Canada

Six nights on Mean Street

Jackie Webster July 23 1979
Canada

Six nights on Mean Street

Jackie Webster July 23 1979

Six nights on Mean Street

Canada

Jackie Webster

The streets are clean again, purged of the broken glass that crunched and grated underfoot last week in Bathurst. New plate glass glistens in Main Street windows, although a few plywood panels serve as grim reminders of a six-night rampage which tore the New Brunswick city of 16,000 apart. It is business as usual along Main Street, but in the aftermath of last week’s strife the tone is muted, the mood subdued. There is bitterness, a grumbling, a questioning of who and what and, especially, why. Beer bottles and shards of glass have been replaced by charges and counter-charges flying through the air. The strike is over, the city’s police are back on the job patrolling the streets and their sympathetic colleagues, the

outside city workers, have cleared away the mess. But Bathurst’s citizens are embarrassed at the notoriety that pushed their city into a battle with Skylab for space in the national news. And the downtown Bathurst merchants are mightily angry.

Last Thursday afternoon, fewer than 24 hours after the city’s police strike finally ended, the merchants met and demanded an immediate inquiry. They want provincial justice department officials, the Bathurst police department and city council to find out why a state of emergency was not declared long before property damage reached the

$100,000 mark—and eventually well beyond.

Bathurst is an exuberant mining and paper town, feisty and raucous but normally good-natured. A sizable head of steam had built up in anticipation of the annual Hospitality Days jamboree as the weather turned warm and obliging. Carnival spirits, bottled and otherwise, spiked with an ongoing hostility toward the 26 police who were setting up their pickets, proved a volatile mix. The action was at first simpleminded rather than dangerous, except to the participants. Hot-rodders, fuelled with liquid courage, turned the traffic circle on Main Street into a mechanized maypole. Strolling residents, attracted by the piercing screech of resisting tires, gathered to watch the drivers race faster and faster, tighter and tighter around the circle. Wheels and motors, transmissions and fenders became of no consequence in the face of the awed admi-

ration the drivers perceived in the crowd. The wild nights had begun.

But drag racing can sustain interest only so long and the craziness might have petered out except for two factors: the continuing interest of the citizens, who arrived downtown by the thousands at night to watch perhaps a dozen youths put on their show, and, equally important, the attention of Canada’s media heavies. The early-evening television news came on on Sunday with Bathurst in the spotlight and within minutes downtown streets were lined six deep. As the tires squealed and beer bottles whizzed through storefronts, the striking police finally quit their picket line, donned riot gear and quelled the disturbance because now the hoodlums knew they were news.

The following night they outdid themselves. That was the night a “Jesus freak” was allegedly raped after she stood naked on the top of a car and tried to assure the rowdies that Jesus loved them. Again the police abandoned their strike and moved in, an ambulance was called and the girl was taken off to hospital. The action then took a new turn. Windows were smashed, businesses were broken into, there was looting and vandalism. One shirtless, gap-toothed, hirsute youth, bottle in hand, beer dribbling down his chin, was caught by a photographer and made the front pages of several Canadian newspapers.

Tuesday night a strike settlement was announced at midnight and the police were back in uniform, but not before a Dominion store was broken into, all of its plate-glass windows demolished and groceries tossed into the street. Next door a clothing store directly in the thugs’ line of march was defended by about 20 lead-pipe-armed friends of the owner. The streets were cleared before the police discovered that an essential clause regarding rank structuring had been left out of the settlement and within two hours they had returned to the picket lines. Finally, late Wednesday afternoon, the contentious clause had been sent to binding arbitration and the strike ended. The officers had won raises that will earn them about $20,000 a year by the end of 1981.

So, now ask the merchants, why wasn’t a state of emergency called? Not that simple, says Mayor John A. Duffy. A state of emergency can only exist during a legal strike situation when there is danger to life. Property damage does not constitute an emergency. Should police be permitted to strike? That question is being raised all over New Brunswick. Of course they should, says Sergeant Blair Boucher, spokesman for the Bathurst police. Police should not be allowed to leave their posts for any reason, counters Fredericton Police Chief

Lionel Poirier. Duffy is emphatic. He doesn’t know if his council will ask the Cities of New Brunswick Association to recommend a ban on police strikes, but if it doesn’t, “I damn well will.” Acting provincial Justice Minister Fernand Dubé says he will make recommendations to cabinet regarding the handling of police strikes, but declined to say what those recommendations would be.

In Bathurst, Duffy and council have been criticized for their lack of decisiveness. Businessmen see themselves as pawns in a power play between police

and city hall, while others are angry at the police for what they term “too little and too late.” Duffy denies the charge of indecision. “I was in constant communication with government officials,” he says. “I told them how things were, explained the situation and asked them to come up or at least take some action. They declined.” Provincial officials, on the other hand, took the view that, since the Bathurst police were prepared to— and did—break their own picket lines when there was threat of violence, outside interference was not warranted, although an RCMP contingent was standing just outside the city waiting to be called.

When Bathurst’s police arrived back on the streets for good, the troublemakers took to their heels. Only the newshounds and a few citizens guarding their property remained. “Move along now,” an officious young policewoman kept ordering those hanging about. “Move along now. These streets are dangerous.” “Dangerous!” hooted an accosted woman. “If you think they are dangerous now, you should have been here a couple of hours ago when they were really dangerous. Where were you then?”