History of Nursing in Pacific Canada

[Memorandum, Ethel Johns to D.C. Masters re: Winnipeg General Strike] Johns, Ethel 1947-10-17

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Copy of Memorandum on The Wlfanipeg General Strike^ Written by
Ethel Johns for Professor D»C. Masters
(D.C. Masters,The Winnipeg General Strike (Toronto rllniversity
of Toronto Press,1950).
NOTE : In his "Acknowledgements," p.xi ,Prof essor Masters
mentions that "Miss Ethel Johns contributed a memorandum and
read the first draft of the manuscript." At the time of the
publication of this book,Professor Masters was on the faculty
of Bishop's University ,Lennoxville,F#Q. Date below his
"Acknowledgementsf! was March,I9l|.9.
In this book,Professor Masters quoted from Miss Johns1 memo,
but did not refer to her by name.
Professor Masters released the copy of the memorandum to me.See
correspondence .
(Copy of Miss Johns1 memo).
The Winnipeg General Strike
At the time of the General Strike I was the superintendent
of the Children1s Hospital. This institution had about a
hundred beds and its patients were drawn for the most part
from working-class families in the "North End." There was an
extraordinary diversity among these people as to national
origin,language and religion but the authorities of the
Hospital never made any Invidious distinctions as to race,
colour or creed. The babel of tongues In the out-patient department on a busy morning gave ample proof of that fact.
The board of directors was composed exclusively of women belonging to well known and prosperous families and,in addition,there
was an advisory council of moderately wealthy men who kept a
friendly eye on financial policy. The greater part of the revenue was derived from the payments made by the municipal and provincial governments in return for the treatment given to the
children of parents who were not able to meet the cost them- selves.Relatively large sums of money were also obtained through
the untiring efforts of the board of directors and these devoted
women thus made It possible to give far better service than would,
have been the case If the hospital had been obliged to depend on
governmental sources only. The directors were proud of their
hospital and were anxious to help children who were so much less
forifaunate than their own. But they had not the faintest conception
of the underlying economic causes of the suffering they were so
genuinely eager to relieve.
Like most nurses, I had always taken social inequalities more or
less for granted and it was not until the strike x^as almost upon
us that I heard the mutter of the approaching storm. All through
the longdrawn out strike of the metal workers union, the children of these men had been brought by their gaunt mothers to the
hospital for treatment. The diseases they were suffering from were
chiefly due to starvation and after they had. been properly fed for
a few weeks they were sent back to their poverty-stricken homes
as "cured." In due course they were visited by our social service
nurse and it was she who first told me of the growing desperation
of these people and that there was some wild talk of a "sympathetic"
strike. In spite of this warning, we were taken by surprize when
at last the blow fell* The first sign that we were in for serious
trouble came when the usual delivery of milk failed to arrive at
the appointed time. This was serious because the sick babies in
the infants! ward required special feedings and we had no stock
on hand. The dairy reported that the strikers were halting all -3-
milk carts and that our particular supply had been dumped into
the gutter. Enouiry at the City Hall disclosed that the Mayor
had arranged for a meeting with the strike committee and that
representatives of the various hospitals  were invited to attend.
After a hurried conference with the president of our board, of
directors,I joined the harassed group of hospital officials
in the council chamber,and as soon as we had taken our seats
the members of the strike committee filed in. There was no arrogance in the bearing of these men  but there was about them a
quiet determination and an air of conscious power that I can
never forget. The reins were in their hands and they knew it.
The Mayor asked each of us to state the needs of our
respective Institutions and we were assured by the strike committee that these xrould be met in due course. Plans had evidently been made well in advance for when I returned to the Hospital
I found that the milk had already been delivered,escorted by a
guard of apologetic strikers.Furthermore, the engine room and
laundry staffs had received instructions from their unions that
they were to stay on the job.
Subsequently I heard that the accusation was made that,in taking
these protective measures, the irikers had usurped the prerogatives of the municipal authorities and had attempted to set up a
soviet government. I do not know whether this accusation was
justified or not. At the time it did not occur to me that anything
highly subversive was contemplated. My impression was that the
hospitals were trying to keep their doors open and that the -k-
strikers, in their own interest, were anxious to give them a
helping hand. Certainly my mind dwelt more upon milk than upon
Karl Marx and I think that the members of both groups felt the
same way.Later on, the marking of milk carts by means of placards
bearing the strange device:"By permission of the strike committee"
aroused great resentment and may well have been deliberately
provocative. Nevertheless,one reason the milk carts were so designated was In order to prevent the sort of enthusiastic Interference which had prevented delivery at the Children's Hospital that
very morning.
The Citizens Committee to combat the strike was organized forthwith and. swung into highly effective action immediately. The
Children's Hospital was in a highly favoured position because
both sides were anxious to keep us going. However, as the days
went by and one union after another was called out, the tension
slowly mounted. Soon there were no telephones,no street cars,no
police, no firemen,except in so far as the Citizens Committee
offered amateur and undependable substitutes* The cumulative
Impact of these successive withdrawals had a profound psychological effect. The communal life of the city slowed down and almost
stopped altogether. The &rike ceased to be an adventure and both
sides became more bitter and unreasonable.  After a brief period
of suspension due to the strike, the daily newspapers appeared
in a trune ate df crrm and addad fuel to the flames by publishing
tirades of hysterical abuse that were a disgrace to the men who
uttered them. -5-
The strikers tried to parade and were roughly handled in Market
Square by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I heard a striker
tell a young constable that the Mounties were as yellow as the
stripe down their pants. The lad flushed but kept his temper
and said nothing. Perhaps he was ashamed of the use they had
made of him. The wives of the strikers,with children in their
arms, had tried to march at the head of the parade.. It had taken
drastic measures to head them off. It had been an ugly business.
A few days later, I had to face up to a problem of my own.
Naturally enough, the women on the board of directors felt that
they had been betrayed in the house of their friends. They had
tried to help the children of a working class which was now openly
in revolt against constituted authority. There x^as talk of closing
the out-patient department as a retaliatory measure. It was then
that I knew that I could no longer remain silent. I reminded them
that the Hospital drew the bulk of its support from public funds
and that we  were therefore obliged to keep all essential services
going. The out-patient department did not close but it was borne
in upon me that I had lost the goodwill and the confidence  of
women who in the past had always given me loyal support even
when they thought I might be in the wrong.
Another and even more distressing conviction also began to dawn
upon me. Practically none of the nursing staff had any sympathy
for the strikers and the medical men took the same stand. My
friends outside of the hospital,most of them active in the
Citizens  Committee, thought I had taken leave of my senses. -6-
Never in my life had I experienced such spiritual isolation.
In the evening there seemed little to do except to wander over
to the open-air rallies held in Victoria Park and to listen to
what Fred Dixon and James Woodsworth had to say. I did not know
either of these men  personally but I had a great respect for
their courage and. integrity.I began to read the books that they
recommended and to do a little independent thinking on my own
account. One Sunday,Mr. Woodsworth closed his address with the
words: "They shall not sow and another reap....they shall not
build and another inhabit." The strikers and. their children
were sitting about in groups  on the grass and began to sing
the labour hymn that I had never heard:
Whent*It Thou save the people,Lord,
0 God of Mercy, when?
The people,Lord, the people,
Not crowns and thrones,but men.
1 x^ent home through the Spring twilight knowing that I was no
longer alone. There were other men and women who felt and
thought as I did and who were making the same journey over the
same rough road,.
As it turned out, I was heading for more trouble. The following
week was unseasonably hot and oppressive and late one afternoon
a sudden storm broke over the city.A furious wind,tearing at
everything in its path, lifted about a third of the metal roofing of the Hospital and dumped it into the Red River. Live wires
came down in all directions and we were- plunged into darkness. -7-
Fortunately, we had always had regular fire drills so the usual
alarm was sounded, emergency lanterns were lighted, and the
children were wrapped in blankets ready for removal If necessary.
There was no panic and evevjbodj  behaved extremely well .My heart
swelled with pride, x^e were over the worst of it. Then to our
dismay we found that the chimney had been damaged and that inflammable portions of the uncovered roof structure were dangerously close to it. The fires in the engine room were drawn and.
a messenger sent to the nearest fire hall to ask for help. The
substitute brigade provided by the Citizens Committee were of
course utterly unable to cope with the situation. There were only
a handful of them anyway and appeals were coming in from all
sides.We had to shift for ourselves as best we could. No telephones,
no police, no fire brigade. It was a long and anxious night.
Early the next morning the engineer and I were sadly gazing at
the wrecked roof when officers of the board of directors and of
the men's advisory council appeared on the scene. They were
very much concerned to hear that unless temporary repairs were
made it would be unsafe to re-light the boilers and get up enough
steam to keep the sterilizers and the laundry in operation.
Without these facilities the hospital could not continue to function. While we x^ere talking, I noted that two shabbily dressed
men had entered the grounds and were looking up at the torn
strips of metal hanging from the roof .Thinking that they might be
relatives of some of the patients,I went over to ask them what
they wanted. They said that they x^rere members of the metal workers
union, the very union which had precipitated the general strike, -8-
and that the strike committee had given them permission to offer
to make any repairs that might be necessary,free of charge.
It was such a blessedrelief that I rushed back to the directors
with the good news. Before I had finished speaking,one of the
members of the men's advisory council sharply told me to go
over and tell the men  that he would see them in hell first.
In ordinary life, this man x^as a kindly soul,devoted to children,who had always been a pillar of strength to us. The black
hatred in his voice and manner so terrified me that I hardly
knew hoxtf to respond. However,! went over t<s> the men and gave
them as gentle a refusal as I could. They turned and walked
away without a word.
At this point there seemed nothing for me to do except to make
it clear that,since the hospital authorities had refused the
prof erred help,I could no longer be held, responsible for the
safety of a hundred sick faildren in a building which might be
swept by fire at any moment. The Citizens Committee did obtain
sufficient voluntary workers to make rough repairs and we got
the boilers going again. But my task had come to an end.As
soon as the strike was over I handed in my resignation and.
it was accepted with unflattering speed.
Looking back over the years,I realize that I was hot-headad
and probably rather naive.I know now that there were faults on
both sides. But the brutal measures taken to crush the strike,
and the farcical trials of the leaders which followed its
collapse, aroused a burning sense of injustice which has Meiaer -9-
left me. The solidarity of the unions, their willingness to
share what littletfeey had, their discipline and good humour In
the face of great provocation were alike admirable. I still
cannot understand why they failed to toxach the imagination
of the social group to which I belonged.
I can understand the reaction of my fellow-nurses,however.
It is our strong conviction that,under no circumstances, is it
right for us to strike.We are concerned with the issues of life
and death. It may be urged that the police and the firemen are
in the same category. Certainly I felt that they ought to be
during the long vigil on the night of the storm.Yet in spite
of all arguments to the contrary I still cling stubbornly to
the belief that the Winnipeg General Strike was not only
justified but,in the end,served  a useful purpose. It made the
people of Winnipeg realize that no modern community can function
without the workers who carry on the humble and monotonous
tasks which make a city safe and healthy to live In. It drew
attention to social and economic abuses which have since been
remedied,at least in part. It demonstrated the potential
strength of organized labour.For a brief Interval, the strike
redressed the uneven balance of power between those who have
and those who have not.
(Signed)  Ethel Johns
i+19  West   IlJ+th St.,
New York  City.


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