After World War I many Canadian soldiers returned home to find few opportunities. Wages and working conditions were dismal and labor regulations were mostly non-existent. The Bolshevik revolution had just occurred in Russia and many workers saw this as an example of a successful socialist revolution.
In March 1919 labor delegates from across Western Canada convened in Calgary to form a branch of the "One Big Union", with the intention of overthrowing Canadian capitalism through a series of crippling general strikes.
At 11 AM on May 15, 1919, virtually the entire working population of Winnipeg walked off the job. 30,000 to 35,000 people were on strike in a city of 200,000. Even essential public employees such as firemen went on strike, but returned midway through the strike with the approval of the Strike Committee. The Winnipeg Police were technically on strike but remained on patrol in practice.
The strike was generally non-violent. Relations with police were tense but generally did not result in clashes, although a young boy was accidentally killed early in the strike.
The newspapers were generally nothing short of hysterical. The New York Times front page proclaimed "Bolshevism Invades Canada". The Winnipeg Free Press called the strikers "bohunks", "aliens", and anarchists and ran cartoons depicting hooked-nosed Jewish radicals throwing bombs.
A counter-strike Committee, the "Citizen's Committee of One Thousand" was created by Winnipeg's wealthy elite. The Committee declared the strike to be a violent, revolutionary conspiracy by a small group of foreigners. On June 17 the Committee dismissed most of the city's 200 police, replacing them with their own militia. Federal troops were positioned outside the city and federal police were sent in.
The majority of the strikers were reformist, not radical. They wanted to amend the system, not destroy it and build a new one. By June 17, 1919 the workers were gradually giving up and returning to their jobs.
That day the Federal government stormed the city, arresting ten strike leaders and arbitrarily deporting Eastern European immigrants. Three days later angered strikers massed in Market Square and the Mayor read the Riot Act. The Federal police fired into the crowd. One striker was killed, another mortally wounded, and dozens were wounded. The strike had been broken.
The head of the Royal Commission which investigated the strike found that the strike was not a criminal conspiracy by foreigners and suggested that "if Capital does not provide enough to assure Labour a contented existence...Government might find it necessary [to intervene] and let the state do these things at the expense of Capital".
Canada's Liberal Party, fearing the growing support for hard left elements, pledged to enact labor reforms. In this way the Winnipeg General Strike can be said to have resulted in much improved working conditions for millions of Canadians. J.S. Woodsworth, a strike leader who was briefly imprisoned, would go on to found Canada's first socialist political party.