After the First World War, chemical weapons manufacturers looked to law enforcement as a new market for their wares. Writing in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology in 1935, Seth Wiard explained that research and development of chemical warfare munitions had shifted to weapons designed for use against “civilians under conditions where only temporary blocking of their activities would be required, rather than the permanent removal of such civilians from the scene of action.” In other words, police needed weapons that would neutralize strikers and protesters without killing them.
Seth Wiard was the Technical Director of the Lake Erie Chemical Company. Even though it appeared in a scholarly publication, his article was part of an aggressive marketing campaign to sell police departments on the idea that tear and nauseating gases were effective alternatives to clubs and guns for quelling strikes and riots. Lake Erie and its competitor in the tear gas business, Federal Laboratories Inc., were already making handsome profits selling their wares in Latin America. One salesman confessed that “the unsettled conditions in South America has been a great thing for me … we are certainly in one hell of a business where a fellow has to wish for trouble to make a living.” The wave of labour unrest in depression-era North America represented a potentially lucrative peacetime market for chemical weapons and the Vancouver Police Department was the first in Canada to oblige.
During San Francisco’s 1934 “Big Strike,” representatives from Lake Erie and Federal Laboratories were on the scene demonstrating the effectiveness of their weapons in an actual riot situation in order to try and drum up business. 5 July became known as “Bloody Thursday” because two workers were killed that day. One of them was killed by the Federal Laboratories rep, who reported back to his bosses:
I might mention that during one of the riots, I shot a long-range projectile into a group, a shell hitting one man & causing a fracture of the skull, from which he has since died. As he was a Communist, I have had no feeling in the matter & I am sorry that I did not get more.
Even though the final tally reached six dead workers in San Francisco, Chief of Police Quinn felt confident that the body count would have been much higher if tear gas hadn’t been used.
Tear gas was supposed to be a non-lethal alternative to firearms. The problem with police using guns against crowds of civilians, according to Seth Wiard, was that “whatever the provocation may be [use of firearms] is always accompanied by a very severe amount of criticism even if justifiable.” Tear gas was therefore a more PR-friendly weapon for police than guns.
Moreover, while gunning down strikers could bring a protest march or demonstration to a quick halt, it was hardly an effective conflict resolution technique. This revelation dawned on the authorities during a Communist-led strike of furniture workers in Stratford, Ontario in 1933, the last time the military was called out for strike duty in Canada under its “aid to civil power” mandate. Short of shooting the workers, there was nothing they could do to resolve the situation and so the strike just dragged on.
The Vancouver Police Department was undergoing an extensive “modernization” in 1935, and incorporating WWI technology such as machine guns, tear gas, and intelligence systems into the police arsenal was an integral part of the process.
Under the leadership of Vancouver’s new chief constable, Colonel W. W. Foster, the immediate goal of police modernization was to rebuild the city police into a force that could be used to put down strikes, protests, and, if necessary, insurrections. Previously, the RCMP, BC Provincial Police, militia units, private police, and vigilantes were looked to for this purpose rather than city police. Since unionizing in 1918, rank-and-file police were not trusted by higher-ups to police strikes because it was presumed their loyalty ultimately lay with their fellow workers.
The impetus for Colonel Foster being brought in to reform the police department was the fear that the spectacular 1934 maritime strike that shut down San Francisco as well as ports all along the American coast was going to be repeated in BC, beginning in Vancouver in the spring of 1935.
Local Communists had been elected to the leadership of the longshoremen’s union, and had taken the lead in organizing the unemployed in relief camps across the province. Labour spies reported that the Communists’ strategy was to try to orchestrate a general strike that would include longshoremen and unemployed workers and which could become be a catalyst for revolution. But when the 1700 unemployed workers who had been in Vancouver for two months protesting relief camp conditions left on the On-to-Ottawa Trek in early June, it was obvious that the general strike scheme wasn’t going to materialize any time soon. The newly equipped Vancouver Police Department, along with back-up units from the RCMP and BC Provincial Police, would have to settle for a demonstration of striking longshoremen on 18 June to show their stuff.
At a mass rally two days before the demonstration, Ivan Emery, one of the Communist leaders of the longshoremen, outlined the union’s plan:
We have heard the rattle of machine guns. I believe we have enough ex-servicemen on the waterfront who are prepared to listen to them again. We are going to elect a delegation and we are going to send it down to Chief Foster, asking permission to go to Ballantyne Pier peaceably to talk to the strikebreakers. If they [the RCMP] will turn their guns on us; if they will shoot us down, then you will know that fascism in Canada has taken off the mask and we are up against a stark reality
Respectably dressed and led by WWI hero Mickey O’Rourke, protesters headed down to the waterfront where scabs were busy unloading cargo. When they reached the police line at the foot of Heatley, Colonel Foster ordered the demonstrators to turn back. They refused and Foster signalled his forces to attack, triggering what became known as the “Battle of Ballantyne Pier.”
Machine guns were ready, but were not used against the initially peaceful crowd that day. Instead, police on horseback chased protesters around the waterfront district in the East End, beating them and firing tear gas canisters anywhere they saw demonstrators taking cover.
The longshoremen’s headquarters at 633 East Hastings was targeted for special treatment, and was raided and gassed twice that day. BC Workers’ News reported that female supporters of the strikers had set up a makeshift first aid station there. Soon after, the longshoremen’s union moved their strike headquarters to the Bow and Arrows Hall at Heatley and Powell.
Protesters retaliated with rocks and whatever other projectiles they could find to throw at police. The fighting lasted for about three hours and ended with dozens of police and protesters in the hospital and several arrests. Leonard Binns, a 21-year-old who happened to be making a delivery in the area, was hit in the back of his legs with birdshot from a police shotgun. Chief Foster insisted that the only guns fired that day were tear gas guns, but Binns was nevertheless paid compensation for his injuries.
The Province headline the next day blared “Tear Gas Bombs Halt Strikers”:
When the tear gas bombs were shot it had an immediate effect on the rioters. Many were seen wiping their eyes as they ran. Few in the crowd had seen tear gas bombs used before and they were certainly effective … Royal Canadian Mountain Policemen and city police on horseback were located on Alexander Street, one block from the pier and, following the throwing of the bombs, they swept down on the crowd using their sticks. Many were knocked down. The crowd retaliated by hurling bricks and stones. The police were hooted and jeered at.
The use of chemical weapons was not without its glitches for the police. Even before the riot, a tear gas canister was accidentally discharged in the police station. During the riot, several officers were forced to dismount when their horses were affected by the gas.
Prior to the battle, Colonel Foster had sent some of his officers to Seattle for training in tear gas use. He no doubt had knowledge of the lessons learned by police in California in 1934 regarding tear gas use, and as a WWI veteran, he would have had at least some familiarity with chemical warfare. He may have also been swayed by the Lake Erie Chemical Company brochures that can still be found in the police files at the City of Vancouver Archives. The Vancouver Police Museum has a display that includes Federal Laboratories Inc. tear gas canisters that appear to be from the same era.
In his history of the Great Depression, Pierre Berton describes some other tear gas moments in Canadian history that followed the Battle of Ballantyne Pier. In the Regina Riot, which crushed the On-to-Ottawa Trek less than two weeks after the Battle of Ballantyne Pier, protesters threw tear gas canisters back at police. This wouldn’t have been possible if police used Lake Erie’s throwback-proof Jumper-Repeater Instantaneous Chemical Warfare Gas Candles. This is what police in Vancouver used to clear the Art Gallery and Post Office of unemployed sit-downers in 1938, according to Berton. During the 1937 auto worker strikes in Ontario, Premier Hepburn was in possession of the same Lake Erie brochures Colonel Foster consulted two years earlier.
As violent as the Battle of Ballantyne Pier was, it was not as bloody as the American strike the year before. Although the Vancouver strike was eventually defeated, longshoremen in both countries continued to organize, and eventually formed into the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) under the leadership of an Australian Communist named Harry Bridges.
Tear gas has since become a mainstay in the police arsenal, along with other “less lethal” weapons such as tasers and pepper spray, as well as the VPD’s latest aquisition, an MRAD sonic gun that doubles as a public address system. In light of controversies over the use of tasers, the zealous use of pepper spray at the APEC conference, and the massive tear gassing of protesters at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, it will be interesting to see what weaponry police in Vancouver will favour for crowd control and demonstrations during the 2010 Olympics.