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Memory Lane: Progressive sentence for young union hall arsonists

Steelworkers Hall fire of 2008 was heartbreaking for the union but the troubled upbringing of the culprits aged 12 and 13 factored into sentencing 

Many people watched. Some wept. And everyone was talking about it. The Steelworkers Hall on Frood Road and College Street burned for 26 hours on Sept. 19, 2008.

The fire had started about 2 a.m. It appeared to be contained later in the day but started up again, making evacuation of nearby schools and homes necessary because of the smoke. 

No one was killed or hurt in the fire.

"My heart is broken," Leo Gerard told the media. 

It was personal for the union leader. Born in Creighton Mine, he rose in the local union ranks to become the international president of the United Steelworkers of America.

“Our lives centred around that building. But it's not just about the physical building. It's about all the people who have their history in there, whether it's Workers' Comp or arbitrations' history; all of the inquest materials; all of the data we've collected on epidemiological research; all the safety and health records over the years," he said at the time.

"This is one of the most important union halls in our union and certainly one of the most important halls in this community," Gerard said.

"Next to losing a family member, this is one of the most traumatic events in my life. This local and this building has been an integral part of our union and of our union's success, both by way of events that have happened in this building that have changed the nature of our community."

Despite Sudbury's rocky history of union activism and militant opposition, union halls had never been victims of arson.  But this fire was determined to be suspicious.

Four police officers, as well as a crime analyst were assigned to investigate the fire as well as other suspicious fires in the area.

Two youths were found guilty of using gasoline to burn the hall.

Originally, the Royal Canadian Legion Hall, the Steelworkers always fought against social injustice.

Fittingly, social justice was behind the sentence the judge gave the two youths found guilty of setting the fire to the historic building.

Judge John Keast took the progressive step of not putting the young duo, aged 12 and 13, into secured custody. Instead, he prescribed probation and strong rehabilitation.

He noted the young offenders had come from violent homes marred by alcoholism, and suffered “the devastating consequences of the residential school system.”

Canadians need to “wake up to the fact that stiff penalties brutalize society, do nothing to present crime and waste staggering amounts of money,” he said in his ruling.

“Most criminals are shaped by poverty and lack of opportunity,” he said. “Most of today’s serious criminals were once victims.”

Local 6500 chose not to rebuild on the site because Nolan Creek ran under the property. Instead, they bought the former Loeb building at 66 Brady St. for $1.85 million. 

Local 6500 named its main hall in the new home on Brady Street in honour of the union’s international president Leo Gerard.

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer in Sudbury. Memory Lane is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.

The Sudbury Star, Lara Bradley, ‘My heart is broken’, Historic Steelworkers Hall destroyed. Sept. 20. 2008
The Globe and Mail, Kirk Makin, Justice Sudbury Fire With light sentence for arsonists judge ‘defies mantra of jail’ Dec. 3 2009.