Winnipeg-set musical takes a Stand! for Canadian labour history

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      Starring Laura Slade Wiggins. Rated PG

      Canada is usually seen as the Good Guy (pronoun optional) on the world stage.

      But you don’t have to go back very far at all to find bad behaviour regarding its treatment of minorities, Indigenous people, refugees, and even naturalized citizens. The turning away of Jews fleeing Hitler’s Europe and the maltreatment of Japanese Canadians during, and after, World War II are familiar black eyes. The 1919 General Strike in Winnipeg is a little more mysterious, though, and this ambitious musical attempts to redress that with a few songs and some period dress and choreography.

      Written by Rick Chafe and Danny Schur, and based on the latter’s musical-theatre piece Strike!, the movie wears some West Side Story influences openly, centring its slice of social upheaval, labour unrest, and intra-ethnic tensions on the Romeo and Juliet–lite story of handsome Ukrainian steelworker Stefan Sokolowski (Glee’s Marshall Williams) and the Jewish suffragist Rebecca Almazoff (Laura Slade Wiggins), who lives next door.

      If not quite Sharks-versus-Jets material, the immigrants don’t get along that well, but they have a common enemy in the form of Anglo soldiers, recently returned from the First World War and understandably disgruntled about the lack of work awaiting them. Iindustry captains, happy to have a huge pool of foreign-born workers willing to work for pennies, and genuinely freaked out by the Bolshevik upheaval in Russia, would rather fuel local resentment than accommodate anyone.

      That’s when unions step in, intersecting with other social demands. Consequently, it’s not hard to get ex-soldiers—who here tend to call anyone from Eastern Europe “bohunks”—to march with a banner reading “To Hell with the Alien Enemy”. They say history doesn’t really repeat, but it does rhyme.

      Director Robert Adetuyi, a Canadian who works in Hollywood, makes a strong impression on a low budget, and marshals large groups of people in dynamic ways. The tale also offers a more widely representative view of who lived on the Prairies back then. But he’s less secure with smaller groups, especially with uneven acting talent; most players are speaking English with fake accents, and there’s a lot of stunted dialogue, along the lines of “Father, can’t you see that we’re all the same?”

      The songs are pleasant, if sparse and not that memorable, and Stand! seems more likely to end up with viewers sitting in classrooms, not movie theatres—which, by the way, are rarely unionized.