May 15, 2019

100th anniversary of Winnipeg General Strike: UCalgary makes archive of former Winnipeg mayor available online

Records and personal papers of Charles Frederick Gray now widely available to scholars, students and historians

May 15, 1919, was the start of one of the most influential labour strikes in Canadian history: the Winnipeg General Strike. It involved 30,000 workers in multiple industries including retail, building and metal trades as well as the public sector: postal workers, firefighters and employees of waterworks and other utilities. The strike lasted six weeks and built up to a violent confrontation on June 21, 1919, the day that went down in history as Bloody Saturday.

To mark the centennial of the strike, the University of Calgary’s Libraries and Cultural Resources has made a new digital collection available to the public. This is the personal archive of Charles F. Gray, who was mayor of Winnipeg at the time. Archives and Special Collections has also arranged a physical exhibit of Gray’s records and personal papers for display in the Taylor Family Digital Library.

This launch is a collaboration with University of Manitoba Libraries, which compiled archival materials from a number of sources — including the University of Calgary — for a new digital exhibit introduced today: Unbreakable: The Spirit of the Strike.

The Charles F. Gray archive is a valuable resource because it tells the story of the strike from the mayor’s point of view, explains University of Calgary professor David J. Bercuson, who wrote his PhD thesis on the strike and authored the book Confrontation at Winnipeg: Labour, Industrial Relations, and the General Strike.

Suggestion for an organization to makeup for the lack of manpower due to the strike. Document has been stained with dark fluid.

"Carry On" Suggestions, 1919

University of Calgary Archives and Special Collections. Charles F. Gray Family Fonds.

Before the discovery of Gray's papers, "You’re looking at the strike through the eyes of the strikers, the employers, the premier. You’re not seeing the mayor's perspective," says Dr. Bercuson, PhD.

Bercuson encouraged Charles F. Gray’s son to donate the archive. Hubert Gray, who had close ties to Calgary, placed it in the care of Archives and Special Collections in 2017, a year before he passed away.

It has been a ghastly affair. Strikers, employers and the great public have all suffered and I earnestly hope that never again will this City have to pass through such a crisis.

It was by pure coincidence that Bercuson heard about Charles F. Gray’s papers at all. He met Hubert Gray through military connections. Bercuson is a military historian and director of the university’s Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies. Hubert Gray had served in Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and was looking for a scholar to write a history of the regiment. 

“At the time, I had no idea that Hub Gray and Charles Gray were connected whatsoever,” recalls Bercuson. Once Bercuson discovered the family connection, Hubert showed him his father’s papers packed away in the basement. “I told him, ‘These have to be donated somewhere,’ and he eventually approached the University of Calgary.” 

Soon after Charles F. Gray’s papers were donated, Digitization and Repository Services began digitizing the collection and preserving the original documents.

“Thanks to modern technology, history is literally at everyone’s fingertips. Students, scholars and historians across Canada and around the world now have easy access to the papers of Charles F. Gray, which tell a significant part of the story of this important chapter in Canadian history,” says archivist Regina Landwehr, who worked directly with Hubert Gray on the donation and collaborated on the creation of the digital collection.

Excerpt from Mayor Gray’s statement on June 27, 1919, on the end of the strike:  

It has been a ghastly affair. Strikers, employers and the great public have all suffered and I earnestly hope that never again will this City have to pass through such a crisis.

A strike of such magnitude hasn’t occurred in Winnipeg or anywhere else in Canada since.

The University of Calgary’s physical exhibit, The Winnipeg General Strike, runs until the end of June in the Centre for Arts and Culture on the fifth floor of the Taylor Family Digital Library. The exhibit is open to the public weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.