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1963: Bitter bush strike turns deadly

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Just after midnight on Feb. 11, 1963, an angry mob of 400 striking loggers storm a settlers camp at Reesor Siding in Northern Ontario. The settlers open fire on the charging mob, leaving three men dead. The two groups of workers -- unionized and non-unionized -- had been cutting logs for the Spruce Falls pulp and paper mill. But when unionized loggers went on strike, strikers tried to prevent non-unionized workers from selling their wood and passions flared on both sides. This CBC Radio clip recounts the tragic battle.
• To lure farmers to settle across Northern Ontario's uninhabited clay belt in the 1920s, the government offered free land and free rail passage. But settlers' hopes of a prosperous future were dashed. Their crops survived to harvest, on average, only once every three years. For many, the only sure source of cash income was selling pulpwood.

• The province allowed each settler to cut 100 cords of wood every year on crown land. In 1963, that earned about $1,200 annually.

• A cord is a stack of logs 1.22 metres high, 1.22 metres wide and 2.44 metres long. One cord of wood can make about 1,200 copies of National Geographic magazine or 7.5 million toothpicks.

• For nine months of the year in Northern Ontario, men and trucks couldn't enter forests without sinking deep into the soft clay and swampy muskeg. Wood could only be hauled out while the ground was frozen solid during the winter. For both the settlers and professional loggers, there was an annual rush to get the wood out before the spring thaw.

• The logs were sold to the Spruce Falls newsprint mill in Kapuskasing, a town 840 kilometres northeast of Toronto. The mill was owned by the New York Times Company and Kimberly-Clark.

• In 1963, the mill processed about 450,000 cords of wood a year. Settlers supplied a quarter of the wood. The rest came from about 1,100 unionized loggers.

• On Jan. 3, 1963, the Lumber and Sawmill Workers Union Local 2995 launched an illegal strike against Spruce Falls. A key issue was the company asking cutters to work seven days a week during the winter.

• Strikers sent out patrols along logging roads to make sure settlers weren't hauling wood to the mill. The strikers' goal was to cut off the mill's wood supply in hopes that the mill would give in to their demands. The settlers were facing starvation unless they could get their wood out before the spring thaw. Otherwise it would be stuck there to rot until the next winter. • On Jan. 23, Mayor Norman Grant of Kapuskasing told the Globe and Mail, "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."

• On Feb. 8, the manager of the Val Rita Co-operative, a group of independent, non-unionized woodcutters, wrote the union with plans to haul wood from the bush and pile it at Reesor Siding, 60 kilometres west of Kapuskasing. A clause in the contract with the mill provided for payment of wood stacked at a rail stop rather than delivered directly to the mill. The letter said the settlers didn't want to interfere with the strike or cross the picket line.

• Expecting trouble, the Ontario Provincial Police assigned 12 officers to a 24-hour patrol outside the camp. They managed to keep the 80 carloads of screaming strikers at bay for about 20 minutes.

• The Feb. 12 Globe and Mail reported, "Bullets passed through the trousers of two policemen at the scene, but they were not injured."

• Joseph Fortier and his brother René, of Nipigon, Ont., and Fernand Drouin of Quebec were killed in the shootout.

• Twenty settlers were ultimately charged with non-capital murder and rioting charges. The day of the shooting the government added 200 more OPP officers to the 25 already in the region.

• The provincial government forced arbitration and the strike ended 33 days after it began, on Feb. 17, 1963.

• On Oct. 3, 1963, a grand jury cleared 20 settlers of the charges after a two-day closed hearing. Three settlers were charged with weapons offences. The verdict outraged many in the union, with union local president Joe LaForce telling CBC Radio, "it's illegal to kill a moose but you can get away with killing three men."

• A $22,000 monument of a life-sized mother, father and child on a cement pedestal was built at the scene of the shooting. The Globe and Mail reported public outcries against the monument and indirect threats to dynamite it. The monument is still standing today.
Medium: Radio
Program: Sunday Morning Magazine
Broadcast Date: Feb. 17, 1963
Host: Bruce Rogers, Jim Chorley
Duration: 2:03

Last updated: February 11, 2013

Page consulted on October 24, 2014

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