The road to modern Winnipeg

A Diminished Roar is the third book I have written about Winnipeg in the first third of the 1900s.

Winnipeg 1912 looks at the city as it was at the culmination of nearly two decades of growth and expansion. All the early ambitions for the city seemed to have been fulfilled. Winnipeg’s Great War talks about the home front during World War One. The war stopped the steady growth of the preceding decades and robbed the city of many promising young men whose potential was never realized. Inflation, the Winnipeg General Strike, unemployment and the post-war recession followed and made it difficult to recover from the disruption caused by the fighting.

The 1920s were known as ‘the roaring twenties’, but the twenties only roared in the United States. Everyone in the world owed the Americans money because of war loans. The stock market kept climbing and many many people had a good deal of disposable income. In Canada this was not the case. We had fought for four years and the war ended with a recession that lasted for several years. The years from 1925 to 1929 were better and the economy improved only to be derailed by the onset of the depression.

A Diminished Roar takes up Winnipeg’s story in 1920 and describes the city as it struggles to regain its upward trajectory, something that never really happens at that time and has to wait until after the second world war. Of particular interest and importance is the way in which the business community loses the control it had normally exercised through the City Council and the Board of Trade. The book describes the decade of the 1920s as a period when they were forced to share control with other groups. It became more difficult for Winnipeg to agree on what to do next and how to proceed, but there are examples of issues on which the left and right cooperated.

My main motivation for writing A Diminished Roar was to educate myself. I have always been interested in the 1920s, what really went on, how they led to modern Winnipeg and I hope this book sheds some light on these things.

On a more personal level, my father was young in the 1920s and many things about him seemed to be echoes of that time. For instance, my dad liked to dance and he listened to the dance bands that were popular on the radio. He was an ethical person and a good father but he did not have the puritan attitudes of his older relatives. He liked to have fun and would take a drink. My research on the era has answered some of my questions about him.

Unlike my Great War book, there were no rich collections of personal letters in the Archives, neither City and Provincial, to base my narrative upon. I used the newspapers a good deal and found the lonely hearts column in the Winnipeg Tribune a good way to discover what young people were worried about.

A good deal of the book concentrates on the City Council. For this topic the City of Winnipeg Archive are incredibly informative. The Council minutes, with their detailed records of discussion and votes are all available. Very often the minutes include a document number, referring to a report or communication that came before Council. If you take that number to the staff the chances are good it will still be there in the files, neatly folded into its box. Sometimes the item is so dry it needs to be re-hydrated so that you can safely open and handle it. This takes a day or so to do.

Over and over in my research I have been amazed at what I have found in the City of Winnipeg Archives on Myrtle Street and the Archives of Manitoba on Vaughan. The City Archives, which begin in the 1870s, are being housed now in ‘temporary storage’, a building that is inconvenient to get to, has little parking and is far from fire proof. The many fires in historic museums and libraries that have occurred recently are a reminder of how precarious the situation of our own rich collections are. The City Archivist, Jody Baltessen, now retired, has written the Preface to this book, partly as a reminder of how important Archives staff are as partners in the business of writing our history.

I have taken ten years to write this account of ten years in our history. During that time, It took ten years because I kept getting distracted. I worked on other projects and taught mini courses based on my research in McNally Robinson’s Community Classroom, The University Women’s Club, and The University of Winnipeg’s 55 Plus Program, which absorbed lots of time. My other books were finished more quickly because, although I did them in my spare time, I did not work on anything else.

I am very grateful to David Carr and all the professional staff at U of M Press, my partners in all my writing. McNally Robinson Booksellers and all its fine staff have also supported me by arranging book launches and most important of all, selling the books. I owe them a lot.

—Jim Blanchard, August 31, 2019