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50 Years later: The Reesor Siding incident

50 Years later: The Reesor Siding incident

50 Years later: The Reesor Siding incident

50 years ago, 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 in Canada. This incident happened at Reesor Siding between the towns of Mattice and Opasatika Ontario. The men who were shot were bush workers members of our local that were on strike against Spruce Falls Power and Paper Company.

 

The people responsible for the shooting were not police officers or convicts hired by the company; they were simple agricultural farmers, who believed they were protecting their livelihoods. The strike did not only involve the union and the company but also the farmer from the surrounding area, who were increasing their annual income with the sale of fiber to Spruce Falls.

The strikers were objecting that the farmers continued to bring fiber to the company evidently weakening the union and their negotiations.

The strikers began to take action to stop the wood flow from the settlers to the mill by stopping independent truck driver and unloading the trucks and unloading trains cars that were at different landings. The action of the strikers effectively stopped the farmer’s wood in reaching the mill. The situation was critical because wood had to be hauled before spring thaw.

Reesor Siding was a Railroad Siding between Opasatika and Mattice and it was used by the Val Rita Coop Cutting Operation as a depot for the pulp wood and a place to load the pulp wood on the wagon train. During the preceding weeks of the morning of February 11, the cords of woods stored at Reesor Siding had been unpiled or rampaged on two occasions by the strikers. The first time this occurred; four hundred cords had been unpiled and the second time, seven hundred cords. Consequently, the farmers started to guard the cords of woods.

During the night of February 10, there were six hundred cords at Reesor Siding ready to be loaded on the cars. The strikers heard about this and had full intention to go and unpile the wood. The O. P. P. had seen several vehicles full of strikers heading for Reesor Siding. Those police officers advised other police officers that were in the area of Reesor Siding. At midnight, the police arrived at Reesor Siding and advised the farmers that the strikers were coming. At approximately 12:30 a.m. between four and five hundred strikers arrived. Within a few minutes three strikers were shot and killed and eight were wounded by the farmers.

The deceased were Irènée and Joseph Fortier (brothers) from Palmarolle, Québec and Fernand Drouin from St. Elzear. Irènée Fortier was thirty-four years old, was married and had two children. His brother, Joseph was twenty-five years old and was also married. Fernand Drouin was twenty-five years old and was single. The wounded were Harry Bernard, Ovila Bernard, Joseph Boily, Alex Hachey, Albert Martel, Joseph Mercier, Léo Ouimettte and Daniel Tremblay. The deceased were transported to their native’s town for the funerals.

The twenty farmers were immediately arrested by the police that were there and fourteen guns had been seized. The twenty farmers were initially charged on February 11, for illegal use of firearms with the intention of wounding. Then the farmers were released on a 500,00 $ bail each. A couple of days later the Crown Attorney laid some new charges against the farmers. They were now accused of three 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 not be put to death by hanging.

Following the Reesor Siding incident, the Attorney General Fred Cass sent two hundred O. P. P.’s to assist the twenty-five already in Kapuskasing. Warrants for the arrest of two hundred on thirty-seven strikers had been issued. They were accused of having participated in a riot. The strikers and the leaders of Local 2995 had cooperated fully with the police. By February 15, there were one hundred and twenty-one strikers that had given themselves to the police and they were brought to Monteith, an old camp for prisoners of war, at 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 union Head Office paid two hundred dollars for each striker’s to get them released on bail.

However, the Union was not only preoccupied with the legal problems, they still had a strike to negotiate. Immediately after the fusillade, the negotiations had been taken over by the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Mr. Leslie Rowntree. Thursday, February 14, after nineteen hours of nonstop negotiations, a solution to resolve the strike was proposed.

Friday, February 15, and Saturday, February 16, the so-called “Solution” was presented to the members of Longlac and Kapuskasing. Then the vote was taken. The offer was accepted and the workers returned to work immediately. However, this Agreement did not please everyone.

Joseph Laforce, President of Local 2995 and the executive board of LSWU had accepted the agreement simply because the Government of Ontario had threatened to legislate the bush workers back to work if they refused this solution. By accepting this solution the Union had some input in the making of the Collective Agreement by participating in the Arbitration process. If the Government was to legislate the members back to work then the Union would not have had any participation at all. Furthermore, Joseph Laforce said that if the Ontario Government had legislated the members back to work that would create a dangerous precedent.

The strike was over, however, there remained the legal proceedings for the twenty farmers who had been charged for non- capital murder and the two hundred and fifty-four strikers charged for illegal assembly. The court found that one hundred and thirty-eight strikers were guilty and were charged two hundred dollars each. The charges were paid by the International Union.

The court proceedings for the farmers were held in October, 1963, at the Provincial District Court of Cochrane (in the town of Cochrane). After the testimonies and the evidence were presented, the seven men’s jury had withdrawn (deliberated) for two and one half days. The decision of the Jury was that due to lack of evidence the farmers could not be tried for murder and also must be set free without any conditions. However, Judge McRuer found that three of the farmers were guilty of being in possession of dangerous firearms. He imposed a fine of one hundred and fifty dollars each.

This strike had a profound effect on the bush workers in the Kapuskasing region. In the following ten years after the strike, the working conditions and wages for the bush workers were increased considerably. The strike also had the effect of creating a sense of fraternity in the town of Kapuskasing. The strike also marked the decline in the industry of farmer/bush worker or the Coop in the area. The system of co-farmers / bush workers also declined because more and more of the sons of the farmers were leaving the farms to go and work in the bush for Spruce Falls, where the wages were much better.

The death of three men at Reesor Siding was an unnecessary tragedy. Lack of effective intervention by the Government, the inflexibility of Spruce Falls and above all the lack of understanding between the strikers and the farmers has inevitably caused violence. Two groups of people, the farmers and the strikers with the same goal (to make a decent living) and a common adversary (the management of Spruce Falls) had a serious lack of communication that led to serious repercussion.

During the strike, the Union attempted to demonstrate to the farmers that the strike would benefit them and the members. The Union offered to feed and give some firewood to those farmers who were affected by the strike. The farmers did not listen. The strikers then were forced to use certain tactics and the farmers used firearms to defend the livelihood of their families. The end result was inevitable increase tension and finally death.

Human nature is such, that when threatened, one way or the other we defend ourselves. Therefore, one could easily believe that the farmers at Reesor Siding, in the morning of February 11, 1963 were simply protecting his life and livelihood. Having said this, are six hundred cords of pulpwood worth the lives of three men?

 


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