The events in Buckingham are an important part of the history of the struggle of workers for their rights in the Outaouais Region.
Buckingham owes its existence to the lumber industry practiced extensively here since the beginning of the 19th century. Thus, throughout its history, the city of Buckingham’s economy has been dominated by the MacLaren dynasty. In 1902 (the population of the town was about 3,500 at the time)
The Lievre River runs through a pine region, and it’s surrounded by vast forests of spruce. There was sufficient spruce standing on the banks of this river to supply the largest paper mill in the world. The premises were owned by two great lumbering firms of James MacLaren and Ross Bros.
The MacLaren family have dominated the lumber industry in the Outaouais for over a century. In 1864 James MacLaren built a sawmill in Buckingham and the company became J. MacLaren & Co. and later The James MacLaren Company Limited. The MacLarens later gained control of the hydroelectricity market in the community and also real estate development and sports facilities.
Since 1902, the MacLaren group added the wood pulp industry to its activities by building a few mills in Buckingham, Masson, Mont-Laurier and Thurso located not to far from the Lievre River.
During the summer of 1906 workers at the MacLaren Sawmill in Buckingham began to organize themselves into a trade union. On July 15, 1906, they held their first meeting and the union was founded on the July 29, 1906. Most part of the 400 workers at MacLaren became members, and the union presented its demands to the manager of the company, John Edward Valallee, who was also the mayor of Buckingham. Three main demands were as follows: recognition of the union; reduction of the hours of work from 11 to 10 hours per day; an increase in wages of 2.5 cents an hour (the workers were paid 12.5 cents per hour).
The demands were immediately rejected, and on September 12, 1906, the leaders of the union were fired. The same day the company locked-out the workers. The Quebec government sent a mediator to intervene. After some discussion with union representatives, the mediator, Felix Marois, met with Albert MacLaren, the company owner to inform that the union had reduced its demands so that the 2.5 cent increase would only apply to those workers making less than $1.25 per day.
MacLaren replied that he would not agree to any increase in wages and furthermore he was not ready to take the workers back at their present wages. Then the owners refused any further discussions but used everything at their disposal to attack the workers and their representatives.
The Buckingham Post and the Ottawa Citizen spread lies and rumours attacking the reputation of the union activists. They said that the union leaders were financed by outside interests and that they had secret bank accounts.
The MacLaren Company hired also mercenaries from the Thiel Detective Service Company who were secretly sworn in as members of the local police force.
On October 8, 1906 the MacLarens organized a group of strike breakers to clear some logs from the river near the Landing. Led by Thomas Belanger, trade union leader (vice-president), about 200 men marched towards the Landing to ask that the work be stopped.
For all response, the company goons fired on the unarmed workers, Thomas Belanger and François Theriault, secretary treasurer of the union, were killed on the spot and dozens of others were injured.
Enraged by this unprovoked attack the workers chased away the company goons. The workers also discovered that the murder of the union leaders was premeditated. Several of the mercenaries caught by the workers after the shooting had pictures of Thomas Belanger in their pockets and it was clear from their wounds that the union leaders had been specifically targeted.
On the same day around midnight, more the one hundred soldiers were brought to Buckingham to protect the property of the company. The military occupation of Buckingham continued until October 23, 1906.
The workers had the support of the vast majority of the population of Buckingham. On the day of the funerals of Belanger and Theriault, businesses closed in mourning and people lined the route to pay their respects to the workers who marched to Saint Gregoire church. The church was unable to hold all the people who had marched along with the workers. A monument was erected at the graves of Belanger and Theriault to honour their ultimate sacrifice.
On the orders of the MacLaren family, Buckingham was forced to rewrite its history. The minutes of the city council did not mention a word about the strike or the lock-out, nor was there any mention of a military occupation.
The MacLarens also interfered in the judicial proceedings which followed. Coroners and juries were replaced if they did not favour the company and the MacLarens used the offices of the Premier of Quebec, Lomer Gouin, to make sure that the company and the mercenaries were exonerated of all blame. The workers and their supporters were found guilty of participating in a riot and sentenced to two months imprisonment.