Manitoba Forest Products

This is a story about my experience working in The Pas, Manitoba.  Manitoba Forest Products was the complete name for a pulp mill built in The Pas Manitoba by government funds.  It was designed and built to provide locals with employment and part of a larger government job creation plan.

Project

The pulp mill had been in operation for a number of years and then came a big increase in the value of pulp bales.  These bales would be shipped elsewhere to be converted into paper or converted in the attached paper mill.  The current owner decided that added production was in order so they added a fourth pulp digester.  This would increase their pulp output by 25%.

Road trip

I was called up to the manager’s office and told to pack for a seven week job in northern Manitoba.  Being a past Manitoba resident, I was happy to go.  Working for my employer was easy.  Everything was laid out, all the job information, tools equipment, delivery dates and so on were in place.  I just had to drive to northern Manitoba and check into my lodgings; job start envelope in hand.

The drive was in the dead of winter and bloody cold.  I thought the truck would seize up as I drove across Saskatchewan and Manitoba and then north to The Pas.  When I made the last 600 miles, I reached my destination around 8 p.m.  It was difficult finding this address and I drove around in the darkness for a half hour.  Finally I decided I had to park and walk to find the address because it was pitch black out and I couldn’t see any house numbers.

Boarding house

I couldn’t understand why there was no open spots to park on the street and I left the truck on the main thoroughfare and started to walk. After a twenty minute walk in – 40 F weather I finally found the house.  This was a bit perplexing as I had anticipated at least a hotel but a boarding house had some benefits.  But it wasn’t a boarding house.

Some enterprising person decided that rooms were scarce in The Pas during the mill expansion so he converted an 890 square foot, two bedroom house into living quarters for 14 men.  No joke, I was number 14 and I had a bed under the stairs that led to an unfinished basement.  There weren’t even bed sheets to separate a lot of the beds.  I was pretty hot under the collar but decided I need to resolve this the following day.  I left the truck  running on the street and pulled my frozen bag into the house.  All I could do was think about was the smokers in the house and me living in a fire trap.

The next morning was another adventure as I found out there were only four chairs and a table for fourteen men, a single bathroom and one little fridge and range. This was not going to work and I decided to look for breakfast downtown.

The Pas

I was up early.  The early risers were stomping up and down the stairs and woke me from a troubled sleep.  I waited my turn for the bathroom and my toothpaste was still frozen in the tube.  So a splash of water later I jumped into a nice warm truck and went looking for breakfast.  I drove down the main street and saw a really decent looking hotel with a restaurant.  I decided to stop and check out the front desk.  Sure enough, there were no rooms available.  The mill expansion had taken up all available rooms, so off to the lobby I went.  I checked my watch, ordered and ate breakfast.  Time was going by way too slow and I wanted my one call to the Calgary office; just like a prisoner wanting to speak to a lawyer.

A short discussion

At least the telephone lines weren’t affected by the cold and probably warmed a bit as soon as I heard a voice on the other end.  A couple of minutes later I was talking to our department secretary in Calgary and asked her where she got her accommodation information from.  She said she had contacted the general contractor for the expansion to get some phone numbers and the place I stayed the first night was the only place that had a room.  Then I asked her to put me through to my manager, where I got to ask some pertinent questions and made some derogatory remarks about my start on the project.

Schedule 

After my housing discussion with the manager, I decided I might as well see what the job was all about.  The plant wasn’t hard to find and I did a quick walk about.  This was different in the sense that this digester was one of four. All of the digesters were built inside the main process building and the heat was ridiculous.  We had to insulate and clad a digester in an enclosed area with three other digesters already operating.  This was not going to be a push over.  This was going to be really tough on the workers and dangerous as well.  Two weeks later I took a temperature reading at the top of our digester.  It was minus 45F outside the building, inside was a balmy 142F and the digester was not operational.

I got the housing issue under control that day as I suggested I should return to Calgary and someone else (the manager) should have my bed.  The general contractor had secured all the rooms in the hotel where I had breakfast and decided he could give up one.  I was bringing in workers from Calgary so I immediately told him, three rooms or nothing.  I got the three rooms but then was told to secure local labour to assist our Winnipeg crew.

The Winnipeg crew

The Winnipeg crew consisted of two carpenters, five insulators plus my two sheet metal workers from Calgary.  The balance would be local labour, much of it because of the housing shortages and a local content hiring policy.  I scrambled all over town to find accommodations for the crews.  I managed to get rooms in the hotel for the scaffolders and the sheet metal workers.  The insulators wanted to find their own accommodations and they did.  Many of them had worked at this plant at different times and they had connections or a trap line to work off of.  At least the crew had a start better than mine.

Set up

Winnipeg is not known for a lot of industrial work and so I was busy coordinating material deliveries, locating local labour and teaching my carpenters how to build scaffold.  At least the carpenters understood their dilemma and listened intently as I gave instructions.  In a matter of two weeks we had decent scaffold and two very proud carpenters.  My insulation delivery was a little different as I met the truck.  It was a cattle liner filled with insulation and everything had to be hand bombed to empty it.  Years later I got to meet the insulation supplier and realized how resourceful they were. The insulators arrived and we had our usual get to know you meeting.  By now I had secured local labour so we were ready to start.

Job start

I had the usual union issues to deal with. I had circumvented the insulators by dealing with their office in Winnipeg before heading north.  But there were a lot of corrective measures instilled in the beginning and the union job steward being the most interesting.  This man was 15 years my senior.  Just like all unions, this man held office in the union and was dispatched to keep me in line.  His problem was the thought that he was immune to work and he could wander about and collect a cheque.  It didn’t take long before this became an issue and I was about to sort it out.  This job steward was the second that I fired in my union career as he disrupted to the entire crew and the local hires.  You will have read about the same issues I had in Saskatchewan and BC in other stories so I will cut it short.  After the usual belligerence between parties I was sent a second job steward.  This was the hammer the union was sending my way and he too thought he did not have to work.  This is when I initiated my first make work program and this man found out who was calling the shots.

I had been cleaning our one trailer office / lunchroom every day.  Even through all the ruckus of removing a job steward, I never stopped.  When the “Hammer” came on the job and tried to realign the manpower, the cleaning stopped.   I set a trap that he could not wiggle out of and he became the first job steward in the Manitoba union’s history to clean the office and lunchroom trailer.  Only then did he realize he had to work to get respect and a pay cheque.  I am sure this man did not want this piece of history to get out but he turned out to be a good hand and did his work for me and his union.

The mill and shop

This was a typical pulp mill.  Dusty, dirty, noisy and spills every now and then.  Just an ugly place to work but worse because of the extreme heat.  Twice in the seven weeks of the project, we could not get into the building because of black liquor spills.  Like the BC project, the black liquor overpowered the drainage system and flooded the floors.  Twice we had to recover wood scaffolding that floated away.  But in perspective, our first level of scaffold was 4′-0 above the concrete floor.

The shop was nothing like I had seen before.   The Pas was a remote place in those days so the government installed a beautiful machine shop with the largest most modern tools available.  This set up would make the mill totally independent of outside resources and could make all the repair pieces in-house.  Thousands of pieces of steel shaft stock, steel in all shapes and sizes and pipe stacked neatly around the huge shop floor.  I had never been in such a large shop before, but when I walked through I was surprised how clean the floor was and not an oil stain or metal filing in sight.

The most interesting part was the open shop area where the smaller work would be done.  Hundred plus feet of continuous painted steel work benches shaped like a square U.  At every work station a small tool chest and a Volkswagen car seat.  This was perplexing as I had been through many maintenance shops and never seen any Volkswagen seats, let alone 35.

Change of plan

It soon became obvious to me what was going on and why getting help from the mill workforce was slow or unpredictable.  This was when I needed my local workers to step up and I used them to get us some timely assistance because they knew the names of the men who sat in those 35 seats.

The government used this mill as their example of a grand scale employment venture.  What the other Manitobans and Canadians didn’t know was the government department in charge of this mill were padding employment numbers.  To the outside, this was an extremely successful venture.  In actual fact I suspect three of the thirty – five were actually trained millwrights.  The rest were given jobs to represent skewed employment numbers in this part of the mill and others as well.

Reality

As soon as the start of day buzzer was done, the thirty – five men came out of the locker room and set their lunch kits beside their Volkswagen seat.  Off came the outer wear and out popped a newspaper.  Like a dance in slow motion, each would mount the bench and sit on their Volkswagen seat and start into the paper.  And there they sat for eight hours a day, and they were almost offended if you asked for some advice or god forbid, some manual labour.

I asked my locals about this scene.  They all laughed and told me about the standing joke around The Pas about those who worked in the mill. I knew then that I best put my foot on the gas and push my way through this project.

Work schedule

I was falling behind and our work was falling behind the general contractor’s desire to start the new digester.  The days passed and soon our digester was getting hot.  The plant was starting to inject steam into the equipment to get it warmed up and ready for process and I pressed the insulation crew to save themselves from the unbearable heat that was coming. We were supposed to work two weeks in and take a short break.  This was the estimated schedule until the job was complete.    The job constraints kept me from taking my first break and I even kept the sheet metal workers back to help me out.  I let the Calgary sheetmetal workers head home for a break after three weeks.  The insulators took time off as requested or scheduled due to the heat stress.

Bad mistake

I was really wanting to get home for my break.  The job had been a struggle to get up and running but I was not sure that the progress would continue under the guidance of the sheet metal foreman.  It was all about trade jurisdictions and jealousy.  I made a fateful decision to for go my breaks and soon it was week four.  At this point I should have been on the road home for a break.   The insulation crew was just starting to gel but we had found some additional work.  I thought I would only have to deal with the sheetmetal workers and the local labour by the following week, but this increased the job scope and started to push out the end date.  My focus was on completion rather than my young family at home.

Week four stretched into weeks five and six.  I still had a lot of work to complete and Christmas was just another week away.  I did not want to drive back to The Pas after all those weeks on the job for just one weeks work.  My sheet metal crew was cracking under the strain of continuous work and the blinding heat.  The digester was in operation and we were caught in the hottest area under the roof.  The cladding was too hot to touch with bare hands and we had to dress in winter clothes to prevent burns. Many a time I would bring the sheetmetal workers to work after a beer binge the night before as they tried to overcome the stress of the past day.

I was able to pair down the insulator forces and soon the last insulator was gone.     Now I went on the tools full-time to help complete the job.  My carpenters and local help were gathering materials and equipment for the final demobilization.  It was a struggle and every screw installed was a chore as we laid on the hot digester installing the last of the cladding.  Finally the sheetmetal workers crumpled and crashed which forced  me to put them on a plane for home before completing the work.

I finished the job with the carpenter foreman and we started to dismantle the scaffold.  Each level we dropped, the temperature dropped twenty degrees.  As fast as we took the scaffold down, the local labour took the pieces out and bundled them for shipment home.

Weather

The weather was incredibly cold most days.  On the day the last of the material came out of the building it was minus 48F.  The flat deck was landed beside our material lay down and we began to load.  I was the only person who really understood how we would make the load so I was on the trailer deck.  I could only work about a half hour and would have to come in.  The next two days we struggled to load and make everything fit properly.  I looked around and could hardly see the workers at my feet.  The steam venting from the building was no longer going up.  It was so cold the steam followed the building wall to the ground and engulfed us in a cold fog.  Every time we dropped scaffold tubes on the deck I thought they would snap.  It was just that cold and surpassing minus 50 F.

Outcome

Seven weeks and the job was done and signed off.  The last equipment was loaded and secured on the 23rd of December.   I took the balance of the crew for lunch and a final thank you and good-bye.  My pick up was loaded and I would leave that evening to make the trip to Medicine Hat.  I was never so happy to gas that truck up and head home.

But my return trip took me to Flin Flon and cross-country on the Tote Road to Hudson Bay Saskatchewan in total darkness.  From there I turned south to Nipawin and Saskatoon and off towards Regina.  I pushed through eight inches of undisturbed snow on the Tote Road in the moonlight and entered Saskatchewan.  There I was met with a blinding blizzard and got held up twice as roads were impassable or closed.  I had an overloaded pick up and I could punch through drifts that no one dared and I was determined to get home and kept going with a few detours.

I finally made it to my home at 11:30 pm Christmas eve, some twenty-two hours later.

The mistake revisited

Our children were very young.  Our son was four and our daughter was two.  When I got home my first instincts were to wake the kids and give them a big hug.  My wife cautioned that I should let them sleep and not disturb them till morning but I couldn’t wait.  I woke my daughter first.  She came out of her room, rubbing her eyes and in her little jumper.  I went to pick her up and she started to scream.  Who was this stranger trying to pick her up?  Soon she was on the floor and running to her mother, hugging her leg for dear life.  It was a sight I would never forget and a mistake I would never make again.  That episode altered my approach to my work and I am forever regretful that I put a job ahead of family.