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Reviewed by:
  • Benjamin Isitt
We're Going to Run This City: Winnipeg's Political Left after the General Strike. Stefan Epp-Koop. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2015. Pp. 216, $24.95 paper

Stefan Epp-Koop examines the tumultuous world of municipal politics in Winnipeg in the years following the 1919 general strike. Building on that brief moment of working-class power–when workers effectively controlled Canada's third-largest city for six weeks–working-class candidates and parties emerged to challenge the political domination of the local bourgeoisie and political successors to the Citizens' Committee of One Thousand, seeking "to actualize that change through the municipal ballot box and council chambers" (147).

Led by veterans of the strike, several of whom had served time in prison for their roles in that high-water mark of Canadian working-class history, the Independent Labor Party (ilp) and Communist Party of Canada (cpc) emerged as persistent, albeit minority, forces at Winnipeg City Hall, contesting sixty years of political domination by business interests. Establishing a base of support in the immigrant and working-class multiple-member Ward 3 in the city's North End, working-class candidates served as mayor in 1924 (S.J. Farmer) and 1935–6 (John Queen) and held a majority of the eighteen council seats during Queen's first two years as mayor (notwithstanding a 1920 gerrymander aimed at confining working-class municipal strength to the North End ward). As Epp-Koop describes, "municipal politics became a struggle for control of the city," with Labour arrayed against capital and the class-polarized political fault lines, language, and actors of 1919 engaging in an annual contest at the ballot box (146).

Epp-Koop methodically documents the trajectory of the city's Labour political movement during this period, and the reaction of the local elite, drawing extensively from the Labour, left-wing, and daily press [End Page 813] in Winnipeg and beyond, as well as a selection of archival records, to illuminate the development of the ilp and cpc's municipal efforts, the contours of each annual municipal election, and the ebbs and flows of policy debates and controversies that animated Winnipeg's political life in the decades following the strike. The book provides valuable biographical detail on the political careers of Labour mayors Farmer and Queen, and Communist aldermen William Kolisnyk, Jacob Penner, and Martin Forkin, who viewed municipal politics as "part of the revolutionary process, not a parliamentary distraction" (115).

Ultimately, Epp-Koop's account is a fairly conventional institutional history–a story of political parties, candidates, and elected officials–told at a distance from a serious treatment of the social forces unpinning left-wing politics in interwar Winnipeg. It says relatively little about the internal organization of the parties, the tactical arsenal they deployed to mobilize the working-class electorate, or the administrative structure and personnel of Winnipeg City Hall at this time. However, We're Going to Run This City represents an important and overdue book–a detailed and competent analytical narrative of the local political manifestation of the general strike, demonstrating how working-class people and institutions responded at the local government level to the political and industrial crisis of 1919 and in subsequent years.

Through this detailed treatment, Epp-Koop provides valuable insights into the opportunities and constraints facing progressive political movements in local government–what he describes as "a sobering tale of the limited potential for change through electoral politics" (147). From structural constraints imposed by a municipal political system that had been created, shaped, and dominated by the local bourgeoisie since the city's incorporation, to a provincial government's veto power over major legislation, to a referendum requirement for municipal borrowing that was sharply skewed by a restrictive franchise limiting voting to property owners, to the cyclical economic constraints of the Great Depression, Epp-Koop provides a coherent and persuasive explanation for why Winnipeg's Labour-majority City Council of the mid-1930s failed to enact major reforms, despite clear platform commitments and strong support from its working-class base. Controversies over pay and pensions for municipal employees also highlighted tension between the Labour-majority City Council and its working-class base...


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pp. 813-815
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