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From Winnipeg 1919 to Bangladesh 2014: Working Class Histories Are Still Relevant

Posted by Dr. Rose Fine-Meyer
25 March 2014 - 8:13am

With new history curriculum across the country focusing on historical thinking and disciplinary concepts, history teachers are looking more and more for good primary documents that will be engaging and meaningful to their students, and provide opportunities for critical thinking. This means providing more than political speeches and military accounts. Despite a shift nationally towards commemoration of “key” military events (the War of 1812) most teachers in the field understand that the voices of ordinary citizens provide a deeper reflection of what constitutes our collective history.

In an effort to provide our students with diverse perspectives, educators are obligated to bring in a broad range of narratives and reach out to the rich fields of social, cultural and working class history. Working class histories provided a central part of what was taught in schools in the 1970s and 80s, but much of this has been subsumed into broader stories about the past. And yet, one could argue, that working class histories are more important today than ever before as we see the erosion of labour rights and the violation of workers’ lives globally. Studying the fight for a decent wage and adequate working conditions-- whether it was in factories in Montreal at the turn of the twentieth century or the problems that led to the Winnipeg strike--brings up issues that ring true today in sweatshops across India, Vietnam and other parts of the world.

What are the elements that allow these abuses to take place, both in the past and in the present? Incorporating working class history is a great way to introduce the concept of continuity and change. Are there patterns that help us reflect on our societies and forms of governments? Canada's history is full of stories of workers' experiences-- in factories, farms and shops--that have disturbing parallels to our lives today. For example, social historians have uncovered the abuses to women and children employees, which took place in factories in the early twentieth century. Canadian companies today are still embroiled in massive human rights violations, particularly within the garment and mining industries.

It is important we think about this as Canadians: the broader impact of what we purchase; the so-called norm of underemployment; the erosion of a living wage; the rights to benefits and retirement support. Those discussions need to take place now and could begin in our history classrooms.

How do you incorporate working class experiences within your history lessons?

Photo: Winnipeg General Strike, 1919, photo by Lewis Benjamin Foote: Original in LAC. Web source:, public domain.