by Scott Price
In the autumn of 1956, Winnipeg’s electric streetcars were discontinued in favour of diesel busses. Usually seen as just a relic of a by-gone era, Winnipeg’s streetcars illuminate a lost history of class struggle and the importance of transportation to our cities.
Like any city, public transit in Winnipeg continues to be a major recurring issue. While advocating for better public transit, many lament the destruction of Winnipeg’s streetcars and point to old pictures showing Winnipeg as a “multi-modal city”, meaning it had multiple forms of good transportation. While this may be somewhat true, the lament comes with a heavy dose romanticism and myth-making celebration.
We must remember the place that streetcars played both politically and economically. Streetcars were sites of class struggle because capitalists used them to make obscene profits through poor working conditions, poor service, and urban sprawl. While streetcars might have held some great potential if harnessed towards public ends, the truth is they were far from the positive force they are commonly made out to be.
The 1906 Strike
Like many other cities in the early 20th century, Winnipeg’s streetcar system was dominated by a private monopoly, the Winnipeg Electric Company (WEC). The WEC achieved its first franchise for streetcars in 1892 and by 1900 had a monopoly on gas, electric and public transit in Winnipeg. The company proved incredibly lucrative for its owner and board members with earnings increasing 30 percent a year through the early 1900s.
The WEC’s monopoly-power price-gouging so bad that even Winnipeg’s commercial elite were unhappy. They created Winnipeg Hydro in 1911 to compete with the WEC. Working-class Winnipeg responded in another way. In the spring of 1906 the anger and suspicion of the WEC would boil over in a streetcar strike.
Winnipeg’s first streetcar strike began March 30th 1906 over low wages and horrible working conditions of streetcar operators. Drivers were exposed to the elements, including Winnipeg’s infamous weather, and the braking system for the streetcars required brute force which put both operators and passengers in danger.
Wages and working conditions set the stage but wider anger around the WEC. The vandalism of streetcars started almost immediately once the strike started. Streetcars were stopped by crowds of people, their cables cut, their windows smashed. With the vandalism also came violence against the scabs operating the streetcars, with some of these operators being beaten by crowds. Much of the property damage and violence came from strike sympathizers, not the strikers themselves.
A wider boycott of the streetcars gained significant momentum during the strike. The streetcar service continued to function in Winnipeg’s south end where the middle class and commercial elite resided. Through the working-class north end, streetcars were empty or stopped service all together. The rallying cry of the boycott was “we walk”.
Due to the vandalism and violence against scab labour operating the streetcars during the strike, the WEC called in “specials” who were essentially a private security force to protect the scabs and WEC property. Rather than resolve problems, the “specials” made the situation worse by beating both strikers and strike sympathizers. Troops were called in to quell the unrest but even then crowds of people still destroyed streetcars in full view of the troops. It wasn’t until the mayor ordered the troops to load their weapons that the crowd stopped.
While the strike ended, many of the issues lingered on and another less successful strike occurred in 1910. There was far less public support and a boycott campaign failed to gain the same momentum as it did in 1906. The WEC had developed better propaganda to counteract the strikers.
The North End
The issue of transportation, streetcars, and class did not go away and continued to be an issue for North End residents for decades after the strikes in 1906 and 1910. An obvious example is the iconic picture of strikers turning over a streetcar during the 1919 General Strike. When one places streetcars into its proper and economic context we understand that was not a random act of vandalism but a true expression of class anger.
The working-class North End was largely cut off from the rest of the city for much of 20th century and today there still exists a large geographic and political divide between the North End, downtown, and the south end of the city. It wasn’t until 1908 that the WEC had more than one route through the North End. In 1914 there were only two overhead bridges allowing access across the CPR tracks from the North End. Historian Alan Artibise noted that while geographic growth was encouraged in the North End, there was little social contact with the rest of the city.
A year after the 1910 strike, the Winnipeg Planning Commission was established. In its report, the Commission noted that Winnipeg’s most obvious lack of planning was with roads, streetcars and railroads. This was largely due to local elites routinely ignoring established planning guidelines in order to attract industry to the city. Such problems were constantly raised by city alderman in the North End who were either members of the Communist Party or the Independent Labour Party. Throughout the inter-war period these alderman raised the issue of better infrastructure and more affordable fares. They were uniformly ignored by the liberal and conservative alderman, and the provincial government.
Compounding all this was the WEC’s creation of new routes in far-flung parts of the city while service in core areas remained poor. Many companies added routes to the urban fringe to allow the growing white collar workforce to commute to work. This was essentially a form of speculation for both the streetcar companies and developers. In many cases, these new streetcar lines were used to spur on development not to improve service in the cities core. Across Canada, streetcars were playing a major role in the creation of suburbs and suburban sprawl.
The Future of Transit
When we consider this history, we come a very different conclusion about streetcars and what their role was in the creation of cities in the early 20th century. Instead of a quixotic view of Winnipeg’s past, we see the shadows that capitalism has cast on our city and gain a more fulsome understanding of Winnipeg’s past, present, and possible future.
Mobility is a fundamental human activity, and that is why transit will always be a site of class struggle. When one also considers the climate crisis, it is clear that most transit solutions currently being touted are just doubling down on attacking workers, from wage-suppression, to toll roads, to P3 builds, and incredibly weak public transit systems. We desperately need an alternative route and we must learn from our history if we are going to create it.