By: George Vair
In the early morning hours of 3 July 1979, a thick fog lay over the Saint John waterfront. But this was no deterrent to the protesters who were quietly beginning to gather on the west side of the harbour next to the gates of the container terminal. As the foghorn on Partridge Island sounded in the distance, people were nervously removing picket signs and leaflets from the trunk of their cars. Others, more confident, were moving towards the gates, showing their familiarity at the thought of manning a picket line—it was just 6:30 a.m.
Over two months of preparations had gone into organizing this event, but one question remained unanswered, the primary question, as it were: Would the longshoremen honour the picket line? Would they be willing to give up a day’s pay and risk discipline from their employer and a possible court injunction?
The main organizer of this gathering, the Saint John District Labour Council, led by Larry Hanley and Barb Hunter, were at the gates early. Soon Barry Hould, from the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway, Transport and General Workers, would arrive with a group of trade unionists from Moncton. Gil Theriault, of the Maritime Fishermen’s Union, showed up with a carload of people from Richibucto. Jean-Claude Basque and Carlos Yuste, from the South East Unemployment Committee, were there, as was Keay Halstead, representing Ten Days for World Development, and Ann Breault, of the Catholic Women’s league.
Members of the United Auto Workers, Canadian Union of Postal Workers, Canadian Paperworkers Union, and Canadian Union of Public Employees arrived to swell the ranks of those setting up picket lines around the gates of Pier II. That was where the ship Entre RiosII laid dockside, waiting to be loaded with 120 million dollars worth of heavy water for a nuclear reactor in Argentina. Other supporting groups would soon join them, including the Maritime Energy Coalition, the Voice of Women, the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, Project Ploughshares, various Church groups and, even, a few members of the Marxist-Leninist League.
The media were also out in full force. There was a reporter from the Toronto Star, a freelancer for the Globe and Mail, CBC-TV and Radio, CTV, and a reporter from the French CBC- Radio Canada.
Three years earlier, in March of 1976, the Argentine military had charged the presidential palace and overthrew the corrupt, but democratically elected, government of Isabel Peron. What followed under the leadership of General, Jorge Rafel Videla, was an era of barbarism that equalled the worst of other Latin American regimes that ruled by coercion, torture and murder. Thousands of people, including, doctors, teachers, union leaders, priests, nuns, a bishop, newspaper editors, reporters and social workers, would be kidnapped, tortured obscenely and assassinated by squads of plain clothes security police or soldiers, operating on the orders, or the blessings, of the ruling junta.
The figures spoke for themselves: By 1979, human rights groups were reporting 15,000 individuals had disappeared, 10,000 political prisoners languished in jail—seventy percent of whom were trade unionists—and over 6000 people had been murdered. The military government justified these massacres by calling all its victims terrorists.
In addition, Argentina had not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1) or the Tlatelolco Treaty. (2) In spite of Argentina’s refusal to finalize these treaties and their deplorable record on human rights, the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) was proceeding with the sale of a Candu nuclear reactor. The head of the AECL, Ross Campbell, was quoted as saying, “Business is business and human rights are human rights, and in any event, if Canada pulled out of the deal the sale would only go to West Germany.” The Federal Government took a similar stand, with External Affairs Minister, Donald Jamieson, refusing to link trade issues with human rights.
Many other Canadians saw things differently. These Canadians had two major concerns, one being that Canada should not have a “business as usual” trade relationship with such a brutal regime and, secondly, Canada should not be sending nuclear technology to a right-wing military government, a government that refused to sign international treaties aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. These concerns led to a coalition of labour, civil rights, peace, and other groups, joining together to form the “No Candu for Argentina Committee.” The initial supporters of this committee included: The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), The Group for the Defence of Civil Rights in Argentina (GDCRA), The Latin American Working Group (LAWG), The United Auto Workers (UAW), The Voice of Women (VOW), Project Ploughshares, The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) and The United Electrical Workers (UE).
This Committee worked tirelessly to educate the public and to convince the government they should cancel the sale of nuclear technology to Argentina. Their representations to government, however, fell on deaf ears. In September of 1978, they discovered the shipment of the last major component of the Candu package would occur in the spring or early summer of 1979. Destined for Cordoba, Argentina, were 120 million dollars worth of heavy water. The committee decided a more radical approach was necessary. Having concluded some tangible action had to be taken, they decided on an action that would bring home to the Canadian government the outrage that most Canadians felt about the sale of the Candu reactor, an action that would allow the peoples of Canada to act in solidarity with the people of Argentina and, hopefully, an action that would convince the Canadian government to suspend the sale of the Candu nuclear reactor. It was decided to plan an action that would disrupt the transport of the heavy water.
In mid-February, the investigation began in earnest. Many questions had to be answered: What shipping line would transport the heavy water? Where would be the port of exit? When would the loading occur? What unions would be involved in the shipping and loading? And what would the implications of the action be?
Through teamwork, guesswork and determination, the committee was able to conclude the heavy water would most likely be shipped through the port of Saint John, New Brunswick. Having discovered the port of exit, the committee contacted Larry Hanley, president of the Saint John District Labour Council. Hanley was sympathetic and agreed to meet with the No Candu for Argentina Committee in early May, when he would be in Toronto on other business.
Following the Toronto meeting, Larry Hanley arranged to have Enrique Tabak, a member of the Committee, speak at the New Brunswick Federation of Labour Convention, scheduled for mid-May in Moncton. Addressing the convention on May 15th, Enrique spoke about the trade union suppression in Argentina, the total lack of human rights and the goals of the No Candu for Argentina Committee. He received a standing ovation and the convention delegates passed a resolution stating the sale of nuclear technology to the Argentine government should be suspended. Enrique Tabak returned to Toronto with assurance the unions in New Brunswick supported the potential action and the Saint John District Labour Council was prepared to take it on.
By mid May the committee knew the heavy water would come from Chalk River, Ontario, and they were now certain it would exit via Saint John. The committee contacted the Maritime Energy Coalition in Saint John. They were eager to get involved and began alerting church and environmental groups. The activity in Saint John now matched that of the activity in Toronto, as a coalition of labour, church and environment groups were equally committed to delaying the shipment of heavy water. But the crucial question was: What vessel would carry the containers? It was, also, impossible to determine the exact day the liner would dock in Saint John. Every Thursday the Globe and Mail published incoming and outgoing dates for the Argentine lines and the Saint John papers carried information on the traffic arriving and leaving the Saint John port. The committee, however, soon learned the only thing certain was these dates were often wrong. From the end of May onwards, committee members were prepared to leave Toronto for Saint John on a moment’s notice.
Tension escalated when it was discovered the heavy water containers were in Saint John. On 8 June Committee member, Don Lee, left for Saint John. The Saint John District Labour Council had information the containers could possibly be loaded on a liner called Rio Esquel. When further information assured this was not the case, Don Lee returned to Toronto. The next vessel from Argentina due to arrive in Saint John was the Entre RiosII. Further enquires revealed all the heavy water containers were now at dockside and the Entre RiosII would be the vessel transporting them. Daily contact was maintained between Saint John and the Committee in Toronto. Everyone was on edge. Just when they thought they knew when the liner would be arriving, it would be delayed. Finally, on 26 June, it was learned the expected date of arrival for the Entre RiosII was Sunday, 1 July.
On Thursday, 28 June, Linda Grobovsky, a member of the Toronto No Candu for Argentina Committee, prepared to leave for Saint John in order to assist Larry Hanley, John Sheehan and Dana Silk with any last minute preparations. The Ontario Federation of Labour had circulated literature to the labour movement across Canada, apprising them of what was to occur and asking them to send telegrams of support when the event took place. As Linda prepared to leave for Saint John the telephone rang. It was the Canadian Press in Ottawa. They had received a press release of support from one of the unions. Ginny Galt of C.P. wanted to know what exactly was happening and if Linda knew anything about Candu reactors and Argentina. Linda contacted committee members Don Lee, Mercedes Bonarino and Enrique Tabak. What would the implications of an early press release be? What would happen if Atomic Energy of Canada were alerted? Ginny Galt had told Linda the release had “gone across the wire” and there was no way to impede its appearance in newspapers or on the radio. The union had apparently been concerned about being late in its message of support, but what had caused a major anxiety attack amidst the Committee in Toronto, would turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Publicity about the event began on 28 June and lasted for the next two weeks.
Linda arrived in Saint John on Thursday afternoon and was met by Dana Silk and John Sheehan of the Maritime Energy Coalition. Dana Silk was also the president of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick. Larry Hanley was out of town and the contact for the labour council was Barb Hunter, the council secretary. Linda spent Friday with Barb Hunter. Barb helped Linda become oriented to Saint John and the unions in the city. The response Linda received was tremendously friendly and enthusiastic. Barb took Linda for a trip around the port and the container terminal. On Saturday Larry Hanley returned to Saint John and discovered the vessel was now scheduled to arrive on Monday. Linda contacted Enrique Tabak in Toronto and brought him up to date on the situation. Enrique immediately packed his bags and arrived in the city Sunday evening.
On Monday, Enrique, Linda, Larry, Barb and Dana strategize at the union office. A flurry of activity was taking place. Everyone was wearing the “Hot Cargo” buttons. Press kits were prepared for distribution. Phone calls were being made to the various supporting groups, advising them that D-day had arrived. As plans for the next day were being finalized at the union office, the vessel Entre RiosII quietly slipped into the Saint John harbour and tied up at Pier II. In the late afternoon Larry took Linda and Enrique to see the liner. Reporters were phoning to get information and supporters were phoning to offer encouragement. The tension was escalating, but there was nothing left to do—except wait.
After spending a long restless night, Linda and Enrique awoke to the sound of the foghorn on Partridge Island. It was Tuesday, 3 July, in less than an hour the longshoremen were scheduled to begin loading the heavy water onboard the Entre RiosII. The big question still remained, the primary question, as it were: Would the longshoremen honour the picket line? The suspense would soon be over; they would soon have their answer.
The adrenalin ran high as the picketers noticed the first group of longshoremen arriving for work. Larry Hanley, Barry Hould, Enrique Tabak and Linda Grobovsky immediately dispersed into the crowd. They proceeded to explain the human rights abuses, the oppression of the trade unions and the implications of selling nuclear technology to a right-wing military Junta, like the one in Argentina. The longshoremen responded by asking for the bright yellow buttons the picketers were wearing and agreed not to cross the picket line. A delegation of picketers moved to cover the other two gates as some longshoremen were heading for the other terminals. These picketers were greeted with the same success. The Brotherhood of Railway, Airline and Steamship Clerks also refused to cross the picket line. The final result was that the total port of Saint John was shut down.
While the initial reason for not crossing the picket line was due to their respect for the picket line itself—Saint John longshoremen have a long history