A Streetcar Named Conspire

In 1919 JS Woodsworth, who became a Member of Parliament and went on to found the CCF, the Canadian Commonwealth Federation, Canada’s first socialist party and the forerunner of the NDP, was imprisoned for five days and threatened with “libelous sedition” for his participation in the Winnipeg General Strike. The evidence cited for his sedition included his quoting from two sections of the Book of Isaiah, as well as an essay called “The British Way” in which he satirized the businessmen whose obsession with a Bolshevik takeover by “alien scum” encouraged them to call the strike “a carefully concocted conspiracy to overthrow constitutional government in Canada.” In the literature about this extraordinary period in Winnipeg’s civic and political history, you will find plenty of accusations of conspiracy.

Noam Gonick and Bernie Miller, Bloody Saturday, artist’s rendering, 2017. Images courtesy Noam Gonick.

The Winnipeg General Strike, the events that provoked it and the developments that followed from it have become the source of what Winnipeg artist and filmmaker Noam Gonick calls “my enduring fascination.” The emblem of his ongoing engagement, a 32-foot-long public sculpture of a streetcar, commissioned by the Winnipeg Arts Council, will be unveiled on June 21.

The Winnipeg General Strike was an unprecedented event in Canadian labour history; for six weeks in the summer of 1919, 30,000 workers and non-union sympathizers were involved in an event that made Winnipeg famous. In Gonick’s view it was “a moment when the status quo was really ripped off its tracks.” The strike was called off after two men were killed and 28 wounded by North-West Mounted Policemen who charged on horseback and randomly fired their revolvers into the crowd of protestors. Martial law had been declared and the Central Strike Committee feared for the safety of other citizens.

Gonick’s sculpture will sit in front of the Pantages Playhouse, a vaudeville theatre at the corner of Main Street and Market Avenue, the most traffic-heavy downtown intersection. Nearby are Winnipeg’s three major theatres, and City Hall (what Gonick calls “the centre of political theatre”) is across the street. He says, “This is the juggernaut of the entertainment district of the city and I’ve come to think of the strike as Winnipeg’s drama and the sculpture is a case of taking that cultural narrative and putting it on stage. This is the drama that was acted out 100 years ago by 30,000 people and this is the drama that made Winnipeg the unique culture that it is. This was our show and it’s what’s in our blood.”

LB Foote, 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, Heritage Winnipeg Projects, Archives of Manitoba.

The action that provoked the attack of the Mounted Police was the tipping and burning of a streetcar that had been dispatched to interfere with a parade in which returned veterans of World War I were marching in support of the strikers and their demands. A replica of that streetcar is the subject of Gonick’s public sculpture. In 1919 streetcars were privately owned and the fees for using them were exorbitant. “The streetcar was a meme for social inequality,” Gonick says, “and they would become the focus of the protestors’ aggression and aggravation.” His sculpture is eight feet shorter than the original, but otherwise it is a copy of the vehicle that was overturned 100 years ago on the day that came to be known as “Bloody Saturday,” which is also the title of the sculpture. The event was captured in a photograph by LB Foote that Gonick conjectures is the most reproduced image in the history of the city.

Bernie Miller, Bloody Saturday, elevation. Courtesy Noam Gonick.

Gonick conceived of and designed the sculpture with Bernie Miller, an artist who completed all the drawings and specs for the project and then unexpectedly passed away in 2017. The sculpture is made from Corten steel and glass, weighs 12,000 pounds and sits on a custom-designed platform that will accommodate 300 people using the public plaza in front of Pantages for celebrations or demonstrations. At one point he considered making the streetcar a transformer that could become a stage, but he recognized that his government funders “might have caught on to something, so we had to keep it a light box.” The frame was fabricated in a union shop in Transcona and the 1,500-pound windows have been designed and made by Warren Carther, a Winnipeg-based, internationally recognized glass artist. It is lit from within and will glow at night, an emblematic light box. (Additionally, a film about the making of the sculpture, directed by Erika MacPherson and narrated by Miller’s wife, the cultural theorist Jeanne Randolph, is nearly complete.) It is part of a city-wide 100th anniversary celebration of the event that, more than any other, established Winnipeg’s reputation as a radical city. The strike had even attracted the attention of the front page of the New York Times, where the writer noted that “the tie-up was almost complete when all the telephone girls left their switchboards and the web pressmen and stereotypers joined the strikers, leaving the city without telephones or newspapers.” Girl power, circa 1919.

Gonick has used the strike before as the subject of his inventive and outrageous art. In 1996 his short film 1919 reimagined significant events taking place in Sammy Wong’s bathhouse and barbershop, where leaders from both sides of the struggle engaged in voyeuristic acts that are equally bipartisan and bisexual. It was a fantasy that made the body politic bawdy.

His return to the Winnipeg General Strike moves away from satire and towards the monumental. “The piece will be a trigger, a flashpoint and a platform for congregation. It will agitate and inspire. It’s going to change the visual vernacular of Winnipeg,” Gonick says. He is aiming high. “In terms of a threedimensional object that defines this place, I hope the piece gives the Golden Boy a run for its money.” When his streetcar tips into our consciousness on the longest day of the summer in June, Noam Gonick will become the city’s new golden boy.

Volume 38, Number 2

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #150, published June 2019.

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