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.” 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.
Darrah, Dan. 2015. This Labour Day Let’s Remember Five Forgotten Stories of Struggle. Rankandfile.ca http://rankandfile.ca/2015/09/07/this-labour-day-lets-remember-five-forgotten-stories-of-struggle/
Kapuskasing Times 2013. “Fifty Years Later: The Ressor Siding Incident.” Kapuskasing Times. http://www.kapuskasingtimes.com/2013/02/13/50-years-later-the-reesor-siding-incident