There’s a bas-relief portrait of Joe Zuken on a plaque outside the exercise studio in the Wellness Institute, a rehabilitation-fitness centre attached to the Seven Oaks General Hospital in the north Winnipeg neighbourhood of Garden City.
The bespectacled face of the lawyer, long-time school trustee, and city councillor — the longest-serving Communist Party politician in North America — is a reminder of his commitment to strengthening his community by empowering all its members. He worked to give them the tools they required to improve their lives, valuing personal agency over charity.
Zuken did much more than lobby the municipal and provincial governments to build a hospital in the underserved neighbourhood, which sprawls even further north than what’s familiarly known as the North End, an area bounded by the Canadian Pacific rail yards to the south and Inkster Boulevard to the north. In the years before “holistic wellness” became a popular concept, he advocated for a fitness facility where staff and patients, alongside the wider community, could enjoy the preventive health benefits of exercise and camaraderie.
The Wellness Institute opened its doors in 1996 — the first medical fitness centre in Canada operated by a hospital. Though Zuken didn’t live to see the day (he died in 1986), his spirit lingers in the welcoming, sunlit gym, where members of the community meet to play pickleball and do Pilates, or just drink coffee and kibitz.
Zuken’s family brought him to Winnipeg from Ukraine as an infant in the early 1900s. Like many Jewish immigrants who settled in the North End, he attended a Yiddish school, and his childhood home was filled with socialist ideals. His parents valued education and had an unwavering commitment to workers’ rights. And though Zuken was often reviled for his political leanings during his career, he’s largely responsible for advancements Winnipeggers take for granted today: kindergartens, free textbooks for students, decent salaries for teachers, public housing, renters’ rights.
Arthur Ross, author of Communal Solidarity: Immigration, Settlement, and Social Welfare in Winnipeg’s Jewish Community, 1882–1930, also grew up in Winnipeg’s North End. Joe Zuken was his uncle.
Ross’s father, William (né Cecil Zuken), was the head of the Communist Party in Manitoba from 1948 to 1981. His mother, Anne, was responsible for transforming the Mount Carmel Clinic — a free facility built in 1929 to serve members of the Jewish community who could not afford to pay for private medical care — into a broad-based community health centre that serves newcomers, LGBTQ patients, and homeless people alike.
Ross’s writing is often dry and academic, but his intimate knowledge of the North End and of the circumstances that led Jewish immigrants to settle there informs a history that holds an undeniable appeal, especially to those who may wonder how their forebears transformed from European traditionalists to North American socialists, or even rabble-rousers.
Born in the North End, my maternal grandparents were both children of Russian emigrés who escaped pogroms in the late 1800s: the Meyerowitzes and Rabinovitzes who became Meyerses and Robertses. Secular Jews, they were the product of the environment Ross describes, where reliance on religious institutions was supplanted by a communal network of mutual aid and sick benefit societies, support systems that offered health care and funded institutions to house orphans and elderly people.
Neither of my great-grandfathers was the “stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat, born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for ten generations,” that Clifford Sifton, minister of the interior at the turn of the twentieth century, once described as his ideal immigrant. Jews in Russia’s Pale of Settlement were not permitted to own property and therefore were not farmers, nor had they, as shtetl dwellers, been exposed to factory production, one of the major employment opportunities in a modern city.
“Russia’s nascent economic modernization had scarcely improved life in Jewish communities,” Ross writes. “Russian laws and regulations had been systematically crafted to perpetuate the segregation and economic marginalization of Jews in the Pale.” It was during this period, between 1882 and 1914, that “Winnipeg emerged as a dynamic metropolis.” By 1906, it was Canada’s third-largest city, with 90,000 inhabitants. (Today it’s ranked eighth, with a population of 778,000.)
One of my great-grandfathers, Abraham Meyerowitz, was an outlier, a businessman who came to the North End via a successful sojourn in Johannesburg, South Africa. In 1914, the firm of Cohen and Meyerowitz constructed the three-storey European Block in Winnipeg, with a swimming pool and Turkish baths on the main floor and apartments above, which it also owned and ran. A designated historic site, it still stands on the corner of McGregor Street and Manitoba Avenue.
My zaida’s father, meanwhile, was a dray man, a peddler who sold his wares off the back of a horse-drawn cart.
My baba and zaida’s early lives were typical of the experience that Ross describes: “The most common strategy was to encourage children to leave school and seek employment” in order to contribute to the household income. In 1911, the cost of living for a family of five was about $918 a year; the average income of male Jewish workers was $778. Neither my grandfather nor my grandmother completed high school, and both worked in trades that were, as Ross shows, overwhelmingly practised by North End Jews of the day: he was a printer, and she was a seamstress in a factory.
The city was, as it is now, divided physically and symbolically by the CP yards. To the south lay large mansions set on tree-lined streets. To the north, squalor reigned amid hastily constructed houses with no access to sewage systems, electricity, or streetcar service. The south was home to more assimilated, wealthy, English-speaking Jews; the north, to the Yiddish-speaking working class.
This separation was tangible and long-lasting. Even as recently as the 1980s, if you met a relocated Jewish Winnipegger, you could expect to be asked if you lived “north or south.” My mother’s move to the western suburb of St. James meant that I was the only Jewish kid in my class all the way through grade 12. This was long before the days of “holiday pageants” and “seasonal trees,” and I suspect many of my grade school classmates’ only brush with Judaism was my mom’s Hanukkah parties, where we bashed a homemade blue pinata painted with Stars of David until foil-wrapped chocolate Hanukkah gelt rained down on us.
Ross’s book shows how the divide went beyond wealth to encompass a philosophy of charity that had its roots in religious tradition: tzedakah. One of the most important of the 613 mitzvahs or commandments in the Torah, it can be translated to mean “philanthropy” or “public charity,” and is “an act of piety no religious Jew could ignore.”
According to Ross, “Talmudic teaching emphasized that assisting the poor was ‘essentially a collective or communal’ responsibility carried out under the auspices and control of synagogues that dispensed charity to those judged to be deserving.” The concept of collective responsibility, then, “empowered the wealthy.” As congregants made major donations (for building or operating synagogues, for example), they acquired influence in the form of power, status, and elected position. In this way, “practitioners of traditional tzedakah assumed that wealth entitled donors to establish and control charitable organizations.”
Though Jews have a religious obligation to help the poor, Ross argues, mandated giving wasn’t really about equal distribution of wealth or lifting up the less fortunate. The donor took full public credit for his act of charity, while the recipient was made to prove himself sufficiently needy: “For the wealthy, fulfillment of this obligation was a public measure of their virtue and legitimized their privileged position in the community.” Those on the receiving end of such “communal charity” — no matter how legitimate their needs — “were treated as supplicants whose claims for assistance were subject to close public scrutiny.”
The Jews who flooded into the North End from the Pale of Settlement preferred a more egalitarian system of mutual aid. Though still turning to synagogues for the performance of rituals and the comfort of tradition, they favoured “a model of governance based upon principles of civic membership and democratic decision making.” Despite sometimes desperate poverty, “making a donation to the United Hebrew Relief” — a merger of two local charitable organizations, formerly divided along familiar north-south lines — “became a part of celebrating marriages and wedding anniversaries” for most Jews in the community. At the same time, attending bazaars and dances that raised funds for needy immigrants or orphans “became part of the fabric of Jewish life.”
When my great-grandfather died in 1973, at 104, he was the last remaining member of Winnipeg’s Hebrew Sick Benefit Association, founded in 1906. The society, which provided financial aid to unemployed members, opened a cemetery in 1911 that operates to this day.
From helping those who were ill and incapable to the establishment of hospitals and cemeteries, the evolution of Jewish charity from a religious obligation to a communal civic responsibility can be felt in the political legacies of Joe Zuken and others who championed advances that would give the working class a hand up rather than a handout.
Ross mentions the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 only glancingly in Communal Solidarity — almost an inconveniently timed footnote that interfered with construction of an orphanage and fundraising for other projects. He does, however, call attention to a fear of foreign radicals tied to the strike, which affected immigration policies. “The Royal Northwest Mounted Police,” he writes, “concluded that Jewish socialists posed a singular threat to national security,” adding that though the striking workers were mostly British Canadian, three Jewish “foreigners” were among those arrested and threatened with deportation.
Jews and other Eastern European immigrants did not constitute the majority of strikers, nor were they its organizational force, as newspapers and politicians implied. (British Canadians had a long history with class struggle, and they were largely the ringleaders.) Nevertheless, many of them did bring socialist and even anarchist leanings with them from the old country. Those leanings didn’t necessarily translate to the realities of Winnipeg, but in undeniable ways, they did help shape the city’s political climate and the unusual solidarity seen during the strike. Eastern European newcomers also proved convenient scapegoats for detractors who attributed the strike entirely to Bolshevism.
Dennis Lewycky’s Magnificent Fight: The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike presents the typical immigrant experience as a bellwether of the watershed event. The Winnipeg social justice worker’s book is one of a multitude of works being released this year to coincide with the centenary of the forty-day citywide work stoppage — still the longest general strike — that inspired sympathetic events across Canada and made headlines (most anti-union) across North America. Among them are children’s books, graphic novels, and Stand!, the long-gestating movie version of the Winnipeg impresario Danny Schur’s musical Strike!, itself having a revival at the outdoor Rainbow Stage this summer.
Some of these works seek to celebrate a momentous occasion in the labour movement; others merely attempt to capitalize on it. But however you look at it, the 100th anniversary of that earth-shaking summer comes at a strange and sometimes contentious time.
This past April, for example, Manitoba MLAs resorted to name-calling in the legislature when Liberal MLA Cindy Lamoureux put forward a motion to officially recognize the 1919 General Strike. NDP MLA Nahinni Fontaine claimed she could not in good conscience support a motion by a Liberal, when that party’s federal MPs (including Lamoureux’s father, Kevin Lamoureux) had legislated striking Canada Post workers back to work in 2018.
Here, Lewycky’s analysis of the aftermath of the strike is a useful historical filter. The conflict ended in violence, bloodshed, and death, and workers did not immediately achieve the improved conditions they sought: the right to collective bargaining, safer working conditions, reasonable hours, and so forth. But if the battle was lost, the war has been valiantly waged ever since.
Several of the key players who were charged with seditious conspiracy went on to influential careers in politics. A. A. Heaps, a Jewish immigrant, became an MP. John Queen was found guilty and sentenced to jail, where he was elected to the Manitoba legislature. Queen would go on to become the first socialist mayor of Winnipeg in 1934, serving from 1935 to 1936 and again from 1937 to 1942.
Other prominent figures who supported the General Strike, such as Frederick Tipping and J. S. Woodsworth, were involved in the founding of the Co‑operative Commonwealth Federation, which became the New Democratic Party in 1963. Woodsworth, a former Methodist minister who was elected as an MP in 1921, foreshadowed Lewycky’s argument when he wrote, “The strike is over. Its immediate ends have not been attained. But the workers have had a splendid training in economics and are united as never before.”
Lewycky sees these strides toward labour-friendly government as part of the legacy of 1919. Although other factors were also relevant, he writes, “the public voted on the governments’ performance during The Strike and provincial and federal government changed immediately after.” Though he may be correct, and though the rights to collective bargaining and eight-hour work days were eventually achieved, those gains seem tenuous today.
Even as galas, museum exhibitions, concerts, conferences, and walking tours commemorate an event of historic solidarity among labour groups — when 35,000 striking workers, from metal workers and pressmen to police officers and telephone operators, brought the city to a standstill for six weeks — competing unions representing health care workers in Manitoba are engaged in unprecedented public squabbling.
The province, after years of NDP governance, is back in the hands of the Progressive Conservatives, who are no doubt rubbing their hands with glee over the infighting, and a quick perusal of reader comments on the Winnipeg Free Press website reveals a strongly anti-union sentiment. Writes one representative, albeit anonymous, user:
Great to see [unions] wasting their members’ dues infighting amongst each other rather than spending it trying to con the public into believing they care about patient outcomes while they fight to maintain their golden plated pensions and guaranteed raises devoid from performance to justify it.
This is the Winnipeg of today: Anti-poverty activists with the Fight for $15 campaign want a livable wage and better access to unions, even as the world shifts toward a freelance-focused gig economy. The CP rail line is still the line between the haves and the have‑nots, the established and the newcomers. And while the North End is home to different immigrant groups today, people continue to battle prejudice and social barriers. Jewish immigrants at the turn of the century struggled to make sure foster children and orphans were raised in their own culture and faith, and one hundred years later, First Nations families are challenging apprehensions by Child and Family Services. Almost 90 percent of the children in care in the province are Indigenous and being raised in a culture not their own.
A revealing vantage point from which to examine the ongoing friction between Winnipeg’s working class and the elites is the intersection of Portage Avenue and Main Street. This storied location, known as the crossroads of Canada, was the first commercial hub in the city. Main Street first saw ox carts lumbering down its wide, muddy expanse, then horse-drawn carts like the one my great-grandfather the dray man drove. It was the first street in Winnipeg to be paved: thousands of wooden blocks were set into a sand bed to prevent vehicles’ wheels from sinking into the Red River gumbo. In 1882, the first streetcars, also pulled by horses, ferried passengers from Assiniboine Avenue to Higgins Avenue along Main.
The intersection has been memorialized in song by the former Winnipeggers Randy Bachman and Neil Young. And though the lyrics to “Prairie Town”—“Portage and Main, fifty below”— are a slight exaggeration, the winter wind is like a slap in the face on what is a largely abandoned corner. On any given weekday, there are 15,000 people within a 100‑metre radius of the intersection. But lonely flags snap briskly overhead, as pedestrians scurry unseen below the sidewalks.
On June 21, 1919, the day that became known as Bloody Saturday, Portage and Main was where the Royal Northwest Mounted Police and the Specials (a band of enforcers hired by the city and a committee of prominent businessmen to replace the striking cops) marshalled their forces before charging the crowd assembled in silent protest in front of city hall. Two men would die and many others were wounded; the violence signalled the death knell for the strike, which ended four days later.
Sixty years later, in 1979, the city closed the downtown intersection to surface pedestrian traffic altogether. The supposed “crossroads of Canada” was swallowed up by a forty-year development deal with the Trizec Corporation, which promised to build a bank building, two office towers, a shopping mall, apartments, and a hotel. The day after the closure, Joe Zuken, a city councillor at the time, led a jaywalking protest to shed light on what he saw as the municipal government kowtowing to business interests: the city had agreed to pay 80 percent of the construction costs and 100 percent of the upkeep on an underground pedestrian concourse as part of the project.
The closure necessarily drove pedestrians into a subterranean mall owned by Trizec, the Shops of Winnipeg Square. The shopping concourse is connected to a circular hub that directs people back to the surface via a baffling network of escalators and urine-soaked stairwells. For those with physical disabilities, the set‑up is even more daunting, as some elevators are housed in private buildings that don’t offer twenty-four-hour access.
For decades, most of the designated land has sat unused, its promise of revitalization unrealized. The apartment tower and hotel failed to materialize, while crumbling barriers still force pedestrians underground like moles. The project, which was supposed to combat the decline of the inner city and lure people back to the core, did not succeed. Sprawl continued apace and suburban malls sprang up to compete with the underground shops. And whatever revitalization has occurred in Winnipeg’s downtown has largely taken place away from Portage and Main, in the historic Exchange District. (The Winnipeg-based Artis Real Estate Investment Trust, which now owns the Trizec tower and the mall, promises to finally deliver on one promise: a forty-storey building at 300 Main that will be the city’s tallest.)
In a plebiscite held last year, Winnipeggers voted convincingly (65 percent) to keep the intersection closed. Proponents of the Open Winnipeg movement noted with no small irony that the people who are against foot traffic at Portage and Main — largely those living away from the inner city — are all too happy to flood it and stop traffic when the Winnipeg Jets win a playoff game. (Like the Trizec Corporation, the team’s owner, True North Sports and Entertainment, is no stranger to corporate welfare from both the city and the province.) And yet there’s no end to the complaining when traffic is halted by, say, protesters marching against pipelines. One of Canada’s most famous intersections is, in fact, a gathering place to celebrate the accomplishments of millionaires, steps from where thousands of people once congregated to fight for the right to safe working conditions and a livable wage.
In my house, five kilometres from Portage and Main, there’s a box containing Joe Zuken’s hat, a black astrakhan number, very Russian. My zaida, who was two years older than Zuken, always told me he’d won it in a poker game. He was probably pulling my leg, but I chose to believe him. I like to imagine the two rubbing shoulders, knowing that their outlook and world view were shaped by the same forces at a unique time in Winnipeg’s history, and bonded by their North End roots.
In the photo of Zuken and his fellow protesters crossing a forbidden intersection on a blustery March day forty years ago, he alone is hatless. Whether he was warmed by the strength of his convictions or merely cursing his bad luck at poker, we’ll never know.