Labour dispute in Northern Ontario
On February 11th, 1963 during the early morning hours, 3 men were shot to death and 8 wounded in one of the bloodiest labour conflicts since the general strike of Winnipeg in 1919. This incident happened at Reesor Siding, near the town of Kapuskasing in Northern Ontario. The victims were bush workers of the Lumber and Sawmill Workers Union (LSWU) that were on strike against the Spruce Falls Power and Paper Company. The people responsible for the shooting were not police officers or company henchmen; they were farmers who believed they were protecting their livelihood with the sale of fiber to Spruce Falls.
This strike that lasted 33 days often put brothers in conflict against brothers and even fathers against sons in this predominantly francophone region. The strikers were objecting to the farmers’ doings because their logs were allowing Spruce Falls to continue operations despite the strike. This was evidently weakening the Union in their negotiations, which prompted the Union members on strike to use different tactics in attempting to convince the farmers to stop supplying the paper mill.
Since 1944, when the LSWU was created by its parent Union, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, the three Northern Ontario locals, namely; Locals 2693, 2995 and 2537, always conducted group negotiations or joint bargaining with the companies and their bush operations. Traditionally, when one company in the area signed an agreement, the other companies would offer the same pattern agreement to their employees. A break in this practice by Spruce Falls Power and Paper of Kapuskasing and Kimberley Clark of Longlac (which is located approximately 200 miles west of Kapuskasing) was going to become the root of this strike in January-February, 1963.
The first Company to sign an agreement with their employees was Abitibi Price Power and Paper with its four mills: Lakehead Woodlands, Smooth Rock Falls, Iroquois Falls and Sault Ste Marie. The new agreement provided for a reduction in the hours of work from 44 to 40 hours per week, 10% increases in wages and many other improvements. This agreement was signed in December, 1962 and immediately afterwards the two remaining companies, Kimberley Clark and Spruce Falls entered into negotiations with their employees.
On January 10th, 1963, at a meeting in Toronto with an Ontario government conciliation officer present, Kimberley Clark and Spruce Falls, each presented an offer to the Union. This offer was rejected by the Negotiating Committee, the Union Executive and the members of LSWU for many reasons. Usually, Kimberley Clark and Spruce Falls would offer the same proposal to their employees. Kimberley Clark produced pulp and sulphite used in the fabrication of quality paper while Spruce Falls was producing newsprint. The pulp and sulphite sector had suffered a reduction in price on the open market and therefore, Kimberley Clark was seeking a wage freeze in its proposal to its 500 bush workers. The 1100 employees of Spruce Falls received a virtually identical proposal (wages, hours of work) to the one received earlier by the employees of Abitibi Price, but they rejected it to support the employees of Kimberley Clark.
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 Abitibi settlement, and since all companies were experiencing the same spring breakup conditions, it was rejected by the employees of Spruce Falls. Also, the camp living accommodations were one of the principal reasons why the Union members refused the company's offer; loggers wanted better food, showers and more comfortable sleeping quarters, etc.
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.
The Executive Board’s initial reluctance to support the strikers was due to the fact that the strike had been declared illegally. In 1963, it was illegal for the Union to go on strike before 7 days had elapsed after the last meeting in conciliation held between the company, the Union and a Representative of the Ministry of Labor or when the Minister of Labor announced that there would be no more meetings in conciliation. The strike was declared on January 14th, only 4 days after the last conciliation meeting, and the Minister of Labor had not yet announced that there would be no further meetings in conciliation. Consequently, Spruce Falls of Kapuskasing and Kimberley Clark of Longlac stated that the strike was illegal.
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, and they also wanted joint negotiations with Spruce Falls and Kimberley Clark. Spruce Falls' conditions to resume negotiations were announced in the media. These were that Spruce Falls and Kimberley Clark wanted independent negotiations and that all the loggers would have to return to work during the negotiations and further, that all interventions by the strikers in the independent loggers’ operations (farmers) would have to cease.
The first factor influencing the length of this strike was the ties between Spruce Falls and the New York Times. Spruce Falls was a subsidiary of Kimberley Clark that held 51% of the shares while the New York Times held the remaining 49%. The New York Times was buying approximately 30% of all the newsprint produced in Kapuskasing and the remaining 70% was sold to the Washington Star, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Detroit News. When the strike was declared, the New York Times printers were already on strike therefore, the production at Spruce Falls was reduced by 30%. The hours of work in the mill had been reduced to between 15 and 30 hours per week. The mill workers were not under the same Collective Agreement as the loggers and therefore were not on strike. Spruce Falls needed less wood and was thus able to be very inflexible toward the strikers.
Although the mill employees and the bush workers were unionized, the mill employees (and the people of Kapuskasing in general) did not, at that time, support the bush workers. The bush workers were viewed as ignorant and insignificant. Had there been any sentiment of solidarity between the two groups, the mill workers could have respected the picket line that had been put up in front of the mill. The end result would have been a total shutdown of the production that would have induced the company to negotiate in good faith much earlier.
The second reason for the inflexibility of Spruce Falls was the fact that they had another supplier of raw fiber; 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 very beginning of the strike Local 2995 of the LSWU had attempted to discuss with the farmers. 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.
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 due to the missiles crisis in Cuba (the Bay of Pigs) that had occurred four months earlier in October, 1962. The myth that trade unions were linked to communism was still very prevalent then.
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. The president of Local 2995, Brother Joseph Laforce had assured the public that the LSWU would never let the farmers suffer. He had stated that the Relief and Contingency Committee would make sure that the farmers would have free food and firewood for the duration of 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 the Kapuskasing region, met with the Premier of Ontario, John Robert, R. L. Rowntree (Minister of Labor) and Fred Cass (District Attorney) in Toronto. The truck drivers and Brunelle asked for the assistance of the government to end the strike. The Government appointed (on February 4th) Professor Bora Lakin of the University of Toronto as mediator between the LSWU and Spruce Falls.
Reesor Siding was a railroad siding situated between Kapuskasing and Hearst and was used by the Val Rita Cutting Co-op as a depot for the pulp wood and to load it on wagon trains. During the weeks prior to the morning of February 11th, the wood stockpiled at Reesor Siding had been ransacked on two occasions by the 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.
At this point, it is important to ask the following question: 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 had announced in the media, on January 24th, 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.
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 deceased were returned to their native towns for the funerals.
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 20 farmers were initially 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 distinction between capital murder and non capital murder has since been eliminated from the Criminal Code when the Federal Government abolished the death sentence on July 14, 1976.
The day after the new charges were laid, all of the farmers gave themselves up to the police, except for one. They were then transported to the Haileybury Provincial jail to await trial. The farmer that did not give himself in was Paul-Emile Coulombe, Manager of the Val Rita Co-op. At first, police thought that Coulombe had run away and a nationwide warrant for his arrest had been released. But he had not made any attempt to flee, he had simply brought his sick wife to the hospital in Montréal. He came back to Kapuskasing on February 15th and gave himself up to the police at Gérard Cloutier’s house. Cloutier, his lawyer, was Joseph Haffey's assistant, a very well known Toronto lawyer who had been retained for the defense of the farmers. Meanwhile, the strikers also had some dealings with the law.
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 (Monteith is now a provincial penitentiary). It was not very long that the strikers were released on bail. The head office of The United Brotherhood Carpenters and Joiners of America in Washington D.C. paid 200$ for the bail release of each striker. However, the Union was not only preoccupied with these legal problems, they still had a strike to negotiate.
On February 10th, Mr Bora Lakin, the appointed mediator, chaired the first meeting between Spruce Falls/Kimberley Clark and the Officers of LSWU. The Union's delegation was led by Brother Joseph Laforce, President of Local 2995 from Kapuskasing. When the shooting occurred the next day, the negotiators were very surprised, especially Brother Laforce who had not been informed that a raid at Reesor Siding was going to occur. This shooting definitely gave a sense of urgency to the negotiations.
Immediately after the shooting, the negotiations was taken over by the Ontario Minister of Labor, Mr. Leslie Rowntree. On Thursday, February 14th after 19 hours of marathon negotiations, a solution was proposed to resolve the strike. The first point of solution was that Spruce Falls and Kimberly-Clark were going to negotiate individually with the LSWU. Following this, two Boards of Arbitrations were to be put in place (one for Spruce Falls and one for Kimberly-Clark) to negotiate individual agreement. Both Arbitration Committees would consist of one representative from the Union, one from the company and finally, one from the Ontario Department of Labor. While these agreements were being negotiated, 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 of Longlac and Kapuskasing after which a vote was taken. In Longlac only 230 out of the 400 strikers had voted (58%). The result was that 217 voted in favor of the solution and 13 against. In Kapuskasing 784 strikers out of 1100 voted (71% of the members). The result here was 723 for the solution and 55 against. The offer was thus accepted and the workers returned to work immediately however, this Agreement did not please everyone.
Brother Joseph Laforce and the Executive Board of LSWU had accepted the agreement simply because the government of Ontario had threatened to legislate for the return to work of the bush workers if they refused this solution. By accepting, the Union had some input in the drafting of the Collective Agreement by participating in the Arbitration process. If the Government was to legislate, the Union would not then have had any participation at all. Furthermore, J. Laforce stated that if the Ontario Government had forced the members back to work it would have created a dangerous legal precedent that could have had serious repercussion on the whole Union movement in Ontario. Brother Laforce and the LSWU did not want to be at the root of this menace.
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. (Initially, the accusations were made on 237 strikers and it was for riot). 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$ each.