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EPISODE 33: A Glowing Dream: The Story of Jacob & Rose Penner


Director Cathy Gulkin takes us on a personal journey exploring the lives of her maternal grandparents Jacob and Rose Penner. Jacob was born into a Mennonite community in Southern Russia, while Rose was Jewish and born into poverty in the Ukraine. By different paths, both Jacob and Rose ended up living in Winnipeg. They shared a vision that the world could be a better place. Together they worked, through the socialist and Communist Party of Canada, to try to make their vision a reality.

They gave a voice to the poorest and least privileged in our society. They worked towards the formation of unions, unemployment insurance, and universal health care. Jacob was one of the key organizers of the Winnipeg General Strike. For over sixty years, their voices reminded Canadians that: "as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." (Bible, King James Version, Matthew 25:40).


  • Working towards basic human rights
  • Making sacrifices for the greater good
  • The importance of community to the early Mennonites in Canada


  • Socialist
  • Communist
  • Winnipeg General Strike
  • Internment
  • Mennonite


  • To explore the plight of the poor and working poor in Canada in the early 1900's
  • To examine the fight to get the social safety net in place in Canada
  • To consider the sacrifices that people are willing to be true to their ideals


  1. As Canadians, we pride ourselves on our social "safety net." Investigate some of the government programs set up to help not just the poorest Canadians, but all Canadians. Trace the history of at least one of these programs and explain who fought for it and why.

  2. During the "Depression" there were work camps set up, where single men on relief were sent to work. What projects did these men work on and how long did they have to stay there? Find out whether or not in your province there is a type of "Work for Welfare" program. Talk to a welfare recipient or welfare advocate, and learn about the pros and cons of such programs.

  3. Pretend you are Jacob Penner, one of the organizers of the Winnipeg General Strike. Write a strong, rousing speech to give to your class, pretending they are dissatisfied, poor workers. In your speech, try to convince them that conditions are unjust, that a strike is necessary, and why they should participate in such a protest.

  4. Many people in Canada are worried about our social "safety net." During the 1990's, especially, cost cutting became the order of the day for all three levels of government because the government was spending more money than it had. Pretend you are budget chief, and your government is in debt. You have to reduce costs or raise taxes. Where would you cut costs, and where would you not cut costs in your budget. If you choose to raise taxes, explain how you would convince people who are already complaining of paying too much tax that raising taxes is the only answer.

  5. Invite a labour union representative to speak to your class. If they can, ask him or her to talk about the importance of the Winnipeg General Strike and what affect it had. Also, ask them to talk about present-day working conditions and what changes they would like to make for workers in Canada. How are they trying to make these changes?

  6. Jacob Penner's childhood in Russia and belief in socialism fueled him to fight for workers' rights here in Canada. Research what happened in the 20th century to socialist ideals in Russia, and what the dream of a Communist state was all about. Why did it fail? Are things better now without a Communist union (look at an old map/globe and a new one to see how things also changed geographically).

  7. Pretend you work in a car wash, are poorly paid, and the working conditions are awful. Meet with some of your fellow washers and form a union. What will you try to change, and how will you convince your employers to improve things for you. Set up a drama where your union negotiates with the boss.

  8. Many Mennonites today are still working for social justice (like Jacob and Rose) through their Mennonite Relief Committee. Contact them (website or mail) and find out what they are doing around the world. Find a project that moves you and see what you can do to help them, including some possible fund raising.