The Christmas Massacre

22 December 1963

Warning: this story may be disturbing to some readers.

Christmas is a holy time, a time for people to come together, a time for families to share their love and celebrate the blessings of the Christ child whose birth is being remembered. But Christmas 1963 for the parish of Christ-Le Roi (Christ the King) in downtown Ottawa was a bleak, sorrowful time. Instead of experiencing the joys of the season, parishioners mourned the sudden loss of friends and neighbours who died three days earlier in a hail of bullets in the church’s rectory located beside the church at 252 Argyle Street, just east of Bank Street.

Sunday, 22 December 1963 started as a normal pre-Christmas Sunday. Reverend Guillaume Chevrier greeted more than three hundred parishioners, including his distant cousin Lionel Chevrier, the Minster of Justice, to the service which celebrated the fourth Sunday in Advent. The mass started as usual at noon. At about 12:45pm, Agathe Jensen, who lived in a third-floor apartment in the neighbouring rectory building, pounded on the side door of the church. Frantic, she ran to Father Chevrier, saying that somebody had been shot. Chevrier stopped the service and asked for help from his parishioners. Four persons answered the call: Paul Mercier, John Horner, Roger Lecroix and Léo Binette.

Roger Binette (age 22) and Réginald Binette (age 17), Ottawa Citizen, 23 December 1963.

Horner and Mercier got to the rectory first and began to climb the staircase. About five steps up, Horner came face to face with a youth pointing a revolver at him. A voice higher up shouted out in French “We have no choice.” Shoot them.” The young man fired two shots. Both Horner and Mercier fell backwards. Unhurt, Horner slumped to the ground, feigning death. Mercier, the parish’s young, 22-year-old scoutmaster, was not so fortunate. He was shot in the chest and died almost instantly. A few minutes later, when everything in the stairwell had gone quiet, Horner got up and fled the rectory. Meanwhile, Léo Binette hearing the shots, ducked, scampered from the front porch of the rectory, and sprinted down Argyle Street in a zig-zag pattern. When he cautiously returned, Roger Lecroix had organized a number of parishioners, mostly teenagers, to surround the rectory building to prevent the perpetrators from escaping. Later, Lecroix was shocked when he recalled his actions which put many young people at risk.

The police arrived at the scene roughly five minutes after receiving word that there was a shooter in the rectory. They entered the blood-splatted vestibule. After donning a bullet-proof vest, Detective Tom Flanigan slowly made his way up the stairs. The first body he discovered was that of Paul Mercier. On the second-floor landing, he came across the bodies of Alberte Guindon, age 45, the rectory’s housekeeper, and that of a young man, apparently an assailant who had shot himself in the temple. The revolver, a German 9mm Mauser, was still clutched in his hand. Word was passed to Flanigan that another person had been spotted in a window above. Flanigan shouted up “Come down or we’ll shoot.” A few seconds later, a slight, dark-haired youth, scarcely more than a boy, surrendered. When police led the young man out of the building, Léo Binette froze. The suspect was his younger son, Réginald, age 17. “What have you done? My God, what have you done?” he asked. Later, he heard that the other assailant found dead on the scene was none other than his older son, Roger, age 22.

Murder victim, Paul Mercier (age 22), scoutmaster at Christ-Le-Roi Church, Le Droit, 23 December 1963.

Also found on the second floor was Doralice Béchard, age 65, who was gravely injured with gunshot wounds to her abdomen and chest, and her sister Henédine, age 61, who had suffered a flesh wound to her hand. The two sisters shared an apartment on the second storey. Doralice was to die on the operating table at the General Hospital later that day.

The police also recovered a small arsenal of weapons, as well as bullets, knives, handcuffs, lengths of chains and padlocks, along with tape, blindfolds, fishing line and first aid kits. Each of the two young men had been armed with two revolvers which they had carried in home-made western-style leather belts and holsters. Two rabbit’s feet were sewn onto Roger’s belt. In addition to the Mauser found in his dead hand, Roger packed a .45 calibre Colt-style revolver. Réginald’s .45 calibre revolver was found on the kitchen table of apartment number five, the home of Agathe Jansen. His .38 calibre revolver was found on the fourth step of the stairway leading to the third floor where he had dropped it after being told to surrender.

In total, the two brothers fired twelve shots of which at least seven hit people. Slugs were found in the walls of the stairwell. A bullet had also shattered a second-storey window. The death toll could have been much higher. Roger’s homemade ammunition pouch, found in a cardboard box wrapped in Christmas paper, contained six spent cartridge cases and 38 fresh ones; Réginald’s held 42 live bullets.

Initially, police believed that the Binette brothers had intended to rob the church of its Sunday collection offerings, but their plans had been foiled when they were discovered by Alberte Guindon. The police reasoned that when she began screaming, the boys panicked and began firing. Later, following interviews with the police, psychiatrists and psychologists, Réginald revealed their intentions had been far more elaborate and bizarre. 

The pair had intended to kidnap Father Chevrier and force him to bring them to the homes of wealth Ottawa businessmen from whom they would extort money. Their aim was to steal $1 million. They would then force neurosurgeons to implant electronic equipment in the brains of people thereby turning them into robots. The Binette brothers would use the robotized individuals to commit crimes. They also wanted to build rocket ships and develop a longevity serum so they could live for 200-300 years. Needless to say, there were serious questions about Réginald’s sanity.

The Monday following the murders and suicide, young Réginald Binette was charged with the murder of Paul Mercier. It was his eighteenth birthday. Since the crime had been committed before he had turned eighteen, his sentence, if convicted, would be life imprisonment. Had he been eighteen, just one day older, when he shot Paul Mercier, he would have faced the death penalty. Binette looked on impassively as he was sent for psychiatric tests to see if he was sane enough to stand trial. His parents sat in the front row of the court room until his sobbing mother had to leave, escorted by her grieving husband and a police constable.

Léo and Valeda Binette had no idea that either of their sons were in Ottawa. The previous summer, they had sent young Réginald to stay with his older brother Robert who lived in British Columbia. The parents had been worried that Réginald was too much under the sway of Roger who seemed to control his every action. Réginald was their adopted son. They had started looking after him when he was five months old on behalf of the Children’s Aid Society. When he was five, they officially adopted him.

Roger Binette had left home on December 8th, two weeks before the shootings. His parents had thought he had gone to the United States. Instead, unbeknownst to their parents, Roger and Réginald had got in touch with each other and had moved in together in Room 9 in a boarding house at 170 Metcalfe Street.

Réginald was sent first to the hospital at Brockville and then to a secure government facility in Penetanguishene for psychiatric tests. Government doctors questioned him using hypnosis and drugs—sodium amytal, a drug sometimes used in psychiatric interviews at the time. The Ottawa Journal described it as a “truth serum.” Réginald was also given methadrine, also known as methamphetamine, or speed. (The use by investigators of truth serums, which were unreliable at best, was later discontinued or banned.)

The psychiatrists and psychologists concluded that Réginald was mentally ill with schizophrenia and lived in a fantasy world. He also suffered from paranoia and had delusions of grandeur and persecution. However, he was able to understand the charges against him and was capable of directing counsel. Consequently, they contended that he was fit to stand trial.

While his competency was being assessed, police tracked down the guns used by the brothers in the rectory attack. They had been stolen in a vicious home invasion and robbery staged by the two men the previous June at the house of Kenneth Mayhew, a gun collector, of 68 Pineglen Crescent in Nepean. The men, armed with brass knuckles, bounded and gagged Mayhew and his family, before making off with four revolvers. Mayhew’s daughter was wounded in the leg in the assault when one of the stolen revolvers went off. Réginald was charged with assaulting Kenneth Mayhew’s wife, discharging a firearm causing bodily harm to Mayhew’s daughter, and robbing Mayhew of his weapons.

Following a preliminary hearing held in March 1964, Réginald Binette’s trial began in late April in front of Justice Sam Hughes of Ontario’s Supreme Court. Witnesses described the horror of events on that tragic Sunday before Christmas. Henédine Béchard, who was in hospital at the time suffering from sciatica, was brought into the courtroom on a stretcher.

Agathe Jensen, who was also called to testify, was ordered from the witness box by Justice Hughes when she insisted on speaking in French even though she understood English. After conferring with both the defence and Crown counsels, the judge said she could speak in French and have an interpreter but warned her against turning his courtroom into a “demonstration.” He added that there was “nothing objectionable” about her testifying in her native tongue. In her testimony, Jensen said that the accused had twice put his gun to his head but couldn’t pull the trigger.

Louis Assaly, Réginald’s lawyer, asked for a not-guilty verdict on grounds that his client was insane. He noted that this would not mean that Binette would be free to walk Ottawa’s streets. Instead, Binette would be committed to the Penetanguishene maximum security mental hospital under a Lieutenant General’s warrant where he would stay until cured. In support of his plea, four defence psychiatrists testified that Binette was “certifiably insane.”

The Crown would have none of it, arguing that the shooting spree plan was carefully thought-out and logical. As well, schizophrenia was not enough to justify acquittal. The judge informed the jury that with an insanity plea, the burden of proof laid with the defence counsel. As well, he said that insanity was legally defined to be a state of natural imbecility or a disease of mind which rendered a person incapable of appreciating that an act was wrong.

After a ten-day trial, Réginald Binette was found guilty of killing Paul Mercier, and sentenced to life imprisonment. The jury deliberated for only four hours.

While defence counsel launched an appeal, it was subsequently withdrawn. Three months after his trial for murder Binette was tried for robbing Kenneth Mayhew. The other two charges were dropped. Binette received a sentence of five years to be service concurrently with his murder sentence of life imprisonment.

Sources:

American Addiction Centers, 2019. Methadrine, https://www.projectknow.com/prescription-drugs/methamphetamine-addiction-treatment/methadrine/.

Le Droit, 1963. “Un drame dans un presbytère : 4 morts,” 23 décembre.

Ottawa Citizen, 1963. “Black Sunday –official police story of killings,” 23 December.

——————, 1963. “Four killed at rectory,” 23 December.

——————, 1963. “Defence says boy ‘not responsible,’” 30 December.

——————, 1964. “Rectory murder suspect facing 3 more charges,” 3 January.

——————, 1964. “Mental Exam for Binette,” 4 January.

——————, 1964. “Mental test ordered for Binette,” 9 January.

——————, 1964. “Detective describes ‘arsenal,’” 12 March.

——————, 1964. “Rectory slaying trial underway,” 21 April.

——————, 1964. “My sister fell at my feet – witness sobs,” 23 April.

——————, 1964. “Twice put gun to his head,” 24 April.

——————, 1964. “‘I went wild,’ Binette said in statement,” 27 April.

——————, 1964. “Accused obeyed brother,” 28 April.

——————, 1964. “Shooting-spree plan logical – attorney,” 1 May.

——————, 1964. “Binette given life term for slaying scoutmaster,” 2 May.

——————, 1964. “Binette spared gallows by age,” 2 May.

——————, 1964. “Gun theft costs Binette 5 years,” 23 September.

Ottawa Journal, 1963. “It Was My Son, My Baby…. He’s Only 17…!” 23 December.

——————-, 1963. “This Is What Happened In 30 Minutes of Madness,” 23 December.

——————-, 1963. “Detectives Astonished By Weapons,” 23 December.

——————-, 1963. “Standing at Back of Church When…”, 23 December.

——————-, 1963. “He Lived…Died As a Volunteer,” 23 December.

——————-, 1963. “Arraigned on 18th Birthday,” 23 December.

——————-, 1964. “Accused Killed Victim – Witness,” 13 March.

——————-, 1964. “Woman Refuses To Speak English,” 22 April.

——————-, 1964. “Says Murder Accused Living ‘Fantasy Life,’” 23 April.

——————-, 1964. “Witnesses Recall Horror Of Four Rectory Killings,” 24 April.

——————-, 1964. “‘Fantastic’ Plot Told In Court,” 28 April.

——————-, 1964. “Says Youth Under Orders To Kill,” 29 April.

——————-, 1964. “Asks Not Guilty Verdict for Binette,” 30 April.

——————-, 1964. “Binette Admits Robbery,” 16 September.

Rinde Meir, 2015. “Stranger than Fiction,” Distillations, Science History Institute, https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/magazine/stranger-than-fiction.

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The Weatherhill Charivari

11 August 1881

An odd folk custom that was still practised in Canada during the nineteenth century was the charivari (sometimes spelled shivaree). Brought to North America from Europe, a charivari was an impromptu parade or demonstration in which participants banged on pots and pans, and made all sorts raucous noise in response to some local event. While sometimes of a jocular nature, a charivari could also be malign, voicing community disapproval of something that violated perceived norms of behaviour. For example, a “May-December” wedding might prompt a charivari where a crowd, usually consisting of drunken young men, would extort money from the couple. The payment of a few dollars was usually enough to pacify the mob and get them to move on, usually to the nearest drinking establishment.

Such was the case in early August 1881 when about forty young men held a charivari on the Richmond road on the occasion of the marriage of a Mrs. Grundy. Mrs. Grundy, who had already been married at least twice, aimed to marry again. According to press accounts, she had had two suitors for her hand, and there had been much speculation regarding whom she might choose. Her marriage to the elder suitor, who was also a widower, prompted a crowd of noisy revellers to demand late-night “entertainment” from the couple. The groom handled the situation by giving a $4 bill to the crowd which promptly repaired to the nearest public house, leaving the couple in peace.

Charivari ODC12-8-81

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 12 August 1881.

A few days later, another charivari took place in Mount Sherwood. This time, the outcome was far less benign. Mount Sherwood was a small community of about 1,000 inhabitants on the then outskirts of Ottawa. It was bordered by Concession Street (today’s Bronson Avenue) on the east, Emily Street (Gladstone Avenue) on the north, Division Street (Preston Street) on the west, and Dow’s Lake on the south.

At about 7 am on 11 August 1881, a distraught, middle-aged woman arrived at the Ottawa Police Station claiming that her husband had been killed after what we would today term as a home invasion. Unfortunately, as these events occurred in Mount Sherwood just beyond the Ottawa boundary, the police did not have jurisdiction. They didn’t even take her down her name.

Hearing the news, and receiving corroboration from another source, a Citizen reporter hurried to the scene to find fifty or so people standing around the body of an old man lying facedown in the roadway at the corner of Emily and Lisgar Streets (today’s Gladstone Avenue and Bell Street). The remains had been covered with cedar boughs to protect them from the sun but had otherwise been left untouched. The body was identified as that of James Weatherill, aged about 65, a retired dealer in country produce and cattle. Although something of a recluse, he was known as hard-working and honest, without any known enemies.

Weatherill, a two-time widower, who resided in neighbouring Rochesterville, had remarried the night before, taking Mrs. Dougherty, a widow, aged 45, as his bride in the nearby home of Mrs. Thomas Cooper on Emily Street, where Mrs Dougherty resided. The couple had been married shortly after 7pm in Mrs. Cooper’s sitting room by Rev. Mr. White of Mount Sherwood.

At about 8pm, a crowd of boys and young men came to the home, banging on pots and pans, and demanding money from the newly-wed couple who were in the home along with Mrs. Cooper and her four young children. Mr. Weatherill complied, giving the boys a dollar. Apparently satisfied, the crowd dispersed.

A couple of hours later, a second, far larger, alcohol-infused group of boys and men demonstrated in front of the home and demanded two dollars. At some point, stones were thrown at the house, breaking windows, causing minor interior damage and considerable distress among its residents.  But Weatherill refused to give in to the crowd’s demands, believing that to accede to this extortion would only encourage the rowdies. Instead, the Weatherills hid in the loft above a summer kitchen at the rear of the home, while Mrs. Cooper told the demonstrators that the couple had fled via a back door.

But the revellers insisted on searching the residence. Two entered the house, one being a neighbour named Hugh McMillan, finding the couple. McMillan advised Mrs. Weatherill to pay the $2. While she was willing to do so, her new husband called her an old fool and slapped McMillan in the face. McMillan left, and the charivari continued. At some point, although accounts are confused, a neighbour, Peter Potvin, threatened to beat or kill Weatherill, saying that the old man had insulted him.

In the wee hours of the morning, when the crowd had dwindled, both Mr. and Mrs. Weatherill went outside. Weatherall, in good spirits, began to chase four youths down Emily Street towards Concession Street. This was the last time his wife saw him alive. She had stopped to watch Mr. Potvin, who she later described to police as walking up and down the street like a mad man.

Subsequently, Mrs. Weatherill returned to her lodgings at Mrs. Cooper’s home. The fact that her husband did not follow, was not a cause of concern. She simply figured that he had gone to his own home on Rochester Street in Rochesterville, just a short distance away. It wasn’t until the next morning when Mrs. Weatherill decided to walk to her new husband’s residence to look for him that she discovered a crowd of people surrounding the lifeless body of her husband.

Newspapers far and wide were rightly appalled by the event. The Ottawa Daily Citizen thundered that “it was high time that the charivari business was put down by a strong hand.” It was a “disgrace to our modern civilization.” It added “It is terrible to contemplate that because a man refuses to meet the demands of his persecutors he may be cruelly beaten and left by the road side to die.” The London Free Press opined that “It is only necessary for a marriage to take place under some circumstances which some rude youths may deem to be irregular, for them to assemble together, and amidst hooting, horn-blowing, pan-beating and other discordant noises, insult the newly-married couple.” It added that in this particular case, the charivari had led to repeated demands for money, assault and death. The paper demanded special legislation against charivaris. The Hamilton Spectator, sniffed that the “advance of more refined feelings” had led to the charivari dying out in western Ontario. However, it was still the custom in eastern Ontario and “ought to be punished with the greatest severity.” The Quebec Chronicle recommended the lash.

A coroner’s inquest into Weatherill’s death was immediately called. As Mount Sherwood lacked a constable, the murder investigation was headed by Superintendent E. J. O’Neill of the Dominion Police. He and several of his men arrived later that morning to view the body.  The dead man was clad in a new suit of clothes, undoubtedly his wedding attire. In his pockets were $19 in bank notes and $1.70 in change. Robbery was clearly not a motive for his murder. While there were contusions on his head, the cause of death was not evident. The body was removed to Rogers’ undertaking establishment on Nicholas Street where three doctors conducted a post mortem. They concluded that James Weatherill had died owing to an “extravasation of blood between the membranes of the brain.”

After the post mortem was conducted, Weatherill’s remains were turned over to his widow. A wake was held in his Rochesterville residence on the Saturday, two days after his death. Rev. Mr White, the minister who married the couple, conducted the funeral. Weatherill was buried in the Beechwood Cemetery.

Suspicion immediately fell on the neighbour Peter Potvin who was quickly arrested by the Dominion Police and put in jail. But the evidence against him was purely circumstantial. Hugh McMillian, as well as the other man who had invaded Mrs Cooper’s home, later identified as Ruggles Brunel Jr., were also arrested but were released on $500 bail each—a very large sum of money at the time.

But the focus of the investigation quickly shifted to four charivari participants—James Kelly (age 20), Christopher “Pum” Berry (age 16), Robert McLaren Jr. (age 20) and James O’Brien (aged about 20). They were picked up that weekend. Berry and McLaren were arrested at their homes.  O’Brian and Kelly were found in Stewart’s Bush, a nearby heavily-wooded area.

Despite being cautioned by the police about incriminating themselves, the foursome quickly began blaming each other. The four admitted that they had been throwing stones at Mrs. Cooper’s house, and that Weatherill had chased them down Emily Street in the wee hours of 11 August. Reportedly, Berry told Superintendent O’Neill that Kelly and O’Brien had been throwing stones at Weatherill, and that Kelly had said “By God, we have killed him.” He also claimed that O’Brien had remarked that “the old man was as dead as a nail.” Kelly, however, said “I didn’t strike the old man.” He claimed that Weatherill struck McLaren with a stick, and that it was McLaren and Berry who had been throwing stones at the old man. Kelly added that he had wanted to throw stones but couldn’t find any. When O’Brien was arrested, he reportedly laughed at the police and told them to do their best. He said to Superintendent O’Neill, “You can lecture me if you like, but it is not a neck-snapping affair at any rate.” All four were charged with feloniously murdering and slaying one James Weatherill on 11 August 1881.

Shortly afterwards, Superintendent O’Neill accompanied by a company of Dominion policemen swept through Mount Sherwood arresting alleged charivari participants. More than a dozen boys and young men were taken to police headquarters in the East Block departmental building on Parliament Hill and charged with riotous conduct. All were released on bail. Among the arrested was one William McGrath, a stone cutter by trade, aged about 20, who spoke “openly and fearlessly of his conduct, free from any criminal intent, according to the Ottawa Citizen. William McGrath later became a City of Ottawa alderman.

Unlike today, justice moved swiftly in nineteenth century Ottawa. Three weeks after the fateful charivari, those charged with riotous conduct were found guilty and fined anywhere from $3 to $15, or one to two weeks in jail with hard labour.

The four charged with Weatherill’s murder were brought in front of the Carleton Assizes in October 1881. All pleaded not guilty. Representing the foursome were Mr. Gibb for James O’Brien, Mr. Ward for Christopher Berry, and Mr. William Mosgrove for James Kelly and Robert McLaren. The Crown was represented by Mr. Robert Lee, Q.C. and the prominent Ottawa lawyer and former mayor Richard W. Scott.

The defence lawyers were adroit. Dominion Police Superintendent O’Neill testified that he had known the four young men charged from infancy, and attested to their good character. Mr. Mosgrove argued that the evidence could not fix the cause of death on any of the prisoners. Moreover, he claimed that when Weatherill left the home of Mrs. Cooper and began to pursue the boys, he became the aggressor.

Most telling, however, was testimony from one of the three doctors who conducted the post mortem, who admitted under cross-examination that Weatherill’s death might have resulted from a number of causes. Besides being hit on the head with a stone or a blunt instrument, an “extravasation of blood” into the brain could have incurred through a fall or excitement. The fact that Weatherill’s body had been found lying close to a high, wooden sidewalk that crossed a small gully, gave credence to the possibility that his death might have been caused by a fall. There was also little doubt that Weatherill had been seriously vexed by the charivari.

The Crown contended that there was no doubt that Weatherill had been murdered. He had been in good health immediately prior to the charivari, and that it was plain that he met his death in a most violent and sudden fashion. Scott argued that it was ridiculous to say Weatherill brought his death upon himself by his attempt to drive off the rowdies. His actions to protect the lives of helpless women and children were natural and right. While the charge against O’Brien, Berry, Kelly and McLaren was murder, he did concede that the jury could bring in a verdict of manslaughter.

In his charge to the jury, the presiding judge said that a charivari was no excuse for rowdy conduct and condemned the practice. He also said Weatherill had not overstepped his rights when he left the house and gave chase to his tormentors.

After only two hours of deliberation, the twelve-man jury acquitted the four youths. Few in the courtroom were surprised.

Forty-five years later, now retired alderman William McGrath, who had been fined for his participation in the charivari, recounted the events surrounding Weatherill’s death in a lengthy interview to the Ottawa Citizen. While there were a number of discrepancies between his version of events and contemporaneous accounts, he credited the acquittals to the ability of defence lawyer, later judge, William Mosgrove.

 

Sources:

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1881. “Charivari,” 5 August.

————————–, 1881. “A Brutal Murder,” 11 August.

————————-, 1881. “The Latest Outrage,” 11 August.

————————-, 1881. “The Charivari Murder,” 13 August.

————————-, 1881. “The Fatal Charivari,” 15 August.

————————-, 1881. “Charivari Captives,” 16 August.

————————-, 1881. “The Mount Sherwood Affair,” 17 August.

————————-, 1881. “The Weatherill Murder,” 19 August.

————————-, 1881. “The Weatherill Murder,” 20 August.

————————-, 1881. “The Weatherill Murder,” 23 August.

————————-, 1881. “Weatherill Tragedy,” 24 August.

————————-, 1881. “Carleton Assizes,” 11 October.

————————-, 1881. “Carleton Assizes,” 15 October.

————————-, 1881. “Chaivari Charges,” 1 September.

————————-, 1926. “Tragic Weatherall (sic) Charivari, 6 March.

————————-, 1928. “Mt. Sherwood Had Origins In Subdivision 60 Years Ago,” 29 December.

 

 

The OC Transpo Massacre

6 April, 1999

Of all of the events that have occurred through Ottawa’s history, one of the most tragic is the OC Transpo Massacre. For many Ottawa residents, the terrible events of 6 April 1999 are seared into their memory. They will always remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. While time heals, the scars remain both for the families directly affected, as well for Ottawa more generally. In a way, the city lost its innocence that day. We discovered that the mass shootings that we associate with places far away can happen in peaceful, law-abiding Ottawa.

Pierre Lebrun

Pierre Lebrun, Murderopedia

It began on a normal, early spring, Tuesday afternoon. At about 2.30 pm, Pierre Lebrun, a shy, 40-year old man who had left OC Transpo’s employ the previous January, pulled into the bus company’s garage at 1500 St. Laurent Boulevard in the city’s east end. He parked his 1997 Pontiac Sunfire a few yards away from a supervisor’s office. After getting out of his car, he pulled out a high-powered, Remington, pump-action rifle capable of killing a moose from a mile away. Entering the building, Lebrun shouted out a line from the movie The Terminator—It’s Judgement Day!

Lebrun quickly fired his first shot that reportedly hit a steel drum before going through a metal locker and lodging in a computer monitor. Fragments struck two men, Richard Guertin and Joe Casagrande, injuring them, fortunately not seriously. Both fled down a hall, shouting for someone to call 911. A message quickly went out over the PA system that there was a man in the garage with a loaded gun. The more than 150 occupants of the building tried to get out of the building or hid in lockers or under tables.

Walking down a hallway, Lebrun claimed his first victim, shipper Brian Guay, 46, shooting him in the chest. Stepping over Guay’s prostrate body, Lebrun continued into the interior of the garage where a group of people were taking a coffee break at the back of a bus. The workers watched in horror as Lebrun fired a third time, killing mechanic Harry Schoenmakers, 44, before entering the bus where the terrified workers were standing. With his gun across his shoulder, he swore at them and snarled You think it’s funny now. Lebrun did not shoot but instead left the garage bay, set a small fire in a chemical room, and proceeded to a store room where four men were sitting. There, Lebrun claimed his third and fourth victims, Clare Davidson, 52, and David Lemay, 35.

Leaving the store room, Lebrun walked upstairs to a loft that overlooked the engine room. A few seconds later, another shot rang out. Lebrun had killed himself. His pockets were full of ammunition. From the time, he entered the garage to the time he took his only life was only a matter of minutes.

Outside the garage, the emergency 911 system receive a call at 2.39 pm that there was a shooter at the OC Transpo garage. The first police arrived at 2.44 pm, with the heavily armed tactical unit arriving on the scene at 2.55 pm. But they didn’t know what they were dealing with. They moved cautiously. Police entered the building at 3.47 pm and began to methodically comb the rooms and buses in the garage. Meanwhile, OC Transpo workers and onlookers waited outside, fearful of the fate of their colleagues and friends. By 6 pm, the police had found Pierre Lebrun’s body in a pool of blood and could begin to stand down.

Information about Pierre Lebrun quickly surfaced. He had been born in Northern Ontario in the small town of Moonbeam located south-east of Kapuskasing. A quiet child with a stammer, he had been teased by other children throughout his childhood. His mother said he had been a “good son.” He had started working for OC Transpo in the mid-1980s, but had quit his job as an audit clerk in January 1999. He had no criminal record.

Originally hired as a bus driver, he had been transferred to jobs that did not require as much interaction with people. A quiet man, who struggled with depression, he had been at the receiving end of jabs and taunts about his speech impediment from certain co-workers. Some said that the harassment got worse after a 1996 transit strike during which Lebrun had gone on sick leave on the advice of a doctor rather than joining the picket line with his striking colleagues. In 1997, Lebrun was fired after he hit a co-worker for allegedly making fun of his stammer. After the union intervened in his support, management rehired Lebrun on the proviso that he attend anger management counselling. But problems continued. Lebrun actually approached Al Loney, the chairman of the OC Transit Commission, to complain about two colleagues. However, Lebrun did not provide details and asked Loney not to intervene. Instead, Lebrun said would go to his supervisor.

After leaving the employ of OC Transpo early in 1999, Lebrun travelled by car across Canada, spending time in British Columbia before heading south to Las Vegas. After losing his money gambling, he drove directly back to Ottawa, arriving in the capital shortly before his assault on the OC Transpo garage. He left a suicide note for his parents. In it, he said that he knew that he was “going to commit an unforgiveable act,” but that he had “no choice.” He said he feared for his life and that people from the union had followed him out west and that they had “destroyed his life.” He added that OC Transpo and the union “can’t hid from what they do to me,” that he was “not crazy, but very intelligent, too intelligent.” He also listed the names of four co-workers who he didn’t like, and three who had tried to help him. None of Lebrun’s victims’ names appeared on his “hate list;” they were simply bystanders who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Over the days that followed the tragic event, grieving families, OC Transpo employees, and the broader community tried to come to terms with what had happened. An impromptu memorial of flowers and black ribbons appeared in front of the bus company’s head office on St. Laurent Boulevard. Among the tributes was a poem by Stacey Lemay, the daughter of David Lemay, entitled “My Dad, My Friend.” The poem was also read out over the intercom at Stacey’s high school. Three days after the shootings, buses across North America pulled over at 2.45 pm to observe a minute of silence as a tribute to their fallen comrades.

Later, an official five-member Coroner’s jury sat down to hear the evidence about what happened that fateful day and what might have provoked Pierre Lebrun’s actions. On their first day on the job, members of the jury along with the general public were shocked to learn that the events of 6 April 1999 had claimed another life. A co-worker of Lebrun had hanged himself out of remorse. In a suicide note, he wrote that Lebrun had talked to him about shooting his managers but the co-worker had said nothing. He thought it had been a dark fantasy, not something Lebrun would ever do.

For eight weeks, the jury listened to testimony of OC Transpo management and workers, police, doctors, family members and other witnesses. Portions of the 911 call were played out, and jury members were taken on a tour of the crime scene. Time was spent examining how long it took for the police to respond, and how Lebrun had obtained ammunition for his rifle despite his firearm licence having expired. A detailed step-by-step analysis was made of Lebrun’s movements and actions from the moment he arrived at the OC Transpo garage until he killed himself. Much attention was also placed on the work environment at the OC Transpo garage. It was very clear that management-worker relations had been poor for some time. One witness claimed that some managers didn’t treated their employees as human beings.  Worker morale was described as being low prior to the shooting.

Witnesses also testified that Lebrun had been a “loner” who had been repeatedly teased because of his stammer. A forensic psychiatrist argued that workplace harassment and what he called “a poisoned work environment” were factors in the tragedy. The 1997 incident when Lebrun had gone “berserk” and slapped a co-worker was also scrutinized. Testimony revealed that after the incident Lebrun had not reached “set goals” in his required anger management training. As well, co-worker concerns about Lebrun’s behaviour had been behind his transfer to the audit position.

After eight weeks of testimony, the coroner’s jury came out with 77 recommendations of which 51 applied directly to OC Transpo. Sixteen recommendations addressed workplace harassment issues, including the development and implementation of workplace violence and harassment prevention policies and procedures by OC Transpo, and the delivery of a respectful workplace training program to all employees. The jury demanded zero tolerance for harassment and violence in the workplace. A further twelve recommendations were directed at workplace safety and security concerns, including such things as the establishment of emergency escape plans, the installation of emergency “pick-up” phones similar to ones in place at transit stops, and the accessibility of maps and blueprints of all buildings to police and other emergency workers.  Other recommendations were given to the police and government.

Most of the recommendations were quickly adopted. However, it took many years for the provinces to update their legislation to require employers to take preventative measures against workplace harassment and violence.  Quebec was the first, amending in 2004 its Act Respecting Labour Standards to ensure employees have the right to a working environment that is free from psychological harassment. Employers were also required to introduce measures to prevent such harassment. Manitoba and Saskatchewan followed in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Ontario’s Bill 168, which was an amendment to the province’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, came into force in 2010. Under the legislation, employers are, among other things, required to determine the risks of workplace harassment and violence, and develop policies for investigating employee complaints and incidents. In 2016, Bill 132, otherwise known as the Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act, came into force. The new legislation expanded the definition of workplace harassment to include sexual harassment. It also broadened employer responsibilities to conduct investigations into incidents and complaints of workplace harassment. The Occupational Health and Safety Act was additionally amended to empower inspectors to require an employer to commission a report made by an unbiased person into a harassment incident or complaint. As well, the Limitations Act was amended to permit the prosecution of cases that occurred prior to the introduction of the Act.

With the laws and regulations in place, implementation is now key. We can only hope that instances of workplace violence and harassment are addressed early enough that similar future tragedies are averted.

Sources:

Bawden, Sean, 2015. “Bill 132… Picking up where Bill 168 left off?”  Labour Pains, 7 November.

Branswell, Brenda, 200. “Pierre Lebrun and his bloody rampage through an OC Transpo building,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 28 April.

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City of Ottawa, 2001. “Report to Transportation and Transit Committee and Council,” 18 April.

Globe and Mail (The), 2000. “Shooting rampage had deadly echo,” 7 January.

Miniken Employment Lawyers, 2010. “Bill  168 – Ontario’s Law on Workplace Violence and Harassment,” https://www.minkenemploymentlawyers.com/employment-law-issues/bill-168-ontarios-law-on-workplace-violence-and-harassment/.

Murderpedia, 2000(?) “Pierre Lebrun,” http://murderpedia.org/male.L/l/lebrun-pierre.htm.

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————————-, 1999. “Massacre at OC Transpo,” 7 April.

————————-, 1999. “A reminder of what really matters,” 8 April

————————-, 1999. “Impromptu memorial,” 9 April.

————————-, 1999. “Transit services to pause in continent-wide tribute.” 9 April.

————————-, 1999. “Ridicule made ‘good son’ a mass killer.” 9 April.

————————-, 2000. “Jury’s still out on OC Transpo,” 1 March.

————————-, 2000. “OC Transpo Inquest Chronology,” 1 March.

Ottawa Sun (The|), 2013. “OC Transpo driver remembers deadly 1999 shooting,” 19 September.

RH Proactive Inc. 2016. “Bill 132: Prevent Sexual Violence and Harassment in the Workplace,” http://bill132.ca/.