Monday July 14, 2014

Jack Kerssens, labour leader, dies at 88

Remembered as one of strong principle, dedicated to helping others

Jack Kerssens, a stalwart presence in labour and community circles since the 1950s, died in his sleep last week at age 88.

"He was just there for the working man," said John Kerssens, one of four children of Jack and Ria. "He dedicated his life to the working man. He wanted every working man to be heard."

Jack Kerssens was born in Holland and came of age under Nazi occupation during the Second World War. His family ran a home bakery and he farmed in his early years.

"He told stories of hiding in the shed in the back of the farm when the Germans came through," John recalled.

Experiencing oppression and hardship as the Dutch did during those years probably influenced his father's social outlook. Jack's parents were also influential, since their workers were well treated.

With his cousin, Jack emigrated to Canada in 1953 and took a train west to Malakwa, where he found work as a logger.

A large Dutch family settled in Salmon Arm at that time, their arrival at the station noted by the local newspaper because of their 13 children. Kerssens spotted the photograph and thought he'd like to meet one daughter, Ria deDood, who later became his wife.

As it turned out, married life led to Jack's entry into the labour movement.

"After he married mom, he wanted to come home every night, so he went to work at the Canoe sawmill," John said.

Working in the woods was an eye opener for the young immigrant, who believed that Canada was 50 years behind Europe in its treatment of workers. He became an IWA business agent at the mill and later moved his family to Kamloops when he became an executive member of Local 1-417.

Bill Ferguson, who, along with Kerssens, was made an honorary lifetime member of the Kamloops and District Labour Council (they both joined the council a few years after it was formed in 1956), remembers his old friend as a man of principle.

In those years, many Indo-Canadian workers were moving into the sawmilling industry, where they often encountered racism.

"You wouldn't say anything racist to this guy - a person was a person, no matter what their background," Ferguson said. "He was a solid guy."

Jack was one of the original board members of the Marjorie Willoughby Memorial Hospice and was actively engaged in development of the first facility of its kind in the area. He also served, along with Ferguson, on the board of referees for employment insurance, where they handled appeals, on the Labour Relations Board and the Workers Compensation Board.

He also served on the boards of Sacred Heart Cathedral, YW-YMCA, Thompson Valley Credit Union and Community Futures.

Eventually, he had to step away from community life when he became a caregiver to Ria. Jack officially retired from the labour council board in 2005. Unofficially, he never retired.

Peter Kerek, labour council president, wrote a tribute at the time and quoted the tireless volunteer: "When I leave this world, I will do it at my desk, helping people," Jack said. "I have absolutely no intention to retire. I'm my own boss. When people come, I sit them there, and we try to resolve their problems."

Jack died Dec. 1. He leaves behind Ria, his wife of 59 years, his children, grandchildren and many other relatives in Canada and Holland. Prayers will be held on Friday at 7 p.m. and a memorial mass takes place Saturday, 1 p.m., at Sacred Heart Cathedral.

"I don't think he's retired even yet," Ferguson said upon reflection. "You know something - he left a mark on society. He left a blueprint for others."

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