and court injunctions.
For both Indigenous activists and working class tenants, their struggle existed long before the pandemic. The pandemic illuminated the state-corporate violence imposed on Indigenous and working class people, and the criminalization of resistance.
Criminalizing dissent: the new Citizens Committee of 1000
As with the Citizens Committee of 1000, the state is protecting corporations—with court injunctions that criminalize dissent, and police who brutalize and attack resistance. Capital and the state are intertwined, and when capital becomes threatened the state attacks.
In BC the police attacked the Braided Warriors who had occupied the AIG Insurance building in Vancouver in protest of their investment in the TransMountain Pipeline. In Albert and Manitoba, provincial governments are passing anti-blockade bills phrased as protecting “critical infrastructure,” following the country-wide uprising in support of Wet’suwet’en Territory. These bills not only uphold corporate interests, they infringe upon Indigenous sovereignty, as blockades have been an effective resist Canadian colonialism. This legislation will provide another means for police to attack and criminalize Indigenous Land Defenders. Following Alberta’s Bill 1, Manitoba’s Bill 57 deems highways, railroads and pipelines as “essential.” It will not only limit Indigenous protest, but could also limit workers’ ability to get involved in labour pickets if these infringe on critical infrastructure. Pickets and labour strikes that involve blocking roads could soon be illegal across Manitoba.
As already mentioned, the Landlord Tenant Board has been pivotal in punishing tenant union organizers as they push through mass evictions. These evictions receive a blessing both from Queen’s Park and Toronto City Hall. Last summer Doug Ford’s government brought forward Bill 184 which would expedite evictions; tenants organized and demanded that John Tory implement an eviction freeze in the city. It was not until a demonstration took place outside of Tory’s apartment where tenants were beaten by the police did Tory even both to read the bill—but an eviction freeze and rent cancellation never came. Repeatedly, politicians have instituted landlord friendly legislation while entirely ignoring the concerns of tenants. By refusing to provide rent and eviction cancellation, and instead implementing legislation that expedites the eviction process, the government is choosing to ensure the wealth of corporations, while making more families homeless and punishing tenant unions and those who resist.
The brutality of state violence was clearly seen this summer when the city ordered a cleansing of the encampments. At Lamport Stadium and Trinity Bellwoods police went in, beating, pepper spraying and arresting people for “trespassing” in a public park. Encampments are places of organic community. They are places of agency. They are places where people targeted by the state can organize. The violent invasion and cleansing of the encampments was a clear message as to who this city is for: the rich. A metaphorical Citizens Committee of 1000 is once again attempting to suppress any resistance.
From resistance to rebellion
While it’s naïve to say that the conditions today are the same as 1919, the societal anger, growing inequality, and organizing taking place across Canada is laying the groundwork for another rebellion.
Across the city of Toronto, Tenant Unions are fighting back against corporate landlords. Many of these unions are not fighting for repayment plans or reform, but a takedown of the corporate structure that makes them expendable. Indigenous resistance is rising, and the message is clear: Indigenous sovereignty and land back. In the wake of multiple police murders of Indigenous and Black people like Eisha Hudson and Ejaz Choudry, thousands of people took to the streets to demand police abolition. As COVID-19 spread in prisons, people who are incarcerated went on hunger strike and their supporters gathered to protest. Supporters have joined those who are unsheltered in defending urban encampments. COVID-19 has reaffirmed the urgent need for paid sick days, and thousands of people have joined the movement for worker justice.
We need to celebrate the dropping of charges against Land Defenders at Land Back Lane, and that the Crescent Town Tenants Union was victorious at the LTB. These small victories are connected to the larger struggle ahead of us. Now is a profound moment for us to cut the tether of capitalism. If all these movements join and fight together, not for reform but for revolutionary change, we can finally bury this system that has killed and exploited so many.
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