Memorial marker in Riverside Cemetery, Thunder Bay, grave sites in Section 15, Plots 741 (Rosvall) and 742 (Voutilainen)

The marker to Viljo Rosvall and Janne (John) Voutilainen was erected by the Thunder Bay and District Labour Council to honour two Finnish-born Ontario lumber workers murdered in their effort to organize their fellows in support of the Lumber and Sawmill Workers Union.

In October 1929 some 400 workers had gone on strike for union rates in the Onion Lake District, twenty miles north of what was then Port Arthur. The big operator in the area was the U.S.-based Pigeon Timber Co. Rosvall and Voutilainen volunteered to extend the strike by visiting the sub-contractor “Reverend” or Pappi Maki, in a camp where this anti-union boss dominated the lives of his workers. They set out on 18 November 1929 and disappeared, only to be found next spring in mid-April, 1930. Police, coroner and doctor combined to falsify evidence of their death declaring it was a case of accidental drowning. Eyewitnesses to the grim discovery testify otherwise. The largest funeral procession in Port Arthur’s history accompanied the caskets on 28 April 1930. (See Satu Repo, Rosvall and Voutilainen: Two Union Men Who Never Died, Labour/Le Travailleur, 8/9, Autumn/Spring 1981/82).

“The memorial marker: In Memory of our Brothers Wiljo Rosvall and Janne Voutilainen, L. & S.W.I.U. of C. Nov.18/29, who gave their lives for Workers’ Rights at Onion Lake. Thunder Bay and District Labour Council. This memorial was arranged through the initiative of Wilf McIntyre, then President of Local 2693, International Woodworkers of America, and Don Jutsul, then President of the Thunder Bay and District Labour Council”. This was followed by other efforts: in 1992 the two men were inducted into the Canadian Labour Hall of Fame, and in 1993 the Ontario Geographic Names Board approved the naming of two small lakes in their honour, near Onion Lake where they died.

Also, a Provincial Heritage plaque has been erected in front of the logging museum, Centennial Park, Thunder Bay: “On November 18, 1929, Finnish Canadians Viljo Rosvall and Janne Voutilainen left the Port Arthur area for Onion Lake, 20 kilometers upstream from here to recruit bushworkers for a strike. Their bodies were found at Onion Lake the following spring. Local unionists and many Finnish-Canadians suspected foul play, but coroner’s juries ruled the deaths accidental drownings. The two men’s funeral on April 28, 1930, is remembered as the largest ever held in Port Arthur. As thousands of mourners marched to Riverside Cemetery, an eclipse of the sun darkened the sky. The mystery surrounding the deaths of Rosvall and Voutilainen endures, sustaining them in public memory as martyrs to the cause of organized labour”.

Photo Credits: Alan Frank (memorial marker), Thomas William Kirkbride (provincial plaque).