Cover Art C/O Razan Samara
100 years after the Winnipeg general strike, the Workers Arts and Heritage Center is encouraging us to critically reflect on what we do and do not know about one of the most influential strikes in Canadian history.
In May of 1919, 35 000 workers walked off the job to protest unfair working conditions and mass inequality. The strike culminated in Bloody Saturday, when state representatives killed two protestors and arrested 84. The strike lead to a massive wave of strikes across Canada and paved the way for future reforms.
WAHC’s Massive Disruption exhibition commemorates the Winnipeg General Strike through a series of events running from May 1 to Aug. 16. At the core of WAHC’s programming is Michael DiRisio’s Archiving Unrest exhibition, which encourages audiences to engage with archival documentation of the general strike.
DiRisio was interested in working with displaying the WAHC archives because of the organic structure that, according to DiRisio, is more indicative of the nature of collective action than hierarchically structured, well-ordered government archives. DiRisio notes that WAHC’s collection mandate changes over time, and the archive responds to the community as items are sourced for projects and pieces are donated.
“It’s people and groups that have intersected with this building in this organization at different times and what they’ve left and what’s been absorbed through that,” said DiRisio.
The Archiving Unrest exhibition brings the archives to the forefront, allowing viewers to engage in snippets of the collection displayed in works of photography and video.
In displaying the archives, the exhibition also asks us to consider what they leave out. Often times, retellings of history highlight the contributions and accomplishments of individual leaders. In reality, says DiRisio, it is the work of collectives that drive social and political movements.
“We have a very hero oriented culture where we tend to latch on to or focus on these heroes,” said DiRisio. “It can give you some glimpse of a fraction of what was happening, but it leaves most people out; it leaves so much of the conversation out.”
The Massive Disruption exhibition casts the spotlight away from individual leaders, instead highlighting the collective power of the 35 000 workers who walked off the job in the Winnipeg general strike.
A large part of this, says DiRisio, means understanding the motivations and desires of the strikers. The exhibition shows microfilm displaying labour news leading up to and following the strike, chronicling the underlying inequality and indignity of work that prompted mass unrest.
WAHC’s programming works to examine the underlying motivations and causes for unrest and connect them to conditions that persist today. Continuing on the focus on collective action, the exhibition creates space for audiences to engage in critical discussion about what it means to gather and organize.
The exhibition hosts weekly reading groups based on texts that focus on themes of collective organizing and group dynamics. People are invited to make use of the modular library, which holds a collection of texts focused on labour history and collective organizing.
“There aren’t a lot of chances outside of school to talk about these kinds of theoretical, philosophical questions about gathering or crowds or publics,” noted DiRisio. “And so I’m looking forward to different discussions, but also super open to what different people bring to it.”
Each reading group is hosted by a different community organizer who use the strike commemoration as a jumping off point to discuss collective action, injustice and group dynamics more broadly.
The strong focus on public dialogue is part of WAHC’s larger strategy to encourage community engagement. According to WAHC executive director Florencia Berinstein, one of WAHC’s central goals is to appeal to the public that is not typically made to feel welcome in cultural institutions.
“Our school of thought at WAHC is in order to engage with the ideas that we’re putting out there, or with any subject matter, we need to program around it to animate those ideas so that people will find the hooks,” said Berinstein.
By encouraging public dialogue and critically examining history, WAHC aims to commemorate the past while looking forward at the same time.
“What is the legacy of the Winnipeg general strike today in our contemporary culture?” asks Berinstein? “What are the lessons that we can take from the Winnipeg general strike but actually apply them to what’s happening today?”