- We’re Going to Run This City: Winnipeg’s Political Left after the General Strike by Stefan Epp-Koop
Winnipeg is western Canada’s oldest city. It is also the region’s most fabled urban center because of its association with insurrectionary and left-wing events. Some of these events predate incorporation (1873)—the Seven Oaks Massacre of 1816 in which fur traders and settlers clashed and 1869 when Louis Riel and the Métis declared a provisional government that led to the formation of the province of Manitoba shortly thereafter. In 1919 the city experienced a general strike that was broken by the military and the police. It was that strike that provided an impetus for the city’s labor movement to work hard on electoral representation in municipal politics.
Epp-Koop’s book is a serious and detailed study of the post-strike period in Winnipeg’s municipal politics, extending into the 1930s. The author concludes that the battles between left and right, the working class and the elite, resulted in a “deeply divided” city. The divisions were not only class-based, they were also ethnic. While Winnipeg did not have the racial divisions that developed in American urban centers, it did share some of the attributes of the new cities formed in the Great Plains. These cities experienced rapid population growth fueled by settlers and immigrants, rampant real estate speculation, and labor exploitation associated with railroad expansion into the West. The study of how these class divisions played out in Winnipeg becomes a reference for understanding similar phenomenon in other cities of the region.
In the period between 1920 and 1940 two political parties came to represent the left in Winnipeg—the Independent Labour Party (ilp), which had a moderate social democratic ideology based in English socialism, and the Communist Party of Canada (cpc), which favored a robust proletarian agenda promoted by the Russian Revolution. Both parties vied for voters in Ward 3, whose demographic was solidly working class and ethnic. Eventually ilp candidates were able to win the mayoralty race and a plurality on city council with the aid of cpc representatives. But the results in terms of social change and economic benefits for workers were modest. Nevertheless, the continued presence of the left on city council helped define urban politics for decades.
Epp-Koop is a good writer and his narrative is both analytical and persuasive. His portrayal of the personalities who dominated the left in Winnipeg is engaging, while his discussion of municipal election issues is clear and precise. He makes use of numerous sources to bolster his argument. Clearly he is friendly [End Page 339] toward the left. However, the text would have benefited from more lines being drawn between what was happening in urban politics and what was going on provincially and federally for the left. This absence contributes to a certain narrowness. Second, the book would have made a contribution to urban studies rather than just political science by adding a descriptive sociological commentary on working-class life in Winnipeg that would have contextualized the policies advocated by elected representatives of the working class. [End Page 340]