There are going to be three posts about Robbie-B: the one you (hopefully) already read, this one about his response to the Winnipeg General Strike, and a final begrudging acknowledgement of the positives that Borden brought with him. This is not the happy post.
Right. So, Borden put down the Winnipeg General Strike after World War One with brutal force. In order to understand why this action made Borden an all-Canadian, plan-free idiot, we need to dive into the history of the thing. At the time, two important events were transpiring: labor in the Western World was growing more and more discontent with the fact that they were building shitty tools so that neighbors and relatives could go die because reasons, and troops were coming home after World War One with their shitty equipment and finding that Canada had moved on without them. Well, that and the whole shitty living conditions thing too.That probably didn’t help.
So the troops came home only to find social dissent, disease, and misery that the Canadian government and by extension Borden did diggery-doodle nothing about. Perhaps the large influx of people returning from the War and the jaded Canadian proletariat were not the best things to simply slam into one another without any thought, especially in a context where inflation had made costs of living higher and factory bankruptcies made earning money harder. The collective shit-ness that was post-war Canada saw Western Canada organize itself into something called The Great Fist, or One Big Union. Tired of “blanket fees” and other nickle-and-diming scams that factories ran, they went on strike. By 9 June 1919, the police had joined them and Special Constables, paid for by the wealthy of Winnipeg, started their “rounds”. Said wealth formed the “Citizens’ Committee of One-Thousand” and from there called for federal help, which was provided seemingly without question.
This is typically regarded as a problem. The rest is history – Borden’s minister, Arthur Meighen, ordered the strike leaders arrested on 10 June, a few weeks after he blindly declared that the strikes were caused by foreign subversives rather than anything wrong with labor conditions in Western Canada. The evidence that compelled Meighen to this view is the evidence that has been sacrosanct ever since – the opinions of English-Canadian business owners. At any rate, federal troops and Northwest Mounted Police (who were pushed out of the city by strikers by 10 June) came to kill the strike. Several died and dozens were wounded in the largest anti-strike action in Canadian history. Despite the English-Canadian business community’s assertion that “aliens” were behind the strike, it was found by Royal Commission that the strikers were not in fact secret Red Army troops but were in fact a titch upset about their wretched, diseased lives.
And herein is Bobby’s big whoopsie. Rather than trusting the obvious signals that something was going wrong, Borden instead opted to follow the advice of Winnipeg’s elite – an elite that turned out to be dead-wrong in its claims about what happened. While I recognize that social democracy was not in Canada’s wont at the time, Canada nevertheless failed to see the obvious coming and Borden’s reaction to it was knee-jerk. Ottawa, rather than looking at the problem either as it was happening or during the problem, opted instead to trust a gaggle of self-interested buffoons who – shockingly – turned out to be a big part of why the strikes happened in the first place.
And this is a tradition that continues in Canada to this day. Why listen to people who are actually there and dealing with an issue when people who aren’t there can justify whatever short-term stupidity the government comes up with?