It has been called the bloodiest conflict in Canadian labour history, and it happened in our backyard.
Last night, driving west from Kapuskasing, I stopped at the sign that identifies the monument for the Reesor Siding Incident. The light was failing, and I was late getting home, but I thought, This time I’m stopping.
How many times have we driven past a sign identifying an historic site or a monument or a plaque and said to ourselves, “Okay, interesting, but I’ll stop next time.”
I’ve always remembered my late father, Robert, telling me about the “incident”. I was away teaching in another northern community at that time. In 1963, Robert worked in management for Kimberly-Clark of Canada in Longlac, Ontario. He had transitioned from lumberjack (after a near-fatal bush accident) to the job of safety supervisor. The incident moved him, and consequently I was moved. The Lumber & Sawmill Workers’ Union that had organized the Longlac wood industry was also operating in Kapuskasing District. When the union went on strike in Kap, where Kimberly-Clark had a decades-old mill under the name of Spruce Falls Power & Paper Co., the Greenstone area union members also struck.
Here are core paragraphs from a recent newspaper story:
“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.”
You can read the entire article at http://www.kapuskasingtimes.com/2013/02/13/50-years-later-the-reesor-siding-incident
The bloody strike was a big deal then, and it is still a big deal to a lot of people. Google “Reesor Siding” or “Reesor Strike 1963” and count the results. Here is an archived radio report by CBC from that time: http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/1963-bitter-bush-strike-turns-deadly
This afternoon I ran into Dick Poirier at the Yellow Store and asked after his recollection of the event. The conflict occurred in the early hours of February 11, 1963. So it was wintertime, and dark, and cold. Dick recalls having a beer that following afternoon with fellow K-C managers at the Longlac Legion. That’s when they heard the news. There was no social media and round-the-clock news in those days. He recalls Wally Lockhardt, a senior manager, standing up, making a little speech, and passing around the hat. There were instant donations to the families of the victims.
The greatest folk singer that Northern Ontario has ever had also thought it was a big deal. Look at this page to see the lyrics that Stompin’ Tom Connors composed on the “Reesor Crossing Tragedy”: http://highway11.ca/content/interior/reesor-siding/
You want to hear the song itself?: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8H_JmybsFek
This link will take you on an aerial flight over the historic site. All of us may not understand the lyrics but we will appreciate the passion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ht3pp8b5CAc
But for the grace of God, that incident could have happened in Greenstone.
So, yes, last night I stopped at the site, officially named “Reesor Siding Incident”. It is just a few metres off the highway between Kap and Hearst, south side. If you’re looking for it, the monument catches the eye. It is surmounted by the figures of a lumberjack family. A union member’s family, or a farmer’s family? you may well ask.
Well, it could be either. Both sides suffered in the tragedy.
I think Tom Connors had it right. It was not an incident.
It was a tragedy.