June 21, 1919 – The Winnipeg General Strike

RCMP on horseback charge into the crowd of strikers on Main Street on June 21, 1919.

Dear Association Members,

Toronto Division member Ben Jillett has provided a timely article for today.  It deals with the Winnipeg General Strike and was compiled by our Association Secretary, Mark Gaillard.  It is a fascinating if disturbing article.

James Forrest
Director of Communications
RCMP Veterans’ Association

WINNIPEG, MB – June 21, 2019 – Today marks the 100th anniversary of the violent climax of the Winnipeg General Strike, and the charge of Royal North West Mounted Police on the streets of downtown Winnipeg, Manitoba.

While historians and academics still debate the action taken by the Government and the RNWMP that day, this post will only describe the event from the point of view of the Members of the Force who were there.

This account comes from 1984 book “The Horses of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – A Pictorial History” by RCMP Veteran William Kelly, Reg. No. 12001, and his wife Nora Kelly, published by Doubleday Canada Limited.
“When the strikers scheduled a huge parade for the afternoon of Saturday, June 21, 1919, in spite of the fact that the Winnipeg authorities had forbidden it because they feared it would lead to violence and bloodshed, the authorities asked the RNWMP to provide a mounted troop to help keep order.

At noon on Saturday about fifty carefully groomed, prancing horses of the RNWMP trotted out of [Osborne] Barracks and carried their scarlet-coated riders to the heart of the city [at Portage Avenue and Main Street].
Behind the horses came thirty-six other Mounted Policemen in motorcars [led by the “Depot” Division Riding Instructor Sergeant Major George Frederick “Tim” Griffin, Reg. No. 5426, along with Sergeant Theodore Vincent Sandys-Wunsch, Reg. No. 5185].

Tens of thousands of strikers, many of them armed, milled about the streets or stood on rooftops, booing and jeering. Then strikers on the rooftops showered the horses and their riders with tin cans, bottles and bricks. Strikers on foot closed in, jabbing the horses’ flanks with pocket knives and broken glass.

As the violence continued, Inspector [William Carysfort “Bill” ] Proby [Reg. No. 4381 (O.174)], in charge of the mounted troop, ordered his men to charge through the crowd.

Then they wheeled about and charged again [southward on Main Street].
Strikers with revolvers now fired at the Mounted Policemen. Others beat them with sticks and rocks and tried to pull them off their horses.
Men on roofs hurled down great chunks of cement at horses and riders.
One striker struck Proby from behind and another aimed a revolver at him.
Proby’s life was probably saved by a corporal [thought to be Constable Ernest George Newham, Reg. No. 5715] who felled the second striker just as he prepared to fire.

Then part of the mob turned on a stalled streetcar [at Main Street and Market Avenue]. They rocked it, trying to upset it and the motorman along with it, while others tried to set it on fire.

Proby ordered his troop to the rescue. As the mounted men rode forward, the strikers managed to tear a piece from the side of the streetcar. They hurled it among the horses and three fell. “Kill the bloody yellow legs!” shouted the strikers, and they moved in a body toward the horses and their uniformed riders. A striker dragged a constable from his horse and clubbed him severely, while several other strikers did the same with other riders. “Draw pistols!” Proby ordered in desperation. The police shot their first volley into the air as a warning, but it had no effect.

The horse of Inspector [Frederick John Mead, Reg. No. 5117 – O.192], the second officer in command, fell, throwing his rider, but Mead, [with his foot crushed], managed to regain the saddle before the strikers got him.
[Constable Hugh John McQueen, Reg. No. 7584, who had only just joined the Force 3 months before, was stunned by a stone and fell from his horse opposite an undertaking parlor, and had to be dragged inside to safety.]. By this time all of the horses and men were injured or wounded. At last the battered police fired at the strikers in self defence, aiming only to wound. Several strikers were wounded and one was killed. Now the strikers realized that the men on horseback were fully determined to enforce law and order, and gradually they withdrew.

The mounted troop of bruised and bleeding horses and riders returned to barracks, accompanied by the trucks of police who on foot had defended their mounted comrades to the best of their ability. A few days later the Winnipeg strike was called off, and sympathetic strikes in other Canadian cities were cancelled simultaneously.” Hours after the riot, and before he went to the hospital himself, Inspector Mead stopped in at Thompson’s Undertakers to inquire about Constable McQueen. There he found the young Constable McQueen, still in his blood-stained tunic, resting beside the bier where lay the body of an Old Original, March West Veteran

Superintendent Sir Samuel Benfield Steele, Reg. No. 1 (O.40), whose remains had been brought back from England to be buried in Winnipeg where his Mounted Police career had started 46 years earlier.

The author T. Morris Longstreth, in his 1927 book “The Silent Force”: described the ironic scene: “This great figure, impressive in life and further dignified by death, was fittingly draped with the Union Jack he had served long and well. The first and the last had been brought strangely together, and the scarlet silently related old with new. What a tableau against the shadow of eternity! – the youngest constable who had caught the spirit and carried on, the seasoned inspector who had captained his men in the fine old way, and the flag-draped body of the Original, Major General Sir Sam Steele.”

Twelve days after the riot, on July 3, 1919, and despite the tension, the crowds gathered again along the streets of Winnipeg to pay their respects as the funeral procession for Sir Sam Steele passed, prior to his burial in St. John’s Cemetery.

For the 100th anniversary of that June day, a bronze and glass sculpture, entitled “Bloody Saturday”, depicting a tilted and half sunken streetcar, created by Noam Gonick and the late Bernie Miller, will be unveiled as a permanent art display at the intersection of Main Street and Market Avenue, in front of Pantages Playhouse Theatre, near the exact spot where the climax of the riot took place.

We will remember.
Mark Gaillard
RCMP Veterans’ Association