Tuesday, March 10, 1959. Just after six o'clock in the evening, 66 men of the Newfoundland Constabulary and Royal Canadian Mounted Police were ordered to march forward, three abreast, through the small community of Badger in central Newfoundland. Some 250 loggers, members of the International Woodworkers of America, stood some three or four hundred yards away from them.
At first, the men stepped aside while the police moved past them. But then the police turned around, and marched through the crowd again. Soon they stood face-to-face. Hard words turned to violence. The two sides clashed. The police used their 18-inch nightsticks and the loggers hit back with sticks.
Ray Timson, a legendary Toronto Star reporter who later became the paper's managing editor, was the only newsman to see the fight. The actual encounter was over in less than 20 minutes. The policemen, he reported, "waded into a throng of striking loggers last night, clubbed two of them unconscious, [and] flattened dozens more while wives and children screamed for them to stop."
He added that "the attack on mainly defenceless men" went on "for about an hour."
When the fight ended, a young Newfoundland policeman lay on the ground. Const. William Moss had been "hit with a two-foot-long piece of birch wood in the face," Timson reported. He was rushed to the hospital in Grand Falls, but died early Thursday morning. He was 24 years-of-age. A day later, Earl Ronald Laing, a 39-year-old logger from Lomond in Bonne Bay, was charged with his murder.
The Badger Riot, as the clash became known, was the culmination of a bitter, long-standing dispute between several hundred Newfoundland loggers and the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company Limited of Grand Falls, their employer.
The men worked for meagre wages and lived in vile conditions in company-run woods camps, far from their homes. A government-appointed conciliation board report had recommended unanimously that their work week be reduced from 60 to 54 hours, with no loss in take-home pay, and that their basic pay be raised to $1.22 an hour over a two-year period.
The AND Company rejected the report. Urged by their union leaders, the men went on strike on New Years Day, 1959.
The loggers, represented for years by the Newfoundland Lumbermen's Association, had become dissatisfied with it. In 1956, the International Woodworkers of America, a British Columbia union, sought their support. The Newfoundland Labour Relations Board certified the IWA, led by Landon Ladd, as the bargaining agent for the loggers at both Bowaters and the AND Company in 1957 and 1958.
The strike followed months of fruitless bargaining. Tensions were heightened in mid-February when Premier Joseph Smallwood denounced the IWA and moved to form a "Newfoundland" loggers union called the Newfoundland Brotherhood of Wood Workers.
Doubt raised about guilt
A conviction on a murder charge in 1959 carried with it the possibility of the death penalty. Then, as now, no trial for murder could be held unless a magistrate (now a provincial court judge) had determined that the Crown's evidence was sufficient to justify the charge.
The defendant was not required to give evidence himself or to call witnesses at a preliminary hearing, but his lawyer could cross-examine the Crown's witnesses.
Laing's counsel, James J.L. Greene from St. John's, did so. He was assisted by Austin Cooper, a young Ontario lawyer with considerably more experience than Greene in criminal matters.
There could be no doubt that Const. Moss died as a result of being hit on the head and that the blow was struck by one of the loggers involved in the melée. Greene's skilful cross-examination raised very serious doubts as to whether Laing had struck the blow.
But Laing, soon after his arrest, had allegedly told police that he remembered hitting "a red-headed" policeman during the melée. The policeman, he added, had a yellow band on his cap. He later signed a statement to say so, although he could neither read nor write.
Faced with this evidence, the magistrate in Grand Falls committed him for trial before the Supreme Court after a three-week hearing.
The trial was held in St. John's late in June. James A. Power, a senior Crown prosecutor, appeared for the Crown, and James D. Higgins, a highly-regarded St. John's lawyer with much experience in criminal cases, represented Laing. The trial took just two days.
Laing denied allegation
The Crown's case proceeded smoothly until a Newfoundland Constabulary constable who had been standing next to Const. Moss when he was struck said he thought a man other than Laing had caused the blow. He added that only one man was within striking distance of Moss at that moment, and then named one of Laing's fellow strikers.
Laing testified in his own behalf. He denied that he had struck Moss.
"I wanted to keep him away from me. I never raised the stick above my head."
His statement to the police spoke of "a red-headed policeman with a cap with a yellow band, [who had] a short coat on." The Constabulary members wore their long coats and regulation fur hats that evening. The RCMP officers at the scene were wearing short coats, and many wore uniform hats with a yellow band, as was confirmed by pictures inThe Staron March 12.
The prosecution case was weakened further when other witnesses testified that Const. Moss was blond, not red-headed.
The basic principle of Canadian law is that a jury can convict a person of a crime only if they are convinced "beyond reasonable doubt" of the individual's guilt. The 12 Newfoundlanders who heard the charge against Earl Ronald Laing took less than an hour to find him "not guilty" of the charge brought against him.
Given the evidence, their verdict came as no surprise.
No charge was laid against the man named in court. No other person was ever charged with causing the death of William Moss.
Lived exemplary life
The Newfoundland government subsequently set up a Royal Commission into the logging industry. Sir Brian Dunfield, the commissioner, reported that the logging camps in which the men were required to live "are really dark and squalid hovels ... Dirt is everywhere. Rats are common."
He recommended that "camps be supplied with electricity, piped water and hand basins, and heating stoves, and that the loggers be provided with proper and sufficient food."
Earl Ronald Laing left the courtroom in St. John's a free man. He returned to his home in Bonne Bay, and lived an exemplary life with his wife and six children until his death in December 1994. But life was never the same for him and his family, and all the others touched by the tragedy.
We know where Const. Moss died, we know when he died and we know why he died. But we shall never know who struck the blows that killed him.
Edward Roberts has had a lifelong interest in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the province's lieutenant-governor from 2002 to 2008.