Friday, March 25, 2011

The Killings At Reesor Siding

 I was 16 years of age when the killings at Reesor Sidings occurred. Five years would pass before I stood on the same soil for the first time where these men spilled their blood. I had read about the incident and belonging to a union family I had a special affinity for men who risked everything in the struggle for a better working life. 

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.

Map showing the location of Ressor Siding

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.

The employees of Spruce Falls also had other concerns. In the offer presented to its employees, the company was seeking permission to work the employees on a 7 day operation in case of emergency. The period of emergency would have been from the month of January to March before the spring breakup, which would make the roads impassable. This demand was not in the any other agreements with other local pulp companies, and since all companies were experiencing the same spring breakup conditions, it was rejected by the employees of Spruce Falls. Camp living accommodations were another principal reasons why the Union members refused the company's offer; loggers wanted better food, showers and more comfortable sleeping quarters.

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.

John Robarts was the Premier of Ontario
During the weeks prior to the morning of shootings the wood stockpiled at Reesor Siding had been ransacked on by strikers. The first time this occurred, 400 cords had been un-stacked while about 700 cords were un-stacked the second time around. Consequently, the farmers had started to guard their wood piles round the clock.

During the night of February 10th there were about 600 cords at Reesor Siding ready to be loaded onto the rail cars. The strikers had heard about this and it was their intention to spill the wood piles once again. The O.P.P. had seen several vehicles full of strikers heading for Reesor Siding and, around midnight, the police arrived at Reesor Siding to inform the 20 farmers on guard that the strikers were coming. At approximately 12:30 a.m. between 400 and 500 strikers arrived. Within a few minutes 3 strikers were shot and killed and 8 were wounded under heavy gunfire from the farmers. The strikers were not armed with any weapons.

As they arrived at the site, the strikers crossed the cordon that the police had set up in an attempt to stop them. The strikers then had advanced toward the chain that was being used as a fence and, even before crossing it, without any warning the farmers opened fire on the strikers. (During the investigation, the police found that a minimum of 5 guns out of the 14 that were found had been fired more than once). The strikers retreated immediately, but 2 of them were dead on the scene while a third died on the way to the hospital; the wounded were brought to the hospital in the strikers’ vehicles.

There remained many questions: were the police aware that the farmers were armed and could they have advised the strikers? It appears logical to assume that the police had seen the farmers' arsenal at the time that they advised the farmers that the strikers were on their way. Furthermore, the Mayor of Kapuskasing Norm Grant had announced in the Globe and Mail Newspaper that the farmers were armed to protect themselves from the strikers’ raids.

In the days following the shooting, the then leader of the New Democratic Party, Donald C. McDonald publicly stated that he had affidavits confirming that the police knew beforehand that the farmers had guns at Reesor Siding.
NDP Leader Donald C. McDonald  claimed  that  affidavits showed
that police  were aware that the farmers were armed.

The deceased were Irenée and Joseph Fortier (brothers) from Palmarolle, Québec and Fernand Drouin from St. Elzéar. Irenée Fortier was 34 years old, married and had two children. His brother, Joseph was 25 years old and was also married. Fernand Drouin was 29 years old and a bachelor. The wounded were Harry Bernard, Ovila Bernard, Joseph Boily, Alex Hachey, Albert Martel, Joseph Mercier, Léo Ouimette and Daniel Tremblay.

The 20 farmers were immediately arrested by the police that were there and 14 firearms were seized. There were three 12 gauge shotguns, two 30-30 rifles, five twenty-two caliber rifles, two .303’s (Lee Enfield, surplus guns from the Second World War), one .30-06 and one .38 Smith and Wesson revolver.

The farmers were charged on February 11th for illegal use of firearms with intent to wound and were later released on a $500.00 bail each. A few days later, the Crown Attorney laid some new charges against the farmers; they were now accused of 3 counts of non capital murder. At the time if one was found guilty of non capital murder, he was only put in jail and could no be sentenced to death by hanging.

The day after the new charges were laid, all of the farmers gave themselves up to the police and where transported to the Haileybury Provincial jail to await trial.

Awaiting trial the men were kept in the infamous Haileybury Jail

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

The names of the dead and wounded men are set in
brass plates at the base of the base of the memorial.