Looking for Mrs.
Who was that
impassioned woman at the heart of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike? And
why did her memory become lost to time? Filmmaker Paula Kelly set out to
bring Helen Armstrong back from the margins of history.
Written by Paula Kelly — January 9, 2016
Absences in the
historical record are often as compelling as the existing evidence,
something I discovered in the process of writing and directing my first
biography on film. I found that absence can become a space for
speculation, for turning over the surviving historical fragments and
trying to visualize the pieces that somehow went missing.
Helen was a women whose opinions were made loud and clear, as expressed
in many contemporary newspapers.
This kind of speculation can rapidly escalate into obsession, as I
discovered about five years ago when I began catching occasional
glimpses of a woman who would later become as familiar to me as the
members of my own family. Her name was Helen Armstrong, a working-class
housewife and mother of four who rose to the front ranks of labour
leadership during the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, one of the
largest worker uprisings in Canadian history.
She would become the subject of my documentary, The Notorious Mrs.
Armstrong, but not before I undertook a journey into the past that would
take me all over North America and back more than eighty years.
At that time, circa 1919, Helen Armstrong was a clarion voice in the
Winnipeg labour movement for the plight of working girls and women.
Identifying herself as a women’s labour organizer, she used every means
to campaign against the wage inequality and unhealthy working conditions
they faced as a minority presence in the industrial work force.
Whether walking the picket line, making her case in the provincial
legislature, or facing the police court magistrate, Helen Armstrong was
an outspoken and vigorous advocate for all labouring women: laundresses,
retail workers, stenographers, telephone operators, hotel waitresses;
the list went on and on. In one letter to the deputy minister of labour,
she went to hat for the candy-industry girls, citing case after case of
poor wages, constant layoffs, and petty persecutions that made “the
lives of many of our working girls ... so unbearable that in the end the
street claims them as easy prey.”
She added that “we are making a light and have been taken under the
protection of the Bakery and Confectionery Workers Union.” It was a
typically pugilistic sentiment from a woman who loved to gel into the
During the 1919 strike, Helen Armstrong’s soapbox-style oratory and
street-level agitation were often reported in both the labour press and
the mainstream media. In May, the Winnipeg Tribune told its readers:
“At 5 o’clock this morning Mrs. Helen Armstrong started a drive against
a number of smaller concerns where women and girls had remained at work.
... At 9 o’clock Mrs. Armstrong said her efforts had been far more
successful than she had hoped, and that a large number of new strikers
had been added to the rolls.”
In June 1919, the story would get bigger: Mrs. Armstrong to Stand Trial:
Case Against Woman Labor Leader is Sent to Assize Court.
Helen (Jury) Armstrong was born in 1875, the eldest daughter of ten
children, to a Toronto tailor. In 1897, she married George Armstrong.
Even before the General
Strike, Helen Armstrong’s reputation for radical action was well
established. In 1917, she rejuvenated the Women’s Labor League and
transformed it into an active vehicle for union organization, political
advocacy, and the education of women workers on the subject of their own
“A very striking personality is at the head of the Women’s Labor
League,’’ wrote an admiring Gertrude Richardson in her column for the
Leicester Pioneer. “She is Helen Armstrong, a woman whose ideals are
pure and broad.”
Helen was also a woman whose opinions were made loud and clear, as
expressed in her letter to the editor of the Telegram in 1917: “Girls
have got to learn to fight as men have had to do for the right to live,
and we women of the Labor League are spending all our spare time in
trying to get girls to organize as the master class have done to protect
their own interests.”
A year later, Helen Armstrong was still in the public eye, as a leading
figure in the successful 1918 campaign for minimum-wage legislation for
women in Manitoba, one of the first two provinces in Canada to enact it.
By 1919, Helen Armstrong was already well equipped to deal with the
unfolding labour strife, a seasoned campaigner for the rights of her
Until fairly recently, however, Helen Armstrong had devolved into little
more than a footnote in the pages of Manitoba history. Throughout the
months of research to follow, I would be frequently and forcibly
reminded that this woman, so vivid a presence, so powerful a voice in
her own day. had been rendered almost invisible in ours.
At the same time, I observed how much scholarship and popular opinion
had been expended on an analysis of the male leadership of the strike
and their subsequent role in provincial and federal politics.
History, it seemed, took a powerful interest in the “Famous Ten,” those
ten men who were arrested for their role as seditious conspirators in
the workers’ uprising — in fact, Helen’s own husband, George Armstrong.
was one of this select group. There is still at least a passing
familiarity with such names as R.B. Russell, J.S. Woodsworth, William
Ivens, and John Queen, who later served seven terms as mayor of
Helen (Jury) Armstrong was born in 1875, the eldest daughter of ten
children, to a Toronto tailor. In 1897, she married George Armstrong.
When the Armstrongs moved to Winnipeg with their three daughters in 1905
(a son, Frank, was born in 1907) George quickly moved to the forefront
of the labour movement. Public notice was first taken of Helen in 1914
when she campaigned alongside her husband in his unsuccessful bid for a
seat in the Manitoba legislature.
By 1917, with her daughters old enough to mind the household, she began
to take an active role in labour politics on behalf of working women. In
that year, she became president of a revitalized Women’s Labor
League,presided over the founding of the Retail Clerks’ Union, and took
up the anti-conscription banner in the debate over the Military Service
Act, against the judgment of most middle-class leaders of the women’s
In 1919, during the six-week Winnipeg General Strike, she was
front-and-centre, organizing female workers, picketing, managing a
strikers’ soup kitchen, signing up new union members, speaking, and
marching, until she ended up in jail on June 24. (She was released four
days later.) After the strike, she continued to advocate for working
women and in November 1923 ran unsuccessfully for Winnipeg city council.
However, with George blacklisted and unable to find work, the entire
family, including their daughters with their husbands, moved to Chicago.
After the 1929 Crash, Helen and George returned to Winnipeg, where they
remained until the early 1940s. They retired to Victoria, relocated in
California to be near one of their daughters. Helen died in Baldwin
Park, California, in 1947.
George Armstrong, who was born on a farm in Ontario in 1870, met Helen
in her father’s Toronto tailor shop. Trained as a carpenter, he went
wherever work was available, which took him in 1897 to Butte, Montana,
where Helen travelled to marry him.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the Armstrongs lived in New York,
but George regarded New Yorkers as too parochial in their political
outlook, and so in 1905 moved the family to Winnipeg, which was then a
boomtown for the building trades as well as a hotbed of socialist
He quickly became involved in labour organizing and political activity,
running (and losing) three times for a seat in the provincial
legislature under a labour banner. He was arrested in the 1919 strike,
the only Canadian-born of the “Famous Ten” who were charged for their
role as seditious conspirators in the workers’ uprising.
He was sentenced to a year at a provincial prison farm, and released in
February 1921. However, in the 1920 provincial election, he won a labour
seat in the Manitoba legislature. He took his seat immediately upon his
release from prison, but only served one two-year term. With continued
political success and construction work difficult to find, George and
his family left Winnipeg for Chicago in 1924. He died in California in
However, Helen Armstrong hits been the object of much less attention,
despite the fact that she carried just as much responsibility within the
administration of the Labor Temple as any of her male counterparts. As
president of the Women’s Labor League, she had become the only female
delegate to the otherwise all-male Trades and Labor Council and her
views were heard regularly and with respect in those gatherings,
according to reports in The Voice and the Western Labor News.
In those years, it was rare for a woman to be so prominent in
trade-union affairs, which were just as much a male preserve as any
conservative business gathering. Yet during the 1919 strike, regular
deputations of women workers brought information from the field to Helen
Armstrong, as though reporting to a commanding officer:
“A couple of girls from each box, bag and candy factory, laundry, etc.,
where the staff is supposed to be on strike, report regularly to room 23
in the Labor Temple, the office of Mrs. Helen Armstrong,’’ the Winnipeg
Tribune reported in June 1919.
If imprisonment was the most convincing wav to earn equal time in the
history books, well, Helen also got herself tossed into the provincial
jail for inciting two women to harass scabbing newspaper sellers. She
was arrested on at least two other occasions for her own disorderly
The fact that a housewife of respectable working-class origins was
incarcerated at all suggests a great deal about her status as a
malcontent in the eyes of the civic authorities, one of those unnatural
“female bolsheviki” as a Citizen editorial put it. Why would anyone be
surprised to discover that Helen’s career as a radical labour activist
was a long and storied chronicle?
The most accurate way to describe my interest in Helen Armstrong is both
as a student of history and as a filmmaker. As a history undergraduate
at the University of Manitoba, I was introduced to historians such as
Robert Roberts and Eric Hobsbawm, whose vivid and authoritative writings
in working-class history were all the more fascinating because they were
chronicling human conditions that had once been dismissed as having
minor historical significance.
It wasn’t long before I became aware of the emerging scholarship on
another long-neglected front: the realm of women’s history, particularly
working-class women’s history. As a student of history, therefore, I
believed there was a value in tracing the threads of Helen Armstrong’s
First, her crusade on behalf of working girls and women might well
provide a fresh perspective on the shattering events of the 1919 strike,
as experienced by its only female leader.
Second, an investigation of Helen’s family roots and personal
relationships might explain how a working-class mother of four became
such a powerful lightning rod for the anger, frustration, and
determination of female workers to speak out about their wretched
Third, to express the turbulence of this period through Helen’s point of
view might communicate something meaningful — I wasn’t yet sure what —
to others of my generation, perhaps the sense of genuine hope and
conviction that fired people up in 1919 and seems so elusive to us now.
The more I thought about it, the stronger was my own conviction that
Helen Armstrong deserved to be reanimated, so that she could speak her
As a filmmaker, however, I quickly realized that I had set myself a very
difficult challenge. As powerful as my instinct was about the value of
reconstructing Helen’s story, the shortage of materials to support it as
a film documentary was, at the outset, nothing short of daunting. I had
very little information about her family’s descendants, about her life
before the 1919 strike, or her experiences afterward. Worst of all to a
filmmaker, I had only three images of Helen herself.
I scoured every conceivable public-domain source for images of Helen.
One was the now-famous portrait of the 1919 strike committee with more
than fifty men and two women sitting against the wall of the Labor
Temple. Helen is the woman on the left, although even this fact was
apparently in dispute for a number of years.
The second was a news photo taken of Helen during her campaign for
election as city alderman in 1923.
The third was a murky photograph from the pages of the One Big Union
Bulletin, a casual image of the convicted strike leaders and their wives
picnicking on the grounds of the prison farm east of Winnipeg. Helen and
her husband George Armstrong are blurred almost beyond recognition. You
can just make out that Helen has one hand draped protectively over
George’s shoulder — she is looking off to one side, a barely perceptible
smile on her face.
And that was it lor the visual record of Helen Armstrong. Fortunately,
newspaper reports of her various exploits were less difficult to track
down. I found that Helen Armstrong was steeped in a tradition of
political activism, both as the daughter of Toronto tailor Alfred Jury,
a respected labour leader with liberal leanings, and as the wile of
George Armstrong, a red-hot orator lor the Socialist Party of Canada.
As a tailoress in her lather’s shop, Helen watched her lather preside
from his sewing bench over regular gatherings of labour intellectuals,
socialists, trade unionists, even the odd businessman, all of whom spent
many hours thrashing out the issues of the day.
“It is a tradition among old-timers that everything proposed had to
square with principles or Alf Jury would not let it pass,’’ read his
obituary notice in The Voice of September 1916. In her own public
speeches to labour groups, Helen herself would later acknowledge the
importance of her father as an inspiration for her own labour activism.
I pieced together more and more from the available evidence. I read in
The Voice (Winnipeg’s organ of labour news) about Helen’s rejuvenation
of the Womens Labor League in early 1917, leading the Woolworth’s retail
clerks out on strike in May of the same year.
A police court summons from 1917 (evidently a busy time) told me she had
been arrested for distributing pamphlets opposed to military
conscription to Winnipeg women entering a Next-of-Kin Committee meeting.
I discovered, too, that she regularly took food and clothing parcels up
to Stony Mountain prison near Winnipeg, where young men were serving out
their two years for evading conscription.
There were many other fragments, all fascinating, often startling.
Transcripts of the One Big Union conference in early 1919 revealed Helen
to be the only woman who stood up and spoke her piece at that historic
gathering in Alberta; she challenged the labour men to help educate the
women about union activities.
Yet in her own speeches, I found her trying to persuade women to educate
themselves so they could organize effectively. The Western Labor News of
1919 described her herculean efforts to organize the Labor Cafe, a soup
kitchen that fed thousands of striking women and men. The Winnipeg
Citizen, on the other hand, told me she was a female agitator who, by
her own admission, had spent time in some kind of lunatic asylum.
Of course, all the papers reported the news of her imprisonment for
inciting women strikers to violent behaviour. Taken together, these
sources implied two more important facts: that Helen Armstrong was
prepared to act on her beliefs, and that when she did so, she didn’t
give a damn for anyone’s opinion.
On the other hand, here’s a sampling of what I didn’t know: where she
was born, where she spent her childhood, where she went to school, if
she went to school, little about her father, nothing at all about her
mother, where and when she and George were married, where they lived
before coming to Winnipeg in 1905, where they lived in Winnipeg for the
first ten years, where her daughters were educated, what kind of
relationship she had with them and with her husband, what she thought
about socialism, whether it was true that she had been in an asylum,
what she thought about housework, what her views were on suffrage, what
labour men thought of her, what happened to her while George was in
prison for a year, what happened to the Armstrong family in the years
following the strike, and most important, who on earth was left that
could remember her at all?
The weight of what I didn’t know pressed down like a stone. However, I
had now been working for some time with a researcher of formidable
talents, Carol Preston of Winnipeg, who offered an inspired suggestion
that would eventually open up worlds of possibilities.
She’d located the last known address of Helen’s son, Frank Armstrong,
who had died in Winnipeg in the early 1990s, and suggested I try calling
the neighbours to find out what they knew about the sale of Frank’s
house. Maybe they’d met the relatives involved, with the disposition of
his estate. I remember thinking, it’s a long shot, but why not?
I made the phone call to one Bill Burrage, who turned out not only to
have lived next door at the time of Frank’s death, but had purchased his
house from the Armstrong family’s estate. The executrix was Elsie
Friesen, great-niece by marriage to Helen Armstrong. To my growing
excitement, Bill told me she lived in Winnipeg.
A visit to Elsie proved to be a godsend — she had a number of Armstrong
family photographs, a selection of Helen’s letters and notes, and other
documents, including the police summons for Helen’s appearances in court
and two complete sets of her handwritten speeches on such topics as
suffrage and the importance of women’s political education.
There was also a set of clippings the Armstrongs had saved themselves,
mostly about Helen’s activities. Clearly, she had at least some sense of
her own place in the annals of labour history.
From these documents, I learned that Helen first woke up to the
particular problems faced by women while she and George Armstrong were
living in the United States — the first I’d heard of that.
She wrote that “my own early training was in the Radical Liberal school
with the early labor leaders of Canada and I heard little of the sex
fight — it was all to me a light for wages and conditions and hours of
labor. It was not until I married in the U.S. and made my home there
that I became acquainted of the fight for Woman’s Suffrage.”
The speech goes on to delineate the entire history of female suffrage
through the nineteenth century in the United States. I was to find out
later that she referred to the vote as “a club,” a weapon that
working-class women needed to make their voices heard. “Without a club,
you will not be listened to,” was a favourite call to arms.
Elsie Friesen had something even more important than photographs and
documents — she had phone numbers. She was in contact with an American
branch of the Armstrong family, a distant cousin named Dottie Dyer.
When I called Dottie, she told me she knew very little about her
great-aunt Helen, but she thought she might have a family photo album
belonging to the Armstrong clan in a box in the basement. And, oh yes,
maybe I should speak to Helen Cassidy in Phoenix — she might remember a
few things too.
Helen Cassidy, it turned out, was Helen Armstrong’s granddaughter and
namesake. I flew down as soon as I could to meet her, and realized
within minutes that she was an indispensable living link to my subject.
She had lived with her grandmother for a number of years and known her
for many more. She could testify to those ephemeral qualities of Helen’s
personality that no clipping or photograph could offer, and fill in many
puzzling gaps in her history.
The photo album from Dottie Dyer arrived while I was visiting Helen
Cassidy in Phoenix. We went through it together, identifying numerous
photos of Helen and her family, circa 1880 to 1947. There were pictures
of her in every stage of her life: of her sisters, of her children, of
her husband, of their friends — there was even a postcard of Karl Marx.
Sitting there, in Helen Cassidy’s kitchen, I realized I was more than
halfway home to a documentary that could truly be grounded in visual,
textual, and personal testimony to my subject and her world.
From Helen Cassidy I learned about the woman herself. Ma Armstrong, as
she knew her grandmother, was a compassionate mother figure to just
about anyone who needed help. She informed me that Ma hated corsets and
eventually gave up wearing one, and that she despised housework so much
that to avoid it she would feign illness and take to her bed, declaring
to her long-suffering family that “she wasn’t long for this world.”
This made sense to me — I recollected that in one of Helen Armstrong’s
speeches, she departed from the history of suffrage to praise the new
labour-saving machines that would one day free women from the drudgery
of housework. It was from Helen Cassidy that I finally learned her
grandmother had been married in Butte, Montana, a booming mining town
where George Armstrong, a carpenter had found work in construction.
She told me that the two of them absolutely adored one another, hut that
“you would never know it because they bickered so much over everything.”
Especially socialism. Ma was definitely not a socialist, I was told. She
had even warned her granddaughter not to make the mistake of marrying a
socialist, if she wanted her children to wear shoes.
Just as interesting was Helen Cassidy’s assertion that her grandmother
had been a patient at Brandon Mental Hospital, but not because she was a
lunatic: she’d had a breakdown after all four of her children came down
with scarlet fever at the same time. (The hospital record called it
From Helen Cassidy, I also learned that the Armstrong family was a
close-knit one. Helen’s son and daughters took their mother’s constant
whirl of activity in stride, although the girls sometimes resented
having to do all the household chores while she was out at one of her
There was yet another surprise in store in this period of new
discoveries: the sudden appearance of Helen Armstrong’s grandson, Bob
Waters of Hot Springs, Arkansas. While I was on my own trek into the
Armstrong family’s colourful past, Bob Waters was tracing his family
roots in a journey that brought him from Arkansas to Winnipeg.
One of his first stops was to the City of Winnipeg Archives, where
archivist James Allum, upon learning his identity, hurried to contact me
with the amazing news that Helen Armstrong’s grandson was in town. When
I met Bob Waters in his hotel room in Winnipeg, we traded bits and
pieces of family history back and forth, filling in more spaces between
He affirmed that his grandmother had indeed become a suffragist in the
U.S., citing a well-rehearsed family story that she and a group of
female activists had chained themselves to a fence around the White
In Helen’s own correspondence, I discovered her efforts on behalf of
women’s rights continued well into the thirties, as she worked to reform
the Mothers Allowance Act, which provided support for widows and single
mothers. She spent the rest of her time sewing clothes, organizing soup
kitchens, and putting food on her own table for anyone who needed help
during those terrible years.
Helen Cassidy remembered how her grandfather George used to declare that
“the bums put a mark on our fence, so the next bum who came along would
know where to go for a free meal.” Bob Waters, too, had fond memories of
a warm, maternal grandmother who loved to put on a spread for family and
These family recollections certainly contradicted the loud, aggressive,
even hostile persona that was portrayed in reportage of the redoubtable
Bob Waters knew well the socialist and humanist legacy left in his
grandparents, because it resonated in his own father’s union activity in
the Chicago of the Roaring Twenties. According to Bob, business leaders
brought in the Mob to bust the fledgling union of downtown building and
construction trades. “They blew up my dad’s car with grenades,” he told
me. “But the unions won. They actually outgunned the Mob!” Bob was
insistent that his father Charles’ resolve was a trait learned from Ma
and Pa Armstrong.
Paula Kelly is a writer and director living in Winnipeg. Her
documentary, The Notorious Mrs. Armstrong, first aired on WTN in May
This article originally appeared in the June-July 2002 issuelink opens
in new window of The Beaver