The people of Newfoundland were unsettled and alarmed in the early months of 1959 when a bitter strike in the logging industry escalated into deadly violence with the killing of a young police constable on a dirt road near the town of Badger. One of the striking loggers was charged with his murder.
That year, I was a young lawyer practising criminal law thousands of miles away in downtown Toronto. I had sublet an office from Jolliffe Lewis & Osler, a firm of labour lawyers, who told me about a loggers’ strike in Newfoundland and that strikers were demonstrating and picketing in towns and cities across the province. I was advised that many had been arrested for “picket-line offences” such as blocking a highway (charged as “intimidation”), threatening, minor assault, and trespassing.
Although I was not a member of the Newfoundland bar, the firm that represented the union retained me to assist local counsel to defend loggers who faced charges there. As a result, I spent many weeks in Newfoundland early in 1959.
It was an exciting time for me as a young defence counsel. While I was in the province I was caught up in the maelstrom of the strike and the political storm that broke over it. When the strike erupted in the killing of a police officer, and a striker was charged with his murder, I was retained to assist counsel who was defending him. This is the story about that case and how, I believe, our defence strategy helped prevent a wrongful conviction.
My retainer required me to fly regularly between Toronto and Gander, the international airport in Newfoundland. Commercial air travel was in its infancy in the years following the Second World War. There were media reports about passenger flights that crashed, and, having read them, I developed a morbid fear of flying. 1959 was before the jet age, so I had to fly to Gander via Trans- Canada Airlines (now Air Canada) in a North Star, a noisy, vibrating prop plane with windows that rattled ominously and four roaring engines. On each flight I was acutely aware of changes in the engines’ pitch as the plane changed altitude, and found myself instinctively assisting the pilot to raise or lower the shuddering beast by pulling or pushing on the armrests with white-knuckled hands. Each flight was an ordeal.
After landing at Gander airport, I often had to travel on to Grand Falls, which was some distance to the west. In those days, transportation overland in Newfoundland was difficult. Occasionally I had to take the Newfie Bullet, an antiquated narrow-gauge railway train that made slow, uneven progress across the province. In winter, the train had difficulty climbing the tracks at the Gaff Topsail, a steep hill halfway to my destination.
The local courthouse was in Grand Falls, but that was the “company” town, where the loggers’ employer was headquartered. Because I was assisting some of their striking employees, I didn’t want to stay there, so I booked into a bare-bones hotel in Windsor located about eight kilometres away. Windsor was a scruffy town: its main street was unpaved and littered with stones. The stones thrown up by passing cars had broken windows on the storefronts. Cracks and holes in the windows were reinforced with pieces from cardboard cartons. To get from my hotel to the courthouse in Grand Falls I had to travel by local cabs, on a road that was riddled with deep potholes. Each trip was slow and bone-jarring. Taxi drivers told me they had to replace their shock absorbers every few months.
It was in Windsor that I met H. Landon Ladd, a Canadian from British Columbia who was the leader of the International Woodworkers of America, the American-based union that represented the striking loggers. He was a decent, charismatic, but tough guy, with a difficult job.
He and I talked over dinner at the only restaurant in Windsor, which was small and very plain. When he ordered his meal, Ladd insisted his steak be cooked “blue” — barely toasted on each side — because he said he had stomach problems and his doctors advised him not to eat meat. After following their advice for six months, he couldn’t stand it any longer. So he bought two thick steaks and brought them home for his wife to cook. When she refused, he put one in the oven himself and turned up the heat. He was hungry and didn’t know much about cooking anyway, so when he removed the steak it was grey on the outside and blue inside. He ate it and his stomach gave him no trouble! He concluded that he was allergic to cooked meat, so since then, he ate his steak cooked “blue.”
While he chewed his barely cooked steak, Ladd filled me in about labour conditions in the logging industry and the origins and progress of the strike. Here’s what I learned from him and others I met in the province: for years the men who logged the forests of Newfoundland had been represented by a local union that was weak and ineffective. Conditions in the logging camps where they lived were deplorable, and their workdays were unconscionably long. The loggers were housed in dark, squalid hovels and fed the meanest food. Dirt was everywhere and lice, rats, and other vermin were common. They worked 60-hour weeks for meagre wages. In 1956, the loggers turned to the IWA to replace the local union and two years later it was certified to represent them.
The new union was reviled by the local media and rejected by the Anglo Newfoundland Development Company (ANDC), the loggers’ employer. Because the leadership of the union was seen as violent radicals, the company refused to bargain with them. Apparently, the public also opposed the new union. In December 1958, the loggers voted overwhelmingly to strike. Hundreds of men left their jobs in camps throughout the province to demand better pay and working conditions.
Joey Smallwood, premier of Newfoundland at the time, was the savvy spark plug who had brought the province into Confederation. Although he was reputed to be a friend of organized labour, he repudiated the IWA and railed against the strike. He viewed the union as challenging his power, and the strike as threatening the stability of the ANDC, which was a mainstay of the province’s economy.
In February 1959, few households in the province had TV, so Ladd and Smallwood went on radio to win public support. Smallwood would speak to the electorate over the airwaves one evening, and be answered the following evening by Ladd. I remember the nights when I sat by the radio in my spare Windsor hotel room listening to their speeches. I expect many Newfoundlanders were glued to their radios as well.
Over the air, Smallwood’s message was simple, and repetitive: “The loggers in this province should have a good, strong, independent union. The IWA is not a good union, it is not an independent union. It is a foreign union that is bad for the loggers.” Later in the same speech he would reorganize the same adjectives and harp on the same theme. Although in each speech the premier would repeat the same message, he was never boring. He knew his audience and he was effective. I still remember his speeches more than 50 years later.
Smallwood proposed the loggers join a new loggers’ union created by his government.
On radio, Ladd countered by mocking Smallwood’s suggestions. He pointed out the IWA was independent; independent of government and independent of the employer. And he said the IWA was strong in that it was a large international union. And it was a good union, because it was chosen by the loggers themselves. He argued the loggers’ union proposed by the premier would be the puppet of his government.
In one speech, Smallwood appealed to the patriotism of his listeners: he referred to the IWA as “an outside, subversive influence.” In another, he charged that Ladd was the “barracuda of Newfoundland.”
The intense radio rhetoric inflamed the struggle between the loggers and their employer. The strike became increasingly aggressive and confrontational. Smallwood decided to dismember the IWA by legislation to break the strike.
Next week: Part II: Death on a dirt road
Austin Cooper’s Vignettes Of A Life In Court will appear occasionally on canadianlawyermag.com.
He is counsel to Cooper & Sandler LLP, a Toronto law firm that has practised criminal law since 1953, and a certified specialist in criminal law. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.