Subtle messages

I often refer to the subtle or not so subtle discrimination I endured entering into the construction trades.  Sometimes the abuse went over the top and there were repercussions.  Here are a few of those colourful moments in time and I am giving you fair warning,  it isn’t pretty.

Permit worker

I was a permit worker, someone who did not have acceptance in the union.  This was the way the union discriminated against me.  A permit would allow me to work and pay union dues but at the union discretion.  It was difficult to maintain steady employment as the union representative would recall  your work permit in favour of a union member as soon as their was a complaint or a shortage of work.  This was a favourite discriminatory tactic employed by union apprentices who had no stroke with their peers or had a dislike for me.  Many of these people worked for me in later years which was indicative of my progress and not theirs.  I believe I was the first canadian of Japanese decent to enter in to the industrial construction trades.  Years later I met one other from BC.

I started the winter of 1967 working for Armstrong Cork at the Calgary university .  My employer had a job insulating thousands of feet of piping servicing a number of new university buildings.  All the piping was run underground in concrete tunnels that connected the campus buildings.  My first job was moving materials from the storage area to the work face and setting it up for others to install. It took a while to understand the tunnel system and I often got lost.

I would look for an above ground entrance and like a gopher, pop up and see where I might have taken a wrong turn. Once I got a system in place I could set up more material than the applicators could install.  This gave me some time to burn so I would check out more tunnels and see where they took me.  My best find was the tunnel that let to the ladies dormitory and the cafeteria.  Spent a lot of time in both places.  Actually too much time, as I was caught a couple of times in the ladies dorm.  Six months into the job; the university hired a contractor to install steel prison type doors in the tunnel access to the ladies dorm and remote cameras to monitor foot traffic.  So much for my leisure time in the ladies dormitory.  My supervisors heard about the unsolicited visitor to the ladies dormitory and the installation of the steel doors but didn’t know till years later who was the ultimate culprit. That would be the closest I ever got to a university education.

Close to dying

On another project, I was working for the same company but without a union permit.  I guess I was good enough to employ without a union permit and so the company hid me on small projects.  The work was probably designed for me because I had little choice in the matter.  The work was in dusty crawl spaces and under floors at the airport but I persevered. There was another apprentice on the job now and then who knew I was working without union authorization. For whatever reason, he asked that I do him a favour.  He had been working in the crawl space but vacated as soon as I became available and took the above floor work.  In his hurry to leave the crawl space, he left his power cord and needed it elsewhere.

I was busy working when I heard him yelling through the now filled hole in the floor asking that I cut his cord so he could remove it.  The apprentice had dropped it through the floor but a plumber put his piping through the same hole and pinched off the cord. He seemed to be in a big hurry so I crawled over in total darkness to the sliver of light coming through the floor and promptly cut it off with my wire cutters.

Bang and a terrific flash of light.  When I came to my senses I found myself splayed out, blinded and suffering with a sore arm and hand.  I think my arm was flung back and hit something when the cord shorted  I felt around for my wire cutters still suffering from a blinding flash.  I could hear laughing above me but I was far from happy.  My new wire cutters had a complete hole blown out of the jaws in the shape of the cord.  Had I not been wearing good gloves I am sure I would have suffered a burned hand but considered myself lucky to be alive.

I got good at practical jokes after that experience but never put fellow workers at risk for their lives.  The same apprentice got me years later by tossing me a charged condenser from a company vehicle.  That was worth a few thousand of volts of instantaneous electricity to the mechanically inclined.  I know it was his idea having fun at my expense but it was pure jealousy that brought on this type of discrimination.  Years later I left this clown in my dust.  He never became anything close to his potential and gave me the incentive to drive on.


I worked in Calgary and area for about three years.  The union refused to take me in and without union support, I was denied entry into trade school.  I finally decided I need a change and came back home for the summer.  In the fall, after harvest I looked for work in Winnipeg.  I contacted the union office in Winnipeg and was offered a job, again as a permit worker.  My first assignment was a project in Selkirk, at the Selkirk Mental Institution.  I promptly got lost there as well and found myself looking at more bars.  I had wandered into the section for the criminally insane.  Holy hell broke out when the guards looked into my tool bag and I was quickly escorted out.  I was outside, left to my own devices and really not knowing where to go.  I was late for work and I was panicking.  I saw a very large building in front of me so I thought I could seek help.  I ran in and had a quick look around.  What the hell I thought as semi clad women started to run and a few shrieks later a tough looking gal, fists clenched, came chugging in my direction.  Oh shit, here I go again.  I had walked into the nurses residence on shift change and again I was punted out toute suite!

I managed to find the job and worked there for about a month.  Then there was a weekend job available at the now defunct Shell refinery.  Overtime did not come often for me so I gladly accepted.  The entire crew from the Selkirk job went on weekends to help out at the refinery.  As the Selkirk job was winding down I was moved to the refinery.  This was more my element as I had a lot more industrial type experience from my days in Calgary.  But I still endured the discriminatory commentary and got the worst jobs but never failed to do exempary work.

Forever etched in my mind, a short story

It was in the dead of winter when I worked on this project.  The refinery was completing a small expansion and the steam was being applied to the process.  One of our jobs was to insulate and clad the steam piping to conserve heat and prevent burns. This was the first time I realized how hot 600# steam was.  It radiated everywhere and many of us hung out close to these pipes to warm up.

We were on the expansion side of the project and working about forty feet above ground.  The two main 600# steam feeds originated across a refinery road in the old part of the plant.  This steam fed the process on the expansion side.  A pipe fitter decided it was too much to go down the stairs and walk across the road to the old side of the plant.  I was working just above a pipe bridge that carried numerous pipes from the old side to the expansion including the two 600# steam lines.  The pipe fitter started across the pipe bridge like he had done so many times before.  When he was near halfway across he appeared to be in trouble.  His rubber soled boots were melting due to the heat in the pipes he was walking on.  It didn’t take but seconds and he lost his footing.  He fell, but not to the ground.  He fell between the two steam lines.  In doing so, his parka lifted up towards his chest and he was stuck between the hot pipes, feet dangling in mid air with no way to lift himself out.

After all these years, this experience was probably the one that shaped my safety attitude the most.  After all these years (47) I can still see him struggling and screaming in pain.  It was a really bad experience with the confusion that followed and my foreman chased all of us down and sent us to the lunchroom.

A crane was required to extricate the pipe fitter and it was across the work site.  Walking a crane across a tight work site took a long time and the man never stopped screaming.  We were gone from the worksite when he was finally retrieved.  We did not work the next day either.  When we got back to work we found out that this man died that evening, leaving a lot of his internal organs on the pipes.

Back to the struggle

I stayed with this employer for the winter and early spring.  The crew I worked with moved from job to job and in turn I got to meet some very good people and a few asses.  My last job in Winnipeg was at the University of Manitoba.  The employer had a crew insulating and finishing large ductwork in a very large mechanical room.  In those days, many of the insulated ducts were protected from mechanical damage with the final application of asbestos shorts mixed with cement powder, which gave it a very hard finish.  The hard finish started out as a blue grey colour until the hardened. As low man on the pole, it was my job to mix the asbestos shorts and cement powder and deliver it to the crew.  In this case it was two journeymen and a fourth year apprentice.

The fourth year, who was just short of journeyman status was a pain in the neck and conceived a plan to put the run on me.  I was mixing the concoction in five gallon buckets and having to run up and down floors to deliver the mix.  There was no way I could keep up but I kept working.  Every time I would come within ear shot, the fourth year would start hollering and tell me to hurry up.  The crew had decided that they would install the material as fast as they could to make me run harder and the fourth year was the instigator.

This went on for three days.  I wouldn’t have time for a decent break, never mind an unscheduled toilet break.  On the third day, I was getting tired of trying to feed these clowns materials.  I told the foreman between trips up and down the stairs that I need a toilet break.  I was either denied or heard the fourth year chirping from somewhere above the duct telling me to hurry up.  Finally I had enough.  I went down and mixed up a batch before deciding to take a toilet break.   Then I crapped in the buckets and buried the goodies.

Just like clock work, I came up the stairs and just like clock work, came the heckling and derogatory remarks.   The crew was doing nice work and were on the widest, most visibe part of the duct, except for the fourth year.  He was given the job of installing the mix in a tight spot above everyone else.  It took them a matter of minutes to empty the buckets and then tossing them back to me to fill.

The insulators would put their hands in the bucket and grab as much mix as they could and deftly hold it against the ductwork and spread it with a large trowel.  A few swipes and the buckets were empty.

Well now; something was wrong with the mix this time.  I started to back away towards the stairs when the first journeyman looked at this funny streak across his fine work.  Then the second journeyman and finally the fourth year started to comment about these funny brown streaks messing up their work. Now this only took seconds and they were trying so hard to hide the brown streaks and getting angrier all the time.  Swish, swish, stroke by stroke the brown kept moving and popping up in differrnt places.  By this time I was headed down the stairs when the one curious journeyman put his finger into the brown streak and took a sniff.  I was gone like jack bunny and headed for my car.  I could hear the swearing and yelling way out in the parking lot as I sped away.

A  day later, I got a call from my employer telling me that the job didn’t need me and work was coming to an end.  I took the lay off and headed west.  Years later I did a project in Manitoba and some of the older workers had heard of me by reputation and laughed till tears rolled down their faces as I related the events of that day.  Luckily for me they weren’t the men from the university job!