As drivers travel the long and lonely stretch of Highway 11 between Hearst and Kapuskasing, a short distance west of Opasatika, they will likely do a double-take at a tall lonely structure rising 10 metres from a quiet field. Atop the monolith stand three statues. It is a tribute to strikers killed during a violent mill strike a half century ago, it is a “monument to murder.”
Highway 11 west of Cochrane is only a few decades old. Straight and level it parallels the original route of the National Transcontinental Railway, the towns along it being early railway stops. One such stop was Reesor Siding and a most unlikely location to find a monument to a murder which once captured headlines across the country.
After the arrival of the railway in 1915, Reesor Siding evolved into a small community five kilometres from the hamlet of Reesor itself and consisted largely of Mennonite and French Canadian farmers. A school was added later. Following the Second World War, most of the farmers left the harsh conditions. Those who remained had little more than the forests for a livelihood, providing timber for the Spruce Falls pulp mill in Kapuskasing.
On January 14 of 1963, 1500 members of the Lumber and Sawmill Workers’ Union staged a strike against the area’s largest employer, the Spruce Falls Power and Paper Company in Kapuskasing. The pulp mill was in fact the main reason that Kapuskasing existed in the first place. The issue was the standard wages and benefits. But more than a quarter of the lumber for the mill was supplied by the independent local farmers at Reesor Siding. When the strikers urged the farmers to reduce their shipments, the farmers refused and continued to stockpile their logs beside the railway siding.
The striking workers were not amused and frequently sabotaged the logs piles. Still, the farmers carried on with their cutting. Then, on February 10 the strikers marched 400 strong, none of them armed, to the siding to unpile the new shipment of logs. But 20 loggers armed with their rifles lay in wait. Alerted to the potential confrontation, a small contingent of 20 OPP officers erected a barricade to stop the procession. Despite these efforts, the strikers approached the cabin where the loggers were holed up. As they closed in shots filled the air and 11 strikers fell to the ground, 3 of them fatally wounded. Twenty farmers were arrested and charged with non-capital murder.
The case against the farmers was heard in Cochrane in October. After three days of hearings by a 7-man jury, of the 20 farmers charged with non-capital murder, only three were convicted of the much lesser charge of firearms violations and fined $150 each. Meanwhile more than 200 strikers were arrested and confined in a former prisoner of war camp in Monteith pending their own trial. Of that number 137 were convicted of unlawful assembly and fined a total of $27,000, which the Union paid. Ironically, the strike was settled by February 17 with no further incidents. Over the following years, the farm lands were vacated and the fields and forests fell silent.
Although the tragedy occurred more than a half century ago, the legacy lives on first in a song written by the legendary Stompin’ Tom Connors and featured in his album On Tragedy Trail, but more so in a lofty monument erected by the Union shortly afterwards, at a cost of $22,000. Both Connors and the memorial received threats over their respective commemorations.
While Connors’ musical tribute has largely been forgotten, the controversial white 10-metre column yet rises above the surrounding fields, topped off with a depiction of an axe carrying logger and his family. Today the siding has been abandoned and the community of Reesor Siding no longer exists. But the monument lingers for highway travellers to see and ponder the tragic events of that winter’s day more than 50 years ago.
Cochrane on Highway 11 offers ample accommodation including the Best Western Swan Castle Inn and interesting attractions such as the much praised Polar Bear Habitat where you can “swim” with the bears, and the popular Polar Bear Express rail excursion to Moosonee. The Township of Fauquier-Strickland, located between Smooth Rock Falls and Kapuskasing, provides a wide range of outdoor activities all year round.