Cover Art C/O Razan Samara

100 years after the Winnipeg general strike, the Workers Arts and Heritage Center is encouraging us to critically reflect on what we do and do not know about one of the most influential strikes in Canadian history.

In May of 1919, 35 000 workers walked off the job to protest unfair working conditions and mass inequality. The strike culminated in Bloody Saturday, when state representatives killed two protestors and arrested 84. The strike lead to a massive wave of strikes across Canada and paved the way for future reforms.

WAHC’s Massive Disruption exhibition commemorates the Winnipeg General Strike through a series of events running from May 1 to Aug. 16. At the core of WAHC’s programming is Michael DiRisio’s Archiving Unrest exhibition, which encourages audiences to engage with archival documentation of the general strike.

DiRisio was interested in working with displaying the WAHC archives because of the organic structure that, according to DiRisio, is more indicative of the nature of collective action than hierarchically structured, well-ordered government archives. DiRisio notes that WAHC’s collection mandate changes over time, and the archive responds to the community as items are sourced for projects and pieces are donated.

“It’s people and groups that have intersected with this building in this organization at different times and what they’ve left and what’s been absorbed through that,” said DiRisio.

Archives on display at the Archiving Unrest exhibit

The Archiving Unrest exhibition brings the archives to the forefront, allowing viewers to engage in snippets of the collection displayed in works of photography and video.

In displaying the archives, the exhibition also asks us to consider what they leave out. Often times, retellings of history highlight the contributions and accomplishments of individual leaders. In reality, says DiRisio, it is the work of collectives that drive social and political movements.

“We have a very hero oriented culture where we tend to latch on to or focus on these heroes,” said DiRisio. “It can give you some glimpse of a fraction of what was happening, but it leaves most people out; it leaves so much of the conversation out.”

The Massive Disruption exhibition casts the spotlight away from individual leaders, instead highlighting the collective power of the 35 000 workers who walked off the job in the Winnipeg general strike.

A large part of this, says DiRisio, means understanding the motivations and desires of the strikers. The exhibition shows microfilm displaying labour news leading up to and following the strike, chronicling the underlying inequality and indignity of work that prompted mass unrest.

Part of the modular library featured in the Archiving Unrest exhibition

WAHC’s programming works to examine the underlying motivations and causes for unrest and connect them to conditions that persist today. Continuing on the focus on collective action, the exhibition creates space for audiences to engage in critical discussion about what it means to gather and organize.

The exhibition hosts weekly reading groups based on texts that focus on themes of collective organizing and group dynamics. People are invited to make use of the modular library, which holds a collection of texts focused on labour history and collective organizing.

“There aren’t a lot of chances outside of school to talk about these kinds of theoretical, philosophical questions about gathering or crowds or publics,” noted DiRisio. “And so I’m looking forward to different discussions, but also super open to what different people bring to it.”

Each reading group is hosted by a different community organizer who use the strike commemoration as a jumping off point to discuss collective action, injustice and group dynamics more broadly.

The strong focus on public dialogue is part of WAHC’s larger strategy to encourage community engagement. According to WAHC executive director Florencia Berinstein, one of WAHC’s central goals is to appeal to the public that is not typically made to feel welcome in cultural institutions.

“Our school of thought at WAHC is in order to engage with the ideas that we’re putting out there, or with any subject matter, we need to program around it to animate those ideas so that people will find the hooks,” said Berinstein.

By encouraging public dialogue and critically examining history, WAHC aims to commemorate the past while looking forward at the same time.

“What is the legacy of the Winnipeg general strike today in our contemporary culture?” asks Berinstein? “What are the lessons that we can take from the Winnipeg general strike but actually apply them to what’s happening today?”

Photo from Silhouette Photo Archives

By: Natalie Clark

On Nov. 15, the McMaster Alumni Advancement Committee organized a lecture and exhibit at the McMaster Museum of Art to highlight how the Bertrand Russell Archives made their way to McMaster University. Guest speakers included archives senior research associate Andrew Bone and archives librarian Myron Groover.

The lecture focused on the significance of Bertrand Russell, how the archives made their way to McMaster in 1968, and the significance that McMaster holds as the home of the Bertrand Russell Archives.

Before the archives arrived at McMaster, there was much speculation internationally as to who they would be given to. In 1967, Bertrand Russell gave his work to the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, a charitable organization that he was a part of, and left it to them to ultimately decide who to sell the archives to.

There were two conditions upon which the organization would consider when choosing a potential buyer: that the material end up in an institution open to the public, and that the papers and library of his work stay together at the same institution.

Cambridge University in the United Kingdom was the biggest contender for the eventual home of the archives, but the opportunity faded fast when the funding did not materialize. Another strong contender was the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

The deal put in place with the Harry Ransom Center eventually fell through and gave way to McMaster’s chance at owning the archives. In 1967, McMaster was a small, recently secularized institution, and was mostly known as a science, technology and engineering school.

McMaster had recently made headlines for its ownership of a nuclear reactor on campus, which is still located on campus today.

“McMaster humanities needed their own nuclear reactor,” said Groover.

McMaster was determined to acquire the archives through the combination of public and private funds and was eventually able to make it happen.

As a result of this purchase, McMaster expanded and drew attention to its philosophy department, which grew rapidly after the arrival of the archives in 1968.

It is hard to believe that the archives ended up at McMaster despite the high demand for them globally. Bone notes that the sellers of the archives initially had “minimal interest in McMaster.”

Today, McMaster is home to the archives, library and copyright to the unpublished works of Bertrand Russell, making up one of Canada’s foremost rare book archives. McMaster continues to expand its collection of the archives of Bertrand Russell and has devoted the campus to the home of Bertrand Russell’s life’s work and memory.

“You can’t overstate the import of this acquisition and this archive to McMaster both as an institution and as a home for research,” said Groover.

In addition to advancing research at McMaster, the archives have also attracted researchers and historians from across the globe. The new Bertrand Russell Centre, which houses thousands of original books and documents, opened this past summer and sits on the corner of Sterling Street and Forsyth Avenue.

[spacer height="20px"][thesil_related_posts_sc]Related Posts[/thesil_related_posts_sc]

The McMaster Libraries Archives is more than just a museum for books. Their collection includes original works that once provoked mass outrage and book burnings.

Freedom to Read Week is an annual celebration sponsored by the Freedom of Expression Committee that runs this year from Feb. 24 to March 2.  The week was initially founded as a result of attacks on Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women in 1978.

McMaster Archivist Renu Barrett took The Silhouette through three particular works that McMaster owns as part of an exploration of formerly banned books.

McMaster owns a first edition of Ulysses by James Joyce, which is no. 332 of the first 1000 published. The work was considered so contentious that publishers refused to distribute the work, so it was originally sold by subscription.  Ulysses was banned from being published in the UK.

Barrett speculated that Ulysses was considered so controversial because Joyce wrote it from his stream of consciousness and was very free with his language. The work is so full of obscenities and sexually explicit language that Joyce was warned during an early review that he would need to revise his work.

Joyce refused and in 1932 US Customs seized a copy and declared it “obscene.” Eventually, in a landmark censorship decision, the novel was declared not pornographic and was allowed to be published.

McMaster also owns a copy of Dialogo by Galileo. Dialogo is considered to be extremely rare given that most copies were seized and burned following it being banned by the Catholic Church in 1633.

The work was considered heretical for endorsing a heliocentric view of the universe, which ran counter to Church teachings. McMaster acquired this particular work in the 1960s.

Barrett gave Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners as an example of a more contemporary work that was highly contested for its language and exploration of sexuality, race, class and abortion.

In 1974 The Diviners won the Governor General’s Award, Canada’s top literary prize. But by 1976 the book was banned by local school boards. In the 1980s the book was again subject to criticism, this time from the Catholic Church. McMaster has part of the original manuscript in Laurence’s handwriting.

Barrett explained how freedom to read week continues to remain an important part of both retelling literary history and discussing current works, stating that “it highlights the value of access to information and allows ideas that may be unpopular or unorthodox to be voiced.”

Barrett reiterated how, as an academic library McMaster, has never banned works from its collections.

But she also noted that censorship in public libraries can still exist in more subtle an innocuous ways explaining that “a public library may take a book off of the must-read or top-read list if community groups rally against a certain book.”

In the past few years, works such as His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman or the Harry Potter series have attracted intense controversy. But Barrett notes that the internet provides a valuable tool for mediating knee-jerk reactions and calls for book banning.

“Book banning and censorship is a less prevalent issue because of the access available through the internet or book downloads. So in one way we have less control over publication, but on the other hand, the internet can provide a forum where different groups can engage in dialogue to reasonably discuss their objections.”

Subscribe to our Mailing List

© 2022 The Silhouette. All Rights Reserved. McMaster University's Student Newspaper.