Manitobans are very protective of their trees, going to great lengths to save them from the axe. Even a single tree under threat will rally people to the cause of its preservation. In recognition of this attachment, Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Gord Macintosh announced the province is creating a heritage tree program in partnership with Manitoba Forestry to recognize and protect trees that have environmental, cultural, social and historic importance.
“All trees are an important part of our communities, but some are exceptional and irreplaceable,” he said. “This new initiative will allow Manitobans to nominate a tree or group of trees so future generations can also enjoy their beauty and importance.”
The minister said the new program will be created by amending the Forest Health Protection Act to include additional protection measures for designated heritage trees located on Crown (public) land to prevent their removal for reasons other than health and safety.
“Whether natural or planted there are many exceptional trees in the province that stand out in the landscape,” said Patricia Pohrebniuk, the executive director of the Manitoba Forestry Association.
In Manitoba’s history one solitary elm stood out above all others in the landscape, but there wasn’t any law or program then in place to protect it from being felled. Public protest was the only action available. In 1957, a group of angry grandmothers, who were dubbed the “Wild Women,” encircled a lone elm in the middle of Wolseley Avenue to keep a city crew from chopping down their cherished landmark, which had been deemed a hazard to vehicular traffic.
Councillor Slaw Rebchuk called deputy city engineer John Taunton at 7:30 a.m. on the day that the tree was scheduled to come down, fearing the worst. “Listen,” Rebchuk said, “we’ve gotta leave that thing alone. There’s going to be trouble down there.”
Despite the apprehensions expressed by Rebchuk, on September 18, 1957, at 9 a.m., city workers showed up at the site to hack down the Wolseley Elm. But standing firm were “12 angry women” surrounding the tree who with arms linked refused to move. Among the women was Ann Borrowman who had led the protest in 1936 to save the elm.
“If they chop it down, they’re going to have to chop us down first,” vowed Mrs. C.A. Orr, a resident of 1200 Wolseley.
When a city worker approached the tree with a saw, an elderly woman shouted, “You get out of here!” He did.
Police cruisers arrived at the scene, but still the women refused to budge. Even a paddy wagon pulled up to haul off any unruly elements among the protestors.
A man with the saw was accompanied by a man with a ladder as well as two constables, according to an account of the elm incident by reporter Ted Byfield in the Free Press. The ladder was placed against an overhanging branch. The women then gathered around the men and ladder. One of them had picked up an axe and was holding it like “one might a golf putter,” according to Byfield.
“We don’t think you should do this,” related Byfield, who said that the woman with the axe was a “grandmother.”
“‘Now lady,’ said a towering police constable. ‘Is that any way to behave?’
“‘Don’t lady me,’ said the grandmother, getting ready for a 300-yard drive. ‘We know our rights around here.’
“‘You simply can’t do this sort of thing,’ said the constable, helping to get the axe back to the putting position.”
The constable urged the women to move to the curb, saying that the matter had gone through city council and was therefore the law of the land. But the women knew it hadn’t — the tree’s removal had only been approved in committee. They shouted out their displeasure in not having had a say on the tree’s fate before city council. The women weren’t going to budge regardless of the men lined up against them.
“Get your dirty hands off me, you, you, you cop!” warned one woman.
Calls arose for the mayor and McCreary, the local ward councillor who the protestors vowed they would “get” for voting to remove the tree.
By this time, the protest by the “12 angry women” was being watched by a crowd of about 200 or 300 spectators.
A yellow Cadillac driven by Mayor Stephen Juba pulled up. At first, Juba said he couldn’t do anything to prevent the tree from being removed, as it had been approved by the works committee and there was nothing in the city charter to allow the mayor to overturn their decision. But people yelled out that as mayor he could do anything he wanted.
Juba got on the telephone to check with the city’s legal department whether he had the power to stop the crew from cutting down the Wolseley Elm. He was informed that he lacked such power.
Juba told the women he had another idea. As the city’s chief magistrate, he would order the police to leave, which would stop the city crew from carrying out its orders. This idea was squashed when Police Chief Robert Taft said over the telephone that he didn’t take orders from the mayor and only worked for the police commission.
“Why isn’t the work proceeding?” demanded Taunton, when he pulled up in his car. “We have our orders. Take down that tree!”
The women screamed out in protest and men among the crowd booed.
According to Byfield’s report, Mayor Juba then approached Taunton and asked him to delay the order for at least a week. “Do you order me to, Mr. Mayor?” asked Taunton, vowing he would obey such an order. “Public safety,” said the mayor. “That’s it! Public safety. Yes, Mr. Taunton, I order you to. You’re endangering the safety of those women.”
“We’ve won!” shouted an ecstatic woman.
Borrowman, the woman who had for so long championed the Wolseley Elm, asked the mayor to have a cup of tea in her home, and then promised to give him the highest honour she could bestow, which, as it turned out, was a kiss on the cheek. Over tea in the Borrowman parlour, Juba muttered, “Boy, am I in the soup now.”
To which Borrowman replied, “Do have another cup of tea.”
“I have broken the law,” Juba admitted to reporters soon after the 80-minute standoff ended.
However, none of the councillors objected to the mayor’s decision to order the men to cease their work due to the “hysterical situation” and the need for a cooling off period.
The protest only temporarily saved the Wolseley Elm, which was afterward subjected to vandalism that included attacks by fire and dynamite. In 1960, the then dead tree had to be cut down.
One has to wonder what the “Wild Women” of Wolseley would have thought of the recently-announced program to protect heritage trees. If anything, the remembrance of their actions that day in 1957 is a good reason to implement the program.