It was during the early hours of February 11th, 1963 that 3 men were shot to death and 8 wounded in one of the bloodiest labour conflicts in Canadian history. It occurred at Reesor Siding, midway beween the towns of Kapuskasing and Hearst. The victims were striking bush workers of the Lumber and Sawmill Workers Union employed by the Spruce Falls Power and Paper Company. The people responsible for the shooting were not police officers or company henchmen but farmers who believed they were protecting their livelihood with the sale of logs to the paper company.
The strike lasted 33 days and put brothers in conflict against brothers and even fathers against sons in this predominantly francophone region. The strikers were objecting to the fact that the farmers’ continued to sell their logs allowing Spruce Falls to continue operations despite the strike.
Following the meeting of January 10th in Toronto, the Negotiating Committee and Union Officials returned to Kapuskasing and informed the members of the Company offer. On January 14th, the bush workers went on strike, initially without the support or permission of the Union Executive. The Union and Brother Joseph Laforce, then President of LSWU Local 2995 (in the Kapuskasing area) changed their position three times over this strike. At the outset, the Union Executive Board had refused to support the strikers but, a few days later, the Executive offered some support while no financial assistance was forthcoming, finally, the Executive relented and gave full support to the members on strike, including strike pay.
From the beginning of the strike, both parties refused any type of negotiation or compromise. The strikers were refusing to go back to work until an agreement was signed, the company wanted the workers to return to work during the negotiations and that all interventions by the strikers in the farmers would have to cease.
An important factor influencing the length of this strike was the ties between Spruce Falls and the New York Times. Spruce Falls had a corporate relationship with the New York Times. The Times was buying nearly 30% of all the newsprint produced in Kapuskasing. At the time the New York Times printers were on strike so the production demand at Spruce Falls was reduced by 30%.
Although the mill employees were unionized and the people of Kapuskasing in general did not support the bush workers. In some people minds the bush workers were viewed as ignorant and insignificant. To understand the reasons for the farmers’ reluctance to support the strikers, one had to remember that the strike began in January of 1963, at the height of the Cold War. The fear of communism, the "Red Menace" was very prevalent at the time, especially since the missiles crisis in Cuba that had occurred in October, 1962. The myth that trade unions were linked to communism was still very prevalent then.
The second reason for the inflexibility of Spruce Falls was the fact that they had another supplier ; the region’s farmers. The farmers were supplying the company with approximately 110,000 cords of wood or 25% of the 450,000 cord annual requirement of Spruce Falls. The company had reduced their production because of the New York Times printers' strike and they were able to meet their needs with the wood left in the mill yard and the supply from the farmers.
At the beginning Union representatives had met with the farmers and explained that any increase in wages in the new Collective Agreement would undoubtedly mean an increase in the price the farmers would be getting for their wood. If the farmers were to support the strike, Spruce Falls, with little wood inventory, would probably have been forced to negotiate much earlier. This would have shortened the strike and the loss to the framers would have been minimal. However, the farmers refused any association with the strikers.
The strikers had begun to take action to stop any wood flow from the settlers to the mill and those actions had effectively stopped the farmers from delivering their logs. The situation was critical because the wood had to be hauled out of the forest before the spring thaw.
|Member of Parliament for the area Rene Brunelle lobbied |
on behalf of local truckers to seek an end to the strike
The government had not been very active at the beginning of the strike. On January 22nd, 10 independent truck drivers accompanied by Rene Brunelle, MPP for Kapuskasing, met with the Premier John Robert in Toronto. The truck drivers and Brunelle asked for the assistance of the government to end the strike. The Government appointed a mediator to help sort out the trouble between the union and Spruce Falls.
Following the Reesor Siding incident, the Attorney General, Fred Cass sent 200 police officers to assist the 25 already in Kapuskasing; warrants for the arrest of 237 strikers had been issued under accusations of having participated in a riot. The strikers and the leaders of Local 2995 cooperated fully with the police and, by February 15th, 181 strikers had given themselves up to the police following which, they were brought to Monteith, an old prisoners of war camp approximately two and one half hours from Kapuskasing . It was not very long that the strikers were released on bail.
Immediately after the shooting, the negotiations was taken over by the Ontario Minister of Labor. On February 14th after hours of negotiations, a solution was proposed to resolve the strike. The first point of solution was that Spruce Falls would negotiate with the union and in the meantime the loggers had to return to work under the conditions of the 1962 Agreement. However, before agreeing to this solution, the members had to vote on it.
Friday, February 15th and Saturday, February 16th the so-called "Solution" was presented to the members. The offer was thus accepted and the workers returned to work immediately.
The strike was over but there remained the legal proceedings for the 20 farmers who had been charged for non capital murder and the 254 strikers charged for illegal assembly. The court found 138 strikers guilty and were charged 200$ each. These fines were later paid by the head office of the parent Union.
The court proceeding against the farmers were held in October, 1963 at the Provincial Court of the District of Cochrane (in the town of Cochrane). The judge hearing the case was J.C. McRuer, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Ontario. These proceedings were only preliminary hearing to determine if the farmers were to be tried for murder. After the witnesses were heard and the evidence was presented, the 7 men's jury withdrew and deliberated for 2 ½ days.
The decision of the jury was that, due to lack of evidence, the farmers could not be tried for murder and must be set free without any conditions. However, Judge McRuer found that 3 of the farmers, namely Paul-Emile Coulombe, Léonce Tremblay and Héribert Murray, were guilty of possession of dangerous firearms. He imposed a fine of 150 dollars each!
In 1969, Stompin Tom Connors released his album On Tragedy Trail which including the Reesor shooting. It is said that he reported receiving death threats, ordering him not to play the song at upcoming venues.
A memorial to the slain men and injured workers was erected by the union amid some public outcry at a cost of $22,000. The Globe and Mail reported threats at the time to destroy the monument. The Province of Ontario in turn erected a historical plaque on the site.
|Memorial to the fallen loggers|
|Wood carving of logger and family was created by renown Ottawa Valley artist Abe Patterson|