Monthly Archives: November 2015

“Standing the Gaff: The Police Murder of Striking Miner William Davis” (Activists Killed by Cops Series)

“Standing the Gaff: The Police Murder of Striking Miner William Davis” (Nova Scotia, 1925)

Policing, throughout the history of state capitalist development, has always been directly connected with the protection of business and business interests. This connection has perhaps been especially clear in the context of resource and extractives industries. One sees it in defence of mining interests in which local, provincial, and federal police have been deployed, often lethally, to ensure the operations of mining companies and mining profits. The police killing of Ginger Goodwin and the Estevan Massacre are examples of this. At the same time companies have often created, as well, their own company police forces, private police to protect company property, ensure operations, and especially, control and regulate workers and bust their organizing efforts and unions. In various North American contexts, including for example in the steel towns of Pennsylvania, policing has developed as company policing with forces initiated by companies and/or business associations. In Canada, the Hudson’s Bay Company ran its own police force. So too did companies like the British Empire Steel Corporation (BESCO) in Nova Scotia. In 1925 this police force was responsible for attacking a group of striking mine worker and killing miner William Davis, a father of ten (whose tenth child was born after his killing ad never knew its father).


Standing the Gaff: The Strike of 1925

The coal mines of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia have been the sites of some of the most intense class struggles in the history of the Canadian state. The coal miners have shown some of the most militant and resolute examples of working class action ad solidarity in the face of aggression and brutality from massive mining companies. This has included facing lethal force from the mining companies and armed police forces.

William Davis was born June 3, 1887 in Gloucestershire, England. He began working as a miner for the Dominion Coal Company Limited (DOMCO) on Cape Breton Island in 1905. He would work at the Number 12 Colliery in New Waterford, Nova Scotia until his murder at the hands of company police under direction of managers with the virulently antiunion British Empire Steel Corporation (BESCO) which succeeded DOMCO in the coal fields. Upon taking over DOMCO mines in 1920 the larger BESCO immediately set up a systematic campaign to bust the union, District 26 of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Between 1920 and 1925, under the aggressive BESCO management, there were 58 strikes in the Sydney Coal Field.

When the most recent contract expired on January 15, 1925 BESCO saw a chance to end the union. On March 2, 1925, BESCO cut off credit for food at BESCO company stores. This put many mining families in a situation of near starvation. On March 6 the union declared a strike with 12000 workers taking to picket lines. Only a small rump workforce was left to maintain the mines and prevent flooding. UMWA District 26 moved to full picketing on June 4 in response to the BESCO refusal to participate in arbitration.

A few days into the strike, the company also decided to shut down the electricity and drinking water supply to the town of New Waterford. In response to the striking miners directly marched on the pumping station and power plant at Waterford Lake. There they actively expelled company workers in order to restart the utilities for the company homes in which miners lived while shutting them down for the company production facilities.

On June 10 BESCO turned to its company police force to protect 30 scabbing company workers on their return to Waterford Lake. The plan was to go ahead with an effort to restart the water and electricity to company facilities that ran the mine pumps. The aim was to again cut off water to the families living in the town as a means of forcing the workers back to work by, essentially starving them out of the union. Indeed by June the situation of miners’ families had become desperate.

Shortly after the strike began in March, a reporter with the Canadian Press interviewed Vice President of BESCO J.E. McLurg. In the interview McLurg offered his entirely arrogant, and now infamous assessment of how the company would defeat the striking workers. McLurg blustered: “Poker game, nothing, we hold all the cards. Things are getting better every day they stay out. Let them stay out two months or six months, it matters not, eventually they will have to come to us. They can’t stand the gaff.”

This promise, and threat, that the company would squeeze the union until it broke would serve as a rallying cry of the striking miners to “stand the gaff.” It remains a rallying cry of workers in Nova Scotia and source of strength and solidarity on picket lines.


The Murder of William Davis: June 11, 1925

The morning of June 11, the company police carried out a campaign of harassment and intimidation carrying out thug patrols within the town. In response striking miners organized a protest in which around 3000 miners marched to the Waterford Lake pumping station and power plant. Their intention was to convince the scabbing company workers to support the strike.

When the striking workers arrived at the plant at around 11 AM the company police were waiting for them. Without warning the armed police charged the crowd on horseback opening fire as they came. Many workers were injured in the fusillade of over 300 rounds fired into the crowd. William Davis was killed by police in the attack with many understanding that he had been shot deliberately by the officer whose bullet struck him directly in the heart. The striking workers rallied and were able to enter the facility as police retreated.


Turning the Tide: Solidarity and Militance in the Face of Murder

In the days and weeks following the murder of Davis, miners stepped up their tactics and turned to direct action against company stores and other company properties in various communities throughout the Sydney Coal Field. Where the company was willing to take workers’ lives, the workers would target what was most important to the company, its property and profits.

While neither the provincial nor the federal government showed much concern over the company shooting of workers and murder of a striking miner, the simple threat to company property spurred them to immediately deploy the provincial police force and almost 2000 soldiers from the Canadian Army. This would be the second largest military deployment against an internal target in the history of the Canadian state, the largest being the deployment against indigenous and Métis communities in the Northwest Rebellion in 1885. Of course, this would not be the last military mobilization against an internal target in Canadian state history with the military assault on the Mohawk communities during the “Oka crisis” being a recent egregious case. For those who cling to an illusion that the liberal democratic government of Canada is a peaceful one that this serves as a stunning reminder that the Canadian government has at various points in its history used military force against civilian, non-combatants. For some this might stand as an example of state terrorism.

Faced with the determination of the strikers and their families and the growing strength of the union, BESCO was compelled to settle the strike the strike in November and finally abandoned its attempts to break the union. The company also gave up its company stores, company housing, and other services. Indeed, BESCO never recovered from the strike action and faced with an energized and militant workforce eventually succumbed to company debt. In 1930 BESCO was taken over by the larger Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation (DOSCO). The miners of Cape Breton would continue as a militant force and the island have stood as a model of labor activism for generations.

The strength and solidarity of the striking workers, their families, and their supporters and the commitment to direct action District 26 of the UMWA would emerge from the strike as one of the most militant, active unions on the continent. Their efforts and successes would stand as a testament to rank-and-file assertiveness and direct action.


Same Old Story: The Killers Go Free

Charges against police for any killing of a civilian are rare in the Canadian state context. There is reluctance to hold defenders of property and accumulation accountable for doing what, at least in the final instance, they were organized to do. Rarer still are officers charged when they kill union members; in such case the role of policing in capitalist economies is even more immediately front and center and it would certainly be hypocritical of states to proceed. Yet in the case of the assault on UMWA member and the murder of William Davis, an officer did face a charge. This, perhaps because the officer belonged to a company rather than public force.

BESCO police officer Joseph MacLeod was brought before a preliminary hearing in Sydney where he faced the charge of murder. In the end, though, not surprisingly, the Crown prosecutor dropped the charges against officer accepting the defense argument that the identity of the shooter could not be discerned and MacLeod should not be given unique treatment relative to the numerous other police officers involved the assault and shooting of Davis. A curious argument to say the least (raising a question about why the overall actions of police on that day were not addressed).

For many in the area it apparently was common knowledge that William Davis was shot by BESCO police officer Harry Muldoon. The very day following the police shooting that took Davis’ life, Harry Muldoon and his family were relocated to Boston, Massachusetts where they were able to live out their lives untroubled by the murder of William Davis.


Davis Day: A Legacy of Solidarity

More than 5,000 mourners attended William Davis’ funeral on June 14, making it the largest public presence for a funeral in the history of the province. District 26 of UMWA, showing the community care and solidarity at the heart of labor organizing established a fund to support the Davis family, his ten children and their mother, with monthly support. The date of the police murder of William Davis is still marked as a day of solidarity and working class memory in Nova Scotia. The first Davis Day was held on June 11, 1926 and saw miners across Cape Breton refuse to work. Instead they marched to the union hall in New Waterford before going to a nearby church for a memorial service in Davis’ honor. Davis Day as an “idle day” spread quickly being observed by miners across the province, who refused to work on the day. In 1969 Davis Day became a paid provincial holiday.

New Waterford established Davis Square in 1985. The Davis Wilderness Trail was established in 1996 and follows the original route taken by the striking miners on June 11, 1925 to the pumping station and power plant at Waterford Lake. The ringing words on the Davis Memorial at Davis Square proclaims simply: “Standing the Gaff.”

“Officers Just Opened Fire and Blew the Heck out of Him”: Police Killing of Mark Dicesare, 24, (Winnipeg, November 6, 2015)

A man, identified as Mark Dicesare (24), shot multiple times by Winnipeg police following pursuit by dozens of police vehicles died of multiple injuries inflicted by police on November 6, 2015. His death was announced on November 7.

Winnipeg police have still released few details of the killing but they have confirmed that firearm discharge occurred, involving their officers. Witnesses, including at least one news reporter, have stated that multiple officers opened fire on the man simultaneously during a brief standoff in a field in the city near Lipsett Hall at the former Kapyong Barracks military site.

Several police vehicles had pursued the man to the field after he was reportedly see driving erratically. Witnesses reported around 30 police vehicles involved in the standoff. The shooting occurred about 45 minutes after police first became involved and during a 20 minute standoff.

Local radio station CJOB recorded the observation of one witness identified as Brian who saw police open fire on the man: “The driver … came out, had his hands in his coat breast pocket, took his hand outside of his jacket, and at least ten to twelve officers just opened fire and blew the heck out of him” (CP 2015).

CBC Winnipeg recorded a lengthy witness account of the killing:

“A white man with black hair, black jacket got out [and] started walking around his vehicle very nervously, had his hand in his jacket pocket, inside his jacket, started to pull his hand out of his jacket. And I’d have to say 10 to 12 police officers just rapid-fire opened up, and that was it. It was just, ‘Bang, bang, bang’ all at the same time. It’s just like a movie; it’s just unbelievable. Like, it just wasn’t one shot. It sounded [like] at least 10, all at the same time.” (CBC 2015)

The Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba, which investigates all serious incidents involving police, is investigating the killing. The IIU began operations only a few months ago and has yet to provide a report on any of the numerous police involved shootings in Manitoba.

Further Reading

CBC. 2015. “Man Shot by Police near Kenaston Boulevard Dies in Hospital: Reports.” Nov. 7.

CP. 2015. “Man Shot by Winnipeg Police after Lengthy Chase and Standoff Dies.” The Brandon Sun. Nov. 6.

Woman Killed in High Speed Police Chase (Winnipeg, November 23, 2015)

A woman has been killed in a high speed police chase in Winnipeg early Monday morning, November 23, 2015. Police undertook the high speed chase after spotting a vehicle that they suspected had been involved in a commercial robbery earlier in the evening. During the chase the woman’s vehicle went out of control subsequently striking a building at a downtown intersection. The woman was taken to hospital in critical condition but did not survive. The Manitoba Independent Investigation Unit, charged with investigating serious incidents involving police has been brought in to investigate the crash.

Killing to Protect Property: Police and Vigilantes in the Reesor Siding Strike Massacre of 1963 (Activists Killed by Cops Feature)

Killing to Protect Property: Police and Vigilantes in the Reesor Siding Strike Massacre of 1963 (Activists Killed by Cops Series)

Policing in Canada has at its roots the protection of property and profit. The police at all levels have readily resorted to violence, including lethal force, to protect the interests of private property holders and businesses. They have also worked to provide a context in which property holders and business owners have been able to inflict often lethal violence against working people and the poor, especially against labor organizers and union members, with impunity and often in the sheltering presence of the police themselves.

Too often if police violence against activists in the Canadian context is considered at all it is viewed as a relic, something confined to the early histories of colonial or industrial strife, remnants of say the less enlightened 1910s or 1930s, eras marked by robber barons and resource giants. Yet labor struggles in all periods of Canadian history have shown the willingness of police to deploy extreme violence against unionists and to support such violence against unionist by others.

The strike at Reesor Siding in 1963 stands as one of the signal and bloodiest labor struggles in Canadian history even if it and the town it is named for have been unduly forgotten. It would culminate in a vicious attack on striking workers by vigilantes accompanied by, and facilitated by, local police, with the shooting of 11 union members, three of whom were killed in the assault.

The 1963 strike involved fifteen hundred members of the Lumber and Sawmill Workers Union (LSWU), Local 2995 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America who worked at the Spruce Falls Power and Paper Company. Issues of concern included a proposed wage freeze and an attempt by the company to extend the woodworkers work week to seven days a week over the next two months in order to meet a company quota.

Among the other suppliers of pulp wood to the mill were independent settler farmers who supplied about one-quarter of the company’s annual input. These settler farmers, who sold wood to supplement their incomes, were asked to stop their sales of pulp wood to the company to put additional pressure on the mill and strengthen the workers’ position.

Throughout the strike, the union organizers attempted to demonstrate to the farmers that the strike against a common antagonist Spruce Falls would benefit both farmers and workers. The union even offered to feed and give firewood to any farmers who were affected by the strike (Kapuskasing Times 2013).

Settler farmers, forgoing solidarity for narrow self-interest refused to halt operations to support the strikers and improve their bargaining position. A strike at the New York Times, a main purchaser of the mill’s pulp further reduced the striking woodcutters’ leverage. In retaliation for the scabbing operations of the settler farmers, striking workers sabotaged the settlers’ stacked lumber piles, destroying some lumber and making it unusable against their own efforts.

The growing tensions in the community came to a head on February 10, 1963. At midnight of that day a shipment of 600 cords (2200 m³) of lumber was scheduled to be loaded onto waiting railcars for transport to the company. Twenty settler farmers were present to defend the lumber and they were openly ready and prepared to use any levels of violence deemed necessary to do so. Around 20 officers of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) were also present at the loading station in order to protect the lumber and presumably the angry settler farmers as well. The settler farmers and OPP officers formed what has been called a “battalion” against the strikers (Darrah 2015). A grouping of an estimated 400 workers had determined to impede the shipment but they were, as has generally been the case in labor disputes in Canada, unarmed.

The police put up a simple chain line to keep the striking workers away from the shipment. As workers moved past the chain and continued toward the pulp wood several of the farmers, who police knew to be armed, stepped out from their hiding place at a hut by the tracks and began shooting before the union members indiscriminately with no response from the police whose actions, in fact, allowed the ambush to occur. Eleven union members were shot. Brothers Irenée and Joseph Fortier along with Fernand Drouin were killed. Eight others were wounded: Harry Bernard, Ovila Bernard, Joseph Boily, Alex Hachey, Albert Martel, Joseph Mercier, Léo Ouimette, and Daniel Tremblay.

It has long been understood that the OPP officers were aware that the farmers were armed the night of the assault. It was also well known within the community, and would certainly have been known to police that the farmers had been worked up to a murderous pitch against the striking workers. The mayor of nearby Kapuskasing, Norman Grant, was quoted in the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, saying, “These settlers are getting so desperate they are going to go into the bush with guns and shoot anyone who tries to interfere with their cutting.”[1] None other than Donald MacDonald, leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP), would later report that affidavits after the massacre showed that the police knew that the farmers had brought firearms with them that night, but did not take any precautions to ensure the weapons were not used against the workers. Indeed it was the OPP who notified the farmers that the workers were coming, allowing them to prepare their ambush (Kapuskasing Times 2013).

The response of the provincial government was to send an additional 200 OPP officers to the area, the same force that had been complicit in the massacre. The Ontario Ministry of Labour intervened to settle the dispute, with the workers having to return to work under the conditions of their old contract only a week after the killings. Joseph Laforce, President of Local 2995 and the executive board of LSWU had accepted the agreement only under threat by the Government of Ontario that it was poised to legislate the workers back to work if they refused this solution (Kapuskasing Times 2013). The strike had gone on for only 33 days.

Incredibly, 254 union members were charged with rioting, there had been no riot by workers, and held temporarily in the former Monteith POW Camp (which is now the site of a penitentiary) (Kapuskasing Times 2013). They were released on bail posted by the union but in subsequent trials 138 union members were found guilty of illegal assembly and the union was made to pay $27,600 in fines.

All twenty settler farmers present at the siding the night of the shootings were charged. In total an arsenal of five .22 caliber rifles, three 12 gauge shotguns, two .30-30 caliber rifles, two Lee–Enfield rifles, a .30-06 caliber rifle, and a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver were confiscated.

The case against the farmers was heard in October 1963 in the nearby town of Cochrane, before Supreme Court of Ontario Chief Justice McRuer. Astonishingly, but showing the real face of class justice in the Canadian context, following a preliminary hearing, the seven-man jury dismissed the charges of non-capital murder after three days of deliberations. Paul-Emile Coulombe, Léonce Tremblay, and Héribert Murray were charged with firearms violations in relation to the ambush, which resulted in fines of a mere $150 to each of them, a pittance in comparison to the fines levied against the union and given he atrocity of the actions the men had been involved in.

Some suggest at the Reesor Siding Massacre and the murders of the three workers contributed to provincial arbitration and an improvement of working conditions for bush workers across Northern Ontario (Darrah 2015). It apparently did much to build solidarity among workers in the region.

A monument to the murdered workers was placed on the site as well as a provincial historical marker. Over the years anti-unionists have made threats on the memorial. Several folk songs have been written about the massacre including one by Stompin Tom Connors. Ironically, in the years after the massacre any children of farmers left the farms to go work in the bush for Spruce Falls.

It is often said and believed, by criminologists as by members of the general public, that the police are neutral arbitrators who serve and protect without taking sides in social conflicts, particularly those involving the private realm of industry. Yet throughout Canadian history we see the fundamental, and consistent, class character of policing as mechanism of capital accumulation, profit, and property relations (and relations of ownership and control of production). The Reesor Siding Massacre shows yet another example, this time of complicity in mass murder and direct relations with those responsible for killing (even alerting them of their victims’ impending arrival and unwillingness to disarm the assailants ahead of time).

The Reesor Siding Massacre also offers an important if forgotten aspect of the history of settlerism I the Canadian context. It is one that bears further research.

Further Reading

Darrah, Dan. 2015. This Labour Day Let’s Remember Five Forgotten Stories of Struggle.

Kapuskasing Times 2013. “Fifty Years Later: The Ressor Siding Incident.” Kapuskasing Times.

Two Bathurst Police Officers Charged with Manslaughter in Killing of Michel Vienneau (New Brunswick)

In the Canadian context, whether dealing with federal, provincial or municipal forces, it is extremely rare for police to be held in any way accountable when they kill people. On Thursday, November 19, 2015 one of those exceptional instances occurred when it was announced that two officers from the police force of Bathurst, New Brunswick have been charged in connection with the police killing of Michel Vienneau (51) on January 12 of the same year.

Nova Scotia RCMP, the force which had been charged with reviewing the case, announced that Constable Patrick Bulger, 38, of Beresford, and Constable Mathieu Boudreau, 26, of Dunlop, have each been charged with: manslaughter with a weapon; two counts of assault with a weapon; two counts of unlawfully pointing a firearm. Boudreau was identified as the officer who fired several times killing Vienneau. Both officers are to appear in provincial court in Bathurst on Jan. 4, 2016.

Vienneau was returning from a trip to Montréal with his partner Annick Basque when the couple were intercepted by the Bathurst police officers and shot and killed outside the city’s train station. According to court documents, Bathurst police received a Crime Stoppers tip that Vienneau would be on the train from Montréal and in possession of drugs. The Nova Scotia RCMP claimed, however, that their investigation found Vienneau not to be involved in any criminal activity.

Nova Scotia RCMP Inspector Larry Wilson met with media in Bathurst on Thursday but refused to answer many questions asked by reporters on grounds that the case was now before the courts. The New Brunswick Police Commission also announced on Thursday that Bathurst police Chief Eugène Poitras had filed a conduct complaint against the two officers charged in the shooting of Vienneau. That case was to be investigated by Moncton lawyer Judith Beglay but has now been suspended following the completion of criminal proceedings.

The two officers have been suspended but the Police Act conveniently allows only for suspensions with pay.

Police Killing of Rodrigo Hector Almonacid Gonzalez Raises Questions about SIU (Toronto)

On November 7, 2017, Rodrigo Hector Almonacid Gonzalez, a hospital worker and father of two young sons, died from injuries sustained in an interaction with Toronto police. Less than a day before more than ten Toronto Police officers, including a tactical squad equipped with a battering ram and shields, had forced their way into the Gonzalez home where the 43 year old occupant had apparently locked himself in his bathroom for reasons yet unknown. During the police encounter two Tasers were deployed against Gonzalez and he was taken from the building on a stretcher.

Photographs taken by Gonzalez’s wife at the hospital reveal horrific injuries including a bloody head injury, a black eye, bruising on an arm and shoulder, and what the family believes to be a Taser mark near the victim’s groin. The family was notified that Gonzalez had internal bleeding shortly before he succumbed to his injuries. His mother and wife reported than he had no injuries before police arrived. They also reported being kept from entering the apartment by police officers.

Disturbingly, despite the injuries sustained by the victim in his encounter with police and despite his death in hospital the next day, the province’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU), tasked with investigating all such incidents of police involved civilian harm, took five days before showing up at the apartment to investigate. The family was not told to preserve the scene in the bathroom where the encounter is believed to have occurred and it is not clear if essential evidence has been lost as a result. SIU should have attended and secured the scene directly once it was reported.

Toronto police have refused to comment on the case but an SIU spokesperson confirmed that police reported the incident the day it happened and notified the SIU when Gonzalez died the next day. No answer has been given by SIU for why it took their investigators four days to contact the family. Three SIU investigators and one forensic investigator have since been assigned to the case.

Brandon Maurice (17) Killed by Quebec Provincial Police (November 16, 2015)

A teenager, Brandon Maurice (17), was shot and killed by an officer of the Sûreté du Québec (the Québec provincial police force) south of Maniwaki Québec early in the morning of Monday, November 16. The killing began with pursuit of a vehicle driven by the victim by Sûreté du Québec police officers around 1:30 a.m. The pursuit ended at Chemin de la Ferme and Rue Patry, close to Lac Blue Sea in the municipality of Messines at which point the Sûreté du Québec officer got out of a cruiser and approached the suspect vehicle. When the teen attempted to drive away the officer fired his weapon at him striking the young driver at least once. The teen was taken to the hospital in critical condition and police announced Monday afternoon that he had died of his wounds. The name and age of the victim were released by family. Incredibly the investigation into the killing by police is being handled by another police force with its own contentious history of killings of civilians (the Montréal police)