A review of We’re Going to Run this City by Stefan Epp-Koop

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

We’re Going to Run this City:
Winnipeg’s Political Left after the General Strike
by Stefan Epp-Koop
University of Manitoba Press
2015, ISBN 978-0–88755-784-2

In May 1919, a general strike call for better wages and working conditions received almost unanimous support from the workers of Winnipeg, Canada. The municipal, provincial and federal governments all cried, “Bolshevik Revolution”. After over a month of negotiations in which essential services were provided through the coordination of the strike committee, the government(s) used the Royal Northwest Mounted Police and the army to put down the strike. It ended June 27, 1919. Strike leaders were arrested; some were deported, others imprisoned

Although the Strike failed, its longevity (over a month) and its administrative success in providing essential services, gave workers confidence in their own abilities and hope for a better future. Many of the strike leaders went on to political careers, most notably, James S. Woodsworth, who was elected to the House of Commons in 1921, and later founded a democratic socialist party, the forerunner of the present-day New Democratic Party. John Queen, a strike leader who was imprisoned, later became the first left-wing mayor of Winnipeg

“There is something about the audacity, length and size of the General Strike”, writes author Stefan Epp-Koop, “that continues to capture public and scholarly attentions.” The Strike, he says, was not the end of radical politics in Winnipeg, but was “near the beginning.” While focusing on one city’s municipal politics, his work is relevant to the larger history of the left in the 20th century

The General Strikers were of various shades of progressive thought. In the years immediately following, a democratic socialist Independent Labour Party (ILP) was formed and in 1921 the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) was founded. ILP and CPC councillors managed to work together on practical issues such as housing, transportation and social welfare (“relief”). This cooperation occurred even though communists worldwide were under advice from Moscow not to compromise their revolutionary principles and to condemn social democrats as allies of the capitalist establishment. In the mid-1930s this “Third Period” changed to one of a United/Popular Front, with communists cooperating with liberal and leftist groups against fascism.

In Winnipeg, communist councillors sometimes used revolutionary rhetoric but saw a need for better wages and working and living conditions. Both communist and ILP parties opposed Section 98 of the Criminal Code, an amendment passed in response to right-wing hysteria at the time of the General Strike. A member of any group supporting the overthrow of the government by force and violence faced up to twenty years imprisonment. Indeed, Tim Buck, the CPC’s national leader, and seven of his colleagues were imprisoned

Epp-Koop profiles several Winnipeg left-wing municipal politicians, including John Queen of the ILP and William Kolisnyk and Jacob Penner of the communist party. Penner served on council for almost thirty years and now has a Winnipeg park named after him. His background, though unique, is typical of many on the left in this era. Born in Russia in 1880, he was a teacher and land surveyor until his participation in the Social Democratic Party posed a danger in czarist Russia. His family moved to Manitoba at a time when Canada was advertising for immigrants to the prairie provinces. Soon Jacob was involved in leftist circles in Winnipeg, where he worked as a florist and later as bookkeeper with a workers’ co-op.

Penner’s wife, Rose Shapak, had been involved in the famous Odessa General Strike in 1904, commemorated in the Eisenstein film Battleship Potemkin. Fleeing the Ukraine, she arrived in Winnipeg in 1907. She and Jacob met at a reception for Emma Goldman. In 1912 they announced to their friends that they were spouses, but with no civil or religious ceremony, as they considered marriage a “bourgeois institution.” In 1931, they got married “for the sake of the children”, in a ceremony conducted by a left-wing Methodist minister, William Ivens.

Penner was known for his clean living and modest manner. Indeed, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer who had been surveilling him reported that “It is impossible to get anything on the man as far as his personal daily life is concerned.” First elected to Winnipeg council in 1933, he became known for his dedication to his constituents in the impoverished North End. During the Great Depression the Penner home was a drop-in centre for anyone needing help. During World War II he was interned, but released in 1942 (after the Soviet Union came on side with the western allies against the Nazis.) He served on Winnipeg city council until the early 1960s.

Assessing the achievements of the left on the city council, Epp-Koop notes that many of their efforts were blocked by senior levels of government controlled by the business and propertied classes. Even so, they succeeded in getting municipal spending increased, the tax structure reformed, and better social welfare, as well as pioneering new ideas about social housing. They showed that the General Strike of 1919 was not a failure, but a catalyzing moment that intensified the left’s resolve to work in all arenas, including municipal government, for social justice and equality.

Ruth Latta is the author of They Tried: The Story of the Canadian Youth Congress, and co-author of Grace MacInnis: A woman to remember. Her books blog is http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com